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Syria Spurns US Offer to Pull Out Troops as Trade for Iran Withdrawal - Report

© AFP 2023 / LOUAI BESHARAPoster bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad
Poster bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad - Sputnik International
Syria turned down an offer from the US to withdraw their forces from Al Tanf, a US base in the southeast and the East Euphrates zone in exchange for three concessions from the Assad government, according to a report from Lebanese daily Al Akhbar.

Officials of "several US intelligence and security agencies" reportedly landed in a private UAE plane at Damascus International Airport in late June. They then took off in a convoy towards the center of Damascus for a meeting with the head of Syria's national security office, Major General Ali Mamlouk.

The meeting reportedly lasted for four hours. The sides discussed multiple aspects of the seven-year war in the country before the Americans made their offer: a withdrawal of its troops from Al Tanf and the East Euphrates on three conditions, including a complete Iranian withdrawal, a share in Syria's oil spoils, and intelligence on terrorists.

"I find the report almost entirely credible," former UK Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford told Sputnik News.

The first condition was that Iran also withdraw fully from the country. Unlike the United States, Iran was invited by the Syrian government to help it fight Islamist insurrectionists and foreign proxies.

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"Open sources were already reporting in June that the US was offering to put Al Tanf in the mix of a deal concerning the conditions under which Washington would acquiesce in the Syrian government's campaign to recover the South," Ford told Sputnik News. "It was also being reported that those conditions included Iran's withdrawal from the south."

Israel has been warring with fighters in the south of Syria near the country's Golan Heights, which Israel illegally occupies.

Offering up Al Tanf "reflects the weakness of the US position in Syria," Ford said. "In June the Americans knew they could not prevent the Syrian government's campaign to take back the south — what could they do, risk conflict with Russia and retaliation by Iran against Israel by large-scale sustained bombing of Syria without any pretext?" Ford wondered. Nonetheless, US President Donald Trump couldn't appear weak to critics, and "hence the idea of striking a deal and throwing Al Tanf into the mix."

"Unfortunately for the Americans, the Syrians no doubt assessed Al Tanf as low value. To some degree Al Tanf is more a liability to the US than an asset, containing as it does thousands of refugees living in pitiful conditions with hundreds of jihadis amongst them. Why should Syria pay a price to relieve the invader of a burden?" Ford posed.

"Looking forward, the lesson from this failed negotiation is that the Americans will no doubt come back at some point to suggest a similar deal with regard to the northeast, though again they will be holding a weak hand, because their position in the area is not tenable in the long term: they are already having the rug pulled from under their feet by the Kurds' negotiations with Damascus," he added. "In any case, the US devalue their own land-based assets every time they use their battle fleet to attack Syria." 

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On Monday, Al Akhbar reported that Hezbollah had received a formal request from the Syrian government to stay in Syria after the liberation of the Idlib province from jihadists in order to help with "post-conflict reconciliation." Hezbollah has been accused of being an Iranian proxy by the West, despite it primarily operating in Lebanon.

As a second concession for an Al Tanf withdrawal, Al Akkbar said that the Americans also demanded a share in the oil sector of eastern Syria, which until recently was occupied by Daesh militants with a stronghold in Deir ez-Zor.

Third, the US officials also reportedly sought Syrian intelligence on terrorists who could present threats to Western countries in the future.

"The request for intelligence cooperation was not earlier divulged, but it makes logical sense. What seems to make less sense is that the US should demand concessions for US companies in the oil sector," Ford said. "Given that the US through its Kurdish/SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] proxy controls large swathes of the oil producing region of the northeast, this would only seem to make sense in the context of a US withdrawal from that area as well as Al Tanf. Maybe this possibility was floated as well."

"As to the demands for oil concessions and intelligence cooperation, Trump's advisers may have thought that douceurs for Big Oil and Big Secrets (the intelligence agencies) would also help sweeten the bitter pill of the US 'losing' the South," he added. "The inclusion of oil concessions certainly doesn't sit well with US claims to be in Syria exclusively to defeat ISIS and protect human rights, though that will not overly worry this business-minded president."

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Indeed, American oil projects exist in Syria, albeit in the Golan Heights. Genie Energy Ltd., a New Jersey-based company, is pursuing a conventional oil project there. Genie Energy's Strategic advisory board includes former US Vice President Dick Cheney, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Bill Richardson — a former US ambassador and governor who has repeatedly agitated in favor of the Syria conflict on cable news — and British investment banker Jacob Rothschild.

"With overall victory in sight, Damascus might only be interested in deal-making if the US put on the table not just withdrawal but also the chemical weapons card, the reconstruction card, the sanctions card, the Geneva card and possibly the Golan," Ford said, adding, "This is not likely to happen."

"Syria's rejection of the deal reflected an astute assessment of the limited American options, as was borne out by subsequent events and recovery of the south without making any concessions to the US," Ford said. "It also reflected the strategic view taken by Damascus of the partnership with Iran, not to be sacrificed under any circumstances."

According to Al Akhbar, Mamlouk addressed each demand. Regarding the terrorists, he said that Syria has a "huge information structure" on them, but its disclosure is "linked to the evolution of your [the US'] political position on Syria." He added that such information has already been shared with the Emiratis and Jordanians.

When it came to Syria's oil reserves, Mamlouk reportedly told the Americans to get in line. "US companies can then enter the Syrian energy sector through Western or Russian companies," Mamlouk said, adding that Syria isn't interested in doing business with nations seeking their government's overthrow, describing other Western and Russian firms as based in "countries that have not conspired against the Syrian people."

"We will not have to give facilities to companies belonging to countries that have fought us and are still," Mamlouk reportedly said. 

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When it came to an Iranian withdrawal, the Syrian official underscored his country's sovereignty and position that the US is an "occupying force," reportedly telling the Americans, "You entered our territory forcibly, without permission, and you can go out in the same way."

"Syria is not a country cut off from a tree; it is part of a broad axis," Mamlouk reportedly said, highlighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's alliance with Tehran and Hezbollah.

"The demand for Iranian withdrawal was pushing at an open door," the former ambassador told Sputnik News. "The presence of Iran and allied militia in the south had already been greatly reduced, simply because it wasn't required. The Americans must have known this but needed something for the Washington gallery."

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