Syria says West talks to Damascus about Islamist rebels

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister: "Many foreign intelligence agencies have visited Damascus"

Western intelligence agencies have visited Damascus for talks on combating radical Islamist groups, Syria's deputy foreign minister has told the BBC.

Faisal Mekdad said there was a schism between Western security officials and politicians who are pressing President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

The growth of jihadist groups among rebels fighting President Assad has caused international concern.

The Syrian opposition says it has "a real dilemma" over the alleged links.

Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told the BBC that if the reports of European intelligence contacts with Damascus were true, "it would show a clear contradiction between the words and actions of the Friends of Syria group" who had "clearly identified the Assad regime as a source of terrorism in the region".

The UK government denied allegations its intelligence officials had been involved in such co-operation.

Syrian government officials are due to attend peace talks in Geneva next week.

However, the National Coalition has still not decided whether or not to take part.

Correspondents say the growing disarray of the opposition is frustrating the West and bolstering the confidence of the Syrian government.

In a recent interview, Mr Mekdad told BBC Newsnight that many Western governments had finally understood that there was no alternative to the leadership of President Assad.

'Terror threat'

Asked if Western intelligence agencies - including British intelligence - had recently visited Damascus, he said: "I will not specify but many of them have visited Damascus, yes."

There is common concern between the West and Syria about the threat posed by Islamist groups and the growing number of foreign fighters from Europe.

What is not clear is how far the West is prepared to make common cause with a regime it still holds responsible for this brutal war.

Damascus has long maintained the West would eventually come round to accepting its narrative that this conflict is a battle against terrorism.

Western politicians still insist President Assad must eventually step down.

But informed sources say there have been meetings between Western and Syrian intelligence officials including Security Chief General Ali Mamluk.

It is hard to confirm the extent of contacts. Foreign nationals detained in Syria would have been on the agenda but there is said to have been broader discussion of security threats.

As this devastating war drags on, there is growing anxiety in many capitals over how to bring it to an end.

As one Western official put it: "This is a losing situation for absolutely everyone."

On the subject of whether Syria was getting more requests from Western countries to have their diplomats return to Damascus, he added: "Yes, there are many countries who are approaching us.

"Of course some are waiting for Geneva, some are saying we are exploring the possibilities, some are saying we want to co-operate on security measures because those terrorists they are sending from Western Europe into Turkey, into Syria, have become a real threat to them."

The BBC's chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet said informed sources had confirmed meetings between Western and Syrian intelligence officials.

On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande told a press conference in Paris that 700 French nationals had joined the ranks of foreigners fighting in Syria.

The growing numbers of foreign Islamist fighters from Europe means there are common concerns, our correspondent says, but it is not clear how far the West is prepared to make common cause with a regime it holds responsible for the Syrian civil war.

An official from the National Coalition recently said the US and Britain had warned they would rethink their support if the group failed to join the peace talks.

Meanwhile, a donor conference to raise funds for the humanitarian crisis in Syria is taking place in Kuwait City on Wednesday.

Kuwait announced a pledge of $500m (£304m) towards efforts to combat the crisis, while the US promised $380m (£231m) in new contributions.

Syrian refugees wait to cross border into Turkey. 13 Jan 2014 Syrian refugees continue to cross into Turkey to flee the fighting

The UN says it is asking for $6.5bn (£4bn) over the coming year for Syria, its biggest ever funding request for a single crisis.

It is believed that more than nine million Syrians have been displaced by the uprising that began nearly three years ago.

Refugee camps outside Syria's borders are barely coping and reports from some besieged communities inside the country have warned of imminent starvation.

The UN says more than 100,000 people have died since the uprising began.

Renowned Syrian pianist Gaswan Zerikly reflects on life in Damascus.

More on This Story

Syria conflict

More Middle East stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.