Syria reveals the West have come to call about 'security operation'

Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad Credit: Reuters

Of course the Foreign Office won’t confirm the visit of British spooks to Damascus for chats with the Assad regime.

But there’s little surprise about the substance or timing of the revelation from Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad that western intelligence officers have come to call to discuss "security co-operation".

A week before peace talks are due to resume in Geneva, it underscores Assad’s narrative that he and the West share a common interest in combating al Qaeda militants that have dominated the armed rebellion, and much of the media coverage, in the north.

One estimate says a few hundred of the foreign jihadists converging on Syria come from Britain. There is clearly a UK interest, especially if radicalised and weapons trained they return home.

But it is also a reminder, if anyone needed it, of the awkward ambiguity of western policy towards Assad and the self-defeating game of diplomatic hokey cokey we’ve played with the rebels.

Left leg in: we say Assad is a butcher of his own people who has to go.

Left leg out: we fail to take military action against him or arm we even the rebels moderate enough to be considered our friends.

With Iran standing shoulder to shoulder with Assad, it hardly a surprise that the Gulf powers, its great regional rival, the Sunni to their Shia, should step in on the side of the armed opposition.

The Syrian crisis was hard enough when it looked black and white. That was always illusory, but now the key domestic players seem to be various shades of awful with western influence waning on all sides.

At Geneva, rather than trying and failing to get regime and rebels to negotiate, time might be better spent persuading Iran and the Gulf States to cease fire in a proxy war neither side can ultimately win.