Is the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, in the opinion of U.S. officials, a valued ally or a murderous, tyrannical regime? It all depends on which day you ask.
These days U.S. officials call the Assad regime just about every name in the book, as the Guardian’s Mehdi Hasan recounts: “President Obama has accused it of committing ‘outrageous bloodshed’ and called for Assad to stand down; Hillary Clinton has referred to the Syrian leader as a ‘tyrant’; Elliot Abrams, Deputy National Security Adviser under George W. Bush, has called Syria a ‘vicious enemy.’”
The Obama administration has already imposed sanctions on Syria and tried to get the United Nations to impose more, an attempt that was thwarted by Russia and China.
Yet just a decade ago Syria was considered an ally in the War on Terror. What’s more, the U.S. government valued Assad’s regime precisely because of its brutality — the same brutality U.S. officials now condemn.
You see, sometimes people the United States suspects of terrorism refuse to confess or to provide other information Washington desires. Since torture is (or at least was) a technique in which our government is not legally permitted to engage, Presidents have found it beneficial to discreetly transfer suspects to foreign countries so that those countries’ governments, not bound by the laws of a civilized people, can torture the suspects and extract the desired confession or other information from them — all the while giving the President cover by assuring him, with a wink and a nod, that the prisoners will be treated humanely. This process, known as “extraordinary rendition,” has been used since the Reagan administration, if not earlier, but it became much more common after 9/11.
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Photo of Bashar al-Assad: AP Images