The intelligence services of some Western countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad have visited Damascus to discuss security cooperation with his government, Syria's deputy foreign minister confirmed in remarks broadcast on Wednesday.
"I will not specify [which countries] but many of them have visited Damascus, yes," the deputy minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in an interview with the BBC.
Mekdad's remarks followed a report in The Wall Street Journal claiming that European intelligence agencies have met covertly with Assad delegates to share information on European jihadists operating in Syria, in the first such meeting since withdrawing their ambassadors when the crisis began.
The report indicated that a retired official from the British MI6 made a trip to Damascus over the summer, and that the French, German and Spanish intelligence agencies followed suit, making contact with regime officials in November and traveling to Syria from Lebanon to carry out their meeting.
Asked about the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated he was not aware of such contacts. "I don't know anything about that. Certainly not under my auspices" has there been any contact of that kind, he told reporters in Kuwait, where he is on a visit.
Mekdad told the BBC in his interview that the contacts appeared to show a rift between the political and security authorities in some countries opposed to Assad.
Western powers have supported the opposition with rhetoric but have backed away from material aid as Al-Qaida-linked groups take advantage of a power vacuum in rebel-held regions. Western countries are worried about the presence in rebel ranks of foreign Islamist militants who have traveled to Syria to join a near three-year-old struggle to topple Assad.
Mekdad told the BBC, however, that "Frankly speaking the spirit has changed... When these countries ask us for security cooperation, then it seems to me there is a schism between the political and security leaderships."
Asked if he was confirming that British intelligence had been in contact with Syria, he declined a direct reply. "I am saying that many of these countries have contacted us to coordinate security measures," he added.
Opposition: Al-Qaida militants are serving Assad's interests
Syrian opposition figures are convinced that the West does not want to remove President Bashar Assad and to disarm the Syrian military and security services, following the Iraqi model. The main focus of their fears is the ever-expanding activity of the militias affiliated with Al-Qaida. These things came to the fore recently when the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front turned most of their efforts toward fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with little success so far.
Arab media outlets reported in recent days that the Al-Qaida-affiliated group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant gained control over the city of al-Raqqa, in north-central Syria, after being turned back last week by the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army, which also took control over some of their bases.
A senior Syrian opposition figure told Haaretz that this was one of several reasons why the opposition is not enthusiastic about the Geneva peace conference scheduled for next week, adding that the battle against ISIS, an organization he said serves the interests of the Assad regime more than it does the opposition, must be finished first.
Also on Wednesday morning, Arab media outlets quoted Turkish President Abdullah Gul as saying that the current situation in Syria was a "lose-lose scenario for each state, regime and people of the region,” adding that there were “no magic formulas to reverse this situation.”
Addressing Turkish diplomats in Ankara, Gul called for “patience” and “quiet diplomacy” in Syria, adding, that Turkey must “recalibrate” its diplomacy and security policies in light of events in Syria.
Syrian officials have accused Turkey of supporting opposition militias and allowing their members to enter Syria through its borders.
Also on Wednesday, Assad met in his Damascus palace with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of a series of meetings with officials from nearby states, including Lebanon and Jordan.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who will lead the Syrian delegation at the Geneva conference, was thought to have traveled to Moscow for a last coordination meeting with Russian officials before going to Switzerland.
The Syrian National Coalition of opposition organizations is under Western pressure to attend the Geneva conference. Several Arab newspapers noted prominently on Wednesday that the United States and Great Britain had threatened to stop aid to the opposition if it does not attend.
Western and Gulf Arab nations pledged $1.4 billion on Wednesday for United Nations aid efforts in Syria, where an almost three-year-old civil war has left millions of people hungry, ailing or displaced.
The pledge arose from an appeal for $6.5 billion launched last month that is the largest in U.N. history. The world body estimates that the conflict has reversed development gains in Syria by 35 years, with half its people now living in poverty.
But only 70 percent of $1.5 billion pledged at a similar meeting last year has reached U.N. coffers, hinting at donor fatigue with no end to the bloodshed on the horizon.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said all sides in the conflict had shown "total disregard for their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law."
She decried the increasing tactic of siege warfare while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said polio had returned and he was "especially concerned" about reports of starvation.
"Children, women, men are trapped, hungry, ill, losing hope," Amos told an international donor conference in Kuwait intended to help the United Nations reach its $6.5 billion target for the crisis in 2014.
Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, promised $500 million in fresh assistance, while the United States announced a contribution of $380 million.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia pledged $60 million each. The European Union pledged $225 million and Britain $165 million.
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