Over the past several years, the White House pursued “secret communications” -- either directly or indirectly -- with Syrian government officials, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, citing interviews with over two dozen people, including current and former U.S. and Arab officials.
“There’s communicating on specific issues,” a senior U.S. official, whose name was not revealed, told the Journal, adding that communication between the Barack Obama-led administration and Assad’s government was largely limited and failed to gain momentum. “It’s not like Cuba or Iran, where we thought that we would essentially, in a secret bilateral negotiation, resolve the issue.”
Since the start of the multi-pronged Syrian conflict in 2011, the U.S. and its allies have insisted that Assad, who’s backed by Russia and Iran, step down from power for there to be any “real progress” in peace negotiations. However, Assad has maintained that curbing the spread of the Islamic State group -- which captured large swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq in June 2014 -- and other “terrorist” groups, is far more important than a political transition in Syria.
Most recently, on Wednesday, a close advisor to the embattled Syrian president indicated that Damascus was ready to join the multilateral United Nations-sponsored peace talks in an effort to end the conflict that has so far killed nearly 300,000 people.
“The White House’s policy in 2011 was to get to the point of a transition in Syria by finding cracks in the regime and offering incentives for people to abandon Assad,” the Journal reported, quoting a former official.
However, when these efforts failed, the U.S. government shifted its tactics in 2013, speaking to Syrian officials either directly, or through Iranian and Russian intermediaries.
“Assad was looking for ways to talk to the White House,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma, told the Journal. And, central to these efforts was the Syrian businessman Khaled Ahmad, who served as Assad’s interlocutor.
According to the Journal, Steve Simon -- a former senior White House official -- met Assad twice earlier this year in Damascus, in meetings arranged by Ahmad. The talks purportedly focused on urging cooperation with the U.N.-led efforts to broker and ceasefire, and increasing efforts to combat ISIS.