Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a crowd of influential Washington, D.C., policy makers Wednesday evening that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "was never our enemy."
The comments came as Hagel discussed problems in the Middle East and the United States’ failing policy towards Syria.
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Hagel, who has been critical of the Obama administration since leaving his post at the Pentagon, maintained that there is no possibility for peace in Syria until the United States commits to a closer working relationship with Iran and Syria.
He also maintained that Assad has never been a U.S. enemy.
"We’ve allowed ourselves to get caught and paralyzed on our Syrian policy by the statement that, ‘Assad must go,’" Hagel said at an event sponsored by the Atlantic Council. "Assad was never our enemy."
"A brutal dictator, yes," he continued. "There are a lot of brutal dictators out there. I’m not for brutal dictators. But we should have learned from [former Iraqi leader Saddam] Hussein and [Libyan dictator Muammer] Gadaffi [that] you can take a brutal dictator out, but you better understand what you may get in return."
"We never asked that question, ‘What’s coming after Assad?’" Hagel said.
The former defense secretary went on to advocate for a closer relationship with Russia and Iran.
"In the Middle East, Syria specifically, there cannot be, will not be any possibility of resolution, solution until there is a platform of stability," Hagel said. "That means working with Russia, clearly, closely. I think that means working with the Iranians."
There will be little potential for peace and stability in the region "until the Russians, the Iranians, the United States, and the Arab nations are part of that" process, Hagel explained.
Policy makers must stop invoking the refrain that, "Assad must go," Hagel said.
"That should not hold us captive to everything else," he said. "Let’s get to this platform of stability: Russia, Iran, the Saudis."