Syrian President Bashar Assad waves to supporters in Damascus.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Embattled Syrian ruler Bashar Assad wanted to restart peace negotiations with Israel in 2012, when it appeared his grip on power was weakening, but was rebuffed by Jerusalem, according to a report in the London Review of Books.
The lengthy report, which was authored by famed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, cites Russian government sources as saying that the Kremlin had relayed an offer from Assad to the Israelis regarding a return to talks over the future of the Golan Heights.
The overtures from Damascus were part and parcel of an attempt by the Assad regime to gain vital intelligence assistance from the West in his quest to put down an insurgency led by radical Islamist groups including Islamic State and the al-Qaida-affiliated outfit Nusra Front.
Hersh reports that the United States military and the Assad government had nearly come to a tacit understanding according to which the Joint Chiefs of Staff would offer the Syrian regime intelligence regarding the activities of Islamist organizations.
In return, Assad would rein in Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, renew peace negotiations with Israel, and allow rival factions to participate in a free and fair election after the conclusion of the civil war.
The US intelligence was passed to the Syrian government by way of third party governments, including those of Germany, Israel, and Russia, according to Hersh.
The policy was part of an “indirect intelligence-sharing” arrangement initiated by the US military, which was not enamored with the White House’s approach to the Syria crisis since it erupted in the early spring of 2011.
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While the Obama administration had publicly stuck to its policy of demanding Assad’s removal from power in Syria, the US military was willing to share information with friendly governments about the movements of Assad’s enemies – all with the knowledge that the intelligence would eventually reach the Damascus regime.
The Hersh report details sharp disagreements between the US civilian and military leaderships regarding Washington’s strategy in Syria. According to the report, the US policy of backing “moderate” rebel fighters has largely failed since the main opposition to Assad is being waged by radical Islamic groups that the Americans find unsavory.
“We provided the information – including long-range analyses on Syria’s future put together by contractors or one of our war colleges – and these countries could do with it what they chose, including sharing it with Assad,” a former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Hersh. “We were saying to the Germans and the others: ‘Here’s some information that’s pretty interesting and our interest is mutual.’”
“End of conversation. The JCS could conclude that something beneficial would arise from it – but it was a military to military thing, and not some sort of a sinister Joint Chiefs’ plot to go around Obama and support Assad. It was a lot cleverer than that. If Assad remains in power, it will not be because we did it. It’s because he was smart enough to use the intelligence and sound tactical advice we provided to others.”
The report also states that Israel had served as a conduit for US intelligence to the Syrian government since it was in Jerusalem’s interest to cooperate with Assad in helping to secure the northern border.
When Assad asked the Americans what were the conditions for continued help by way of intelligence assessments, he was told that his government would have to restart talks with the Israelis over a peace agreement that would entail a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Hersh quotes a Russian official as saying that in late 2012, the Syrian leader, who feared for the future of his regime after a series of military setbacks, indicated an interest in reviving the negotiations, but that Israel said no.
“They said, ‘Assad is finished’,” a Russian official quoted the Israelis as saying. “He’s close to the end.”
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