AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called on Tuesday during talks with Iraq’s foreign minister in Damascus for a united front with Baghdad in tackling terrorism as the two countries battle Islamic State militants on their territory.
The Shi‘ite Muslim-led government in Baghdad, along with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, has been an important ally for Assad. Shi‘ite Iraqi militias have fought on Assad’s side against the insurgency spearheaded by Sunni Islamists.
But Iraqi armed forces are also the main partner on the ground for a U.S.-led coalition bombing the Islamic State militants in Iraq. Washington and its Western allies have dismissed the idea of cooperating directly with Assad in the same fight due to his actions during Syria’s civil war.
Assad was quoted on his official Twitter account as saying “consultation and coordination between Syria and Iraq reinforces the successes of their people and their armed forces in the face of terrorism”.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, one of the most senior foreign officials to visit Damascus recently, said Syria “will emerge from the crisis stronger and strategic relations between the two countries will continue to evolve”, state news agency SANA said.
The United Nations says more than 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since its civil war erupted in 2011 when security forces violently suppressed pro-democracy protests.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also held discussions with Jaafari. Syrian state television said they had “focused on the fight against terrorism and common dangers that threaten our countries”.
It did not specify which groups the discussions were referring to. Damascus describes both jihadist militants and Western-backed rebels as terrorists.
“BREAK THE SIEGE”
“Our brotherly leaders in Iraq will not spare any effort to break the siege which was imposed upon Syria,” Moualem told a joint news conference in Damascus airport, an apparent reference to Syria’s relative international isolation under Assad.
Jaafari’s visit to Damascus comes ahead of an Arab League meeting in Egypt this weekend. Syria’s membership of the organization has been suspended since 2011.
Its seat was granted to a Syrian opposition alliance in 2013 during the Arab summit in Qatar, one of the states that wants to see Assad removed from power. But the seat was left vacant during the 2014 summit in Kuwait and seems likely to remain vacant this year.
Last September Iraq’s national security adviser briefed Assad on efforts to counter Islamic State in the first such meeting since the United States launched air strikes on the group.
Assad said last month that third parties including Iraq were conveying information to Damascus about the U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this month his country would have to negotiate with Assad for a political transition in Syria. The State Department later edged away from the comments, saying Washington would never negotiate with him.
(This March 24, 2015 story was refiled to correct a reference to Syria’s Arab League seat in paragraphs 10-11)
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Writing by Sylvia Westall and Oliver Holmes, Editing by Gareth Jones