The British MI6 spy agency was reportedly engaged in months-long talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in the lead-up to the Western military campaign against the Islamic State group.
Officers from the agency have been conducting discussions in Damascus with members of Assad’s intelligence network as well as senior Syrian diplomats, despite a recent assertion by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond that a pact with the dictator would not be “practical, sensible or helpful,” the Mirror newspaper reported.
The United States has also denied any coordination with the Syrian government or its close ally Iran regarding the air campaign against the Islamic State, which has carved out a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate there, killing thousands of people in the process.
“We warned Syria not to engage US aircraft,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. “We did not request the regime’s permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government.”
The beheadings of three American and British citizens over the past six weeks, as well as the Islamic State’s shocking assault on other religious and ethnic groups in northern Iraq, galvanized the US into forming an international coalition of nations to attack the group.
“It makes sense that MI6 would try to make inroads with Assad by talking to his people, first through proxy channels like other Arab nations, but then directly,” an unnamed source was quoted by the Mirror as saying.
“It may be there are no face-to-face meetings with Assad himself but behind the double-speak of foreign relations it is perfectly normal for them to see his senior people. It would be staggering if Britain’s intelligence agencies were not talking to Assad’s people. The talks they have within Syria are of invaluable benefit to Britain’s security.”
According to the report, Britain is also acting under the assumption that Assad’s agents could possess information on the British nationals who are in Islamic State captivity.
On Saturday, British warplanes flew their first anti-jihadist combat missions over neighboring Iraq.
Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 jets took off from Britain’s RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus for Iraq but returned to base without dropping their laser-guided bombs.
“On this occasion no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack by our aircraft,” said a Defense Ministry spokesman in London.
The US and Arab allies began airstrikes against IS in Syria on Tuesday, more than a month after Washington launched its air campaign against the jihadists in Iraq.
A US defense official told AFP Friday the Syrian mission is now similar to Iraq’s, with “near continuous” sorties.
Washington also plans to train and arm 5,000 Syrian rebels, although top US military officer General Martin Dempsey said 12,000-15,000 men would be required to recapture “lost territory” in Syria.
AFP contributed to this report.