It reads like a John le Carré thriller. After an airplane touches down in the dead of night at Damascus International Airport cordoned off by security forces, a "huge procession of black SUVs" whisks away a high-level delegation of US officials from "several intelligence and security agencies." They travel to a secret military facility in Mezzeh west of Damascus, where the spooks meet with Ali Mamlouk, the mysterious Syrian security chief and adviser to dictator Bashar Assad. A coterie of Mukhabarat heavies from the Syrian Intelligence Directorate join in the fourhour parley.
This was the scene that played out in June, according to a report at Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily and website. Published Wednesday, the article purportedly provides an account of a US offer to the Syrian regime whereby the Americans would pull out of their base at Tanf in eastern Syria.
In coordination with Russia and the Syrian regime, the US forces that had been battling ISIS alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces would turn eastern Syria over to the regime.
But the US wanted a quid pro quo – that Iranian forces quit southern Syria. US oil companies would receive a "share of the oil sector" in eastern Syria, and Damascus would provide intelligence on any western ISIS members and potential ISIS threats to western interests.
According to the report, the Syrians considered but ultimately rejected the "tempting" offer.
"You are an occupying power in Syria. You entered our territory forcibly without permission, and you can go out in the same way." Syria is not a country that can be cut off from its roots. It is part of a broad axis in the region, and allied with Tehran and Hezbollah, the regime interlocutors told the Americans.
Bottom line, Iran will not pull out of southern Syria, and if Americans want access to oil they can stand in line like everyone else.
As for foreign terrorists, "we are fully aware of the dangers these people pose to us and to you," the Syrians allegedly said.
Noteworthy in the report are the details it provides, and the agenda it seeks to fulfill.
The United Arab Emirates role in the meeting is mentioned several times. First, the author claims that a UAE plane brought the US delegation.
Second, the Syrians said they have provided intelligence on terrorism threats to the UAE, and the UAE is said to be interested in repairing relations with Damascus.
The meeting allegedly happened in June before Damascus launched its offensive to clear the Syrian rebels in the south. In March, US President Donald Trump indicated that the US would be "coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." Assad said in May, during an interview with Russia's RT, that the US should "learn the lessons of Iraq" and leave Syria. At the time Assad appeared to suggest the regime would be re-taking eastern Syria.
The Al-Akhbar report comes in the context of other articles that seek to show how Syria and its allies in Lebanon continually stand up to foreign intervention. For instance, an article in June by the same author claims that Saudi Arabia had attempted a coup d'État in Lebanon, and failed.
Saudi Arabia is also reported to have unsuccessfully pressured Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran.
The Syrian regime is now depicting itself as riding a wave of victories that will bring an end to its savage seven-year civil war. It wants to portray itself as deciding the future of Syria, and remove foreign forces, including the US and Turkey.
Damascus hosted a high-level Iranian military delegation over the weekend, including Iran's defense minister, in a gesture meant to show that Iran is not leaving. The Al-Akhbar report appears to be in that context, portraying the Syrian regime as talking tough to Washington and being unwilling to negotiate whether Iranian troops and advisers stay.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.