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Clinton donor walks back supportive Assad comments

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Hillary Clinton was scheduled to attend a Boston fundraiser for her presidential campaign Thursday hosted by a philanthropist who penned a fawning e-mail to one of Bashar al-Assad's top advisors pledging to "argue loudly and convincingly" that the Syrian dictator "is actually the most critical part of the solution."

Bobby Sager, who is also the chairman of the board of Polaroid, sent the e-mail in March 2011 after a trip to Syria where he met Assad and said he came to believe that if properly pushed, the leader would improve the direction of the country.

"I'm the kind of person who has been successful because I can read people and I'm a good communicator," Sager said in an interview with The Globe. "In this case, I certainly was wrong. Without any equivocation. There's no 'but.' "


Sager explained that at the time he believed flattery would allow him to influence Assad. "I thought it was a good idea to massage his [Assad's] ego and tried to have his ear," he said. "In retrospect that was wrong."

At the time, a number of U.S. leaders believed Assad might usher in a better government in Syria. During a March 2011 interview with CBS's Bob Schieffer, Clinton noted that members of Congress who'd met with Assad "have said they believe he's a reformer." Secretary of State John Kerry, then a U.S. Senator, said in April 2011 that he was "very, very encouraged" that Assad would lead the way to warmer relations.

Instead, Assad presided over a civil war that's resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and committed human rights atrocities including using chemical weapons against his own people.

In a speech this month to the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month, Clinton advocated for no-fly zones over Syria to stop Assad from "slaughtering civilians" and called for a "political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad's rule."


In March 2011 after visiting the country, Sager wrote an email to Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad.

"The Syria that I spent last week in does not resemble the sensationalist images that are endlessly played and replayed by the international media," Sager wrote at the time. "I will take my first-hand understanding into the world and argue loudly and convincingly that President Assad, far from being the problem, is actually the most critical part of the solution."

Sager said that, despite the promise in the e-mail, he never once advocated for Assad.

The e-mail from Sager first came to light in early 2012 after a hacker collective published the logins and passwords to personal accounts of senior Syrian officials.

At that time Sager said he was "saddened" by events in Syria since his visit, but declined to directly criticize the leader.

"I do not feel comfortable discussing the current leadership, news or activities being reported as I have not witnessed or experienced them directly," Sager said to the Globe in a February 2012 e-mail. "The goal of my March 2011 visit was to see whether I could stimulate positive, constructive change by encouraging Syrian leadership to be open-minded about change. I am greatly saddened to see the escalation in violence in the 11 months since my visit."

Globe reporter David Filipov contributed to this article. Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.