Rep. Gabbard says she'll pay for Syria trip after outcry

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said Tuesday she will personally cover the cost of her recent trip to Syria.

Gabbard, a Democrat, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad while on the trip.

A release sent out by her office late Tuesday said she will reimburse a group called AACCESS-Ohio, or the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services, for the expenses "because it has become a distraction."

She said the important issue at hand is whether Americans "want their taxpayer dollars to continue to be used in support of militant groups" that she said are working with Al Qaeda and ISIS to overthrow the Syrian government.

Critics had questioned the source of funding for the trip, and little is known about the group.

Gabbard has come under intense criticism for meeting with Assad. But she said there's no possibility of a viable peace agreement unless Assad is part of the conversation.

Lawmakers have accused the Assad government of war crimes and even genocide as the number of people killed during the violence in Syria continues to mount. The war, now in its sixth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, contributed to Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II and given ISIS room to grow into a global terror threat.

Rebel groups in Syria are bitter over a string of territorial losses, including last month's defeat in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Russia, with its massive air power, and Iran, with thousands of Shiite militiamen in Syria, turned the war unequivocally in Assad's favor.

Gabbard said her trip included stops in Aleppo and Damascus, Syria's capital. She also visited Beirut during the trip, which began in mid-January. Gabbard said she also met with refugees, Syrian opposition leaders, widows and family members of Syrians fighting alongside groups like al-Qaida, and Syrians aligned with the Assad regime.

Gabbard's office said the trip met "every requirement" of the House Ethics Committee.

"Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is beholden to no one in the region, her views on the situation are her own, and her determination to seek peace is beyond question," the release said.

Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, met last November with Donald Trump shortly after the presidential election. She backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, for the Democratic nomination.

She said at the time that she took the meeting with Trump over concern that a wing of the Republican Party known as the neocons would grow in influence once Trump took office. She feared that could push the U.S. more deeply into Syria, which could lead to a direct conflict with Russia.