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Three times during the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan accused the Obama administration of being soft on Syrian president Bashar Assad.
The administration, Ryan said, "called Bashar Assad a reformer when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people." He repeated the claim twice more in the 90-minute debate.
We decided to take a closer look. First, some background.
Assad’s family has maintained a tight grip on power in Syria for decades. As the Arab spring rippled across the region in early 2011, Syria began to experience unrest, with protests emerging both in the capital, Damascus, and Deraa, a relatively remote city near the Jordanian border.
What happened in Deraa in March 2011 became the spark that ignited a widespread revolt that has now morphed into a bloody civil war.
Several schoolchildren were arrested in late February 2011, accused of scrawling graffiti on a school that said "the people want to topple the regime," according to CNN. When residents found out that the boys were beaten and tortured in prison, they sought their release but were rebuffed.
On March 18, security forces opened fire on protesters in Deraa, killing at least four, according to Human Rights Watch. "Within days, the protests grew into rallies that gathered thousands of people," according to Human Rights Watch.
The comment Ryan referenced came just over a week after the killings in Deraa, on the March 27, 2012, edition of CBS’ Face the Nation, which included an appearance by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Schieffer asked Clinton how the situation in Syria was different than in Libya, where the U.S. took action against a repressive government.
Clinton: "Well, if there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal, but that is not going to happen because I don’t think that it’s yet clear what will occur. What will unfold? There is 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. What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning. But there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities, then police actions, which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."
The comments quickly drew criticism in some quarters. For instance, four days later, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "Few things said by this administration in its two years can match this one for moral bankruptcy and strategic incomprehensibility. … It was hoped that President Assad would be a reformer when he inherited his father’s dictatorship a decade ago. … Wrong. Assad has run the same iron-fisted Alawite police state as did his father," Hafez Assad.
We will not judge the wisdom of what Clinton said, but rather analyze whether Ryan correctly characterized what she did say.
Ryan did get the timing right. Though the conflict would eventually get much bloodier, Syrian guns had already killed several people in Deraa by the time Clinton made her comment. In fact, the show opened with a report from Tripoli covering the spread of the Arab spring, with the reporter saying that Syria’s government acknowledged that 12 people were killed, more than 200 wounded as protests and demonstrations spread across that country."
As for invoking "Russian-provided guns," it certainly sounds plausible. Russia is Syria’s biggest supplier of weaponry, and Russia’s arms trade with Syria totaled about $1.5 billion, making Damascus Moscow’s seventh-largest client, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Where Ryan may have gone too far was in saying that the administration "called Bashar Assad a reformer." While Clinton did use the word, she said, "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."
So, Clinton didn’t exactly say that she, or the administration, was labeling Assad a reformer. Rather, she was referring to what other people -- namely "lawmakers" --"believe."
Ryan said the Obama administration "called Bashar Assad a reformer when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people."
That’s not quite what Clinton said; instead, she was describing what she understood lawmakers’ views to be. Still, as a secretary of state speaking on national television, her decision to discuss such beliefs without knocking them down suggests that she lends them at least some credibility. On balance, we rate Ryan’s claim Half True.
Joe Biden, transcript of vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., Oct. 11, 2012
CBS, "Face the Nation" transcript, March 27, 2011
BBC, "Syria profile," accessed Oct. 11, 2012
CNN, "Daraa: The spark that lit the Syrian flame," March 1, 2012
Dmitri Trenin, "Why Russia Supports Assad" (New York Times op-ed), Feb. 9, 2012
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Arms Transfers Database, accessed Oct. 11, 2012
Charles Krauthammer, "Syria’s ‘reformer'" (Washington Post op-ed), March 31, 2011
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