Syrian foreign minister: 'Fighting IS not our prime concern'
The Islamic State group [IS] is not the "prime concern" of the Syrian regime Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has reportedly admitted, saying that rebel groups - who are also fighting the jihadis - pose more of a threat to Damascus' rule.
Muallem made the remarks during a meeting in Baghdad this week with Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss securing their common border, large parts of which are controlled by IS.
A senior Iraqi member of parliament in the ruling National Iraqi Alliance - also known as Watany List - told The New Arab said that the minister admitted IS is more concerned with Gulf-backed rebel groups.
Syria's main Iraqi border crossings of al-Qaim in the south and Rabia to the north remain under IS control, while Tanf - close to the frontier - is in rebel hands.
"Muallem said that the current priority of the Syrian government was not Daesh [IS], especially in Deir az-Zour and Raqqa, and that greater threat where the rebel groups backed by Arab and foreign countries," the MP said.
The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Iraqi side discussed coordination on a future offensive to recapture IS-held towns along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Achieving this could stem the flow of militants between the two countries, military officials believe.
Muallem argued that this was a "tricky issue" and that the US-led coalition was in charge of "weakening IS" in border areas.
"We have battles more important than the battle with IS," the source quoted the foreign minister as saying.
This week, opposition fighters seized several areas in a rapid advance against government forces in the central Syrian province of Hama, prompting a wave of regime air raids.
Researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Marwan Kabalan, told The New Arab that the regime has long prioritised targeting rebel groups over IS.
"Their goal is to get rid the armed opposition that the world could accept as a partner in a future political settlement agreement to end the war. IS could never fit that role and therefore is not their main interest," Kabalan said.
"The regime uses IS' presence on the ground to justify it remaining in power. If IS were defeated it would mean having to come to a political solution with the rebels."
IS seized large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014. However, the militant group has suffered a string of military setbacks over the past year and lost more than half of the territory it controlled two years ago, in a trend that looks irreversible.