Source: The Wall Street Journal – by Maria Abu Habib (European Spies Reach Out to Syria)
European intelligence agencies secretly met with Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad’s delegates to share information on European extremists operating in Syria, Western and Middle Eastern officials said, the first known encounters since withdrawing their ambassadors.
The meetings were intended to gather information on at least 1,200 European jihadists that Western officials say have joined militant groups in Syria, amid European concerns these citizens will pose a threat when they return home.
The talks are narrowly focused on the extremists and on al Qaeda’s growing might in Syria and don’t represent a broader diplomatic opening, the Western and Middle Eastern officials and diplomats said.
But Mr. Assad’s opponents in Syria and in Istanbul, where the political opposition is based, said they are concerned that the information sharing suggests Western capitals are starting to accept the possibility the Syrian leader will retain power for the foreseeable future.
Opposition members also are concerned the contacts—coupled with an international effort under way to remove Syria’s chemical arms—could grow into wider cooperation in fighting terror groups in Syria.
That could bolster Mr. Assad’s argument that his leadership is needed to fight al Qaeda, which has gained Syrian territory in recent months.
“We worry that these preliminary discussions could lead to broader cooperation,” said a Syrian opposition member in Istanbul.
A retired official from MI6, the British foreign intelligence arm, was the first to visit Damascus in midsummer on behalf of the British government, two people said. German, French and Spanish intelligence agencies have been speaking to regime officials in Damascus since November, traveling to Syria from Beirut, the diplomats and officials with knowledge of the situation said.
The U.S. isn’t involved in the visits to Damascus, these people said. A senior U.S. official said he wasn’t aware of the talks. But U.S. officials said they have expressed concern over the issue of native-grown European jihadists returning to their countries to wreak havoc.
Officials in Mr. Assad’s media office and in Syria’s foreign ministry said they couldn’t immediately comment.
The Syrian opposition is plagued by infighting, and the battlefield ascendance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, a radical al Qaeda-affiliated group that the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization, has worried Western officials.
Many of the European jihadists have joined ISIS in Syria, where they are becoming radicalized and gaining battlefield and explosives training that could threaten their home countries, Western officials said.
The British government said it stripped some 20 citizens with dual nationality of their citizenship in December for fighting with militants in Syria.
Recruited through a network of mosques across Europe, diplomats said, these jihadists then make the pilgrimage to safe houses in southern Turkey, where they prepare to cross the border into Syria’s battlefields. Authorities in the U.K. and France recently made several terror-related arrests of individuals suspected of links to Syria.
A spokesman for Spain’s internal security agency confirmed that Madrid has been sharing intelligence with Damascus about Spanish citizens traveling to Syria to join radical jihadist groups, but declined to provide more details.
“Yes, there have been exchanges of information,” the spokesman for the deputy minister for internal security said. “Spain has consistently expressed its concern about the dangers posed by these terrorists.”
French foreign-affairs officials declined to comment, as did the German foreign intelligence service. The British foreign office, which speaks on behalf of MI6, declined to comment.
The French, German, Spanish and British representatives have met with a handful of Syrian officials, among them Ali Mamlouk, a special security adviser to Mr. Assad, said the people with knowledge of the talks. Mr. Mamlouk declined to comment.
The Europeans’ meetings were intended to gather information on whether these fighters are alive, their whereabouts and which of the many rebel factions they are allied with, to measure the depth of their extremism.
Khaled Mahjoub, a Syrian American businessman who is close to Mr. Assad, didn’t comment on any talks with the Europeans. But he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Europeans and Americans eventually find themselves compelled to collaborate with Mr. Assad in fighting al Qaeda.
“Western politicians have reached a certain level of maturity and understand that Syria is fighting the Salafi-Wahabi terrorism on their behalf,” he said in a recent interview.
The meetings come ahead of the Geneva II conference on Jan. 22, where the opposition is supposed to meet with Mr. Assad’s government to try to find a political solution to the nearly three-year war.
Mr. Assad’s government has said he won’t cede power to an interim government at the conference, as his opponents demand, and is trying to refocus the Geneva conference on the fight against terrorism.
To the West’s chagrin, ISIS was able to thrive in Syria because some other rebel groups initially saw it as an ally in the fight to topple Mr. Assad that they could later counter.
The Syrian regime, similarly, has largely left areas controlled by ISIS alone while mercilessly assaulting areas controlled by other rebel groups—a strategy the opposition says is aimed at helping the most extreme groups flourish and color the opposition, regime critics say.
But in the past two weeks, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army opened up a new unified front to battle ISIS.
The FSA, along with other rebels forces like the Islamic Front, pushed ISIS out of strongholds such as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. But ISIS remains strong in much of the country’s north and east, and the infighting has given new momentum to the regime.
The sudden willingness of the FSA to turn on ISIS may also be a tactic to recapture waning international support ahead of the Geneva talks, to demonstrate that the opposition—and not Mr. Assad—is a potential partner to the West capable of helping defeat al Qaeda in Syria, some of the diplomats said.
“I’m not surprised about these contacts” with Damascus, said Aiad Qudsi, the deputy prime minister for the opposition’s interim government. “The regime did a good job of portraying the opposition as radicals or extremists. But now we are fighting al Qaeda. The regime isn’t.”
European governments said the interactions they have had with the regime on security—the first known direct contacts since European governments pulled their ambassadors and many of them closed their embassies in early 2012—don’t constitute a wider diplomatic opening.
“This is a string of meetings. To talk about a full opening to the regime is premature now,” said a Western diplomat based in the Mideast briefed about some of the country’s talks with Damascus. “It’s not a bold new opening at this time. After Geneva, you may have an opening.”
The West has been frustrated by the Syrian political opposition’s inability to bridge their many differences, which is likely to further empower Mr. Assad at Geneva.
Many in Syria’s opposition complain that the West has done little to arm or finance the rebels fighting Mr. Assad’s forces, and are going to the Geneva meetings with a weak hand.
Opposition members are divided over whether to attend the conference and are expected to make a decision in the coming days.
Secretary of State John Kerry warned on Tuesday that if the Syrian National Council, the opposition’s political arm in Istanbul, doesn’t attend the Geneva conference the West may cut its aid.
The U.S. and its allies are trying to create an interim government that is acceptable to both Damascus and the opposition. Officials such as Mr. Mamlouk, the interlocutor with European intelligence agencies, could be an important compromise candidate, one Western diplomat said.
“Damascus is saying ‘open up your embassies and we will restart contacts,’ ” the diplomat said. “But that is slipping as Assad is no longer the bulwark against al Qaeda, with the rebels now [fighting].”
—Sam Dagher, David Román, Nick Winning, Harriet Torry and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this article.