BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iraq’s national security adviser briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on efforts to counter Islamic State on Tuesday, Syrian state media reported, 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 cooperation between Syria and the West in 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”, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
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 Baghdad.
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 insurgents groups.
The United States is leading efforts to forge an international coalition against Islamic State. Iraq has attended two conferences held 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 efforts against Islamic State.
The Iraqis had told Assad that a new Baghdad administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shi’ite Islamist, 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama last week said 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.
Reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam; Editing by Dominic Evans