BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iraq’s national security adviser briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on efforts to counter Islamic State on Tuesday, in the first such meeting since the United States launched air strikes on the radical group in Iraq.
The United States and other Western governments have dismissed the idea of cooperating with Syria in the fight against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria. Western governments see Assad as part of the problem and say he must leave power.
But the Shi‘ite-led government in Baghdad, together with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been important allies for Assad since the uprising against his rule erupted in 2011. Shi‘ite Iraqi militias have fought on Assad’s side against the insurgency spearheaded by Sunni Islamists.
The meeting between Faleh al-Fayad, the Iraqi national security adviser, and Assad indicated that the Iraqi government aims to maintain those ties. It also points to the scope for possible indirect contact between Syria and the West over the fight against Islamic State via third parties such as Iraq.
Fayad “put Assad in the picture of the latest developments in Iraq and the efforts that the Iraqi government and people are making to combat the terrorists”, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
The meeting stressed “the importance of strengthening cooperation and coordination between the two brotherly countries in the field of combating terrorism that is hitting Syria and Iraq and which threatens the region and the world,” SANA said.
There was no immediate comment from Iraq. Islamic State militants took over Iraq’s the northern city of Mosul in June and have loose control over northern and western parts of the country and around a third of neighboring Syria.
Territory held by Islamic State in Syria includes most of Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq.
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma in the United States, said it was likely Washington and Damascus would use Iraq to communicate indirectly about Islamic State.
“We talk to the government in Iraq, they are going to talk to the government in Syria, and it is only going to be a matter of seconds before it is communicated,” he said.
“I am sure American intelligence officers will factor that in and send messages through the Iraqis.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said last week he would not hesitate to strike Islamic State in Syria. The Syrian government has said any military action taken without its consent would amount to an act of aggression.
Assad told Fayad that efforts to counter terrorism must start with pressure on the states that support and finance it -- a reference to Gulf Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar which Damascus accuses of sponsoring hardline insurgent groups.
The United States, which backs the more moderate rebels fighting Assad, is leading efforts to forge an international coalition against Islamic State. Iraq has attended two conferences in recent days to rally international support to the cause but Syria has not been invited.
A Lebanese official with close ties to the Syrian government said Fayad had expressed Baghdad’s displeasure at Syria’s exclusion from international efforts against Islamic State, echoing sentiments from Assad’s allies Russia and Iran.
The Iraqis had told Assad that a new Baghdad administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would continue the cooperation that existed when Nuri al-Maliki was premier, said the official who was briefed on the talks.
That cooperation would remain as it was in Maliki’s era, or could be even closer “given that Syria and Iraq are in one trench confronting the ISIS danger”, the official said.
Russia on Monday urged Western and Arab governments to overcome their distaste for Assad and engage with him to fight Islamic State. Iran has criticized U.S. efforts and its supreme leader has said he personally rejected an offer from Washington for talks with Tehran to fight the group.
Assad’s allies are developing their own response, said Salem al-Zahran, a Lebanese journalist close to Damascus.
Lebanese Shi‘ite militant group Hezbollah, Assad supporters from Iran and Russia have been looking at new ways to work with Syria to counter the threat, Zahran said, citing discussions and observations on a recent trip to Tehran.
“Syrians, Lebanese, Russians were there, and there were foreign meetings about an actual confrontation strategy.”
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Andrew Roche