• With: Bret Stephens, Dan Henninger, Kim Strassel, Joe Rago, James Freeman

    This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," January 31, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," after years of saying that Bashar al Assad must go, is the Obama administration now set to cut a deal with the Syrian dictator?

    Plus, the Senate passes a Keystone Pipeline bill as the president sets his sights on the new fossil fuel target. Is Alaska ground zero for the next energy showdown?

    And Mitt Romney bows out as two GOP governors inch closer to a 2016 run, so who is most likely to benefit from his exit?


    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: -- so Syria's future can begin.

    The only way to bring stability and peace to Syria is going to be for Assad to step down.

    Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we'll resolve this crisis.


    GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

    Well, after repeatedly calling for the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, is President Obama changing his policy? The administration sources are leaking that the president now thinks Assad and his regime may be part of the solution as the priorities shifts to defeating Islamic State. This, as moderate Syrian rebels claim that U.S. money and supplies have all but dried up over the past several months, even as the president touted American support for the opposition, in his State of the Union address. So has the administration quietly changed its Syria policy and what does it mean for the fight against ISIS and our allies in the Middle East?

    Let's ask Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; and foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens.

    No official announcement about this but lots of leaks behind the scenes and newspaper stories. Is he changing the policy and why would he do it?

    BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: Well, I would argue that this administration always had a bias in favor of Assad. You have to remember that when he came to power --

    GIGOT: Despite all the public comments?

    STEPHENS: Right. When he came to power in 2009, the administration was keen to treat Assad as a reformer, as a potential partner. They were very late in calling for him to go when the uprising began. We never took the steps against Assad that we said we would, when it came to his use of chemical weapons. We never armed the moderate Syrian rebels in any -- in any sufficient way.

    GIGOT: OK. All right.

    STEPHENS: And now here we are and we have essentially a de facto pro Assad policy.

    GIGOT: OK. Why?

    STEPHENS: Why?

    GIGOT: What's the thinking? What's the administration's logic for doing this? Is it to defeat, saying -- look, I guess the unofficial argument would be we need them to defeat Islamic State. Not that we can't do that.

    STEPHENS: Right. There's two points. "A," the one you mentioned, but "B," it's part of the administration's broader effort at a (INAUDIBLE) with Iran. Remember that Assad is Iran's man in Damascus.

    GIGOT: Right.

    STEPHENS: He forms part of that condominium. You have an administration that is desperate to cut a deal with the Iranians, which is part of the reason they're soft peddling their opposition and effectively pursuing, if not a pro Assad policy, a policy that allows Assad to say. We have told the Syrians we won't go after the Syrian military positions.

    GIGOT: Let's assume Bret's right about the --


    GIGOT: OK. I think that that's right, too. That's really going to create problems for Turkey, for example, and the Saudis in particular, not to mention the Israelis. And we need the Turks and the Saudis as an alliance to defeat Islamic State.

    HENNINGER: Yeah.

    GIGOT: So isn't there a contradiction here?

    HENNINGER: Well, there's certainly a contradiction. It does do all those things, but I think Bret has put his finger on it. The Iran nuclear deal is the tail wagging the entire Middle East dog for the United States. That determines everything. Barack Obama needs Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to be on board for this deal and so he's willing to allow these other events to occur. The question is, will the Middle East degrade to the point where it will simply be impossible to get this deal with Iran? Look, we just had the Yemeni government that fell, our supposed ally in the Middle East. We here at the end of the week that the Obama administration is now reaching out to the Houthis who have replaced the Yemeni government.

    GIGOT: But what about the argument that, look, we won't defeat the Islamic State otherwise, and they are -- I think you guys would agree -- probably the more immediate threat to Western security and the insecurity in the Middle East, no?

    STEPHENS: Well, look, what the administration is trying to do is pursue a containment strategy with the Islamic State. We are not --

    GIGOT: You don't think they're trying to defeat them?



    STEPHENS: Well, if we were trying to defeat them, we'd be having more air sorties events, for instance, than we're having now.

    GIGOT: Wait a minute --


    GIGOT: -- Throw them out with the Kurds on the ground, with the help --