The PJ Tatler

The Obama Arc of Assad

The Assad regime was an enemy of the United States for decades. The gangsters sided with Saddam, they sided with Iran, they helped out Hizballah, they fomented violence in Lebanon, they have been an enemy of Israel. Nasty people.

Until Hillary Clinton came along. When she was Secretary of State of the United States, she labeled baby Assad a “reformer.”

That was too ridiculous for the Washington Post to swallow.

“There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

–Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on “Face the Nation,” March 27, 2011

It was also too ridiculous for Clinton to defend.

“I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration.”

–Clinton, two days later

If you didn’t agree with those opinions, why did you tout them? Why give them a bipartisan veneer?

Time goes by, Assad the “reformer” dictator faces an Arab Spring uprising, and pretty soon he’s a gas-spewing monster who must go.

President Obama and European leaders called Thursday for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign, after months of his violent crackdown on protesters. The rhetorical escalation was backed by new U.S. sanctions designed to undermine Assad’s ability to finance his military operation.

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said in a written statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Time goes by, ISIS rises up in Syria and Iraq, establishes a caliphate, chops off some heads, threatens the world, shows off some captured SCUDs, does what Islamists do — and now the Obama government has a strange new respect for one Bashar Assad.

As President Obama slowly but surely increases the U.S. military presence on the ground in Iraq, his administration is grappling with the immediate need to stop the ISIS advance and push for a political solution in Baghdad. The 3 1/2-year grinding civil war is Syria has been put on a back burner for now. Some officials inside the administration are proposing that the drive to remove Assad from power, which Obama announced as U.S. policy in 2012, be set aside, too. The focus, these officials argue, should instead be on the region’s security and stability. Governments fighting for survival against extremists should be shored up, not undermined.

“Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq,” one senior Obama administration official who works on Iraq policy told The Daily Beast.

In effect, the American government has been in a limited partnership with the Assad regime for almost a year. The U.S., Russian, and Syrian governments made a deal last September to destroy Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons—and relied on Damascus to account for and transport those weapons, in effect legitimizing his claim to continued power.

Indeed. That legitimized Putin in the same stroke. It enhanced his standing in the Middle East too.

So here we are now, allying with a reformer gas-weapons using monster who must go, but who also must stay, at least for now.

Supposing that ISIS is defeated and Assad hangs on, which is a big leap at this point, do we then go and invoke the “responsibility to protect” that got us involved in Libya and topple the gas-spewing-reformist-monster-who-must-go-except-when-we-need-him-to-stay?