Syrian extremists HTS deny reports they met UK intelligence
The leader of the hardline Islamist group Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) which dominates rebel-held areas of Syria’s Idlib province, has denied reports in Russian media that its leader met with British intelligence officials.
State-owned Russian news agency TASS reported on Monday that HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani met with a representative of the British intelligence agency MI6 at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey.
During the alleged meetings, the two parties "discussed efforts aimed at rebranding the Al-Nusra group".
Al-Nusra Front was the name HTS used prior to 2017, before the militants formally broke ties with Al-Qaeda.
On Tuesday, HTS said in a statement that the Russian report - which quoted an unnamed "diplomatic source in Moscow" - was false.
"Everything alleged by this agency which belongs to the Russian occupier about a meeting between the leadership of Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham with British intelligence is a false claim with no basis, targeting the Syrian revolution and the liberated areas," Taqieddin Al-Omar, HTS' media officer said in the statement.
TASS claimed that the unnamed diplomatic source said that "the British side suggested that the Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham group should announce plans to abandon subversive activities against Western countries and build close cooperation with them".
According to TASS, the source added that British intelligence recommended to Jolani that he give an interview to an American journalist "in order to create a positive image for the alliance that he heads".
Jolani was interviewed by US journalist Martin Smith in February 2021.
TASS claimed that the British MI6 officer who met with Jolani and included an image of the alleged agent, who is not known to have worked for the intelligence agency.
The Russian news agency also quoted its source as saying that "Western intelligence agencies are seeking to directly establish contact with international terrorist groups active in Syria".
The Syrian uprising began in 2011 with peaceful pro-democracy protests that were brutally suppressed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. After the uprising turned into a military conflict, jihadist and Islamist groups including HTS took a prominent role in the armed opposition.
HTS was previously affiliated with Al-Qaeda but severed all links in 2017 and has since then has attempted to rebrand itself as a more "moderate" organisation. The US, UK, and Turkey still designate it as a terrorist group.
Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015 in support of President Assad. It has set up several military bases in Syria and carried out indiscriminate airstrikes on opposition-held areas, deliberately targeting hospitals according to human rights groups.