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 September 23, 2013.
Paul Saunders: So this week is the beginning of the annual general debate at the UN General Assembly. The Obama administration has indicated that they would like to see a resolution on Syria by the end of the week. We of course don’t have that resolution yet. Are you concerned that the agreement between the United States and Russia may break down if there is no UN Security Council resolution soon and that the United States may press ahead with plans for a strike on Syria?
Alexey Pushkov: There has been disagreement between Moscow and Washington on this issue. Russia does not want to back a resolution that will give a green light for the use of force. If this disagreement is not overcome, then the prospects for a Geneva agreement become worse.
On the other hand, I don’t see that for the chemical disarmament of Syria there must be necessarily a resolution from the Security Council.
Russia suggests that the whole issue and process of chemical disarmament be performed by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and therefore by the United Nations. This organization that will deal with the process of Syrian chemical disarmament. Therefore, a separate resolution may not be necessary.
We hear the United States, France, and some other countries maintain that without such a resolution President Assad may not comply. If he doesn’t comply, then there will be a case which can be considered by the Security Council. For the time being, he is complying.
Syria has filed an application to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the relevant international convention. Syria is supplying the necessary documentation. So to accept a resolution that will authorize the use of force under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter in advance, in conditions where we don’t see any breach of the Geneva agreement by the Syrian government is not considered necessary for the Russian government. In Moscow we consider it as an attempt to pass a resolution that can be interpreted as authorizing the use of force like it was in the case of Libya.
As you remember, the stated goal of Resolution 1973 on Libya was to defend the civilian population in Libya, specifically in Benghazi. But it was interpreted by Western nations in such terms that it gave way to missile strikes and bombings of Tripoli and other cities that recognized the government of Muammar Gadhafi. We have stated that we don’t agree with such a reading of this resolution. We will not agree to another resolution of this type in the Security Council.
I think that people are concentrating on the threat of the use of force. The powers that promote such an approach are moving the focus from the chemical disarmament of Syria – and also that has already started –to a possibility of strikes against Syria, which is exactly something the Russian initiative was designed to prevent. This is an unfortunate development, which could have been predicted though. The fundamental goals of Russia and the United States and France and Syria do not converge behind all the diplomatic talk that we have a common goal in Syria.
Unfortunately, the goals, which have been pursued by the United States and their closest allies, are basically regime change.
Russia does not recognize regime change as an appropriate means of reacting to such crises. We think that we should talk about some kind of Syrian national settlement between a number of parties of the opposition and the Syrian government. Russia is opposed to regime change.
Regime change in the majority of cases leads to chaos and ungovernability.
Look at what happened in Libya after the initial invasion. Somehow Libya disappeared almost completely from the pages of the Western newspapers because there is nothing positive to write.
It used to be a factor of stability-- whatever can be said about Muammar Gadhafi as a person. Libya used to be a factor of stability in northern Africa and now it is a factor of instability.
Armaments from Libya are pouring into other countries. Terrorist activities have grown. Al Qaeda has become much stronger than it used to be and it was recognized by the American government. Gadhafi was a secular leader who prohibited any activities of terrorists on his own soil, and prevented them from gaining influence.
When he was toppled, we saw that an immediate Islamist threat appeared in Mali and the French government had to send troops. So it shows that regime change is extremely dangerous.
Look at Iraq. Every month, one thousand people die from terrorist acts.
Look at Afghanistan. The regime change that the Soviet Union pushed in 1976 has led to a complete disaster. The regime change that was performed by the Taliban with the help of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other countries has led to an ever worse situation.
Now the United States is fighting the same political forces that they helped come to power. Regime change is dangerous and Russia cannot agree with such a policy. Russia suggests to concentrate on the chemical disarmament of Syria and on the political solution on Syria, not on strikes which will weaken the Syrian government and help the fighters, the terrorists – groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and some other groups which are certainly influential inside the Syrian armed opposition because it will lead to an unknown result and Syria may become a feeding ground for a much larger terrorist force than we have seen until now. So we think that this concentration on the use of force has probably a lot to do with American domestic policies and with this issue of so-called U.S. credibility. But as some point-out, not to start a war, to refrain from a war that may be disastrous, may be much more positive for U.S. credibility than starting the wrong war-- a war which will lead to extremely negative consequences, like it was in the instance of Iraq. In this case, the decision not to start a war will be better for U.S. credibility than to start a war that will lead to a regional catastrophe.
Paul Saunders: Let me follow-up on that. You mentioned that Russia would want to pursue a Security Council resolution only if Syria isn’t complying with the OPCW process for getting rid of its chemical…
Alexey Pushkov: I want to be clear on this: if Syria does not comply, then measures should be considered by the Security Council. In what form those measures should be considered, remains to be seen.
That is a difficult issue and the decision on this will be taken in Moscow in the case, if it happens. But I do not think that such a resolution really should be taken in advance.
Paul Saunders: I understand. What would constitute not complying? Does that mean missing deadlines, submitting incomplete information, concealing the existence of weapons or cites? What would Syria have to do to be out of compliance, in your view?
Alexey Pushkov: I think that if there is an evident desire to conceal weapons and to drag-on indefinitely the requirements of such chemical disarmament, then it should be brought to the attention of the Security Council.
At the same time, we should be realistic about the timetable.
The United States has one of the biggest chemical weapons arsenals in the world. The United States has been destroying chemical weapons for the last 28 years. And they spent $35 billions dollars in the process.
Syrian specialists say that in a matter of weeks and months the process can start. Information can be received; the sites where chemical weapons are kept can be located. United Nations inspectors and specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons can go to Syria to start the process of moving weapons to places where they will be destroyed. But this all takes time.
There are no destruction facilities in Syria. As far as I know there are no such destruction facilities in neighboring countries with the possible exception of Iraq. As far as I’ve heard, chemical weapons in Iraq were destroyed in a very unsafe manner, creating danger for the local population.