Thursday, December 24, 2015

Obama Administration Held Secret Contacts with Syria

A big story, at the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. Pursued Secret Contacts With Assad Regime for Years":
The Obama administration pursued secret communications with elements of Syria’s regime over several years in a failed attempt to limit violence and get President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, according to U.S. and Arab officials.

Early on, the U.S. looked for cracks in the regime it could exploit to encourage a military coup, but found few.

The efforts reflect how President Barack Obama’s administration has grappled to understand and interact with an opaque Middle East dictatorship run for 45 years by the Assad family.

Unlike the secret White House back channel to Iran, however, the Syria effort never gained momentum and communication was limited. This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen people, including current and former U.S. officials, Arab officials and diplomats. Most of these contacts haven’t been previously reported.

U.S. officials said communications with the regime came in fits and starts and were focused on specific issues. At times, senior officials spoke directly to each other and at others, they sent messages through intermediaries such as Mr. Assad’s main allies Russia and Iran.

Mr. Assad tried at different times to reach out to the administration to say the U.S. should unite with him to fight terrorism.

In 2011, as the regime began to crack down on protests and soldiers began to peel away from the army, U.S. intelligence officials identified officers from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect who potentially could lead a regime change, according to former U.S. officials and current European officials.

“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,” a former senior administration official said.

But regime cohesiveness held, and the crackdown continued.

In August 2011, Mr. Obama publicly called for Mr. Assad to step down.

The administration’s core message never strayed from the U.S. line that Mr. Assad ultimately has to step down. But instead of persuading Mr. Assad to exit, the covert communications may have fed his sense of legitimacy and impunity.

That helped fuel the current wrangling among world powers over the Syrian leader’s future in any settlement. It also hampered the effort to consolidate the international fight against Islamic State.

“We have had times where we’ve said: ‘You could create a better environment for cease-fires if you stop dropping barrel bombs,’ ” a senior U.S. official said. “There’s communicating on specific issues,” the official added. “It’s not like Cuba or Iran, where we thought that we would essentially, in a secret bilateral negotiation, resolve the issue.”

Questions sent to the office of Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban about communication with the Obama administration were unanswered...
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