The events in Syria have allowed Russia to impose itself as a key international player in the Middle East. The US and other UN Security Council members are aware that any political settlement on the Syrian crisis must be approved by Moscow.
Russia is diplomatically active in Beirut through veteran Russian ambassador Alexander Zasypkin. Zasypkin seems to be comfortable with the position his country has taken, which supports the Syrian people while rejecting any discussion over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. This is a difficult balance to maintain. Only the Russians, with their cunning and their experience in the region, can pull it off. Listening to Zasypkin, one would conclude that the Syrian ordeal will last much longer. Each country has its own interpretation of what exactly Syria’s “transitional phase” — as detailed by the Geneva Conference declaration — really entails. The main disagreement revolves around Assad’s departure.
Moscow had wanted Lebanon to participate in the Geneva Conference since the country is a “hot area” in the region. But Moscow stopped insisting on Lebanon’s participation for reasons that the Russian ambassador did not delve into. It seems that it was Lebanon that preferred to “disassociate itself.”
Zasypkin stressed that most of Lebanon’s issues can be resolved through dialogue and called on the country to control its borders with Syria in terms of arms smuggling and the movement of combatants. He told As-Safir, “When we, as an outside party, support security and stability in Lebanon, we at the same time support all political actions that lead to the achievement of these goals. Among these political actions is the ongoing national dialogue, which is being led by President Michel Suleiman and includes the main political factions.” He said that “most of Lebanon’s internal problems” can be solved through that dialogue.
The following is the full text of the interview with Zasypkin before he left for Moscow to consult with the Russian leadership over the situation in Lebanon, Syria and the rest of the region.
As-Safir: What is your assessment of the Geneva Conference?
Zasypkin: That meeting was a step in the right direction. The participants were able to agree on some basic matters around how to support the Annan Plan, which is conducive to a political settlement in Syria. But it is more important to maintain the efforts to implement what was agreed upon, primarily stopping the violence and starting the national dialogue.
As-Safir: What mechanisms will be adopted for the transitional phase?
Zasypkin: We have been talking about the transitional phase for some time. The problem is that each foreign party defines the transitional phase differently. And there are those who have set preconditions, such as the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. But Russia insists that no conditions should be set at this point and we want the Syrians themselves to decide the meaning [of the transitional phase].
As-Safir: How does Russia view the transitional phase?
Zasypkin: There are certain principles that we want to see. Among them is for the regime and the opposition to agree on negotiators, in accordance with the agreements on the dialogue’s details, made by Kofi Annan. As an international party, we believe that international standards, such as democracy and freedom, must be set with regard to Syria in order to achieve free and fair elections.
As-Safir: The biggest disagreement between the West and Russia is over whether President Assad remains in power or steps down.
Zasypkin: That issue is the main dispute between the parties. There is also a disagreement over how the internal conflict is depicted. We are against foreign intervention in Syria, in any form.
As-Safir: Will the Geneva Conference affect the Annan plan negatively or positively?
Zasypkin: We consider the Conference to be a catalyst for implementing the Annan plan. We are pragmatically dealing with the reality of the situation. We do not want to speculate about the future, nor do we want to expect that the situation will escalate.
As-Safir: Do you think that the Geneva Conference successfully achieved its goal?
Zasypkin: I consider the conference to be an episode in the struggle to achieve a political solution to the Syrian crisis. We must now work hard to apply what was agreed upon, i.e., stopping the violence in cooperation with the international observation mission and promoting a dialogue between the government and the opposition in coordination with Annan. This will be the main focus in the next phase. And we will determine the next steps after we see tangible results.
As-Safir: But the level of violence from both sides and the number of victims is increasing.
Zasypkin: This is unfortunate. There are objective reasons that make it difficult to apply what was agreed upon. We have the opportunity to work with the regime and convince it to take the appropriate steps. At the same time, there are various armed groups that are not under a unified leadership, and controlling them is difficult. Therefore, we wish that the opposition is unified so that it can be ready to enter a dialogue with the authorities. The cessation of violence in every city and town must be achieved in coordination with the United Nations mission. This requires intensive efforts by the mission and other parties. We call on all outside parties to pressure the parties inside Syria with which they have contacts.
As-Safir: [But] the Syrian opposition refuses to participate in the transitional government.
Zasypkin: There must be a broader representation of the opposition. Influential parties must pressure the opposition groups to make them ready for dialogue, which was one of the international conference’s objectives.
As-Safir: Are you still coordinating your efforts with the Arab League?
Zasypkin: We are coordinating with everyone who participated in the international conference. And we had wanted to include more participants, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan. According to Russia’s logic, all of the concerned parties should participate [in the dialogue regarding Syria].
As-Safir: Is it true that Russia linked Saudi Arabia’s absence with Iran’s absence?
Zasypkin: It is true that Russia wanted both Iran and Saudi Arabia to attend. As far as we were concerned, we wanted more countries to participate. But some of our partners said that they did not want Iran [to be present].
As-Safir: Is it true that Lebanon asked that it not be invited to the meeting?
Zasypkin: I do not have accurate information on that subject. Following Moscow’s instructions in the early days of the Russian initiative, I discussed this matter with Lebanese foreign minister Adnan Mansour because Russia wanted Lebanon to attend. In any case, the Lebanese leadership knows better than us what benefits and what harms Lebanon. So we are not against any [Lebanese] decision based on their considerations.
As-Safir: Why did you want Lebanon to participate [in the Conference]?
Zasypkin: Because Lebanon neighbors Syria and [those two countries] influence each other. It would have been possible to hold a constructive dialogue during the conference. At the same time, we respect Lebanon’s specific situation and Lebanese foreign policy.
As-Safir: Do you believe that either the Arab league-sponsored meeting in Cairo — which involved 200 Syrian opposition leaders — or the Friends of Syria gathering in Paris on Friday [June 26] undermine the Geneva Conference?
Zasypkin: We hope that this is not the case. We consider it important that the opposition unites so that it becomes ready to hold a dialogue with the authorities. With regard to the Friends of Syria group, we think that its meetings are not useful because these meetings are just a show of solidarity and support for one side, or rather one faction within the Syrian opposition. This approach is unbalanced and it will not contribute toward a political settlement.
As-Safir: After the meeting between the US and Russian presidents, Russia suggested that the US did not raise the issue of President Assad’s resignation. However, the US said the opposite. What is your explanation for this contradiction?
Zasypkin: With regard to the meeting between Putin and Obama, it was positive. President Putin pointed out the areas where the US and Russia agree, which are related to the necessity of a peaceful settlement and for the decisions to be made by the Syrian people. With regard to the issue of President [al-Assad] stepping down, that statement was made by one side, i.e., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it does not agree with the meeting’s statement.
As-Safir: Will Russia stop arming the regime?
Zasypkin: It is known that Russia has had relations with the Syrian state for decades and that there are exports, but only for air defense systems. Much more dangerous is arming the [opposition] groups with modern and diverse weapons, and we think that this hinders peace efforts. External parties should stop funding and arming the opposition and rather focus on facilitating a dialogue [between the regime and the opposition].
As-Safir: What is Russia asking from the Syrian regime?
Zasypkin: We wish that the Syrian regime implements everything in the Annan plan and the statement from the Geneva Conference. We are aware that during the previous phase the regime made errors and was slow to apply reforms, and the same goes for the Annan Plan. We will continue to work with the regime toward the full implementation of the Annan plan in terms of withdrawing the military forces, releasing the detainees and its other measures. We insist that the armed [opposition] groups implement their side of the deal at the same time as the regime, because the success of the Annan plan is guaranteed if it is implemented simultaneously and with balance.
As-Safir: If there is a military escalation in Syria, is there a risk of it spreading to neighboring countries? If this happens, what can Lebanon do to protect itself?
Zasypkin: The fear of the Syrian conflict spreading throughout the region has been present for some time. We have made repeated statements on the matter, especially with regard to Lebanon. We are fully committed to Lebanon’s sovereignty, unity and independence. We also maintain our commitments to not interfering in Lebanese affairs and putting an end to any violations. We call for concrete action to control the smuggling of arms and the movement of combatants, and we support the actions of the Lebanese leadership and the Lebanese army in this regard.
As-Safir: Have you detected any arms smuggling from Lebanon?
Zasypkin: This is a chronic and ongoing problem and we appreciate the actions taken by the Lebanese leadership to put an end to this.
As-Safir: Why has the Lebanese prime minister’s visit to Moscow been delayed?
Zasypkin: The subject of that visit is not urgent. It was a previously scheduled visit and it is not linked with current events, so its rescheduled time will be agreed upon between the parties. The agendas of Russia’s leadership and the Lebanese prime minister will be taken into consideration. So with regard to the [visit], it is neither being delayed nor is it an emergency.
As-Safir: How do you assess President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the region, especially as some considered it as only “touristic” in nature?
Zasypkin: The main objective for President Putin’s visit to the region was to emphasize the importance of a comprehensive settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict. And this is evidence of Russia’s interest in this basic and fundamental issue. In light of the developments in the Middle East, nobody should forget the Palestinian issue and the need to continue efforts for the resumption of negotiations and to move toward a just and durable peace. Such a peace would make all other issues in region easier to solve.
As-Safir: Some US research centers say that Russia should work on restoring its image because it appears to sponsor a specific regional axis.
Zasypkin: Russia does not belong to any alliances or axes. There are high priorities for Russia regarding the nature of international relations. We have a responsible role in the international community and we want equality among all and pluralism in the world. We do not want a single pole. On that basis, we are protecting the interests of Russia and all others in accordance with the principles of international law. We do not have any higher or more important considerations.
As-Safir: Does Russia consider a change in the Lebanese government right now, as demanded by the March 14 movement, to be a good thing?
Zasypkin: I repeat that all matters related to a change in government is an internal matter. At the same time, we support the current government’s policy of “disassociation [from the Syrian crisis]” because it reflects Lebanon’s unique position in the region and [it is consistent with] Russia’s opposition to the Syrian crisis spilling over into Lebanon.