Britain reestablished high-level intelligence links with the Syrian authorities as UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband made his landmark visit to Damascus on Tuesday, London-based The Times newspaper reported Wednesday, quoting senior Syrian officials.
According to the report, the move was first raised earlier this year at a New York meeting Miliband and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem.
The Times said Britain hopes its cooperation with Syria will provide access to one of the best intelligence-gathering systems in the Middle East, in particular in tracking the movements of Islamic extremists into Iraq and around the region.
“Miliband asked Moallem in New York whether he could reestablish intelligence links at a senior level” after lower level contacts, said a Syrian official involved in the matter. Following that meeting, the report said, Moallem invited Miliband to take intelligence officials with him on the trip to Damascus.
Miliband arrived in Syria on Tuesday after a short visit to Israel. This was the first visit by a British foreign secretary for seven years, and he expressed his hope that this move draws Bashar Assad's regime closer to the West.
Washington has long insisted on isolating Syria but with a change of administration - and attitude - looming, Britain and France are leading efforts to lure Damascus out of the solitude it has found itself in since it was implicated in the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, three years ago.
Washington strongly opposes any dialogue with Damascus as long as Assad fails to change his policy. Britain and France, on the other hand, are attempting vigorously to convince Syria to abandon its ties to Iran.
Assad's regime has been subject to heavy international pressure in the past three years, since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Miliband said in a join press conference with Moallem that he hopes the peace talks between Israel and Syria continue, adding that Damascus could help advance peace and stability in the Middle East.
He denounced Hamas' violence in the Gaza Strip, and said that the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders was the foundation for peace.
According to The Times, Miliband met President Assad for the first time during his visit, which, it was hoped, would draw the attention of US president-elect Barack Obama away from America's economic malaise and back towards the Middle East.
During his election campaign, Obama expressed his willingness to launch a dialogue with countries defined by outgoing President George W. Bush as part of "the axis of evil".
In their first phone call since the US election, the report said, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown emphasized that Obama's foreign policy priority should be the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he sees as the key to other concerns in the region, including the threat of a nuclear Iran.