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Obama softens his rhetoric on Syria

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama significantly scaled down his rhetoric on the Syria crisis, lowering the high expectations he set only a year ago. "We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama significantly scaled down his rhetoric on the Syria crisis, lowering the high expectations he set only a year ago.

"We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian," Obama said Tuesday.

But in his 2012 State of the Union Address, Obama made a bold prediction that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government would quickly come to the realization that change in Syria was inevitable.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama significantly scaled down his rhetoric on the Syria crisis, lowering the high expectations he set only a year ago.

"We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian," Obama said Tuesday.

But in his 2012 State of the Union Address, Obama made a bold prediction that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government would quickly come to the realization that change in Syria was inevitable.

"As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli. A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators — a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone," Obama said last year. "And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied."

He now seems have some doubt.

Obama’s 2012 speech came only five months after he first declared that Assad had to go.

"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 in August 2011. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

Now, 18 months after that call, Assad remains in place and the civil war in Syria rages on, with an estimated 70,000 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. The Obama administration has resisted getting involved in the conflict other than through the dispersal of a limited amount of humanitarian aid.

The New York Times revealed recently that the White House decided not to arm and train elements of the Syrian opposition last summer over the objections of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

Obama did say Tuesday, "In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy."

"The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can — and will — insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people," he said. "And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month."

He didn’t explicitly mention the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, though he did salute "the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk — our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces."

Note: Obama made much stronger comments about the fate of the Assad regime in a video message released late last month. Here’s what he said:

We’re under no illusions.  The days ahead will continue to be very difficult.  But what’s clear is that the regime continues to weaken and lose control of territory.  The opposition continues to grow stronger.  More Syrians are standing up for their dignity.  The Assad regime will come to an end.  The Syrian people will have their chance to forge their own future.  And they will continue to find a partner in the United States of America. 

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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