The ongoing negotiations between the administration of US President Donald Trump and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regarding American detainees in Damascus raise a question about the extent that may be reached by those negotiations in light of the great complexity that surrounds the relationship between the US and the Syrian regime, even as the US administration has imposed harsh sanctions on the Assad regime under the name of the Caesar Act and prevented regional and international parties from providing assistance to the regime, in addition to the US control over the areas east of the Euphrates that house most of Syria's production of oil, gas and wheat.

Washington had cut its diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime since 2012, and the Czech Embassy in Damascus is acting on behalf of the US in the areas of negotiation and communication with the Syrian regime.

Negotiations in Damascus and Washington

On 18 October 2020, the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported that US President Donald Trump's Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and the Deputy Assistant to the US President and Director of Counterterrorism at the White House Kash Patel visited Damascus, met with Major General Ali Mamlouk, Head of the National Security Bureau, and “discussed a wide range of issues, which included a set of offers and requests”.

The main goal of those negotiations is the release of American detainees in Syria, mainly the independent American journalist Austin Tice, who previously served in the Marines and disappeared during his coverage of developments in Syria in 2012, as well as the American doctor of Syrian origin Majd Kamalmaz who disappeared after being detained at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017. Reports indicate that there are four other American detainees held by the Syrian authorities.

In addition to this negotiating channel, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, Director-General of the Lebanese Directorate of General Security, leads another negotiating channel in Washington, after the failure of the US delegation in the Damascus negotiations. He met with the National Security Advisor (NSA) at the White House Robert O'Brien, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Gina Haspel, and the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale. According to US media reports, the discussion between Major General Ibrahim and US officials included the issue of the "Americans detained in Syria". Major General Ibrahim had previously mediated the release of three American detainees held in Syria.

President Trump had sent a written letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regarding the fate of Tice, in which he suggested "establishing a direct dialogue" according to the book entitled "The Room Where It Happened" by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who emphasised that Assad rejected the offer. Bolton stated that “Trump was furious when he heard the negotiating team’s response, and shouted,“You tell him (meaning Assad) he will get hit hard if they don’t give us our hostages back, so . . . hard””.

The Syrian authorities deny any connection with the kidnapping of the American journalist. Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, said in 2016 that "Tice is not with the Syrian authorities, and there is no information whatsoever about him”. On the other hand, the semi-official Syrian newspaper Al-Watan described Tice as a Contract Agent with the US intelligence who illicitly entered the Syrian territories in 2012, visited many areas that had gone out of the control of the Syrian army at that time, and reached the Eastern Ghouta region. He was tasked with equipping and preparing “jihadists” to fight the Syrian forces. However, he disappeared in Ghouta under mysterious circumstances, and his fate is not known yet. According to the newspaper, information suggests that his disappearance was likely due to a struggle between extremist groups that had recently emerged in Eastern Ghouta.

US motives and Syrian demands

Negotiating with Damascus regarding the American detainees comes in the context of President Trump's attempts to win the US presidential elections in light of the superiority of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, according to opinion polls. Based on historical experience in this field, the Trump administration estimates that bringing back the Americans detained abroad would bring about an important shift in the position of the US public opinion in Trump’s favour.

In addition, the negotiations are taking place based on a development in the US perception, namely that "the Assad regime appears to be entrenched in power".[1] It seems that the Americans clashed with a solid position expressed by the Assad regime based on the principle that "there is neither discussion nor cooperation with Washington before discussing the issue of the withdrawal of the occupying US forces from eastern Syria and the emergence of real signs of that withdrawal on the ground". The regime also refused to discuss the US sanctions on Syria before discussing the issue of the US withdrawal from Syrian territories.[2]

The Syrian newspaper Al-Watan described the regime’s position as “cautious,” due to the “lack of confidence in the US visit or its likely results, especially that the Syrian leadership is aware of the influence of the US lobbies on US presidents and their decisions and general policies”.

However, Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, revealed the conditions set by the Syrian regime for the release of its American detainees, via a letter carried by the Director of Lebanese General Security Abbas Ibrahim on his visit to Washington. Those conditions include the following:

  • Suspension of the Caesar Act. Sources familiar with the US delegation’s visit to Damascus had stated that the regime submitted a request for the lifting, or at least reduction, of the sanctions imposed pursuant to the Caesar Act, based on a text contained therein, allowing the President, based on assessments that serve the US national security, to lift them for a period of 6 months, subject to renewal, and restoring diplomatic relations in parallel.
  • Not objecting to the establishment by Gulf Arab states of relations with Damascus, and allowing them to grant aid to the Syrian government worth five billion US dollars.

The "all4syria" website adds other conditions that were put forward by the Syrian regime to the Americans, as follows:

  • The release of the funds belonging to the Syrian government and businessmen and halting their prosecution.
  • Announcing the possibility of sending a US ambassador to Damascus.

According to Syrian sources in Washington, the Syrian regime relaxed its conditions at a later stage of the negotiation, without disclosing those relaxed terms.

Russian, Iranian and Arab roles

The negotiations of the Trump administration with the Syrian regime proceed under the influence of three parties that have different interests and agendas, which further complicates those negotiations.

Russia: Moscow wants to give Trump additional points for winning the upcoming US elections, because there are Russian assessments that the Democrats’ victory would not be in the interests of Russia or the Assad regime, and that the Democrats would retaliate for what they consider a “Russian conspiracy” against their candidate Hillary Clinton in the previous elections, and are likely to increase the level of their involvement in the Syrian issue. Based on this assessment, Russia is likely to intervene and exert pressure on Assad to accomplish the deal with the Trump administration to ensure his victory in the elections.

Iran: according to information drawn from Arab media sources quoting Syrian sources in Washington, contacts between the Trump administration and officials of the Syrian regime are taking place in direct coordination with Iran to conclude a unified deal for the release of the American hostages. This explains the priority given to dismantling the Al-Tanf base and the US withdrawal within this framework at the expense of the sanctions issue and not obstructing reconstruction and Arab normalisation. Iran does not seem to be enthusiastic about giving Trump a gift that would help him win the elections, as Iran is betting on Joe Biden's victory because it considers that he would follow the track of former President Barack Obama in negotiating with Iran.

Arab parties: the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper revealed that some Arab countries have got involved in the negotiations based on the desire of those countries to establish a US-Syrian track, starting with the hostages issue, that would support Trump in the elections and lead to engagement in deep negotiations at the beginning of 2021 with the US President, regardless of whether he was Biden or Trump, that would lead to a major strategic deal.[3]

Possibilities

Some assessments indicate that the possibility of completing the hostage deal may be as soon as October 2020, as part of the so-called "October surprises", to provide a service to Trump in his difficult election battle, in exchange for a promise to implement the signs of a US withdrawal from northeastern Syria, given that the remaining time for the elections is extremely short for Trump to be able to make major commitments to the Syrian regime.

On the other hand, other assessments exclude the completion of the deal between the two parties for several reasons, namely:

  • The Iranian position that is unwilling to see Trump re-elected, given that Iran is the main, and perhaps only, supporter of the Assad regime in the face of economic sanctions.
  • The difficulty of changing the US policies towards Syria to achieve the goal of releasing the American prisoners.
  • The link between the US position and the Western position which insists on continuing the sanctions against the Assad regime to force it to accept a settlement in accordance with the UN references.

Conclusion

Both the US and Syrian sides are engaged in difficult negotiations due to the lack of confidence and the accumulated complications in their relations, in addition to the difficulty for the Trump administration to provide a specific return to the Syrian regime which is demanding a US withdrawal from eastern Syria and the abolition of the Caesar Act. These are of course demands that cannot be weighed against the release of a number of American prisoners. The involvement of other parties, especially Russia and Iran, for political purposes, in the negotiations between the two parties increases the awkwardness of the negotiations and the possibility of their failure. Nevertheless, the possibilities of a surprise remain extremely plausible, including the offer by Trump of a promise to withdraw from the Al-Tanf base after the US elections, or to ease the Caesar Act sanctions, especially those related to the import of fuel.

References

[1] “Can the Assad regime strike a ‘deal’ with the Trump administration?”, alsouria.net, 19 October 2020.

[2] Elie Youssef, “US official visits Damascus to discuss the release of two American citizens”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 20 October 2020.

[3] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Contradictory mediations with Damascus over the American ‘hostage issue’”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 21 October 2020.

 

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