The United States is providing the Assad regime with accurate intelligence on Islamic State targets in Syria through a third country, a Syrian regime daily reported on Monday, contradicting American claims that no such cooperation existed.
Quoting unnamed diplomatic sources in Paris, Al-Watan reported that Syria has received “very accurate information” from a foreign intelligence agency over the past weeks regarding movements and meetings of Islamic State leaders in Syria. Based on that intelligence, the daily reported, Syrian aircraft attacked the location of the leaders and “hit the targets with precision.”
Al-Watan claimed the information originated in the US, and may have been conveyed via “Baghdad, Moscow, Berlin, or even the military command center located in Irbil (in northern Iraq).”
No comment was available from the US State Department at time of publication.
World leaders convened in Paris on Monday to discuss the formation of an international coalition to fights the Islamic State, which has seized control of large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq, declaring those territories a caliphate. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that nearly 40 states, many of them Muslim-majority, have agreed to contribute to the fight.
During a speech outlining his administration’s strategy for tackling the Islamic State, US President Barack Obama said that unlike the American cooperation with the new Iraqi government in striking IS strongholds from the air, he would not collaborate with the Assad regime in Syria.
“In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” Obama said. “Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
But Al-Watan mocked those statements, claiming that Syria has “greatly benefited from the information it received”; killing many local and foreign IS operatives near the cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour and destroying depots containing advanced American weapons captured by the jihadist organization in Iraq.
The daily’s European sources estimated that the US was denying its involvement so as not to upset its local allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to whom it committed not to collaborate with the Assad regime.
Benedetta Berti, a Syria expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, doubted the veracity of the report but said that the article in Al-Watan could serve to boost the Assad regime’s popularity domestically, in a society increasingly wary of the Islamist menace.
“Claiming that the US is actually cooperating with the Syrian regime via a third party gives the regime more legitimacy in arguing that Syria is at the forefront of the war against the jihadists,” she said.
Over the past weeks, the Syrian regime has intensified its airstrikes against the Islamic State. On Sunday, Syrian warplanes killed at least 17 IS fighters at a training camp in Deir al-Zour province, Arab media reported. Berti said this was being done “for entirely domestic reasons.”
The Assad regime was not using its full force against IS, utilizing the popular fear of the organization as a propaganda tool to mobilize the population and garner international support.
“Up until now the regime thought it could control the Islamic State, but IS successes in Iraq over the summer left the regime more concerned with the gains of that organization,” she said.
Meanwhile, public exchanges between Obama and the Syrian regime showed anything but good faith. On Sunday, Assad spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban that her regime would consider any unilateral American operation in the country “an act of aggression.”
“We are ready to be part of any coalition against terrorism, and any strike on Syria without coordination with the Syrian government is considered an aggression against Syria,” Shaaban said.
In a meeting with journalists last week, Obama entertained the idea of Assad ordering his troops to fire at American warplanes carrying out strikes against IS in Syria, the New York Times reported. In such an event, Obama said, he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system, which he said would be easier than attacking IS targets.