Russia Special: Lavrov Talks Syria, Geneva II, Arab Spring, & Cold War Politics

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a lengthy interview to the pro-Kremlin Russia Today news channel. In the discussion, Lavrov sets out and elaborates the main parts of Moscow’s strategy ahead of the proposed Geneva II “peace conference”, whether or not it goes ahead.

The Foreign Minister reveals one of Moscow’s key concerns ahead of its attempt to convene the conference in Switzerland on January 22: the US has been trying to communicate with the insurgent bloc Islamic Front.

He then slams American democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East. He says that, apart from certain universally-adopted standards, “democracy” is not in itself a universal concept — so states must therefore be free to adopt their own version of democracy, as has the Russian Federation. The Russian Foreign Minister (none too convincingly) links the presence of foreign fighters in Syria with the US invasion of Iraq and with the multi-state military intervention in Libya in 2011.


There are, of course, large question marks over whether the Geneva II conference will actually go ahead. Even if it does proceed, it will be at best a sideshow and most likely a sham, with no meaningful representation from the Syrian opposition, Assad remaining in power, and the fighting still raging on the ground.

So Lavrov has the challenge of maintaining Moscow’s line that it is the constructive power, trying to bring a resolution despite foreign-backed “terrorists”.

1. The “international terrorists” have taken over the Syrian insurgency.

Saying the main focus of Geneva II should be “fighting international terrorism”, Lavrov has co-opted the language and themes prominent in the Western press who have warned of “Al Qa’eda-linked groups” playing a role in the insurgency. He repeats and further exaggerates the mistaken notion that groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham have “taken over” the armed opposition.

As well as trying to shape public opinion in favor of a scenario in which Assad remains in power, there is a practical side to Lavrov’s tactic — making the conference about “fighting terror” would help sidestep the main issue of the consequences of that continued Assad rule.

2. The armed insurgency does not represent the will of the Syrian people — the “armed groups” carrying out the fighting are able to do so only because of outside interference.

Moscow has said, and Lavrov continues to do so here, that the fighting on the ground in Syria is being waged by factions that either are not Syrian or are local groups armed and motivated by outside provocation.

In this interview, Lavrov goes farther by setting up a parallel between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and support for the insurgency in Syria.

The Syrian people, “moderate” insurgents, and the Syrian Government must unite to fight these outside forces

Lavrov again cleverly co-opts the language of the Western media and some factions in the US Government who contrast the “moderate” opposition (usually a reference to the Free Syrian Army) and “extremist groups”. Doing so, Lavrov is able to lump together groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham with the new force of the Islamic Front, hoping to paint a picture of the IF as an “Al Q;aeda group” and therefore illegitimate.

3. The Syrian people and the Syrian Government should decide their future together

4. The Syrian opposition cannot impose preconditions that Assad must step down

Moscow’s main aim is a short- and medium-term scenario in which its ally, Assad, remains in power, and a long-term scenario that the regime, or at least a significant element of it, retains authority so that Russia’s own role in the region is safeguarded.

By pushing the line — ideally to be a leading agenda item at any Geneva II conference — that Assad is a natural and intrinsic part of any discussion about Syria’s future, Lavrov is attempting to safeguard that aim.


Question: To what extent (in the countries of the Arab Spring) is the balance maintained between democracy and security? What lessons can be learned from the so-called ” Arab Spring Revolution”, and what dangers threaten the region today?

LAVROV: Right now, there are fewer and fewer countries that reject democracy as a way of organizing society and Government. Russia has long since made ​​this choice for itself. It is unambiguous and not subject to revision. But just as we are convinced there is no alternative to the democratic development of the world and of each state, we are sure that every state should consider its traditions, history and values in choosing a particular model of democratic development and institutions. Of course, there are some general criteria that were unanimously approved at the universal level — the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed by all UN members.

But when one group of countries, in addition to what has been universally accepted, attempts to impose their system of very doubtful values, ​​which have arisen in the past two or three decades, as being in the same class as those universal obligations, this leads to conflicts and to some being tempted to impose democracy by force from the outside. And then we are already not talking about democracy, but democratization which becomes in most cases a reason for the destabilization of societies.

Thus it was when the Americans invaded Iraq, and so it was when NATO grossly violated the UN Security Council mandate, bombed Libya, that’s what is going on in many other countries in the region, where there is outside interference.

The Syrian conflict is also an example where a huge number of fighters, from the “terrorist internationale”, from all over the world, including Europe, the USA and the Russian Federation, have rushed to war to create a Caliphate in Syria and throughout the region. Therefore “democratization”, which tries to impose (itself) by force from the outside, undermines stability and leads to new threats. And vice versa —stability, in my opinion, provides the best conditions for reconciliation and for promoting democratic reform processes.

Speaking of Syria, I have no doubt that at the conference, which, apparently, will still go ahead — I very much hope that no one will dispute January 22, 2014, and the opposition will not put forth alternate unacceptable conditions that go against the Russian-American initiative. I am convinced that the conference should put the fight against terrorism at the top of its agenda — this is now the biggest threat to Syria and other countries in the region. Of course, there will be other issues on the agenda, including addressing serious humanitarian problems, the coordination of a framework for the political process, elections, way forward to form transitional structures. But all this must be by common agreement of the Government and the opposition, as was set out in the communiqué of the first Geneva meeting. In this regard, I have high hopes that our Western partners, and partners from the region who have the greatest impact on the opposition will be able to do everything necessary to make sure that opposition at the conference will be in the first place representative, and secondly, that it will come without preconditions.

All the pathos of the Russian- American initiative lies in the fact that Syrians themselves, without outside interference, without preconditions, have agreed on how to implement the principles laid down in the Geneva communique of June 30, 2012. But so far, unfortunately, the fear remains over the eventual position of the opponents of the regime, who are now united in the “National Coalition”. It is alarming that the coalition is showing signs of lack of complete unity and that it still says that the only outcome of the conference, if not its precondition, must be regime change. But no one has ever agreed to this. It is alarming also that the coalition, according to our estimates, is very weak and is by far not in control over all who are fighting against the regime “on the ground”.

Another cause for concern is that among those who are fighting there are more and more jihadists who arepursuing extremist goals — the creation of a Caliphate, the introduction of Sharia law, and, in fact, they are already terrorizing minorities.

Some kind of “Islamic Front” has been created, with which our Western counterparts even try to flirt, as far as can be understood from confidential contacts, though it is well known that the “Islamic Front’s” structures are not far removed from those of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. This disturbs us.

There are regular incidents against Christians. In Syria, before the crisis there were 2 million Christians. Now, it would be good if there was just one million left. The statistics are unreliable, but I think that at least one million people became refugees. The biggest cause of this — which your channel showed — was when terrorists took hostage nuns from the St.Fekly Monastery near the town of Maalula (the only place in the world where the population speaks Aramaic — the language of Jesus Christ).

All our contacts with Christian communities in the region and in Syria talk about their very deep concern — what is at stake, if you like, is two thousand years of Christians living in the Middle East. Therefore there is a need to agree, above all, on what will become of Syria.

The primary task is the fight against terrorism. From the point of view of the political process, it is necessary that the Government and the opposition begin to set out a common vision of Syria’s future, that it should be a sovereign, independent country, a state whose territorial integrity is respected by all, and which ensures the rights of all ethnic, religious and political groups so that all feel safe, to feel that they have an involvement in the political system and political life of the country.

This is the main goal. The personalities (involved) and who will come after, and how to organize elections — all this is secondary.

Now the main threat comes from those who seek to defeat the government on the battlefield and create a completely different state.

We are concerned about the humanitarian situation . Honestly, we’ve probably done more than anyone else in terms of getting in touch with the government and humanitarian agencies of the United Nations to solve specific issues that gradually, not without difficulty, were resolved. And imagine, this is done in a situation where in huge areas of the country there is a real war going on. We provide humanitarian assistance directly — we provide medicine, food, daily necessities, as well as regularly make voluntary contributions to various humanitarian agencies of the UN and via the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Now the humanitarian theme (just as happened over chemical weapons, incidentally) is used to try to speculate, to raise passions, and accuse the government of all sins, including that it created the humanitarian crisis (just as was the case over chemical warfare agents).

There was some resolution at the UN General Assembly, which does not reflect the real situation and was idealized….

But what is alarming is the intensification of supporters of such “spoilers” ahead of the Geneva II. It is no coincidence that the opposition put forward several conditions: there should be regime change, let’s sort out the humanitarian situation and then go to Geneva. The humanitarian situation is being “hotted up” primarily by militants and groups that many countries have recognized as extremist and terrorist.

The humanitarian issue should be on the agenda. But we should see our task not as alleviating symptoms, but the causes of the crisis, which lies in the fact that in Syria right now there is an incredibly high terrorist threat, and the government and the opposition must agree on the parameters on which they want to see their state based.

Let us not forget that at the G8 Summit in Loch Erne in June all the G8 leaders in their communiqué called on the government and the opposition in Syria to join forces in the fight against terrorists, to defeat them and drive them out of the country. I think that now, this is the main task.

Only when the situation stabilizes, when the rights of all minorities and of the multi-religious, multi-ethnic character of the Syrian state are provided for, can democratic institutions start to work. What is needed right now is stability.

Question: Overseas, Russia is often portrayed as a country prone to rapid and hasty decisions, although the style of Russian diplomacy is diametrically opposed (to this). What is the current role of “Cold War” stereotypes in international politics?

LAVROV: I totally agree that attempts to present our actions in the international arena as some kind of surprises dictated by emotions, absolutely do not reflect reality.

This phenomenon comes under the category of information warfare…

Our actions regarding Syria, Iran and other issues show completely the opposite picture and that we always strive to act pragmatically and flexibly, and not drive ourselves into a corner, as did some more than two years ago, by saying that Syrian President Bashar al Assad is no longer legitimate and does not represent anyone.

That was an emotional hasty statement made by some world leaders. How can a person “not be representative of anyone” if he has a significant following if not by most then by a part of the population?

And not because Assad enjoys the people’s love, but because large groups of people and not just minorities depend on him. This includes many Sunnis, especially entrepreneurs who have made their business during the reign of the Assad family, and who are convinced that if there is a violent regime change without a political settlement, then their businesses will go. Assad represents a significant part of his people. Statements that he is illegitimate, that he can never be considered, just so happen to be examples of the hasty and ill-conceived.

Now the mood in Western countries is changing. They have become more realistic in their approach to the Syrian settlement.

Whatever official spokesmen may deny, the threat of terrorism in Syria, the accession of jihadists and the creation of a Caliphate and an extremist order, the threat of the violation of the rights of all minorities — and maybe a threat to their lives — are the main problems.

Our Western partners are strengthening their understanding that regime change is not the way to solve this problem and that it will perhaps even speed up the taking of power by terrorists.

This gives hope that all who are asked to make a success of the Geneva Conference, will do so. We fulfilled our part honestly. The Syrian government announced its delegation, the opposition still has not done so. I hope that an understanding of the real situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, its neighbors, and the region as a whole will encourage our Western partners play their part in full, and as we agreed.

Question: Let’s talk about our neighbors. You often hear anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine and in many other post-Soviet republics. Can you say that this has a systemic character?

LAVROV: Many years have passed since the end of the Cold War, and the main antagonists who supported the Cold War around the globe no longer exist. There is no Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, but NATO is still there.

Having modern affairs guided by the phobias of a bygone era is unproductive and short-sighted. We are interested in how to live in peace with all our neighbors. After all, we all — including the Baltic states — lived in one state, together we created industries, infrastructure and a variety of industries that still help these republics to develop economically.

At a time when the Soviet Union was falling apart, and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined NATO, our Western partners told us, “Do not worry, for God’s sake, they preserved the fear of the past, we will accept them into NATO, and they will feel complete security”. Nothing like this has happened. Yes, we are developing economic relations, cultural relations, we are interested in improving these. But as soon as they are part of the North Atlantic Alliance, out bursts anti-Russian phobias…

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Joanna Paraszczuk is EA WorldView’s Managing Editor. An Israeli journalist, she covered Iran and the Arab World for The Jerusalem Post. Previously, she lived and worked in Russia and Ukraine. Joanna speaks fluent Hebrew and Russian and reads Persian and Arabic