The Obama administration, in a failed effort to reduce violence and remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power, attempted to encourage a military coup in Syria, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports.
WSJ learned from U.S. and Arab officials that the “Obama administration pursued secret communications with elements of Syria’s regime over several years in a failed attempt to limit violence and get President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power.”
“Early on, the U.S. looked for cracks in the regime it could exploit to encourage a military coup, but found few,” added the report, noting that “the efforts reflect how President Barack Obama’s administration has grappled to understand and interact with an opaque Middle East dictatorship run for 45 years by the Assad family.”
Despite the failed attempts to remove Assad, the Obama administration is currently notifying the Assad regime where it is deploying U.S.-trained Syrian fighters to combat the Islamic State, a move that some consider to be cooperation between Washington and Damascus, noted the Journal.
“Today, when Washington wants to notify Damascus where it is deploying U.S.-trained Syrian fighters to battle Islamic State so the fighters aren’t mistaken for rebels, Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., dispatches a deputy to talk to the Syrian envoy, Bashar Jaafari,” WSJ learned.
“The White House says the notifications are not collaboration with the regime. But Mr. Assad has used them to his advantage,” pointed out the report.
“The regime was re-legitimized,” Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist who until 2013 ran the Damascus bureau for Al Hayat, a major pan-Arab newspaper, told the Journal. “Any communication with the U.S.—even the perception of it—gives them the upper hand.”
According to the Journal, the Obama administration used Iran and Russia to send messages to Syria regime officials. Both Iran and Russia are opposed to the removal of their ally Assad.
Assad reportedly tried at various times to reach out to the Obama administration to say the United states should join him to combat terrorism.
The Journal learned from former U.S. officials and current European officials that “in 2011, as the regime began to crack down on protests and soldiers began to peel away from the army, U.S. intelligence officials identified officers from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect who potentially could lead a regime change.”
“The White House’s policy in 2011 was to get to the point of a transition in Syria by finding cracks in the regime and offering incentives for people to abandon Assad,” a former senior administration official told WSJ.
“But regime cohesiveness held, and the crackdown continued,” pointed out the Journal.
Obama publicly called for Assad to step down in August 2011, a few months after the bloody civil war in Syria had started the previous March.
The White House’s attempt at coordinating regime change in Syria had reportedly failed by the summer of 2012 and the U.S. then “moved to support the rebels, but the effort ramped up too slowly.”
The Journal noted that the secret White House back channel to Syria failed to gain traction and communication was limited.
“This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen [unnamed] people, including current and former U.S. officials, Arab officials and diplomats,” noted WSJ. “Most of these contacts haven’t been previously reported.”
The Journal quoted U.S. officials as saying that “communications with the regime came in fits and starts and were focused on specific issues. At times, senior officials spoke directly to each other and at others, they sent messages through intermediaries such as Mr. Assad’s main allies Russia and Iran.”
The Obama administration never deviated from the U.S. message that Assad ultimately has to step down, noted WSJ, adding, “But instead of persuading Mr. Assad to exit, the covert communications may have fed his sense of legitimacy and impunity.”
“That helped fuel the current wrangling among world powers over the Syrian leader’s future in any settlement,” added the Journal. “It also hampered the effort to consolidate the international fight against Islamic State.”
In 2012, the Obama administration reportedly sent warnings, through Russia and Iran, to Assad not to use chemical weapons, the Journal reported.
Then-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns relayed the warning to his Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
In August 2012, President Obama drew a public line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that analysts believe has been crossed.
More than 250,000 have been killed in the Syrian conflict more than 4 million have been displaced, prompting an international refugee crisis.