West sends spies to Syria to counter jihadist threat

There's a 'schism' between those in West who want Assad gone and those who fear what replaces him

(Image credit: 2013 AFP)

WESTERN intelligence officers have visited Damascus to discuss the most effective ways to tackle radical Islamist groups, Syria's deputy foreign minister has told the BBC.

The revelation that Western governments are consulting with the government of President Bashar al-Assad – the man they hold responsible for Syria's bloody civil war – suggests two things. Firstly, the high level of concern in the West at the spread of militant Islam in Syria and secondly the existence of a "schism" between Western politicians who continue to call for Assad to step down and security officials who fear he will be replaced by jihadist groups, the BBC says.

Faisal Mekdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, says that members of several Western intelligence agencies – including Britain's – recently visited the Syrian capital. "I will not specify but many of them have visited Damascus, yes," he says.

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He also claims that an increasing number of countries are requesting that their diplomats return to Damascus. While some Western nations are waiting for the outcome of peace talks in Geneva next week before reassessing their engagement with Syria, others are asking to "co-operate on security measures", Mekdad claims.

The British Foreign Office told the BBC it does not comment on intelligence matters.

The BBC's chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet says it is still not clear "how far the West is prepared to make common cause with a regime it still holds responsible for this brutal war".

While Western politicians continue to insist Assad will eventually step down, it seems increasingly clear that the risk of power falling into the hands of jihadists is giving security agencies the jitters.

It is hard to confirm the extent of the contact between Damascus and the West, says Doucet. But "informed sources" say there have been meetings between Western and Syrian intelligence officials including security chief General Ali Mamluk.

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