U.S. pursued secret contacts with Assad regime for years

The Wall Street Journal reports: At the center of that effort was a businessman and confidante of Mr. Assad, Khaled Ahmad, who has served as the Syrian leader’s main interlocutor in recent years with Western officials, including U.S. diplomats. Mr. Ahmad didn’t respond to questions sent by The Wall Street Journal.

“Assad was looking for ways to talk to the White House,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma. Mr. Ahmad, a businessman from Homs province, was his point man.

In late 2013, the former ambassador to Damascus Mr. Ford—then a special administration envoy on Syria—met Mr. Ahmad in Geneva ahead of planned peace talks there. Mr. Ford told Mr. Ahmad the U.S. was still seeking a political transition away from Mr. Assad’s rule.

Mr. Ahmad countered that the U.S. and the West should help the Syrian government fight terrorism.

The rise of Islamic State in 2013 caught the U.S. administration off guard. Mr. Assad found in it a better opening to position himself as a partner in a fight against terror consuming the region, and rippling to the West.

By 2014, when the U.S. expanded airstrikes against the militants from Iraq to Syria, State Department officials were making phone calls to their counterparts at the Syrian foreign ministry to make sure Damascus steered clear of U.S. jets in Syrian skies, U.S. officials and others familiar the communications said.

Today, when Washington wants to notify Damascus where it is deploying U.S.-trained Syrian fighters to battle Islamic State so the fighters aren’t mistaken for rebels, Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., dispatches a deputy to talk to the Syrian envoy, Bashar Jaafari, these people said.

The White House says the notifications are not collaboration with the regime. But Mr. Assad has used them to his advantage.

“The regime was re-legitimized,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist who until 2013 ran the Damascus bureau for Al Hayat, a major pan-Arab newspaper. “Any communication with the U.S.—even the perception of it—gives them the upper hand.” [Continue reading…]

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