- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Obama national security team that wants to go to war with Syria and demonizes President Bashar Assad is the same group that, as senators, urged reaching out to the dictator.

As a bloc on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Vice President Joseph R. Biden all opposed the George W. Bush administration’s playing tough with Mr. Assad.

None grew closer to Mr. Assad and promoted him in Washington more than Mr. Kerry.

PHOTOS: Bashar Assad loses U.S. friends as Kerry, Hagel and Biden take Bush's stance on Syria

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Mr. Kerry, as a senator from Massachusetts, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in March 2011. He predicted that Mr. Assad would change for the better.

But that same month, pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Syria that would lead to a civil war, unmasking Mr. Assad’s brutal tactics, including the Aug. 21 unleashing of nerve gas that killed more than 1,400 civilians.

** FILE ** In this July 31, 2013, file photo, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pauses during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington. Hagel is suggesting Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, that the Pentagon is moving naval forces closer to Syria in case President Barack Obama decides to order military strikes. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
** FILE ** In this July 31, 2013, file photo, Defense Secretary ... more >

Today, Mr. Kerry is a leading advocate for attacking Mr. Assad’s regime. On Friday, he called the man he once befriended a “thug and murderer.”

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Mr. Hagel is assembling a small armada in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to launch scores of cruise missiles at the Assad regime as punishment for the gas attack. Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden are lobbying allies and Congress to approve an attack.

The message was different in the mid- and late 2000s, even as Mr. Assad was doing deeds that prompted the Bush administration to label him a “bad actor.”

When Mr. Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez, as dictator in July 2000, there was hope in Washington that the young ophthalmologist who was trained in London would shift the country from its brutal ways in neighboring Lebanon and its deep association with Iran and terrorism.

‘Constructive behavior’

But in the Bush administration’s view, Mr. Assad proved as devious as his father. He increased ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, two U.S.-designated terrorist groups backed by Iran, and grew even closer to Iran, which used Syria to pass rockets to terrorists.

In 2005, the Assad regime rocked Lebanon by playing a role in Hezbollah’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had led an anti-Syrian bloc in Beruit.

By that year, Mr. Assad had begun helping al Qaeda by opening his country to jihadists who passed through the Damascus airport on their way to safe houses and then across the border into Iraq, where they killed U.S. troops.

The Bush administration made repeated demands in Damascus for Mr. Assad to stop the flow of al Qaeda killers but saw no progress.

Noting that behavior, the Bush national security team refused to engage Mr. Assad in peace talks until he changed. That stance riled senators, especially Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel and Mr. Biden.

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