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Syria held secret talks with US and has bypassed sanctions, Assad says

In a wide-ranging interview, Bashar al-Assad denies links to Captagon trade and rules out meeting Turkey's leader
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Damascus on 9 August 2023 (Syrian Presidency Telegram page via AP)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his country has been able to circumvent US sanctions and claimed that his government held secret talks Washington but they "did not lead to any results".

In a wide-ranging interview with Sky News Arabia in Damascus on Wednesday, Assad also downplayed expectations that a recent thaw in ties with Arab states would bring immediate economic relief to his war-ravaged country.

Assad has been an international pariah since 2011, when he pursued a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters that spiralled into a civil war, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead and driving millions from their homes.

Assad managed to turn the tide of the war thanks to Russian and Iranian backing, but Syria's society, infrastructure and economy have been decimated in the process. The country is struggling with crippling fuel shortages and stringent sanctions - around 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. 

In 2020, the US imposed sanctions on Syria under the Caesar Act, named for a Syrian military photographer who smuggled tens of thousands of gruesome photos out of the country which documented evidence of war crimes.

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The vast web of sanctions have targeted supporters of the Assad government in politics, business and banking, with the goal of pressuring his government into negotiations by preventing foreign countries and businesses from assisting in the reconstruction of Syria's devastated cities and economy. 

"The Caesar Act is an obstacle, no doubt, but we managed in numerous ways to bypass this law," Assad said, adding that the bigger roadblock to Syria's reconstruction was the devastation of the country's infrastructure by "terrorists". 

"The biggest obstacle is the image of the war in Syria, which prevents any investment in the Syrian market and economy," he added.

US-Syria talks

In May, a group of bipartisan US lawmakers introduced another bill, called the Assad Anti-Normalisation Act, to continue isolating Damascus.

Even with the sanctions, the US has said publicly that it engaged with Syria on the status of Austin Tice, a US journalist who disappeared while reporting in Syria a decade ago.

President Biden said last year that the US was certain Assad's government was holding Tice, a charge Damascus has denied. Assad didn’t say on Wednesday what the nature of the talks with the US were. 

The State Department didn't respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment on Assad’s claim about the meetings. 

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Washington's efforts to isolate Damascus have recently been out of step with regional countries - including partners like Jordan and Saudi Arabia - that are pushing for Assad's reentry into the Arab fold with the aim of addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, checking Iran's influence in the country and stemming drug smuggling across the region.

Arab outreach to Assad gained momentum this year after a deadly 6 February earthquake struck Syria and Turkey, and accelerated as regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore bilateral ties the following month in a surprise China-brokered deal.

Assad's interview was the first since Syria was readmitted to the Arab League in May. Assad attended his first summit for the group the same month in Saudi Arabia.

Although some Arab states have pushed for a resumption of ties with Damascus, there are divisions within the region. The United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been more supportive, while others, including Qatar, have remained opposed to full normalisation without a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

Analysts say Assad is hopeful that Gulf states will support the reconstruction of his country, but on Wednesday he appeared cautious, saying, "I cannot expect, I can hope," when asked about normalisation boosting regional investment.

Assad added it was "unrealistic to expect that... these relationships, which began to look closer to normal, would lead to economic results within months".

Assad denies links to Captagon trade

One of the most immediate challenges Syria’s neighbours like Jordan hope to address is the production and export of Captagon, an addictive amphetamine drug that boomed in Syria amid the fallout of the country’s bloody civil war.

Captagon is now Syria's most valuable export product and a key source of revenue.

Western governments and analysts say the Assad government is heavily involved in the trade.

The brother of the Syrian president, who heads the notorious fourth division of the Syrian Arab Army, is believed to control a vast Captagon trading network, along with Assad family members, according to investigations by news outlets including The New York Times.

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On Wednesday, Assad said it was "illogical" to accuse his government of any involvement in the drug trade.

"When there is war and the state is weakened," the drug trade flourishes, and "this is normal", Assad said. 

"The countries that contributed to creating chaos in Syria bear the responsibility for this, not the Syrian state," he added.

Assad also touched on normalisation between his country and Turkey. Calls to reestablish ties with Damascus grew louder during Turkey’s election, and Russia has brokered a series of high-level meetings between Syrian and Turkish officials, with the aim of bringing Ankara and Damascus together.

But Turkey exerts control over a large chunk of northern Syria and backs rebels opposed to the Assad government. 

"Our goal is [Turkey's] withdrawal from Syrian territory, while Erdogan's goal is to legitimise the presence of Turkey's occupation in Syria," Assad said. "Therefore, the meeting cannot take place under Erdogan's conditions."

"Why should I meet Erdogan? To drink refreshments?" the Syrian leader said.

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