Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that setting a date for the Geneva II conference will not be possible until the nature of the Syrian opposition parties' participation becomes clear. He said that his country has no reservations about the participation of any Syrian opposition party, except for the "terrorists." In an interview with Al-Hayat, he stressed the importance of quickly transferring the conflict to the political sphere, saying that the world has "lost a year since the Geneva Accord."
The Russian official defended his country's right to implement arms contracts signed with the "legitimate government" of Syria, and said he was surprised by the uproar surrounding these deals, since the US sends similar missiles to Turkey and Jordan.
He said that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah informed him that the decision to intervene in Syria was made after fighters reached Damascus and were almost celebrating victory.
The following is the text of the interview:
Al-Hayat: The G-8 meeting released a general statement about a political solution, while the mechanisms for holding Geneva II are still vague. Do you have a clear vision for the mechanisms by which this meeting will be held?
Bogdanov: There is a clear understanding and consensus with our partners. We have agreements with the US and other parties, and work is underway to implement them. We will have a second meeting on June 25 to continue preparations for organizing the conference. In our opinion, the main problem that is impeding progress toward holding the conference is the opposition. This includes the position of opposition groups regarding participation in principle, as well as the form of participation.
The Geneva Document stipulates that both the government and the opposition would send representatives to the conference. This was reiterated during a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his American counterpart, John Kerry, in Moscow on May 7.
We have spoken of the need for the participation of all parties that have weight and influence on the ground. We cannot exclude any of them. Some have more impact than others, but all are invited to attend.
Al-Hayat: Including the armed opposition?
Bogdanov: We have said to all our partners: All parties that have real influence and whose presence would help in reaching a consensual agreement should participate in the conference. Now, direct contacts are being made, the Americans are doing this in Istanbul and in other cities. Contacts are also being made in Cairo. Yet we have not received information from our American partners about whether the opposition is prepared to attend the conference or send a delegation. We have no preconditions on this matter or reservations about any party.
We have contacts with practically all opposition parties. We had meetings with the Kurds, who had asked to be represented, as well as the domestic opposition: Hassan Abdel Azim, Raja Nassar, Qadri Jamil and Ali Haidar. Some of them participate in the government, but they continue to confirm opposition positions and wish to participate. How will this participation take place? This is a question that has yet to be answered, [but it will be] through either a unified delegation or several delegations.
We understand the logic of some parties, which call for the opposition to be represented by a unified delegation, yet we stress that the composition of this delegation must be acceptable to all parties of the opposition. It would be preferable for there to be two delegations at the conference — one for the government and one for the opposition — but if this is not possible we must ensure that everyone participates. Whoever is not given a chance to participate will consider that to a lessening of their role, and an attempt to deliberately isolate them. They would not want to be responsible for the results of the conference, and would not make an effort to implement them.
The issue of the opposition’s participation is the fundamental problem, and it remains vague for us. It is upon this issue that the start of the conference and its success depend. In accordance with the Geneva Document, the conference is aimed at launching a dialogue between Syrian parties. The results will lead to a transitional phase and an agreement on security and humanitarian issues, among other topics.
Al-Hayat: You announced that Damascus had informed Moscow of its willingness to participate. Are you convinced that President Bashar al-Assad will send a delegation to discuss the issue of him leaving office?
Bogdanov: The leadership in Damascus announced — not only to us, but on several occasions, the most recent of which was Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem's statement in Baghdad — that Damascus doesn't have any preconditions and is ready to send a delegation to Geneva. We believe that the open conference will be held at the level of foreign ministers, which means that Moallem can lead the delegation. We haven't heard any objection from the Syrian government, and we have received assurances in this regard.
It's important to remember that this is not a conference without an agenda. The conference has specific goals, and we've discussed this with the Americans and other parties, in particular the UN and Arab and international joint envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. We agreed that invitations to the conference would be signed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and these invitations would clearly state the goal of the conference.
The goal of the conference, as agreed upon by Lavrov and Kerry, is the full application of last year’s Geneva Document, which clearly stipulates the establishment of a transitional leadership body that must have full executive power. It is from here that we should go forward. This means that each participating party, whether from the government or other parties, will receive the invitation, agree to the goals, and go to Geneva on this basis. This means that all participants will have agreed on the goals of this conference, and will work in Geneva on this basis.
Al-Hayat: Kerry announced after a meeting with Lavrov that the transitional body will have full powers, but the Syrian government does not agree with that?
Bogdanov: I have told everyone that they should not say anything at this point. The task ahead of us is ensuring the success of the conference, and reaching a consensual agreement through dialogue. The term “consensual solution” is contained in all the texts, the Geneva Document and the Russian-American agreement.
Al-Hayat: And is the fate of Assad still the primary obstacle?
Bogdanov: We always say that the fate of the country and the fate of its leader should be in the hands of the Syrian people. Thus, anyone who has ideas or suggestions should go and discuss them at the conference. This issue is not up to the Russians or the Americans; it must be resolved through dialogue among Syrians.
Al-Hayat: Can you talk about an approximate date for the conference?
Bogdanov: When we spoke with Kerry, there was talk of holding the conference at the end of May. We are now approaching the end of June and we are still unable to set a date. The primary problem is how do we determine the participants, particularly those of the opposition. When we attended the coordination meeting on June 5, Robert Ford, the individual responsible for contacts with the opposition parties, was present and told us: “I cannot give you any positive results.”
The Istanbul meetings were held to expand the Syrian National Coalition, and there is no evidence that they were able to reach a comprehensive understanding about the conference. Then they said they would hold additional meetings on June 12 and then June 17. Now the Turks are saying that the meetings have been postponed until July. This means that at our next meeting we will once again not be able to set a date for the conference because the main issue is not yet clear.
Al-Hayat: You talk of a political solution, but the regime continues its war on the ground?
Bogdanov: We support a ceasefire, and we aren't just saying this today. We have supported a ceasefire for a year. When talk of a political solution began a year ago, the situation on the ground was different and the armed opposition was approaching Damascus. When we said, “Let's start a political process,” the parties didn't listen to us. Why now, after regime forces have achieved certain successes, are they saying “no”? Now the situation is worse for them, so why did they not agree to launch a political process a year ago, when their situation on the ground was better?
Al-Hayat: But you are accused of not exerting pressure on the regime, which is using heavy weaponry and military aircraft in the fighting.
Bogdanov: We have exerted, and are exerting, pressure on the Syrian leadership. Something else: The current situation, the armed groups — which include terrorists — and the media war, all of these things explain how we have reached this bloody situation, which is causing the death of the country and its people. Thus, we insist on a political process, and from the beginning we have suggested this. Only a few people heard our calls. We have lost an entire year since the Geneva Accord. We must accelerate the transfer of the conflict to the political track, because the situation is getting worse. President Obama — in his second term — and Kerry are both interested in working on this issue, and we are all interested in transferring this conflict to the political track.
Al-Hayat: Do you have a specific perception of the conference’s work?
Bogdanov: We have an agreement with the Americans and the UN regarding the mechanisms for the conference and its form. We see the situation as follows: The conference should last for several days and begin with a general session attended by foreign ministers. Sixteen delegations will participate, perhaps a few more. Most important are the Syrian delegations, which will number two or more. After the opening sessions, the participants from Syrian parties will begin their work.
Once an agreement is reached between them, all attending delegations will meet in another session to ratify the agreement reached by the Syrians. Thus, at that time, the international community will not only support the agreement, but they will also be prepared to provide all forms of support to aid in the agreement’s implementation.
This includes guaranteeing a ceasefire, normalizing the situation and the formation of a transitional body. It also includes the international community's commitment to humanitarian and economic aid, and support for reconstruction. Furthermore, the resolutions reached at the conference can be transformed into a resolution at the UN Security Council, so that they have serious international legal force.
Al-Hayat: Moscow announced its insistence on implementing arms contracts signed year ago. Why does Russia insist on sending weapons to Syria?
Bogdanov: These are all old contracts that comply with international laws. We will not break any treaties or agreements. All of them were signed in a legal manner with a legitimate government; we don't see what the issue is here. Regarding talk of S-300 and other missiles, all of these weapons are related to defense systems and have nothing to do with the internal conflict. While these contracts may not please any foreign players, we stress that the S-300 contract has yet to be implemented.
At the same time, on Turkish territory, a similar Patriot missile system has been deployed. Now the Americans are saying that they will deploy the Patriot system in Jordan as well, and we have data on this. How can we understand this? They are criticizing us regarding a contract that has yet to be implemented, while their missiles are actively being deployed. These missiles are now on the ground.
Al-Hayat: Has Russia started to send missiles to Syria?
Bogdanov: This is a political decision that can only be issued by the supreme command.
Al-Hayat: You criticize the West's decision to lift the ban on arming the opposition, yet here you are continuing to supply weapons to the regime. Why have you not agreed on a Security Council resolution to ban sending weapons to all Syrian parties?
Bogdanov: We had a bad experience in this regard. I will remind you of a historical example. What happened in Libya? The UN Security Council adopted a resolution to ban armament. On this basis, Russia decided to stop all kinds of military cooperation with Libya. We withdrew all military experts and stopped all military exports.
At the same time, our French and Arab partners publicly spoke about continuing to supply weapons to the opposition in Benghazi. They parachuted in weapons and then sent experts. Thus, they disrespected common agreements and decisions.
Now, regarding the situation in Syria, we have declared that we are ready to stop all kinds of armament to all parties — this was an issue that President Vladimir Putin discussed with French President Francois Hollande. The question, however, is how can we monitor the implementation of such an agreement? With regard to the Syrian government, this is easy. But how will we monitor the performance and activity of opposition parties and groups?
The border cannot be controlled; we know that weapons and zealous militants are being smuggled through the border with Turkey and other countries. The West hasn't said anything to us about this issue, and during our meetings we raised the following question: Explain to us how we can implement this ban in practice? We never received a response from them.
Al-Hayat: What about the Tartous naval base in Syria? Do you have soldiers there?
Bogdanov: I lived in Syria for ten years and visited this location many times when we had an actual military presence there. Currently, there is no one in Syria from the Russian Defense Ministry. We never, at any time, had a real military base in Tartous. This is a maintenance center for ships that pass through the Mediterranean, a technical center. There is not even a deep dock that allows ships to approach, refuel or undergo repairs. This center has no military or strategic significance. It never did and it doesn't now.
Al-Hayat: US-Russian relations have been severely damaged because of your position on Syria. How do you view this issue?
Bogdanov: We believe that public opinion in the Arab world is being impacted in an active way, and the Russian position is being distorted. From the outset we called for a political solution on the basis of a compromise, and we are against foreign intervention in any form. We are against repeating what happened in Iraq and Libya. This is not because we support Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi, but because international law and the UN Charter must be respected. If we abandon the legal course, the strongest will have the final say. They bombed, destroyed and made a big mess, then said: “Look, we've rescued the Iraqi and Libyan people from dictatorship.” Then what? The current reality is clear to us.
Al-Hayat: Why have you not organized a mass evacuation for your citizens in Syria?
Bogdanov: All of our citizens who want to leave Syria are given total support. We have about 30,000 citizens in Syria, but many of them are not registered with the Russian consulates. They are primarily women and children scattered throughout all regions, some of which are under the control of the opposition and others the government. But all Russian companies have left Syria.
Al-Hayat: You have spoken multiple times about the need for Iran to participate in the conference.
Bogdanov: We believe there is a need to develop relations with Iran. They must be involved in all regional issues. Iran should not be isolated. Saying “you're part of the problem, but you're not part of the solution” isn't the proper way to handle things. If someone is part of the problem we have to talk with them. Does Iran agree with the conference's goals? That will become clearer if they accept the invitation. But to determine this, they must first be invited. If they are invited and agree to attend, then they must work on this basis. They must cooperate with all parties to reach a consensual political solution.
Al-Hayat: Speaking of Iran, why did you not condemn Iran, as well as Hezbollah's intervention in Syria? You met with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon shortly before the party officially announced their involvement in Syria. Was the purpose of this meeting to inform you of their involvement before it was officially announced?
Bogdanov: We are against interference from any party. We have repeatedly announced this position. I met with Nasrallah upon his invitation. He told me that he did not have any desire to interfere in Syria. He told me that the Syrian crisis began two years ago, and Hezbollah's interference came just now. I won't defend Hezbollah, but I'll tell you what Nasrallah said to me during the meeting.
He said that they decided to intervene when the armed opposition reached Damascus, and that there were thousands of well-armed militants, including foreign fighters and jihadists. He said that the party studied their position, and decided to intervene to help their friends and allies when they realized that there was a serious threat that Damascus would fall.
I told him that the Lebanese President came to Moscow at the beginning of the year and spoke about the Baabda Declaration and Lebanon's self-distancing policy. I said this is not the President's decision, but rather the decision of all Lebanese parties. Nasrallah said that the party had abided by the agreement, but when they saw events on the ground and that militants were coming from Lebanon, they realized that the declaration was one thing and the reality on the ground was another. Jihadist fighters could quickly be celebrating victory in Damascus, thus, Nasrallah said that the intervention of his fighters was necessary.
Al-Hayat: You met with almost all parties in Lebanon and you sensed the tension of the situation.
Bogdanov: We met with everyone, including Hezbollah. The party has a popular base and this cannot be ignored; they also have a strong representation in parliament.
Of course, we realize the impact that the situation in Syria is having on Lebanon and all regional countries, so we call for a speedy transition to a political solution. We call for reaching a solution based on reconciliation.
Based on my experience in Lebanon, where I worked for ten years during the civil war, in the end, the logic of “no victor nor vanquished” reigns supreme. This is the alternative: If one party triumphs over another, this victory would leave disgruntled parties seeking revenge. Even when I was in Cairo, following the events in 2011, some of my friends told me that the transitional phase had transformed into a phase of reprisals.
This conflict, which has a religious dimension, cannot be confined to a single place. Fighters who go to Syria will return to their home countries and pose a threat, reminding us of the Afghan Arabs. We have information that there are nearly 300 fighters from the Northern Caucasus in Syria. Therefore, we say, and we reiterate, that there is a risk of terrorist activity spreading and we must rush to find a political solution.
Al-Hayat: You asked the UN to allow Russia to participate in the peacekeeping forces in the Golan Heights. Are you continuing your efforts to obtain Security Council approval?
Bogdanov: During a meeting with Ban Ki-moon, President Putin was asked to expand the Russian presence in all peacekeeping operations. Thus, we made our proposal.
The Disengagement Agreement was signed in 1974, and the international circumstances were different at that time. We did not have friendly relations with Israel. Now we have very good relations with our Israeli partners. Our initiative is on the table and we are waiting for a response; Damascus welcomed it. The Israelis prefer that the Austrians, or another party from outside the Security Council, remain. Yet they are concerned that there will be a vacuum.