Western intelligence ‘talking’ to Damascus
REUTERS PhotoThe intelligence services of some Western countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have visited Damascus to discuss combating radical Islamist groups, Syria’s deputy foreign minister said in remarks broadcast on Jan. 15.
“I will not specify [which countries], but many of them have visited Damascus, yes,” the deputy minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in an interview with the BBC.
Asked about the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated he was not aware of such contacts.
“I don’t know anything about that. Certainly not under my auspices” has there been any contact of that kind, he said.
Citing informed sources, the BBC said the U.S., British and German intelligence agencies were among those which had sent officials to Damascus to discuss not just foreign nationals detained in Syria but also broader security matters.
Separately the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported that British, German, French and Spanish agencies have been speaking to al-Assad government officials since mid-2013. The daily, citing diplomats and officials, said a retired officer from Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency was the first to visit, in the middle of 2013. German, French and Spanish agencies have been speaking to government officials since November, the U.S. daily said.
Mekdad said the contacts appeared to show a rift between the political and security authorities in some countries opposed to al-Assad.
Western countries are worried about the presence in rebel ranks of foreign Islamist militants who have traveled to Syria to join a near three-year-old struggle to topple al-Assad. “Frankly speaking, the spirit has changed,” Mekdad said.
Meanwhile, al-Assad warned during a meeting in Damascus with Iran’s foreign minister that Saudi Arabia’s political and religious ideology is “a threat to the world,” state television reported.
He was referring to Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim tradition which is predominant in Saudi Arabia, a key backer of Syria’s revolt against al-Assad.
“President al-Assad warns during his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of the threat posed by Wahhabi thinking to all the world, not just to the region,” the report said.
“The Syrian people and some peoples in the region know how serious the threat posed by Wahhabism is, and everyone must contribute to the confrontation against it and to eradicating it from the root,” said al-Assad.
Al-Assad’s meeting with Zarif, the top diplomat of Syria’s chief regional ally, Iran, comes less than a week before the so-called Geneva II peace conference, which is aimed at ending the conflict in the war-torn country.