Moscow, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, former Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who is one of Russia’s leading experts on Middle Eastern affairs, defended Moscow’s veto of the UN resolution backing an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up power.
Primakov, who has had a long and distinguished career in Russian politics, serving variously as the Chairman of the Soviet of the Union [prior to the dissolution of the USSR], Russian Envoy to Iraq, Russian Foreign Minister, and Russian Prime Minister, defended Moscow’s stance on the Syrian crisis and revealed details of Russia’s bilateral relations with Damascus, at a time when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in Syria for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The former Russian Prime Minister informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the international community must differentiate between different Arab Spring countries; placing countries like Egypt and Tunisia in one camp, and Libya and Syria in another. He stressed that “the resistance against the al-Assad regime was marked from the outset with a militaristic nature and the situation is now sliding into civil war.”
He added “Russia’s positions towards the situation in Syria are objective in nature. We want to see all parties reach an agreement.”
The former Russian Prime Minister also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Some people are asking: why did Moscow refuse to vote for the draft resolution introduced by the Arab League and Morocco, and which is supported by the US and the European countries on the Security Council? There are multiple reasons for this; one of the reasons relates to the draft resolution laying the responsibility [for the Syrian crisis] on one side. We find that all the accusations are directed against the government troops and al-Assad personally, whilst his departure was framed as being inevitable. This represents direct intervention in the internal affairs [of Syria], and there is no basis for this”
He added “As for the second reason, this can be summed up in the fact that Russia was deceived in Libya; a quick decision was required because Colonel Gaddafi’s forces were on the verge of seizing Benghazi. Therefore it was up to Russia to avert more victims, particularly during the street battles in Benghazi, taking a common position with China and refraining from using the veto. They assured us that this resolution did not aim to do anything except provide air cover to prevent Gaddafi using his air force against civilians. They deceived us, for this resolution aimed primarily to overthrow Gaddafi. Therefore, we are now committed to being extremely cautious in Syria. I believe in the correctness of this approach and I stand against foreign intervention.”
Yevgeny Primakov also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “if there are western officials who are saying it is necessary that al-Assad leaves power, then I would ask them: will this guarantee stability in Syria? I would also ask: do any of the western experts know precisely who the anti-regime forces are?”
He added “such experts should be asked to explain why what is described as a national unity government made up of the Syrian opposition has been established in one of Syria’s neighboring countries? How does this serve the interests of Syria’s neighbors? They should also be asked to explain the role being placed by Al Qaeda in this issue. What role are the Islamists playing in this [opposition] movement? They should also be asked to explain why there are so many sectarian divisions between the Sunnis and Alawites in Syria.”
The former Russian Prime Minister stressed “I am, for example, not in agreement with those who say that this position [backing the Syrian opposition] contributes to protecting the stability and development of Syria, particularly as the [revolutionary] events are ongoing in other [Arab Spring] countries. In addition to this, if a serious conflict were to break out between the Sunnis and Shiites, the Arab world will be the biggest loser.”
Primakov added “the situation does not allow for much optimism. I believe it is necessary to give al-Assad a chance after he announced his commitment to many of the proposed reforms – which if achieved – will represent a turning point in Syria’s path towards democracy; this includes ending the state of emergency, holding elections, creating a multi-party political system, and ending the Baathist party’s monopolization of power. He [al-Assad] said all of this. However he is also now saying that he cannot implement all these reforms at a time when the situation is heating up and could ignite into a conflict or civil war.”
Primakov also revealed that “there is a possible opportunity for the opposition to meet with him [al-Assad] and reach an agreement about transition…Moscow has put forward, and continues to put forward, an offer to host such a meeting.”
He also confirmed that Russia had met with members of the Syrian opposition in Moscow, including members of the armed Syrian opposition who are based in Turkey, but they categorically refused to enter into any talks with al-Assad.
Primakov was keen to confirm that Moscow is committed to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, which was something reiterated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is visiting al-Assad today. Lavrov had previously stressed that world powers should adopt a policy of non-intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. The Russian Foreign Minister, during an annual address earlier this month, stressed that “the changes in the region are far from being concluded and we’re witness to what is merely the start of this transition. If we’re in favor of the people of these countries determining for themselves their own futures, then, we must accept their choices and not interfere in national dialogues or electoral campaigns.”
Primakov previously served as Russia’s envoy to Iraq prior to the Gulf war, and he returned to Iraq in 2003 as a special representative of President Vladimir Putin, where he attempted to avert the Iraq war by convincing Saddam Hussein to step down.