Josh Rogin writes: Early this year, a former top White House official secretly went to Damascus and met with leaders of the Syrian regime. The visit is part of a broader effort by the Syrian government to reach out to Washington’s power brokers and gain influence.
The former official, Steven Simon, served as the National Security Council senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs from 2011 to 2012. He has not publicly disclosed his trip, but two senior Obama administration officials said he was not acting as a back channel between the two governments. He traveled there as a private citizen and was representing only himself. The officials said he met with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Simon had been a paid consultant at the Middle East Institute, but the think tank ended their relationship after he made the Syria trip. Two employees there told me that the institute did not want to be associated with the trip, which they did not organize and were not consulted about.
Simon declined to comment for this article. MEI also declined to comment. Several Syria scholars who were aware of this visit told me that the trip was part of Assad’s broader recent outreach to Washington scholars and officials.
The timing of Assad’s courting of Washington’s elite makes sense. The Obama administration has been slowly altering its long-held stance that Assad must give up power immediately to make way for a transitional government in Syria and the end of the long civil war. Just last week, the U.S. endorsed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would establish an 18-month transition process during which Assad could stay as Syria’s president and even run for elections sometime in 2017. [Continue reading…]