PHOTO: Has President Obama used secret channels to accept rule of Bashar al-Assad?

The Wall Street Journal proclaimed on Wednesday, “US Pursued Secret Contacts With Assad Regime for Years”.

This was an ideal eve-of-holiday story to attract readers, especially if getting up-to-date news out of Syria — from the multiple regime-Iranian-Hezbollah offensives against rebels to Russia and regime bombardment of civilian areas to the killing of a prominent rebel leader — is too difficult, too confusing, or depressing, and the headline stirred up its desired chatter. Opposition activists saw evidence of Washington’s hesitancy to back the Syrian uprising from the beginning in 2011, as the Obama Administration maintained links with the regime. Assad supporters hailed the sign that maybe Washington is not as committed to the overthrow of the Syrian President as they have portrayed.

But if you prod the story, which declares that it is “based on interviews with more than two dozen people, including current and former U.S. officials, Arab officials and diplomats”,, it does not really establish much about US policy.

That significance comes in another very open set of discussions which the article neglects.

The 6 Contacts

Once you cut away the context and some speculation, the article cites

1. In 2011, “US intelligence officials identified officers from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect who potentially could lead a regime change”;

2. “In the summer of 2012, the administration sent warnings, through Russian and Iranian officials, to Mr. Assad not to use chemical weapons on a large scale….Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who retired last year, made two phone calls to Syrian Foreign minister Walid al-Moallem to relay the warnings”;

3. “Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson has talked with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad at least twice” about the fate of five missing or detained Americans;

4. “In late 2013, the former Ambassador to Damascus [Robert] Ford — then a special administration envoy on Syria — met [businessmen and Assad representative Khaled] Ahmad in Geneva ahead of planned peace talks there.” Ford said the US was still seeking a political transition away from President Assad, while Ahmad said the US and the West should help the regime fight “terrorism”.

5. In 2014, as the US launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, State Department officials phoned counterparts at the Syrian Foreign Ministry to ensure the regime did not challenge or accidentally confront American warplanes. Currently, the US notifies the regime of the deployment of “US-trained Syrian fighters to battle Islamic State so the fighters aren’t mistaken for rebels” through advisors to the country’s ambassadors at the UN, Samantha Power and Bashar Ja’afari.

6. A former senior White House official, Steven Simon, visited Assad in Damascus in spring 2015 in a visit initiated and arranged by the President’s representative Khaled Ahmad.

Simon says he was not acting formally for the Administration, but he met Obama officials before and after the meeting.

Simon says he outlined steps the regime could take such as a halt to the dropping of barrel bombs; fighting the Islamic State rather than rebels, and cooperation with a UN-led effort for local cease-fires. Assad responded with his standard lines about fighting terrorism, although he showed some openness to local cease-fires on the regime’s terms, according to two unnamed sources.


President Assad with US Ambassador Robert Ford, January 27, 2011

Pressing for Regime Change? Not Quite

Before getting to the main topic — has the US been “legitimizing” and accepting the regime through its contacts — let’s clear away any hint in the article of the opposite possibility, a dedicated US effort to remove Assad.

The only “evidence” is the assertion, with no further detail, of identification of Alawite officers who might lead a coup. That’s far from a shocking revelation — it would be a very poor intelligence service that did not gather information about the situation with a political and military establishment under pressure.

What matters is whether the US followed up the information with contacts with potential dissident officers who, rather than defecting as many colleagues did, remained in place and could topple Assad from within the regime. This might have happened, but the Journal offers no support for its declaration, “the U.S. looked for cracks in the regime it could exploit to encourage a military coup, but found few”.

Nor the article answer the key questions from its supposed revelation that the Obama Administration communicated warnings in 2012 to the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons. Did those contacts give any indication of how the US would respond — political pressure, military intervention, or just rhetorical denunciation? And what happened to these contacts when the regime crossed President Obama’s “red line” and used the weapons in 2013, including the killing of more than 1,400 people near Damascus?

Ambassador Ford’s assertion to Assad’s confidante Ahmad in late 2013 that the Syrian President would have to depart in a political transition was merely the restatement of Washington’s long-held public line. Far more important was the aftermath of the conversation: as Frederic Hof, the former State Department special advisor on Syria, notes, “[Secretary of State John Kerry’s] reward was a diplomatic fiasco in Geneva” in international conferences in January-February 2014. Two meetings brought no advance toward opposition-regime talks, and a third session was never held.

Encouragement of the Assad Regime?

But what about the possibility that the US was moving to a de facto cooperation with the regime, even as it publicly maintained that Assad could not hold power in the long-term?

There are two pieces of evidence in the article that deserve further examination: the UN channel to avoid confrontations on the ground and air over US-supported operations, and the meeting of former Obama official Simon with Assad in spring 2015.

The Journal has a curious and notable omission over the UN case. It does not give the identity of the “US-trained Syrian fighters” about whom the American delegation passed information to Syria’s officials. However, given that they are “not rebels” but are fighting the Islamic State, the probability is that they are the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who were created with US backing in October to advance against the Islamic State in northern Syria.

Because regime forces are near some of the frontlines between the SDF and the Islamic State, that American initiative to prevent an unintended SDF-regime clash is far from shocking. So is the Assad regime’s involvement, given that Damascus can benefit from any setback to ISIS while retaining the freedom — with its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies — to attack rebels elsewhere.

Simon’s unofficial mission raises bigger political questions. All of his declared statements to Assad — an end to barrel-bombing, a focus on fighting the Islamic State rather than rebels, and support of UN efforts for local ceasefires — were restatements of long-held Obama Administration positions.

So the question is what the Assad regime thought it would get from the encounter. Given that it was in serious military difficulty in the spring amid rebel advances in the northwest and south of Syria — as well as an ISIS offensive moving into the center of the country — was the President offering concessions to shift the US position? Was he buying time so his allies Russia and Iran could come up with an alternative strategy? Or was the meeting from the belief that, despite its difficult situation, the regime could hold its line on the fight against “terrorism” and persuade the US to move away from the Syrian opposition and rebels?

The Journal offers no answers. Nor does Simon’s writing before and after the meeting — in articles for Foreign Affairs, he has consistently maintained that the focus in Syria should be on the fight against the Islamic State, thus avoiding a confrontation with the Assad regime. However, he has given no detail on how this might be achieved. Instead, facing the subsequent catalyst of Russia’s bombing campaign at the end of September, he simply said that “Washington can use the Russian intervention to force a ceasefire“.

In its own article on Simon’s mission last week, Bloomberg speculated — presumably from chatter from Administration officials — that Simon is part of an internal battle in the Administration. He and his successors at the National Security Council, Philip Gordon and Robert Malley, have pressed the ISIS-first approach. Bloomberg says they are opposed by a group led UN Ambassador Power, which maintains that Assad’s removal is necessary to end the conflict and that the US should step up support for rebels.

Even if this is true, Simon’s visit to Damascus is far from confirmation of a decisive change in US policy. His encounter with Assad was several months ago, and neither the Journal nor Bloomberg offer any evidence of American contacts with the Syrian regime since then.

The Truth is in the Open

The truth is that the Obama Administration did shift its policy because of discussions — but these were far from covert and at a suitable distance from Assad.

This public link has been with Moscow because of a fundamental decision made in September 2013. Stepping away from military intervention after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, President Obama instead chose a joint diplomatic initiative with the Russians. This had the immediate objective of a handover by the Assad regime of its chemical stocks and the wider goal of political discussions opening the possibility of a transition.

Washington got the removal of almost all of the stocks, although the Syrian military turned to other chemicals like chlorine, not covered by international conventions. Russia got a much bigger prize — breathing space for an Assad regime that was at imminent risk of being removed. The show at the international conferences in early 2014 yielded no substance for negotiations, but both Moscow could proclaim that it was seeking a united front against “terrorism” and an acceptable “opposition” for talks with the regime. Meanwhile, the Syrian military could try to cover its weakness on the ground with assistance from Iran and Hezbollah and with its relentless bombardment of opposition-held areas.

Russia has periodically renewed its tactics to pull Washington along the string of possible negotiations while the Assad regime tried to change the situation on the battlefield. But by this August, the strategy was in crisis — not because of the US, but because of Syria’s rebels with some backing from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The advances, including the near-total control of Idlib Province in the northwest, were threatening the collapse of the regime.

So Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made their most audacious gamble. While Putin authorized the bombing campaign — aided by more Iranian forces, Hezbollah units, and Iranian-led foreign militias — Lavrov worked on the Americans and European countries. The Foreign Minister asked for them to join Moscow in a new round of international talks with the message, “We are all fighting the Islamic State” — and, if we are doing so, then Assad’s departure should not be a priority.

Obama and Kerry have not completely given up the line of Assad’s stepping aside at the end of a transition, but the Secretary of State has already declared, “We are not trying to do a regime.” Intent on a political resolution by the end of March, he will not step out of line with the Russians — as he said during his visit to Moscow last week, “We have a common interest and we need to work together.”

The current set of international conferences will not end in opposition-regime discussions and a transition. It is unlikely they will even bring ceasefires to limit the conflict.

But this was never Russia’s primary objective in its political-military strategy. Instead, Moscow wanted more time and space for the Assad regime. If that time and space extends to months, and the regime-Iran-Hezbollah offensive pushes back rebels in parts of Syria, Putin and Lavrov will be more than satisfied.

Secretary of State Kerry with President Putin in Moscow, December 15, 2015 (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

The Russian Heart of the Matter

With the possible exception of the Simon visit to Damascus, all of the known US contacts with the Assad regime have been tactical — finding out about the fate of American citizens, sending a warning about action (albeit action that was not subsequently taken), signalling an American position before an international meeting, making arrangements to avoid the conflicts of forces in the air or on the ground. They have not been made with a view to any effect on American policy.

We may find out about other discreet conversations with regime officials, but these are unlikely to change this general picture. The calculation of the US Administration is that it is the Russians who have leverage over the Assad regime — thus, talks with Moscow rather than any direct engagement with Damascus is the preferred course of action. More importantly, officials like Kerry may also think that Moscow can be shifted from its support of the Syrian President.

That hope is illusory. Meanwhile, the American approach has allowed the Russians to bomb with impunity, as Iran and Hezbollah have put in the troops, commanders, and militias to lead the fight in the most important ground offensives. It has not only accepted the past deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians; it has effectively given permission for hundreds more to be killed by Russian and regime attacks.

“Secret contacts with Assad regime” makes for a dramatic headline, but it is the US pursuit of overt contacts with Russia — and the deadly consequences that have followed — that is the important story.