Washington dismissed on Wednesday reports that United States officials had met Bashar Al Assad’s security chief Ali Mamlouk in Damascus last June.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said reports in pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar and later in Reuters about such a meeting "do not reflect reality". She said the State Department is "not aware" of any visit by US officials to Damascus to meet Mr Mamlouk.
On Tuesday, reports emerged that a four-hour meeting took place between US intelligence officials and the Syrian security chief. They also claimed the Assad regime rejected co-operation with Washington on security issues without the US first normalising ties with Damascus, and that Mr Mamlouk also demanded the withdrawal of US forces.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The National: "It wouldn't be a surprise if there had been intel contact [between the US and Assad regime], particularly on issues like the fate of Austin Tice and the issue of chemical weapons."
Mr Tice is a US journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012, and Washington has held meetings with Syrian officials to try to get information on his disappearance.
“If the intelligence community is engaged in closed-door diplomacy, it’d be doing so in a deniable fashion – so we may in fact never know the truth of these stories,” Mr Lister said.
But Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Centre for New American Security, cautioned about the source leaking information about such meetings. In this case, “an official in the regional alliance backing president Assad”.
“This is classic information warfare aimed at undermining the US-led coalition” Mr Heras said. “It took just enough truthful material, specifically that US officials have an open channel of communication with the Assad government, and weaved it into a false narrative of US military pullback from Syria, American interest in Syrian oil, and normalisation of Mr Assad.”
The reports in Al-Akhbar said US withdrawal from Syria and oil resources in the east were discussed in the meeting. "In reality, the United States is not withdrawing militarily from Syria on a timeline that is dictated by the Assad government, and the United States does not want Syrian oil, it supports the Syrian Democratic Forces in holding oil resources in trust for the Syrian people" said Mr Heras.
On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary James Mattis did not anticipate any imminent withdrawal of up to 2,000 troops from Syria. He laid out three conditions for that to take place. “One, we have to destroy ISIS … We also have to have trained local troops who can take over … and we need the Geneva process, the UN-recognised process to start making traction towards solving this war,” he said.