Following a telephone conversation with his American counterpart, John Kerry, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced that “signs of hope were evident” in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. He clarified that negotiations now centered “from my point of view, on the identities of the participants and the location in which talks are to be held, with the hope that preconditions would not stand in the way of such talks.”
Speaking from Brussels, the Russian foreign minister said, “I spoke with the American Secretary of State John Kerry about Syria. First and foremost we talked about the glimmer of hope that had emerged, contingent upon the Syrian regime and opposition seriously agreeing, even while setting certain conditions, that negotiations are an absolute necessity.”
He added, “We discussed the ways by which we could help prevent any preconditions from becoming a hurdle on the path towards such talks. Moscow and Washington are convinced, as was evident in our consultations, that this opportunity must be fully exploited, with both parties doing everything they can to communicate and find solutions to what I consider to be ancillary issues, such as the identities of acceptable participants and the location of talks. What is important in my opinion is that both sides sit around the negotiating table and try to take advantage of this opportunity; because, unless dialogue is attempted, we will never know how realistic this chance is, and how to best build upon it and move forward.”
Diplomatic sources in Paris told Russia Today that the international and Arab envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, would visit Moscow today [Feb. 19], followed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Feb. 28, and the president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, on March 1.
Concurrently, the governments of the EU meeting in Brussels agreed to extend sanctions against Syria for an additional three months, but declared that they would amend their weapons ban to the opposition in order to provide more substantial “non-lethal and technical support to protect civilians.”
Extending the weapons ban does not mean that the EU, or some of its constituent nations, would abide by it, just as they had not respected it in the past. It is self-evident that a number of European nations — such as France, Britain and Italy — prefer to distinguish between diplomatic positions, necessitating consensual agreement and requiring an inordinate amount of effort in a group of 27 countries with conflicting interests. They believe that that militarily work on the ground is necessary to help the armed opposition in Syria, in order to safeguard their roles as major players in this geostrategic conflict; for staying on its sidelines, in their view, is a grave mistake.
The fact is that since the Syrian crisis erupted 23 months ago, security agencies don’t consider themselves a party to any decisions taken in Brussels and relating to Syria. Nor do they consider themselves affected by European diplomatic concerns that only constitute the visible aspect of European endeavors in Syria. Therefore, the discourse of “no military intervention in Syria,” which is mainly aimed at the European public opinion, falls contrary to reality on the ground where European security agencies covertly work, away from any media attention, to implement the real national agendas of member states. Their aim is to maintain a northern bridgehead, preserve their control over important elements of the Syrian armed opposition, and execute qualitative military missions.
A French source with close ties to the security agencies stated that the department of foreign operations in France’s intelligence service has been working nonstop on the ground in Syria. According to the same source, a force from the French foreign operations department has been using Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley as a staging point for missions inside Syria, in addition to another force working in coordination with American and British services in the Syrian-Turkish border region. This all comes as part of the framework of joint missions and operations to arm the opposition. Western countries avoid giving the Syrian opposition weapons manufactured by them; the French utilize part of a secret budget earmarked for foreign operations to buy advanced communications devices and Russian-made weapons. Most of this material is shipped from Libya and destined to groups linked to the National Coalition and National Coordination Committee.
A delegation of the Unified Military Council, headed by its Chief of Staff, Gen. Salim Idris, arrived in Paris four days ago on an unpublicized visit to coordinate military operations with the French Defense Ministry, and ask their French allies to fulfill their promises to increase the pace and quality of weapons shipments. The daily Independent newspaper had published articles about sophisticated weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and heavy artillery pieces, being stockpiled in Turkey because of American demands that they be delivered only if the factions close to the coalition agreed to strike against Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist Salafist groups.
A source close to French security agencies confirmed that the armed Syrian opposition had received advanced artillery and equipment. He said, however, that they [the French] had agreed with their American and British counterparts not to provide the opposition with surface to air missiles, for fear that these would fall in jihadist Salafist hands. The same French source also said that French and American intelligence services had played a major role in coordinating the operations of the armed Syrian opposition, in battles to take control of strategic airports in northern Syria. He added that it would have been impossible for the armed Syrian opposition to make progress against the airports without the support, coordination and organizational skills provided by experts from the French and American foreign operations departments working in the region.
And so, far from Brussels and the extension of the ban on arming the opposition, the decision continues to have no effect on the ground, as Western agencies and special forces units continue to train opposition fighters. Yet, according to more than one source, this did not prevent French security services from asking Damascus to resume security cooperation in combating terrorism, and that the French intelligence representative be allowed to return from Amman to Damascus, which he left last year.
This request was rejected by the Syrians, who had previously aided French security agencies in apprehending a jihadist network planning to attack the Paris metro system in 2008. The French request seems logical, following the statements constantly repeated by Interior Minister Manuel Valls in the past weeks, that jihadist networks were actively recruiting volunteers in France to fight in Syria, Mali and Somalia ever since the French intervention in Mali began 45 days ago. He also noted that they had uncovered coordinated jihadist fronts spreading from the African coast all the way to northern Syria.