A report at The Wall Street Journal says that a US official went to Syria to talk about the possible release of two Americans being held there. It was unclear if there was progress in the discussions or why the news about the talks appeared now. Syria is under crippling and increased sanctions from the US. These often come under the Caesar Act designations that the US government has been putting in place this summer.
The US recognizes that the Assad regime appears to be cemented in power. Seven years ago Washington decided to forego airstrikes on the regime after a chemical weapons attack. The Obama administration at the time was seeking out the Iran Deal and it appears that strategy shifted over the years in Syria from pushing for Assad to leave power to trying to salvage what was left. The war on ISIS has provided the US was influence over eastern Syria, including US forces that are now there guarding oil and helping the Syrian Democratic Forces hunt down ISIS cells. However, Russia, Iran and Turkey oppose the US presence in Syria, as does the Assad regime. The US also controls Tanf base near Jordan, inside Syria. These key areas give Washington leverage over Damascus.
While the Caesar Act can be used to punish Damascus and prevent it from doing reconstruction or cementing demographic change, it's unclear if such sanctions will really destroy the regime. Russia and other countries, such as Iran and maybe even China could play a major role in post-war Syria. Turkey occupied northern Syria but is only in Syria to fight Kurds and prevent more Syrian refugees from entering Turkey. Ankara has signed a deal with Russia about demarcating northern Turkey.
The Trump administration has wanted to leave Syria since 2017. With ISIS largely defeated the US said it would leave in 2018 and 2019, despite opposition from the Pentagon. The State Department's Syrian envoy James Jeffrey, who has supported Ankara's role in the region, said the US was only working with the SDF in a temporary, tactical and transactional manner. He told the Atlantic Council in 2018 that the SDF's future lay in a deal with Damascus.
Meanwhile, the White House sent Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Trump, to Damascus to talk about releasing US citizens held by the regime. This happened earlier this year, reports say. The US wants to know the fate of Austin Tice, a journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012 and is believed to be held by Damascus. In addition, Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American, disappeared in 2017 in regime-controlled Syria. Al-Arabiya says at least four other Americans are held by the regime. "Little is known" about their cases. The WSJ report says that Trump advocated talks back in March. Trump has made it a cornerstone of his administration to get back Americans held abroad. It is part of his larger "America first" image. He has said the US should end the "endless" wars, and he wants to bring troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. He told West Point graduates this year that he wouldn't send them to fight in far away places for no reason.
The reports say that Lebanon's top security czar met with US officials and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien. The Tice family has been pushing for more information since January 2019. More details emerged in March 2020 and the US was said to be in discussions with Syria about Tice. Al-Ain media points out that the US ceased operations at its embassy in 2012 due to the civil war. US Ambassador Robert Ford had left Damascus in October 2011 due to threats.
Bloomberg News reported on October 17 that Lebanese Major General Abbas Ibrahim held talks with the US. He discussed an energy dispute with Israel over demarcating boundaries at sea, a key issue that US Secretary Mike Pompeo wants to help resolve. Tice was also discussed. Ibrahim is the head of Lebanon's General Security Agency, but he plays an outsized role. Trump has tapped O'Brien to work with Ibrahim on these issues, as well as roping in CIA head Gina Haspel. Ibrahim has helped with hostage and detainee discussions before, helping in the case of Sam Goodwin, Nizar Zakka and a "US resident who was let go by Iran and accompanied by Ibrahim on his return to Beirut," Bloomberg says. Zakka was imprisoned in Iran after being detained in 2015. Goodwin was detained near Qamishli in May 2019 and held for 62 days by the Syrian regime. The same report said the mother of James Foley, the US journalist murdered by ISIS, was at the Friday dinner that Ibrahim attended. The US recently announced charges against two ISIS members linked to Foley's murder. Ibrahim was appointed in 2011 and is key to security issues relating to Syria and also Palestinians.
The report about the US sending an official to Damascus could indicate the US is trying to push Damascus to finally explain what happened to Tice. That would fulfill a Trump administration goal. However, there are questions about what the US might give as part of a transaction to get this done. There have been rumors about more acceptance of the Syrian regime in the Gulf and other countries, ten years after the civil war broke out. But could the US offer something to entice Syria, or merely hold off on new sanctions? The regime would consult with Russia and Iran regarding this, at least that is likely.
Patel is an important administration rising star. A former public defender, he later joined the Justice Department as a counterterrorism prosecutor and worked with Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee before moving to the White House and National Security Council in February. He was at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in February 2020 but is now a deputy assistant to the US President and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. He has focused on global sanctions regimes in the past on the NSC. He also worked previously with US Representative Devin Nunes' office. As such he is well-placed with administration circles, connected to key aspects of the Trump administration's work over the last years and the administration's key allies in Congress.
Any deal with Damascus would be a major reversal for the Trump administration.
It would be a major reversal for the Trump administration to make any kind of arrangement with Damascus. Trump purposely carried out airstrikes on the regime in 2017 and 2018 to show he would go through with the red lines Obama was accused of walking away from. Pompeo and others have also been tough on the regime, not wanting to give it any room to cement itself more in power. There are competing narratives about how to manage the regime and whether backing Turkey actually undermines Assad. Trump wrapped up support for the Syrian rebels, a billion dollar program that was largely a failure. Since then Ankara has co-opted the rebels to fight in Libya and Azerbiajan and largely betrayed their cause while keeping them dependent. The US is not interested in regime change in Syria today but supports the Geneva process, which was supposed to provide a new constitution for Syria.
To get Tice back would be a big win for Trump, although evidence has shown these kinds of small victories don't tend to change poll numbers and the administration is focused on the election at the moment. Nevertheless, there is a growing feeling that some Arab states are warming to Damascus again after almost a decade where the regime was out in the cold. Could releasing Tice and others help bring it in from the cold, or just keep the cold from getting more freezing for Assad and his family. If the reports are accurate that may be the question for Damascus. There are also questions about Iranian trafficking of weapons, such as precision munitions, via Syria to Hezbollah. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. The regime certainly knows that this undermines its ability to rebuild if it allows Iran or Russia to totally take over the countryside. Washington might have some advice on how Assad could wean himself of Iran, even though such hopes have long been met with a dose of reality in which the regime needs Iran more than it needs the West.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.