A top official under Syrian President Bashar Assad says operatives from several Western intelligence agencies have held discussions with the government in Damascus about how to combat Islamic extremists who have become increasingly active in Syria’s civil war over the past year.
The Obama administration on Wednesday denied that U.S. intelligence officials have participated in such talks and suggested the Assad government may be promoting a false narrative.
Still, the back-and-fourth claims added a fresh layer to Washington’s complex effort to inspire major players in Syria’s nearly three-year-old civil war to attend a peace conference in Switzerland next week.
The Assad government has said it intends to participate in the so-called Geneva II conference, which the Obama administration hopes will lay the groundwork for a political solution to the war. But the U.S. and its European allies are struggling to persuade the main opposition front to attend.
Complicating the situation is the fact that secular Syrian rebels increasingly have found themselves squeezed between advancing Assad forces and al Qaeda-linked terrorists seeking to exploit the chaos to gain a new regional foothold.
While the Obama administration has raised alarm about groups such as the Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria, it has said consistently that it stands with Syria’s secular rebels against the Assad regime.
The situation has been further complicated by recent media reports about foreign fighters from around the world — including Europe and the U.S. — flowing into Syria to join the extremists. The reports have increased fears in European capitals and in Washington that such fighters will pose terrorist threats when they return to their home nations.
In a BBC interview Tuesday, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said officials from several Western intelligence agencies had recently visited Damascus for talks on combating radical Islamist groups.
Asked which Western nations he was referring to — and whether any officials from Britain had been among them — Mr. Mekdad said he would “not specify, but many of them have visited Damascus.”
The BBC reported that British officials have denied the claim that the nation’s intelligence officials are involved in such cooperation with the Assad government.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf denied that U.S. intelligence officials had met with the Assad regime to discuss the extremist threat in Syria, but she left open the possibility that there may be some secret channels of communication between Washington and Damascus.
“This specific report about intelligence agencies going to work with the Assad regime on counterterrorism is not true,” Ms. Harf said.
But when asked if she meant there is absolutely no U.S. intelligence community contact with the Assad government, Ms. Harf said: “That’s not what I said.”
“I said I would check on that, if there are conversations with the regime. Not to my knowledge, but I don’t want to say anything categorical that I don’t know to be true,” she said.
Ms. Harf also said U.S. officials “clearly consider the terrorist threat inside Syria to be of serious concern, but it’s absurd to consider Assad or the regime a partner in countering that threat.”
“It is because of the climate they have created in the country — both the security climate and the way they’ve encouraged this behavior — that terrorists are able to operate so freely in Syria today,” she said. “So we share the concern, but think the notion that the regime is truly concerned about it is sort of preposterous.”
Separately, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has spent much of this week pushing to persuade the main political arm of Syria’s secular rebels to participate in the Geneva peace conference, which is slated to open Jan. 22.
The Syrian National Council, however, has been divided over whether it will be worthwhile to enter any kind of negotiations with the Assad government. The council has said it will vote Friday on whether to attend the peace conference.
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