Russia under President Vladimir Putin is determining the Middle East’s future in partnership and solidarity with the United States, which cannot be the sole player in this vital part of the world. This was irrefutably proven in Syria, especially after Russia imposed a settlement agreement to prevent US air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, thus saving Washington from its own trap.
So the dialogue with Russian Ambassador Alexander Zasypkin is of paramount importance at this stage in the region.
It is hard to extract a direct position from an experienced diplomat like Zasypkin. In a discussion with As-Safir, Zasypkin took positions that suggest that Russia, like a skilled chess player, is firm and determined toward Syria.
Commenting on the visit to Moscow by the head of Saudi Intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and his meeting with Putin, Zasypkin said: “What I am about to say is an analysis. I have no detailed information about the meeting. In the last period, President Putin contacted several heads of state as a prelude to overcoming the obstacles facing the Geneva II conference. This work is continuous, and the Saudi role is very important. So we wanted to talk with the Saudis on this subject, at least so that Saudi Arabia doesn’t take a negative stance toward the conference, but to be supportive. ... There is a lot in common with Saudi Arabia as well as some differences, which may exist with the Western parties, too. Russia wants a political settlement in Syria. The Saudis say that, too. The majority of the parties want it except for al-Qaeda and some terrorist gangs. The rest of the parties also want a political settlement, but depending on its objectives.”
In response to questions by As-Safir, Zasypkin explained the military relationship with Saudi Arabia. He said: “Military cooperation has been under consideration for a long time, but progress has been very slow. With regard to Russia, the political decision for collaboration was there. The question for the future is whether cooperation will develop into tangible contracts or will remain within the framework of agreements on principle. In any case, this is not related to the Syrian conflict.”
Zasypkin refuses to go into the details about Syria’s future or to give specific details about the nature of the next regime and the transitional phase. He said, “Russia envisions a mixed solution that combines the current regime and the opposition. But the handover of power from the regime to the opposition is absolutely out of the question. At the same time, the regime cannot remain as is. As to how the agreement will happen, that’s up to the Geneva conference, which will discuss the details that cannot be determined now. ... Any attempt to get us to talk more about this subject will harm the Syrian settlement. We want Geneva II to be held and for it to be attended by all parties of the opposition and the regime. Thus, we are very cautious in dealing with the parties so as none of them is provoked. We hope that the Geneva II statement are a common denominator for all Syrian parties involved.”
Zasypkin pointed out that Russia “doesn’t mind if the political negotiations about a settlement take place without a time limit, on condition that the end is not known. But at the same time [Russia] calls for the cycle of violence to stop, in accordance with the Geneva I declaration.”
Regarding Iran, Zasypkin described Russian-Iranian relations as “strong and not subject to any shocks or bargains.”
He said that Moscow “calls for Iran’s participation in Geneva II because its participation is very useful, given that [Iran] is influential on the situation in Syria.”
Zasypkin recalls what he called the “qualitative agreement in Geneva I,” saying, “What that agreement said about the political transitional phase is very significant. It seems to even exceed the wishes of the regime on the one hand and the opposition on the other. The regime wants to make reforms, but it wants the dialogue about [the reforms] to happen under its leadership and according to its plan. Meanwhile, the opposition wants the opposite as well as to change the regime. But in Geneva I, we agreed to a transitional phase that emanates from an understanding by external parties to assist the internal parties to achieve real and substantial reforms, not superficial ones. And that does not mean the overthrow of the regime and the handing over of power to the opposition. This is a qualitative matter achieved at Geneva I. But Geneva II will discuss the details.”
Extremists are a threat to Lebanon
Regarding Lebanon’s dissociation policy, the Russian ambassador said, “In the current circumstances, when it is difficult to isolate Lebanon from what is happening in Syria, why should we ask Hezbollah to get out of Syria while we have been demanding for two years that other armed groups in northern Lebanon to not interfere in the ongoing war in Syria and no one responded to us?”
He explained that Moscow “supported the dissociation policy since the beginning of the Syrian conflict while in the north Lebanese parties got involved in the war and the Lebanese authorities, at the time, were doing what they could to prevent Lebanon from getting involved in Syria. Russia supported a consensus at the UN Security Council about this policy through its support for the Baabda Declaration. The same thing happened with the meetings of the ambassadors of the five permanent UN Security Council members in Lebanon, who saw the need to strengthen the stability of Lebanon by all parties who agree not to destabilize security, and they agreed that if anything happens, it will be the making of an unknown party. After that, Hezbollah got involved in Syria. And we clung to the dissociation policy so as not to escalate the situation in Lebanon to isolate [Lebanon] for what is happening in Syria. ... We continue to demand the application of the Baabda Declaration, as is, and on all parties. But we must do what we can to maintain the Lebanon’s stability. There is a real war going on in Syria. But in Lebanon we want stability.”
In response to questions, Zasypkin warned of “the arrival of extremists to power in Syria. That would be most dangerous to Lebanon. So when we talk about stopping the war in Syria, we are thinking about Lebanon, because if the extremists establish an authority in any spot in Syria that will be followed by an expansion of this entity in all directions, for the extremists’ policy is to expand.”
Zasypkin confirmed that the “international decision to support Lebanon’s stability is still in effect. The international consensus about the stability of Lebanon is solid, as no power would like to see strife or an escalation of the situation in Lebanon. We realize that you had terrorist incidents in some areas. We cannot explain them. But we proceed from the principle that the Lebanese authorities, with the help of the international community, can contain the problems.” Zasypkin warned, “In the event of continued escalation of the situation in Syria, the effect will be negative on Lebanon, and it will be difficult to contain the problems. But the international consensus for Lebanon’s stability will continue.”
Zasypkin said harsh words against terrorism and its sponsors: “We are fighting terrorism everywhere, and we are fighting whoever strengthens the terrorists. One cannot help terrorists and then talk to us, because we will consider him an enemy regardless of his nationality or post.”
Regarding the formation of a government and the internal Lebanese polarization, he said, “Russia doesn’t interfere in the internal affairs of states nor does it stand with one party or another. In Lebanon, [Russia] stands at an equal distance between the forces of March 8 and March 14. It is important to form a government. We have no preference regarding the options proposed by the Lebanese, and I hear some colleagues in Western countries say the same thing. I don’t see anyone insisting on certain scenarios.”
Russia is not calling for an alliance of minorities but a return to normal relations between the communities, especially in Syria. He said, “Terrorism is primarily responsible for triggering the strife, and whoever funds [terrorism] is the second one responsible. And whoever incites [terrorism] is the third one responsible. But whoever commits the crime is the first one responsible.”
Regarding the summit two weeks ago that brought together Pope Francis and Putin at the Vatican, Zasypkin said, “There’s coordination between the Catholics and the Orthodox when the subject of the Christians in the region is brought up. We have repeatedly heard that some representatives in Western circles are encouraging a Christian exodus from the region on humanitarian grounds and because of the violence against the Christians. Russia is one of the staunch defenders of the survival of the Christians in this region. The survival of the Christians is a matter of principle.”
Russian companies are interested in Lebanon’s oil and gas. Last week, Yuri Chavranic, the head of the Union of Oil & Gas Producers of Russia (a private organization), made a fact-finding visit to Lebanon in this regard.