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Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Alexander Zasypkin | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Asharq al-Awsat recently met with the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, to discuss his country’s position with regards to the ongoing Syrian crisis. During the interview, Zasypkin outlined the principles of Russia’s stance focusing on a political solution in Syria, and what steps are now required in order to implement this. He also dismissed reports of Russian involvement on the ground in support of the al-Assad regime, stressing that his country wholly rejects foreign military interference.

The following is the text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is Russia’s genuine position towards the current events in Syria?

[Zasypkin] The constants of the Russian stance toward the internal conflict are known, and they have not changed throughout the past incidents. These constants focus on the need for all parties to cease violence, organizing comprehensive national dialogue between the authority and the opposition, and reaching an agreement on all the reforming steps in Syria to attain a democratic regime in this country. We seek to achieve these objectives and need the assistance of the international community to start the political process in Syria.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we speak about an “internal crisis” when the opposition is complaining of “violence from one side”, carried out by the authorities through a strong and disciplined army? Is it possible to talk about two kinds of violence?

[Zasypkin] Of course there is the regular Syrian Army, which has the military superiority over the armed groups. At the same time, when we speak about halting violence, this relates to all parties because should the authorities alone stop the violence, then this would lead to armed groups seizing their positions, and this would not calm down the situation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How can a peace process be reached in Syria in light of the opposition’s strong rejection of dialogue with a regime it considers to be criminal, and due to the brutality of this regime?

[Zasypkin] The opposition should agree to hold dialogue with the regime without preconditions. As for the role of the international community, we view the presidential statement issued by the Security Council yesterday as support for the UN envoy Kofi Annan’s mission, which aims to cease violence and start the political process in Syria. We hope that all the foreign parties will make efforts to influence the parties to the conflict in Syria to sit at the negotiations table.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean that foreign parties are having a negative influence on the Syrian issue?

[Zasypkin] Throughout this period, we have been trying to change the situation from a confrontation to a political process. We wanted to benefit from the Arab League’s initiative and the observer mission, but the task of the mission was curtailed soon after it began its work. We consider this as having an adverse impact on the political settlement. The second thing is that we believe that the sanctions are not beneficial because they do not influence the policy of the regime, but they increase the burden on the people. And now when we seek anew to activate a political settlement through Annan’s mission, we hear talk about new sanctions and calls for international and Arab interference and measures such as the recalling of ambassadors. All these things are not beneficial. Anyway, since yesterday, we have taken a concerted stance at the Security Council and we want to rely on it to unify the efforts of the international community.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Russia has directed criticism towards the Syrian authorities. Why was that?

[Zasypkin] Since the beginning, we have been adhering to a balanced and open stance. When the popular protests and peaceful demonstrations took place, we pointed out that the regime’s reactions to these demonstrations were unacceptable. At the same time, we also highlighted the provocative actions of the armed elements, within the context of demonstrators, since April last year.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the policy the authorities are following in terms of confronting the demonstrations and the protests is appropriate?

[Zasypkin] We see mistakes, and at the same time we see the measures that have been taken over the past months, such as the issuance of laws and the holding of municipal elections and the referendum on the constitution, and now there are elections scheduled for the People’s Council, and we consider all these to be positive steps.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the Syrian Government is moving on a positive track then?

[Zasypkin] Once again, I repeat that the reactions represented in the response to the demonstrations and the delayed reforms are unacceptable. At the same time, the reforms that have been implemented are positive steps.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is talk that Russia is risking its Arab relations as a result of its stance on the Syrian issue?

[Zasypkin] We are very concerned with preserving our traditionally good relations with all the Arab countries. At the same time, in light of the developments taking place at present, we adhere in the first place to the UN Charter and international legitimacy to a great extent, and we consider principles such as the sovereignty of the state and respecting the rights of people to self-determination to be more important than the temporary considerations in the relations with any state in the region. We think that this approach is better than playing for self-interests. The values related to the nature of international relations are more important than passing economic or military interests.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Russian Foreign Minister yesterday spoke about concerns of “Sunni rule” in Syria. What did he mean by this?

[Zasypkin] We want to keep away from sectarian conflicts, and during the developments taking place in the region, we seek to preserve the fraternal coexistence among all ethnicities and sects in the Middle East. We in Russia give a great attention to this issue because Russia is a country that has multi ethnicities and sects, and we hope that no problems emerge among the sects in Syria or in other countries.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The same as the Christians are the majority in Russia, the Sunnis are the majority in Syria. Is their rule of the country not something normal in any democratic process?

[Zasypkin]We are putting forward a set of principles, including one that says that democracy means respecting the rights of all the sects in this society, and this is the most important thing.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent Russia is involved in the Syrian issue? We hear talk about shipments of Russian weapons to the regime and military warships paying visits to Syria. To what degree are you ready to defend your stance on the ground?

[Zasypkin] All that has been said about Russian ships calling at Syrian ports to support the regime is untrue. The first ship visited Syria to receive supplies of food and fuel, and the other ship that has recently paid a visit did so for the same purpose. It is participating in an operation against the pirates in the Gulf of Aden along with NATO and European Union. As for Russian weapons, they have been possessed by the Syrian Armed Forces for decades. And as for defending our stance, we rely on political action and no other means.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Syrian opposition talks about direct Russian support for the regime in terms of training, drones, and other services?

[Zasypkin] All this is talk within the framework of a media war that is taking place at present. We deny such talk on a daily basis and consider it untrue, like the talk about Russian warships.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess the Lebanese stance toward the Syrian crisis?

[Zasypkin] We are aware of the peculiarity of the Lebanese situation concerning what is going on in Syria. We share the Lebanese officials’ opinion that the Lebanese should as much as possible avoid the negative impacts of the Syrian conflict. We positively appreciate the measures that the Lebanese Government and the commanders of the Lebanese Army are adopting to safeguard Lebanon’s sovereignty and unity. We also believe that the political forces in Lebanon are adhering to the security and stability in the country, and this is positive.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have information about the smuggling of weapons and fighters from Lebanon to Syria?

[Zasypkin] We have information from various sources that weapons are coming into Syria from the neighboring countries regardless of the stances that the authorities in these countries are adopting and without a decision by them. We know that among the measures adopted by the Lebanese leadership are moves to tighten the monitoring of weapons smuggling, and we are confident that this policy will continue.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has been said that Russia has learned from two previous lessons, in Iraq and Libya, and it does not want to lose Syria. Do you seek a price in return for abandoning al-Assad?

[Zasypkin] The main lesson from what happened in Iraq and Libya is that the world should have to witness the tragic results of the occupation of these two countries. Therefore, we do not accept the repetition of the NATO operations or any foreign military interference in Syria, and this is a principled position for Russia. As for the talk about the stance toward the Syrian regime, it has been and continues to be the same. The priority for us in Syria is to cease the fighting and ensure the democratic option for the Syrian people, including selecting a leadership through fair and transparent elections. We do not decide the stance toward the Syrian president and leadership because this is an internal Syrian affair, and it is not the right for any foreign party to try and impose its will on the Syrians.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who can ensure the integrity of the elections?

[Zasypkin] We are now seeking to arrange dialogue on the steps for reform, including the presidential elections, and this is one clause that the Syrian authorities can agree on with the opposition, so that the dialogue can then focus on the principles and the details. In light of the attention focused on Syria by the international community, it is possible to secure good international monitoring, and there would be no doubts about the results of these elections. I am explaining this subject on an assumption basis because we are now at the beginning of the political settlement. As for these steps, they are going to be followed by other steps later on.