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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the administration’s position on Mr. Assad to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2007.

“If there were any evidence, any hint, that Syria was changing its course — and it should just change its course — we don’t have an ideological problem with talking to Syria,” Ms. Rice testified. “We’ve talked with them under this administration. We could do it again.

“But the problem is, they are not engaging in constructive behavior. And we don’t see how that would change, currently, by talking to them.”

Mr. Biden, then the committee’s chairman, scolded her and reminded her of her duties.

“I do not agree with your statement, Madame Secretary, that negotiations with Iran and Syria would be extortion, nor did most of the witnesses we heard in this committee during the last month,” Mr. Biden said. “The proper term, I believe and they believe, is diplomacy, which is not about paying a price but finding a way to protect our interests without engaging in military conflict. It is, I might add, the fundamental responsibility of the Department of State, to engage in such diplomacy, as you well know.”

When it was his turn, committee member Mr. Hagel asked three times why Ms. Rice would not engage in direct talks with Mr. Assad.

“Have you included in those conversations, whether second- or third-party conversations, Iran and Syria?” Mr. Hagel said. “Because I don’t know how we could come up with any kind of a plan or focus, working with the United Nations or anyone else, if Iran and Syria are not included in that.”

One of Mr. Obama’s major foreign policy positions as a senator was unconditional direct talks with the leaders of Iran over its quest for nuclear weapons.

He also favored talks with Mr. Assad. Once in office, Mr. Kerry became his main emissary to Damascus, engaging in talks there in 2009, a month after Mr. Obama took office, and 2010, marking his third and fourth visits as a senator.

A ‘reformer’

Before the 2009 visit, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus sent a cable to Mr. Kerry and other senators on the trip.

“You should expect an enthusiastic reception by government officials of the Syrian Arab Republic (SARG) and from the media, who will interpret your presence as a signal that the [U.S. government] is ready for enhanced U.S.-Syrian relations,” said the cable, published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. “Your visits over the course of February 17-22 form a trifecta that Syrians will spin as evidence of the new Administration’s recognition of Syria’s regional importance.”

At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2011, Mr. Kerry was full of praise for Mr. Assad as the civil war in Syria erupted, and he predicted that the dictator would become a good actor.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move,” he said. “Syria will change as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

That month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, another alumnus of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told “Face the Nation” on CBS that lawmakers who had visited Mr. Assad considered him a “reformer.” The U.S., she said, did not need to contemplate military action against Syria.

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