Mikhail Bogdanov

Special Representative of the President of Russian Federation for the Middle East, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia

National interest

In his interview to RV Mikhail Bogdanov, Special Representative of the President of the RF for the Middle East, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia ponders on the Russian policy in the Middle East and the situation in this region.

Russia has started military operation in Syria. Russian — and not only Russian — political analysts frequently use the term “national interest.” What Russia’s national interest is at stake in Syrian case?

From the very outset of the Syrian crisis we did our best to assist Syrians in settling the crisis peacefully, stopping violence as soon as possible and combating the manifestations of extremism and terrorism in their country.

This conflict brought Syrian people much grief and suffering. It took or shattered the lives of thousands of people. It stole their hopes for better future and decent life. In this situation, terrorists that had grown stronger as if nourished by other people’s pain proclaimed so-called “caliphate.” It was based, however, on the ideology of hatred and intolerance, rather than the noble principles of genuine Islam.

That was unacceptable. Russia heeded to Syrian government’s call for help in countering the spread of terrorism. After all, a hotbed of terrorism that emerged in the Middle East poses a real threat to both, the region itself and all international community. This threat should not be overlooked, especially bearing in mind that Takfiri camps in Syria and Iraq provide training to fighters from many countries, including European ones.

Let me stress that we strictly adhere to the norms and principles of international law and the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations both in our policy and in the practical steps regarding Syria. At the global level, this course pursued by Moscow is aimed at strengthening the world order in which international peace and security and normal relations between states can be maintained. Elimination of terrorist cells and combating manifestations of extremism serves Russia’s long-term interests, including on the Middle Eastern track.

Our Western partners say that we are “bombing the wrong guys.” Why do you think they do not coordinate closer with Moscow?

Our Western partners like to make ringing statements and far-fetched conclusions that sometimes, as it turns out later, are not grounded on any tangible evidence. In fact, everyone remembers the test tube filled with some white stuff demonstrated by a high United States official at the UN Security Council meeting. He accused the regime of President Saddam Hussein of producing weapons of mass destruction. The US was looking those weapons in Iraq for a long time. They turned the whole country into ruins, threw it into chaos, and found nothing. Now they and the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair are publicly acknow­ledging their mistakes.

We should be more cautious about what our Western partners say and double-check it. They say that the Russian aerospace forces are bombing the wrong guys in Syria. And they allege that there is a “moderate” Syrian opposition whose facilities were hit by Russian bombings. Yet what is the criterion for distinguishing between those who are “moderate”and those who are not?

Illegal armed groups in Syria have umbrella or honeycomb structure. Their composition and strength may change as fighters “migrate.” Extremist groups often back those who pay more. Perhaps, our Western partners are better positioned to know, yet we cannot see the difference between a bullet fired by a sniper who is “moderate” and a bullet fired by a one who is not, a landmine placed by a jihadist and one placed by a member of “moderate” opposition.

We are convinced that any attempts to flirt with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not merely short-sighted, but obviously dangerous. They may dramatically increase terrorist threat and make it spread to new geographical areas.

As some of our Western and regional partners fail to collaborate genuinely — not just in word, but in deed — in the waragainst the so-called “Islamic State,” placing artificial and unreasonable barriers to sustainable inter-Syrian political process based on the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012, we cannot help doubting as to their real agenda in Syria.

You have just mentioned the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012. Is it still relevant? What is our Western partners’ vision of it? How the tasks of countering terrorism and political settlement of the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic are related to each other?

In his statement at the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, President of Russia Vladimir Putin invited the international community to join efforts in order to address the new security issues that are facing us and to establish a genuinely inclusive anti-terrorist coalition to counter those who disseminated evil and hatred. In this matter the international players should be guided by common values and common interests based on international law, rather than hard feelings or ambitions.

Terrorism has turned into a sort of “the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse” that is spreading like a cancer growth to more and more parts of the world. We should fight this universal evil together, rather than single-handed. A truly inclusive coalition against terrorists of the so-called “Islamic State” and similar structures should comprise both regional and international participants. We believe that the refusal to cooperate with Syrian authorities and the regular army of the Syrian Arab Republic is a great mistake. No one but Syrian government forces can break the backbone of international terrorist organizations mauling Syria on land.

We can see that many external actors and the majority of Syrian domestic opposition share the opinion that irrespective of the political and social transformation that will happen in Syria, its government institutes, primarily Army, law enforcement agencies, and special services should be preserved. They are essential for preventing the country from collapsing, and for effectively countering terrorist threat.

Therefore we call for establishing clear priorities: joining our efforts and distri­buting the roles in combating terrorism, and simultaneously making real advances in settling the Syrian crisis through political means and inter-Syrian negotiations.

If we join efforts and achieve positive results in establishing viable anti-terrorist coalition, as the Syrian government forces, armed “moderate” opposition the Free Syrian Army, and Kurdish self-defense forces fight side by side against terrorists, mutual trust will be strengthened and favourable environment will be created for political process aimed at reaching consensus solutions.

This would enable a genuinely inclusive Syrian dialogue to elaborate fundamental principles of Syrian government system guaranteeing the rights of all ethnic and confessional groups. The Syrians themselves should reach mutual agreement on the terms and parameters of parliamentary and presidential elections, candidates for the key government positions, as provided for by the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012 endorsed by the UN Security Council resolution 2118.

This document is still relevant and has no alternative. Indeed, it marks a carefully vetted way to resolve the Syrian conflict. Following this document that it adopted by mutual consent, the international community would make the greatest possible contribution to settling the Syrian crisis and restoring peace and security in that country.

With recent notable activation of the Saudi-Russian political dialogue and contacts at various levels, should one expect ambitious joint political initiatives of the two countries?

That is true; Russia and Saudi Arabia maintain close dialogue on the most pressing issues of the regional agenda on a regular basis. Taking in consideration the role played by the Kingdom in the Arab and Muslim world, it would be extremely difficult to ensure lasting peace in the hotspots of the region without involving Saudi Arabia in the international efforts to settle the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Moscow has repeatedly stated that it remains ready and open to working together with Saudi Arabian colleagues on searching mutually acceptable ways to settle the Syrian crisis, stopping violence in Yemen and stabilizing the situation in Iraq, Libya and Palestine. We know that the Saudi Arabia shares this commitment. The Kingdom appreciates our principled and unswerving position on Palestinian-Israeli settlement. We share views on many issues of the way the international relations system should develop. There are definitely prerequisites for joint political work. For one, our unequivocal support of the Arab Peace Initiative put forward by the Saudi leadership in 2002.

In view of the overall terrorist and extremist threat in the MENA region, is it possible that there will be coordination within the Russia-US-Saudi Arabia triangle? After all, the three countries are the most powerful players in the region.

Our recent political contacts at various levels with our US and Saudi partners have demonstrated that both in Washington and Riyadh there are grave concerns about the terrorist threat that has been spreading beyond Middle East. Despite  the fact that there are still certain differences between the parties as to the Syrian settlement, neither our US nor Saudi partners tend to doubt the vital importance of fighting terrorism. The ISIL has become a cross-border, international phenomenon, and no country may ever be sure that it will never become home to radical elements that may associate themselves with this group. Indeed, this is most obviously a sign that it is time for our countries to start a more confidential dialogue on counter-terrorism. There have already been certain contacts in this sphere, and they are paying off. As to the three-party format of cooperation in the counter-terrorism track that you have mentioned, I believe that such coordination is quite possible, providing that all the parties of the said triangle will be genuinely interested in setting this mechanism into motion.

In your recent interview to the Russian View magazine you said that in a civil war there are neither winners nor losers. You said the sooner such conflicts in certain countries are terminated, the better. Otherwise, as the result, the entire civilization may start to degrade and become radicalized, and this process may threaten to engulf the entire region, as has been the case in the Middle East. How do you think the situation will be developing in the Middle East in the nearest future?

If the said processes are not put a stop to in due time, the scenario may be most dramatic. However, the situation in the Middle East has shown signs that the widening of the destructive spiral may soon come to an end. The military forces of Syria and Iraq, as well as the Kurdish militias have managed to curb the spate of international terrorism and launch counterattacks. In particular, the ground operations of the Syrian armed forces have been rather successful in the recent weeks. The Syrian armed forces have been supported by the Russian aerospace forces which, as you well know, launched an operation against ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria on 30 September.

The efforts on Syria and Middle East settlement have also been stepped up, internationally. In particular, four-party consultations over Syria between the foreign ministers of Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were held in Vienna on 23 October. On the same day we called an urgent meeting of the ministry “quartet” of the intermediaries on the Middle East conflict (Russia, the US, the EU and the UN) where we discussed issues related to the de-escalation of tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

However, I’m afraid it would be premature to say that the situation in the Middle East has taken a definite turn for the better. To consolidate the progress that has been achieved so far, we need thorough and earnest cooperation which requires close coordination among all the stakeholders.

The avalanche of migrants from the Middle East is a major issue that has smitten Europe and the world at large. The EU Commission has called it the worst migration crisis since the Second World war. What was it that triggered the migration explosion in September? Notably, there were rumors in the press about the US connection: allegedly, the idea was to force Europe to take a more active stand against Bashar al-Assad.

 The situation that we witnessed in September, when Syrian refugees were flooding Europe, was to a large extent the result of the aggravation of the situation in Syria. From summer 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has vigorously extended its sphere of influence swallowing up smaller armed groups, despite the airstrikes of the US-led coalition. The terrorists felt quite at ease under fire of the Western coalition; indeed, they even tried — at times rather successfully — to create sort of quazi-government agencies that provided economic services to the population, minted their own currency (the golden dinar), established their own laws and ways based on their perverse understanding and interpretation of the a priori humanitarian values of Islam. On the territories under their control the militants have practiced extrajudicial punishments and killings that might have been taken from a horror film. Unfortunately, the reality has been even grimmer — the entire world has seen the videos that feature ISIL slaughterers torturing people, shooting them with machine guns and grenade launchers, burning them alive.

No wonder that common Syrians have to run for their lives. Many of them flee to areas controlled by the government troops, others head towards more fortunate countries (including European states) in an effort to escape from the horrors of the Syrian conflict and get away from the humanitarian disaster.

Substantial aggravation of the situation in Syria and the risk of further escalation of the terrorist organisation’s activities led Russia to launch its air forces operation on 30 September 2015 against the positions of the militants. In addition to the military and technical assistance to the Syrian government, Russia has delivered humanitarian cargoes for the war-hit civilian population of the country.

In relation to the Syrian refugee issue, we will have to deal not only with the consequences, but — more importantly — with the underlying cause. Restoring peace and security to Syria, rebuilding its economy and infrastructure will help defuse the issue and enable many Syrians to make the right strategic decision to return to their home country.

Speaking about peaceful life. It has been decided that the intergovernmental Saudi-Russian commission will resume its activities, and the heads of the two states have agreed on an exchange of visits. Is there any risk that the political component, including the regional one, may overtop the mutual commercial interest? What items of the bilateral agenda do you think are the most important?

Both Moscow and Riyadh believe that the conversation between President Putin and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on the margins of the St Petersburg Economic Forum, and their recent meeting in Sochi on 11 October are important events that mark the beginning of a new stage in the development of Russia-Saudi relations in various spheres. These are primarily such areas as investment, nuclear power, agriculture, oil and gas complex. To our opinion, a vital point is that this time the Saudi side displays an interest in deepening its cooperation with Russia without demanding that we should ‘adjust’ our policy in the Middle East, as it used to do in the most recent years. We expect that the new positive approaches of the Saudi partners will be supported by practical steps. As far as we are concerned, we are prepared to do our own part of the process. 

Natalia Kalashnikova