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Syria: West Reaches Out to Assad Over Jihadists

Syrian official: growing concern over rebel forces, including foreign jihadis, has caused the West to reach out to Assad.
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 1/15/2014, 10:03 PM

Syrian rebels (illustration)
Syrian rebels (illustration)
Reuters

Western powers have reached out to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as threats continue to mount over Al Qaeda-linked rebels, many of whom are foreign nationals, according to BBC News

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad claimed in a televised interview Wednesday that several Western powers had approached the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss "the extremism and cruelty" of the rebel forces, in the wake of reports that Syrian refugees were starving to death after being refused access to international aid. 

Mekdad stated that several Western powers had approached Assad, but a consensus has not been reached on what measures to take to solve the situation.

"Some are waiting for [upcoming peace talks in] Geneva, some are saying we are exploring the possibilities, some are saying we want to co-operate on security measures because those terrorists they are sending from Western Europe into Turkey, into Syria, have become a real threat to them," Mekdad stated. 

Western countries - especially the US and United Kingdom - have backed the rebel forces during the three year conflict. Increasingly, however, western states have become uneasy over the growing influence of radical Islamist elements among the rebel movement. Recently, funding for some "extremist" rebel groups has been revoked, but foreign nationals - including many western citizens - continue to pour into Syria, and western security services are concerned about what this means for their own countries' future security. 

“When these countries ask for security cooperation, then it seems to me there is a schism between the security and the political leadership,” Mekdad observed. “Many of these countries have contacted us to coordinate security measures.”

Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the Syrian National Council (SNC), responded to BBC that if the reports were true, "it would show a clear contradiction between the words and actions of the Friends of Syria group" who had "clearly identified the Assad regime as a source of terrorism in the region".

The news surface only a week before the Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict, which has raged since 2011 and killed at least 130,000. The New York Times notes that the talks with Damascus may be a political move to show that the West is willing to negotiate with Assad for the sake of combating extremism. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that European intelligence agencies had approached Syria to discuss the issue, and focused on at least 1,200 terrorists currently fighting there. The UK, US, and France have denied meeting with officials so far, according to BBC and Reuters India

In November, several Islamist groups not affiliated with Al Qaeda united to become the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), under the banner ideology of a Syria ruled by fundamentalist Islamic teachings, but without the global Islamist agenda Al Qaeda promotes. The SIF has reportedly become the most powerful rebel faction in the embattled country, claiming to have up to 60,000 fighters at its disposal. 

US and other Western powers met with the new group that month, in the hopes that a unified rebel force would be more conducive for peace talks slated for Geneva in 2014.

However, more and more officials began to claim that the move had backfired - intensifying the civil war and unintentionally giving more power to Jihadist groups. 

In December, reports surfaced that the UK had revoked the citizenship of several nationals fighting in the Syrian Civil War. The goal, ostensibly, was to prevent its nationals from returning home - and bringing fundamentalist Islam with them.