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memri
September 6, 2018 No.
7658

Lebanese Daily: The U.S. Negotiated Secretly With The Assad Regime Over The Terms For Its Withdrawal From Syria

In a series of articles, the pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar discussed recent contacts between the Assad regime and Arab and Western states, including Saudi Arabia and the U.S., in anticipation of the end of the Syria war and the commencement of Syria's reconstruction. According to the daily, more than 20 discussions were held in the last two months, both direct and indirect, between Syria's security chief 'Ali Mamlouk and Western intelligence chiefs. The discussions dealt with security and political matters, including possible participation in the rebuilding of Syria., The daily claims that a high-ranking American delegation came to Damascus in June 2018, on a visit brokered by Russia and UAE, during which it presented the following terms for the withdrawal of its forces from Syria: a full retreat of Iran from southern Syria, a share in the oil business in eastern Syria, and information on terrorist organizations in the country. The daily states that the Syrian regime rejected these terms, since it perceives the U.S. troops in the country as an occupying force, whereas Iran is regarded as an ally assisting the Syrian military. It claims further that Syria's allies will be given preference in economic cooperation with the regime in the post-war phase, and that there will be no military coordination between Syria and the U.S. until relations between them are on a new footing.

In response to these reports, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that she was not aware of any such meeting having taken place,[1] and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem likewise denied any meetings between Syrian and U.S. representatives.[2]      

It should be noted that this is not the first time Al-Akhbar has reported contacts between the U.S. and the Syrian regime. In November 2017, it claimed that a meeting had been held between a U.S. security official and a Syrian official, in which the former clarified that the U.S. had no intention of remaining in Syria once ISIS was defeated. The report was denied by the Pentagon.[3]

According to Al-Akhbar, Saudi Arabia has likewise offered to renew its relations with Syria, providing that "Bashar Al-Assad frees himself of Iran and Hizbullah"; furthermore, communication channels have been reestablished between the Syrian regime and the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar. The daily states that "everyone seems to be rushing [to renew their relations with Syria] in some way, while the Syrians, surprisingly, seem to be in no hurry. Damascus is convinced that the [Syrian] administration has won, and that the victor is the one who sets the terms." Accordingly, Damascus expects the world to accept the existing political situation, and declares: "We will not cooperate, even on the security level, before such recognition exists and before diplomatic relations are renewed and Damascus regains its role as a major regional player."[4]

The following are excerpts from the Al-Akhbar articles:

 


American troops in Syria (image: almasdarnews.com)

Syria's Security Chief Told The U.S. Delegation: We Will Not Cooperate Before Relations Are Normalized

"One night in the last week of June, the Syrian security forces tightened [security] at Damascus International Airport and its environs. Shortly before midnight, a private plane from the UAE landed. Some 40 minutes later, a long line of black SUVs carried the passengers from the plane to Al-Mezzeh in central Damascus, where the office of Gen. 'Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria's National Security [Bureau], is located.

"There, a high-ranking U.S. officer slowly approached the office, at the head of a delegation of officers from several U.S. intelligence and security agencies. Mamlouk received the U.S. delegation along with General Intelligence head Dib Zaitoun and Deputy Chief-of-Staff Gen. Muwaffaq As'ad. The meeting between the sides lasted four hours...

"According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar, the sides reviewed various aspects of the Syria crisis, its stages of development and its ramifications for the region. Then the essential topic of the meeting was broached – a clear and definite U.S. proposal: the U.S. was willing to withdraw all its troops from Syrian soil, including from the base in Al-Tanf and from the eastern Euphrates region, in accordance with security arrangements  that would be overseen by the Russian and Syrian armies. This would be in exchange for Damascus's compliance with three U.S. demands: (1) Iran's complete withdrawal from southern Syria, (2) written guarantees that American companies will receive a portion of the oil [market] in the regions of eastern Syria, and (3) Syria's provision  to the U.S. of comprehensive information about the terrorist organizations and their members, including the number of foreign [members] of these organizations that have been killed and those who remain alive, as well as data on those who may return to the West. This,  since, 'the threat of terror spans continents, and any [information] that can be obtained serves global security.'

"The Syrian side assessed the U.S. visitors and their 'tempting' proposal with cool logic, and Mamlouk's reply to the three points was clear: First, you are an occupying force in Syria. You entered our territory by force, without asking permission, and you can leave in a similar manner. Until that happens, we will continue to treat you as an occupying force. Second, Syria is not an orphaned and rootless state. It is part of a broad axis. Our position on relations with Iran is clear, and President Bashar Al-Assad has reiterated it on several occasions. Its main thrust is that our alliance with Tehran, Hizbullah and the allied forces that fought the terrorists alongside the Syrian army is a strong alliance, and this proposal will not alter our stable alliances. Third, 'our preference [in the stage] after the war is to cooperate with the countries that are our allies and friends and did not conspire against the Syrian people. It is inconceivable that we should facilitate [the operation in Syria] of companies belonging to countries that fought us and continue to do so.' However... 'This issue can be set aside for [consideration at] a future stage, when the Syrian government sets out the policy for rebuilding [the country]. Then American companies will be allowed to enter the Syrian energy market by means of Western or Russian companies. We consider this a gesture of goodwill in return for the present visit.

"Fourth, as for information about the terror organizations, Mamlouk directed the visitors' attention to the [following] fact: 'About a year ago, the deputy head of Australian intelligence visited me here in Damascus. He stressed that his visit was being held with your knowledge and that he was representing you, to some degree. He asked for information about Australian Islamists of Arab origin who are fighting in the ranks of the terror organizations. I will now repeat the answer I gave him at the time:  We possess a vast database on the terror organizations, and it has grown considerably during the years of the crisis. We are fully aware of the danger they pose to us and to yourselves. We are also aware of how much you need this information, and we know that one of the central foundations of the role of the security apparatuses is to remain in contact during crises as well. In the past, we have provided information to the Jordanians, and to many other countries, including the UAE. But our position on this matter today depends on how your political position vis-à-vis Syria, its regime, and its military develops. Therefore, Syria will not cooperate and will not maintain any security coordination with you on this matter before the political relations between the two countries are stabilized.'"[5]      

A Saudi Proposal For Funding The Rebuilding Of Syria In Exchange For An End To Syria's Relations With Iran; Russian Efforts To Arrange An Assad-Sisi Summit

According to Al-Akhbar, concurrent with the U.S. visit, Saudi Arabia also contacted the Syrian regime; the daily describes this as the third instance of contact between the two countries since the outbreak of the Syria crisis in 2011. The report stated: "Saudi General Intelligence Chief Khalid Al-Hamaidan spoke on the phone with 'Ali Mamlouk and presented him with the same old Saudi proposal: [Syria] severing relations with Iran in exchange for [Saudi] funding of the rebuilding of Syria.[6] The Syrian reply was similar to what the American visitors heard in Damascus: 'We are part of an axis and our alliances are stable.' Al-Akhbar has received information that Al- Hamaidan proposed a face-to-face meeting [with Al-Mamlouk], and Al-Mamlouk's reply was: 'I am in Al-Sham [i.e., Syria], and whoever wants to visit me can do so.'"[7]

It should be noted that Nawaf Al-Moussawi, a Lebanese MP from Hizbullah, told Al-Mayadeen TV (which is identified with the resistance axis and Hizbullah) on August 21, 2018, that an envoy from Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had relayed a proposal to President Assad, that Saudi Arabia would "accept Assad's remaining in power for the rest of his life, and would [fund] the rebuilding of Syria, in exchange for Assad renouncing his ties with Hizbullah and Iran" – but Assad refused.[8]

In another article, Al-Akhbar reported on attempts to bring Syria and Egypt closer together, stating that "Russia is making intense efforts to arrange a summit between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Egyptian [President] 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, due to... Cairo's clout [in the Arab world], which could pave the way to restoring Syria's [membership in] the Arab League. According to reports, the Russians have made significant headway towards this [goal], and what is so far preventing the meeting is Egypt's fear of the Saudi reaction to it. According to the reports, Russia's efforts are welcomed by the commanders of the Egyptian military, who believe that the two countries have in common the war against terror, especially since intelligence collected by Egypt's security apparatuses indicates that more than 70,000 Egyptians have returned to Egypt from Syria... and [now] form sleeper cells threatening Egypt's security."[9]   

 

[1] State.gov, August 29, 2018.

[2] Sana.sy, September 1, 2018.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 28, 2018.

[5] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 28, 2018.

[6] In late March 2018, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah claimed that, in a Saudi-Syrian meeting that had taken place "at a certain location," the Saudis had "suggested that the Syrians sever their relations with Iran and with the resistance [i.e., Hizbullah]... in exchange for a cessation of [Saudi Arabia's] support for the terrorists in Syria [i.e., the Syrian rebels] and for billions of dollars in aid for the rebuilding of Syria." Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 27, 2018. On Saudi Arabia's policy vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1391, Sharp Shifts In Saudi Policy On Syria Crisis: From Recognition Of Assad Regime To Willingness To Join Military Action Against Him, April 13, 2018.  

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 28, 2018.

[8] Raialyoum.com, August 22, 2018.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 28, 2018.