Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has acknowledged being tipped off by members of the United States-led coalition about airstrikes on Islamic State militants within his country.
Though he noted in a BBC interview broadcast on Tuesday that his government is not directly cooperating with the coalition, he said that third parties including Iraq had conveyed information notifying Syria of the attacks.
"Sometimes they convey message, general message, but there's nothing tactical," he said, noting a lack of interchange. "There is, let's say, information, but not dialogue."
The Syrian Air Force operates in some of the areas in which coalition strikes have taken place, but there have been no encounters involving the two sides, implying that there is at least some communication of operations. Syria's anti-aircraft defenses have refrained from targeting coalition aircraft, and the strikes in the country appear to reflect an informal understanding between the US-led coalition and Assad's government.
Critics of US foreign policy have noted that the focus on exclusively targeting Islamic State installations in Syria has had the effect of bolstering Assad.
Iraqi officials have previously said that they passed information on to Shia powerhouse and ally Iran about coalition operations. The government in Tehran is a key backer of the embattled Syrian president.
Assad also said that Syrian authorities were aware in advance that the US would extend airstrikes already underway in Iraq to Syria last September.
When the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and Assad's forces violently repressed mainly peaceful demonstrations against his rule, the US insisted that he leave office. It maintained this position when an armed rebellion began, and has provided limited support to Syrian opposition groups, including training, weapons, and equipment.
With no realistic prospect of Assad's removal in the near term, the US shifted its priorities to targeting the Islamic State after the terror group seized areas in northern Iraq last summer.
"Those folks could kill Americans," President Barack Obama remarked of the Islamic State and other radicals on 60 Minutes last September. "And so… there's a more immediate concern that has to be dealt with."
US officials have said they are still keen for Assad to leave, however, and have made it clear that Syria could not be part of the military alliance dedicated to wiping out the extremist group.
"Assad presents this conflict as a choice between his regime and terrorist groups like ISIL," a State Department official told VICE News last December, referring to an alternative name for the Islamic State. "This is a false choice."
Assad denied to the BBC that he wished to join the coalition.
"Definitely we cannot, and we don't have the will and we don't want, for one simple reason: because we cannot be [in] alliance with the country who support the terrorism," he said, referring to the many members of the coalition who back Syrian rebel groups.
Syrian government forces have launched airstrikes on Islamic State targets as well as rebels. But Assad denied that his military was dropping so-called barrel bombs — crude metal containers filled with explosives and shrapnel — on areas held by the opposition.
"I know about the army, they use bullets, missiles, and bombs. I haven't heard of the army using barrels, or maybe, cooking pots," he said with a laugh.
The use of the indiscriminate weapons in populated areas has been widely reported on and documented, as well as condemned by rights groups. Barrel bombs are dropped form the air, and rebel outfits aren't believed to have helicopters at their disposal, like Assad's forces.
Assad also denied claims that his forces had used chemical weapons in an August 2013 attack on two Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds. A subsequent Human Rights Watch report concluded that evidence "strongly suggests" that Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack, which was apparently conduced with "a weapons-grade nerve agent" likely to be sarin gas.
The Syrian government is also accused of continuing to use chlorine as a chemical weapon, but Assad insisted that his military was not using the gas. A mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in September that it found "compelling confirmation" that a toxic chemical likely to be pure or mixed chlorine had been repeatedly used as a weapon in attacks on northern villages in 2014.
American officials told the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in December that they believe Assad's regime has regularly deployed chlorine gas in barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas.
"There is compelling evidence that Syria continues to use chemical weapons systematically and repeatedly," US Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller told members of the OPCW meeting at The Hague.
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