Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the international-affairs committee of the Russian State Duma. It was conducted by Paul J. Saunders, associate publisher of The National Interest, on June 17, 2013.
Paul Saunders: The G-8 leaders, as you know, are meeting this week and talking about Syria. Last week President Obama’s administration announced their determination that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons and announced a decision to start supplying limited weapons to the Syrian government. You are quoted in the media to reacting very strongly to that, saying that the evidence was fabricated, saying even that the United States was lying. Those are fairly strong statements. I was wondering whether you have any evidence for that, whether you believe that the United States really fabricated evidence, and if so, why?
Alexey Pushkov: Actually, on Twitter I said that the data about the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was fabricated in the same quarters as the data about Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. What leads me to believe this is a fact is that there is no conclusive nor strong evidence that the chemical weapons were used by the Syrian army. I know that some U.S. officials who have been in Moscow showed some evidence to the Russian side, and I know the Russian side was very skeptical. The supposed evidence that was brought to Moscow was absolutely inconclusive. It was not connected to any particular place nor any particular time.
The Syrian government was absolutely not interested in using chemical weapons. It is against the interest of the Syrian government to use those weapons in small quantities, as it was by the way admitted by the American side, that it was small quantities of chemical weapons. It is absolutely counterproductive. It could have given nothing on the battlefield, but it could give a very strong pretext—for the United States, for France, Great Britain and other countries—to assert the Syrian government crossed the “red line” in order to start to finance and arm the rebels directly. So the use of chemical weapons was absolutely against the Syrian government’s interest.
But the use of those weapons by the rebels makes a lot of sense. It’s absolutely logical. It fits completely with the rebels’ attempts to get military and financial support from the United States and its European allies. In May 2013 some UN observers, among them the former prosecutor of the UN Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Carla del Ponte, made statements supporting claims that chemical weapons were used in fact by the rebels in order to bring accusations against the Syrian government. There was more information coming from the Iraqi government that they had discovered three underground factories that were producing sarin and that these three underground factories belonged to groups associated with al Qaida and the Syrian rebels.
So, having all this information, it is not difficult to see that it was in the interest of the rebels to use chemical weapons. It gave them the possibility to say that the United States should react because the Assad government allegedly crossed the “red line.” They had a place from which they could have obtained sarin—those factories in Iraq—and the small quantities that were used were exactly enough to start the wide campaign against the Syrian government, accusing it of using weapons of mass destruction.
We were not born yesterday. We remember ten years ago, when the Bush administration deceived the United States and the whole world by implying that they had strong evidence of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that this was a complete lie. It was fabricated—and I insist on using this term—it was fabricated inside the administration. It was fabricated for political reasons, because George Bush needed a pretext to invade and occupy Iraq.
Paul Saunders: The United States has announced that it’s going to provide small arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels. And some people in Russia and elsewhere have reacted strongly to that. I think I saw some fairly strong statements from President Putin about the U.S. decision. Why do you think it is such a big deal for the United States to supply small arms to the Syrian rebels when Russia is supplying arms to the regime, and Iran is supplying arms to the regime? There are a number of other governments supplying arms to the rebels and certainly providing, by all indications, more than just the small arms and ammunition that the United States is now talking about providing. Of course many in the United States and Europe would argue that it’s important to give the rebels this kind of support so that the Assad regime has some sort of incentive to find a negotiated solution at the peace conference that everyone is trying to organize.
Alexey Pushkov: As seen from Moscow, it is a serious change in the position of the U.S. government. Half a year ago, Barack Obama rejected the suggestion that was advanced to him by the heads of the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon to begin arming Syrian rebels. Now it is happening, and it looks like the Americans have crossed the “red line” between political and financial support of the rebels and military support of the rebels, which actually is the first step toward engaging in the war.
It was reported in the American press that American secret services are already acting on the borders between Turkey and Syria and Jordan and Syria, trying to control the flow of weapons that were already reaching the rebels from Middle Eastern countries. It seems that about three hundred American Marines are already in Jordan to provide some logistical and/or operational support for the delivery of weapons that will start in some time to the rebels. Those are forms of engagement, and we also think that the first step can also be followed by other steps.
If Barack Obama decided to give in on this issue, then he might as well give in to the requests by people like Senator McCain, who asked to start to use American cruise missiles and air-defense systems against Bashar Assad. That would be step number two. Step number three could be a no-fly zone—and you have to support a no-fly zone by military means. Then there we are: the United States will be in a war that resembles very much the Libya War.
We think it is a big deal because there are precedents. There is a trend in American politics to consider every situation as completely separate from the previous ones. The arguments that are being used against Syria remind very much of Iraq in 2003, and this parallel undermines those arguments immensely, though no one seems to notice this in the United States. But we see how the United States and its allies are slowly moving into the direction of a Libya-type military operation. That happened only two years ago and we all saw how it started. It all started with support of the idea of defending peaceful citizens through the armament of rebel groups and then by bombings of Tripoli and a hunt for Muammar el-Qaddafi—who was killed in an absolutely atrocious way which had nothing to do with the rule of law and principles of the civilized world. And yet it was basically backed and supported by the United States and the other Western nations who organized the military operation against Libya.
What makes it all extremely dangerous is that the civil war in Syria may become a big regional war. The stakes are extremely high. It looks like we have a coalition of the United States, Great Britain, France and Israel, as well as the radical Sunnis in Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, against the Shia axis (if I may use this term), which is the mostly Shia governments in Syria, Iran and Iraq, and some organizations which are backing Syria like Hezbollah.
Iraq could be dragged into this war too. The recent reports have shown that the last months have been the deadliest months for Iraq from the point of view of human losses. About one thousand people were killed by attacks in May, and almost all of them were Iraqi Shia. They are being targeted by the radical Sunnis—the same groups that are fighting in Syria. We have already heard the slogan from the radical Sunnis: “First we take Damascus, second we go to Baghdad.” So I think it is slowly moving to a situation where we’ll have a regional war with two really strong camps fighting one another. Iran has already said that it will be sending four thousand troops to back Assad. Iran has its own “red line”—not to allow the Syrian government to be brought down by rebels. So Iran seems to be quite inclined to support the present government in Syria.
An international conference, the so-called Geneva II, in theory could bring to the negotiation table representatives of the government, on the one hand, and representatives of the opposition on the other hand, to try and find some solution or at least stop the bloodshed. But in conditions when first the United Kingdom and France, and then the United States, have decided to arm the rebels, the signal that is being sent to the opposition goes against the logic of this conference. Because if these people are backed directly by the United States, the United Kingdom and France, then they have no incentive to go to the conference. They will proceed to fight on the ground against the government.