Syria war: Did Obama call Syrian President Bashar al Assad a reformer?

BOSTON — Mitt Romney's campaign has repeatedly blasted President Barack Obama for calling Syrian President Bashar al Assad a "reformer." Is the charge true and fair?

The Romney camp's insinuation is that Obama embraced Assad, overlooking the Syrian dictator’s bloody crackdown. In the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan said: "We wouldn't refer to Bashar Assad as a reformer when he's killing his own civilians with his Russian-provided weapons."

In 2010, as part of its campaign vow that America should reach out to the world with an open hand rather than a clenched fist, the Obama administration initiated talks with Assad. The goal was to build peace between Syria and Israel. Assad had already taken steps toward reform, in 2008 hosting a summit with France, Qatar and Turkey to forge Middle East peace.

In this context, the Obama administration referred to Assad as a reformer, but this was at least one year before the conflict started, according to the LA Times.

Under Obama, the US-Syrian relationship remained tenuous: In February 2010, Obama sent a US ambassador to Damascus for the first time in five years. Three months later, it renewed sanctions based on evidence the Assad regime was supporting terrorists, seeking weapons of mass destruction and providing SCUD missiles to Hezbollah, the BBC reported.

As conflict erupted in Syria, Obama's initial position was that Assad should "lead a democratic transition or get out of the way." Foreign policy experts long cautioned that despite Assad’s crimes, an abrupt downfall would pose danger to citizens and the region, given the fractious opposition.

The Obama administration made its first explicit call for Assad to step down in August 2011 — five months after the uprising began, and three months after Assad deployed tanks to quell unrest. The administration coordinated the announcement with several key allies, and together enacted sanctions against the government. At the time, Obama was under criticism for not acting quickly or forcefully enough.