Assad Is Reaching Out to Washington Insiders
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.
After years of insisting that Assad had to go, last month President Barack Obama spoke of a political process in which "we can start looking at Mr. Assad choosing not to run.”
Last week, Obama was asked at a press conference what he thought about the prospect that Assad’s presidency will outlast his own. The president insisted that Assad would eventually have to step aside and that the U.S. cannot be seen publicly as working with Assad because that would make America an even bigger target for terrorists.
“I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting and for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a non-sectarian way,” Obama said.
He pointed to his administration’s effort to cooperate with Russia and Iran on a political process that would bring the regime to sit down with the opposition. Obama also said he has been telling Russian President Vladimir Putin since the beginning of the war that the Syrian people would not accept Assad’s continued rule.
“I said, look, the problem is that the history of trying to keep order when a large majority of the country has turned against you is not good," he said. "And five years later, I was right.”
There have been at least two camps inside the top levels of the Obama administration who vigorously disagree on the goals of U.S. Syria policy. Simon, along with his two successors, Philip Gordon and now Robert Malley, have argued internally that the U.S. should make the fight against the Islamic State its first priority and delay the drive to oust Assad. The fear is that pushing Assad out too soon would create a power vacuum that the terrorists would fill, gaining territory.
The other camp, led by UN Ambassador Samantha Power, insists that Assad’s removal is a necessary step toward ending the war. The thinking is that unless he steps down or is removed, there is no way to defeat the Islamic State. By this logic, the best policy is to work with the opposition and ramp up U.S. support for the rebels fighting the regime. This camp is losing ground as the Islamic State appears to be a bigger threat and as the war drags on.
The military and intelligence community is divided at top levels, with some officials supporting a strategy more focused on the Islamic State and some pushing for more pressure on the Assad regime.
Damascus is trying to exploit this divide, continuing its outreach. Experts say the Assad regime has invited more Washington insiders to Damascus.
People familiar with the regime's campaign won't discuss it openly, because relationships with Damascus can be seen as a concession or can make officials look like they are being used to spread Assad's message.
Engagement with the regime is not black and white. Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman interviewed Assad this year and showed that there is a way for experts to enlighten Washington about how the Syrian regime is thinking without becoming a tool of the propaganda machine.
However, any engagement should be transparent. And those who meet Assad and are subjected to his charm offensive should not forget his five-year record of mass atrocities.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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