WASHINGTON, D.C. - A Syrian American group on Wednesday urged Cleveland Rep. Dennis Kucinich to apologize the Syrian people for making comments it called "political propaganda" and "out of touch with reality" after he visited the embattled Middle Eastern country this week and met with its president and opposition leaders.
Syrian American Council executive director M. Yaser Tabbara of Chicago said in an interview that the nation's president, Bashar al-Assad, has "lost his legitimacy" because he "heads a regime that is engaged in severe and horrid human rights violations against his own people."
More than 1,000 people have been killed since anti-government protests began in Syria, and many more have been arrested.
Tabbara called Kucinich's assertion that people in Syria want Assad to remain in power and reform the government "clueless" and "very misinformed." He said Assad is responsible for atrocities committed by the armed forces, wants to stay in power at all costs, and is using Kucinich for propaganda purposes.
Kucinich met with Assad on Monday, and later told The Plain Dealer that Assad takes calls for change seriously and wants to address his people's concerns. In an emailed response to the Syrian American group's claims, Kucinich said he shares the concerns about violence that the group "rightly decries."
"I went to Syria to meet with as many parties as I could, including leaders in the opposition, people who are directly involved with trying to bring change to Syria," Kucinich said. "I also wanted to learn if President Assad was himself prepared to accept their just demands for freedoms and reforms."
He said "the importance of trying to reach out to obtain as many views as possible cannot be underestimated" and that he would be happy to speak with the group and other interested parties when he returns to the United States.
Kucinich says that a Tuesday report by Syrian's official government news agency, which claimed that he said Assad is "highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians" mistranslated his remarks.
He also said a State Department claim on Tuesday that his trip was arranged by the Syrian government was incorrect. The State Department issued a clarification on Wednesday, which said Kucinich "is traveling at his own instance and at the request of his constituents." His visit is financed by Cleveland's Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services. The group did not return requests for comment on Wednesday.
A Damascus-based participant in Kucinich's Tuesday meeting with political opposition members supported Kucinich's contention that many in Syria want Assad to stay in power and implement reforms.
Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus Bureau Chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-hayat, said in an email that he told Kucinich that Syria is "very different from Tunisia and Egypt."
"In these two countries, people went down to the street to change their presidents," said Hamidi, who stressed that he is not personally part of the opposition because he is an independent journalist. "But, in Syria, people and many of the opposition want President Assad to lead the reform process."
Another participant in Kucinich's meeting, Damascus engineer Salim Kheirbek, said in an email that Syrians seek "radical reforms to be done by the president," after a "national dialogue."
"After almost four months of demonstrations and violence, the demonstrators couldn't throw out the regime and at the same time the regime couldn't finish with the protesters the matter which led to a national crises," said the email from Kheirbek, who was jailed by the Syrian regime for a dozen years.
Kheirbek said opposition members believe having Assad implement reforms makes sense because he's legally Syria's president, "and this is the only way (until now) to do reforms safely and keep the country far from chaos and unknown destiny.""We ask to have Mr. Assad to be implementing the reforms in a certain transition period not because this is good for the president but because this is good for Syria and its people," Kheirbek's email said. He said the fact that some people in Syria like Assad "should not neglect the other fact that there are much more people who ask for radical changes which should transfer Syria from its dictatorship regime to democratic, multiple parties, etc . . . Syria with free people."