Reuters has confirmed a bombshell report which first surfaced Tuesday in Lebanese media saying that a high level delegation of US intelligence officials made a secret visit to Damascus in June to meet with President Bashar al-Assad's most trusted senior advisor, Ali Mamlouk, who serves as Syria's top security chief.
The meeting, which took place near Damascus international airport, was first revealed by the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, which reported it as lasting up to four hours and part of an ongoing secret back-channel dialogue.
Such talks are unprecedented for the fact that the two countries haven't had such direct dealings since near the start of the conflict in 2011, and the United States and its allies have bombed Syrian government forces and locations multiple times over the past years.
Perhaps the biggest revelation is contained in the following, according to Reuters:
U.S. officials had demanded the withdrawal of Iranian forces from southern Syria and data on “terrorist groups”, including foreign fighters, and had also requested a role in the oil business in eastern Syria.
The secret face-to-face dialogue between US and Syrian intelligence officials reportedly centered on discussions over chemical weapons usage and stockpiles, defeating ISIS, and the fate of American journalist Austin Tice, kidnapped in 2012 after being embedded with FSA factions. However, US officials blame Damascus or its allies for kidnapping and continuing to hold Tice.
Reuters was able to obtain separate confirmation of the al-Akhbar report through US intelligence sources: Asked about the reports, two senior U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was an “ongoing dialogue with members of the Assad regime"...
Meanwhile, the Al-Akhbar report (which can be read in English translation here) notes that the U.S. officials had additionally demanded with withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria's south, as well as available Syrian government data on all terrorists operating in the country, especially captured foreign fighters.
Crucially, the list of requests also included that the US have a role in Syria's eastern oil fields, according to Reuters, citing Al-Akhbar. Currently, a number of major oil and gas fields fall in areas under the control of the largely Kurdish and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Al-Akhbar report provided the following details regarding US demands, according to an English translation provided by Syriana Analysis:
The American side made a clear and specific offer: The United States is ready to withdraw its troops completely from Syrian territory, including the Al-Tanf and Eastern Euphrates according to security arrangements supervised by the Russian and Syrian armies. In exchange for three US demands:
First, Iran’s full withdrawal from the Syrian south.
Second, to obtain written guarantees that give US companies a share of the oil sector in the regions of eastern Syria.
Third, the Syrian side to provide the Americans with full data of the terrorist groups and their members, including the numbers of foreign fighter deaths of these groups and those who survived, and those may return to Western countries, considering that the terrorist threat is intercontinental. And what we can get, serve the international security
And the Syrian delegation's response according to Reuters was as follows: "Mamlouk said Damascus would not cooperate with Washington on security issues until they had normalized ties and he also demanded a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, al-Akhbar reported."
Reuters cites a trusted regional source to say "most details in the al-Akhbar report were correct," which makes the mention of US eyeing Syrian oil interesting, especially as when Trump publicly mulled pulling US troops out of Syria altogether prominent neocon pundits urged "staying the course," while saying, “We took the oil. We’ve got to keep the oil.”
But it appears the Syrian government, fully aware it has won the seven year long proxy war, and now headed to complete military victory in Idlib (barring any last minute "provocation" which could spark a new round of major external military intervention), has shut the door on the US intelligence officials.