A reporter confronted Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner during the press briefing at the State Department on Monday over the reported visit to the United States of Labib al Nahhas, a senior member of the Islamist group Ahrar al Sham.
McClatchy DC reported on Saturday that al Nahhas visited Washington, D.C., in December 2015. It is not clear who he met with or where, but it was said that they were "third-parties."
Ahrar al Sham is not currently listed as a terrorist organization by the United States government, but the group has connections in Syria with the Al-Qaeda aligned group Al-Nusra Front. Both groups are fighting the current Syrian regime.
"McClatchy wrote that the group's, the Ahrar al Sham's group's foreign affairs director, Labib al Nahhas, was allowed into the United States for a brief visit six months ago. The outlet cites four people with direct knowledge of his visit to Washington, D.C. Were U.S. officials aware of this visit?" the reporter asked.
"I'm not sure that we that were aware of it. I don't believe he had any meetings here, certainly. But, and I can't speak to visa records, it's privacy considerations, so I don't have much detail I can share with you regarding whether he received a visa to come here, but I can look into it," Toner said. "I just don't have any more detail."
"But one of the leaders of a group with known ties to al Qaeda comes to the United States and you can't doubt it?" the reporter said.
"Again, I don't have the details in front of me. I just don't have, if I get more information, I'll share it with you," Toner said.
"Does the U.S. apply pressure on Ahrar al Sham to adhere to the cessation of hostilities?" the reporter asked.
"We apply pressure on all members of the credible, vetted opposition, and that's part of the HNC group (High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition) that was," Toner said.
"Do you consider Ahrar al Sham a vetted opposition group?" the reporter asked.
"Again, we consider, we apply pressure on all members of the HNC to adhere to the cessation of hostilities that exists right now, whether they do or not, that's self-selecting," Toner said.
"But what do you think about this particular group?" the reporter asked.
"I, you know, I don't have any information to share with you about, what are you looking for exactly?" Toner asked.
"To what extent they care about the cessation of hostilities. Two weeks ago when they attacked an Alawaite village of al-Zarah, a photo emerged in social media that showed militants from this group standing above, actually stepping on corpses of several women," the reporter said. "The group later said that the women were killed in combat, but they were attacked in their homes. And I wonder, do you think this group cares much about the cessation of hostilities?"
"I don't know about this, that particular incident. I can look into it," Toner said. "What I would say again is, you know, we support those members of the HNC who have been vetted by the Saudis, in large part, who are part of the negotiating and political process and we've also said very clearly who we believe to be part of, or be terrorist organizations, Daesh (ISIS) or al-Nusra and a couple of others that have been identified by the UN (United Nations).
Later in the briefing, the reporter brought up the massacre again and pressed Toner on it.
"Sir, I know you said that you don't know much about Ahrar al Sham, what they did in al-Zarah," the reporter said as she pulled out a photograph. "I have the photograph that I mentioned. I was reluctant to show it because of how graphic it was, but now I think I will do so, and maybe this will prompt you to look into this group and I want to ask you, why should this group have protection under the cessation of hostilities when they clearly don't care about cessation of hostilities?"
"Look, I'm just not aware of this incident. I'm not, I was not casting doubt or not trying to, I just not aware of it," Toner said. "That said, you know, we hold all parties, whether they're parties of the cessation of hostilities or not accountable for actions that target civilian populations, and frankly are barbaric acts against civilians. I just don't have the specifics in this particular incident."