Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov’s interview with the Interfax News Agency, October 7, 2016
Question: I have a question about the year the Russian Aerospace Forces have been conducting an operation in Syria. If I'm not mistaken, the goals were to push the terrorist threat back from Russia’s border, eliminate terrorists as far away as possible and prevent them from entering or returning to Russia. Have these tasks been fulfilled? How effective was the operation in this respect?
Oleg Syromolotov: To answer your question, we need to remember the situation in Syria in which the decision to deploy the Aerospace Forces in Syria was taken. First, Syria was rapidly moving, following the footsteps of Iraq and Libya, towards the loss of its statehood. Second, a terrorist organisation that appeared in Syria and Iraq had all the attributes of a state and was gradually taking over their territories and strengthening its military and economic power. In addition, a large number of foreign terrorists were joining that organisation in what seemed like an endless flow. And lastly, the international community was unaware of the danger for each individual state. Everyone thought that the problem only concerned the Middle East and North Africa, and that the problem would not affect them, because they are located far away from this region.
What do we see now? To begin with, the growth of this pseudo-state has been halted, about 40 percent of the territory it seized has been taken back, and the economic basis of this terrorist state has been undermined. Here is a simple example: in the past, each terrorist was paid $1,000, but now they are lucky to receive $100 or even $50. Next, all countries have realised that this threat concerns each and every one of them – including after the terrorist attacks in Europe – and they are planning preventive measures.
As for Russia, many Russian citizens, in particular from the North Caucasus and the Volga region, were fighting there. Our goals [in Syria] were obvious: to reduce the terrorist potential of this pseudo-state, to liquidate the terrorists who would otherwise have returned to Russia, and to preserve Syria’s statehood and prevent it from becoming another Libya, a country with several governments that is open to terrorists, who are creating a new terrorist framework there. We have achieved nearly all of these goals. Thousands of terrorists have been liquidated, and the inflow of new recruits into Syria has decreased. Moreover, many people are rethinking the expediency of going to Syria. A year ago, they brought their families along, their wives and children, believing that it was a state where life would be easier for Muslims. The situation has changed. Those who have embraced radicalism have stopped to think about whether they should go there to lose everything they have, including their lives.
We have shown that Russia, which has considerable experience in preventing terrorist attacks and the spread of terrorism in the North Caucasus, also has an effective mechanism for reducing the scale of the terrorist threat and ultimately defeating terrorists.
Question: Have the Russians who joined the terrorists in Syria been liquidated?
Oleg Syromolotov: We are continuing to work on this. Some 2,700 people from Russia have joined the terrorists, but if you also count those who have come from the CIS countries, the figure is about 5,000. Over 2,000 of them have been liquidated, as we said three months ago. I believe the figure has increased since then. In other words, we have pushed the terrorist threat away from Russia. Look at the situation in the North Caucasus, which has become a stable region. There are no terrorists at all in the two regions of the North Caucasus. And the number of terrorists in the other regions is very small, not more than 15 or 20, excluding Dagestan, where there are about 50 terrorists. But we conduct antiterrorist operations every day, and therefore these regions’ economic development is on the upswing. Look at the current situation in the North Caucasus. I remember how it was in the early 2000s – they are worlds apart.
Question: Are there any deadlines or points of reference for definitively accomplishing this task?
Oleg Syromolotov: I don't think you will hear anything about specific deadlines – that, say, the militants will be defeated in three months – from anyone. Everyone realises that there is no purely military solution for Syria. Therefore, processes launched by Russia and the United States are very complicated, and they aim to achieve a political settlement. It appeared that a process had initially been launched, involving the opposition, the Syrian Government and intermediaries. Then endless preconditions began to be voiced with regard to the Syrian Government and Russia, among other things. As you can see, this process has now become deadlocked to a considerable extent. This is happening at a time when Russia and the United States virtually achieved close cooperation, including on the issue of establishing a joint integration centre. After that, they started voicing other preconditions, including the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Castello Road, which is being used to resupply Aleppo. When the Syrian Army withdraws, the militants don’t, and they continue to shoot. Humanitarian relief aid deliveries face the same problems, because something happens every time. For example, this includes an attack on a humanitarian convoy. We suggest launching a calm investigation and sorting things out, because the goal of this is to destabilise the situation. I believe that the situation in Syria will begin to stabilise with the onset of the political process, and that military measures will be eventually relegated to the background.
Question: Do you believe that, apart from counter-terrorist operations, it is now necessary to focus on the development of the political process?
Oleg Syromolotov: Yes, of course. These attempts continue. You can see that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has held so many meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry lately. Our intensive contacts with the US side have already lasted ten hours and more. This is a difficult process, and, as I see it, the most important thing is that international cooperation between states continues to expand, and a number of projects aiming to combat terrorists and militants have been launched. Work is underway to upgrade various databases and to ensure their cooperation – including those of Interpol and the European Union – with the Russian database at the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee. You should understand that, if standard counter-terrorist regulations are in place all over the world, then it would become possible to do away with terrorism fairly quickly. Terrorists are taking advantage of the fact that no borders can hold them, and that we have to abide by certain rules in line with the existing world order. If we are able to act independently within our borders, then outside of them, we have to reach an agreement with other states. In 2015, President Vladimir Putin said at the 70th UN General Assembly session that it was necessary to accomplish three objectives for doing away with foreign terrorists. First, it is necessary to set up a joint international database listing foreign terrorists and militants. Second, it is necessary to set up a database and a system for monitoring their movements. And, third, it is necessary to simplify the extradition of foreign terrorists and militants from one state to another, because the extradition procedure is rather lengthy.
Question: In the past few weeks, the Russian Aerospace Force has been bombing terrorists in eastern Aleppo after the US failed to fulfill its obligation to separate the moderate opposition from the terrorists. Is there anyone, in Moscow’s opinion, except terrorists in this Aleppo district, and have we identified any moderate opposition there? Also, do we maintain any contact with them during counterterrorist operations?
Oleg Syromolotov: You have correctly noted that everything comes down to separating the opposition from the terrorists. In February, CIA Director John Brennan visited Russia and promised that they would separate the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group, from the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group. But this has not happened, and we see who is still there in eastern Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra members account for about 50 percent of the militants there, with the rest from Ahrar al-Sham. We believe this to be a terrorist organisation, and we are now working to include it on UN black lists. The same with Jaysh al-Islam. We see what they are doing, and that they are linked with al-Qaeda. You can see that al- Qaeda, that almost dropped into the background, now continues to grow stronger against the backdrop of a weakening ISIS. See, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were part of al-Qaeda, and they are committed to it. This is why they are coming up again. And al-Qaeda shows up in areas abandoned by ISIS. This is a serious process because, if militants from various groups all over the world sided with ISIS when it was stronger, the reverse is happening now. Al-Qaeda is retaking its position. This can also be seen in Afghanistan.
Question: Representatives of Western countries claim that our operations in Aleppo, including the eastern sector, are compelling the moderate opposition to side with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Oleg Syromolotov: Can there be any talk of siding with Jabhat al-Nusra? They are fighting the Syrian Army together. We don’t see any moderates there because, in this situation, it turns out that, as soon as a ceasefire is called, the terrorists regroup, receive new weapons, other equipment, militants, etc. That’s it.
Question: Does this mean that we will continue to fight in Aleppo until the terrorists and their supporters, who have not separated from them, are eliminated?
Oleg Syromolotov: I believe it is impossible to provide an unequivocal answer today. If the situation evolves into a nascent political settlement process, and if we see that it is not as necessary to use military force, that the Syrians can deal with it themselves, that the government army and the opposition can agree to end hostilities, then, I believe it wouldn’t be necessary. One thing is extremely important: everything should be based on international law. The world should unite into a coalition that acts under the decisions of the International Syria Support Group and under UN resolutions. By the way, I would like to recall that we entered Syria at the request of the Syrian leaders, and that we observed all UN formalities.
Question: The West is once again comparing Russian operations and those of the Syrian Air Force with Russian operations during the Chechen campaigns. They are claiming that chaotic strikes are being launched against residential areas, and that this is causing casualties among civilians, just like in Grozny long ago.
Oleg Syromolotov: First, there are no chaotic strikes, we have sufficient systems for conducting normal reconnaissance missions, and only those targets that have been repeatedly verified are being hit. The West is playing its own game very skillfully, and everyone’s attention is now focused on Syria. As soon as something happens, they become hysterical and raise a fuss about a humanitarian disaster. Why doesn’t anyone mention Yemen? Is the situation there different from Syria in any way? No, but Russia is not present there. We are currently being accused of bombing some unspecified hospitals, although everyone knows about US strikes against hospitals in Afghanistan. We understand what this is all about, and we know that US leaders are voicing extremely different opinions. Do you think the attack on the Syrian Army’s positions in Deir ez-Zor was a coincidence? No, it was extremely well-planned. A stalemate has taken shape there in the past two years, and it was impossible to accidentally confuse the targets. And, unfortunately, this will continue. Reasonable thinking is the most important thing today. Many countries are trying to act in line with the US opinion. They are doing exactly what has been said in Washington, and, at the same time, they start blaming Russia for everything. History repeats itself, you know. Four years ago, we said that they should not demand the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that it was necessary to fight terrorist groups, and that the people of Syria should decide the future of President al-Assad instead. They replied in the negative. It has now dawned on them that it is necessary to prevent the situation like the one that has shaped up in Libya, where all state institutions have been destroyed and where chaos has ensued. And now Libya has become a site for international terrorism.
Question: As far as we know, terrorists are now making a global stake on clandestine cells. For example, ISIS uses this method of operations, including in Europe. What are the odds of repeated terrorist attacks in Europe, and could these clandestine cells start acting en masse?
Oleg Syromolotov: First of all, clandestine cells are an al-Qaeda, rather than an ISIS, method. Second, ISIS is now sustaining military defeats and is instructing its supporters not to enter the war zone but to set up clandestine cells in their home countries. Why? The answer is obvious: terrorist attacks are currently being prepared. The West has failed to admit for a long time that terrorists have entered Western countries together with immigrants. They admit this today because it was precisely “immigrants’ who perpetrated these terrorist attacks. It is impossible to check these people and to see whether they have legal or illegal passports. When ISIS militants seized Syrian territory, they obtained tens of thousands of unfilled passport forms, and militants with these passports are now arriving in Europe. Take the registration of immigrants entering Europe. European authorities are currently unable to locate 350,000 refugees. Where are they? How can this be possible? Do you think there are no terrorists among them? Of course there are. Therefore repeat terrorist attacks can be staged. It is also possible to create clandestine cells in Russia. Two groups were arrested in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on the eve of the May 9 celebrations. This is one and the same thing.
Question: CIA Director John Brennan has recently visited Moscow. Are these contacts being maintained today, against the backdrop of growing tensions in Russian-US relations? Are any visits taking place?
Oleg Syromolotov: When Mr Brennan arrived here, he held talks with his colleagues from Russian secret services, rather than with Foreign Ministry representatives. Second, the Foreign Ministry maintains counter-terrorist cooperation with various countries. For example, a presidential commission in the United States reflected all aspects of activity, including counter-terrorist operations. Russia and the United States continue to maintain contacts aiming to hamper the financing of terrorism and to maintain information security. We maintain full-scale cooperation with some European countries’ foreign ministries. This concerns the fight against terrorism, and efforts to hamper its financing, to crack down on organised crime, to maintain information security and, certainly, to combat the drug threat, because illegal drug trafficking is a source of funding for terrorism.
Question: The United States has recently suspended its diplomatic cooperation with Russia on agreements on Syria, that were drafted through tremendous efforts. Does our insistent demand on disengaging terrorists remain in force or can we partially tone down this demand? Do we see any chance to prevent the situation form escalating into an uncontrolled armed standoff and to control it by diplomatic methods?
Oleg Syromolotov: There is always a chance. For example, let us recall talks on the Iranian nuclear problem, which lasted six years. They were torpedoed and almost stopped many times, but everything resumed later on. I believe that a common threat will force us to reach certain agreements. Don’t forget that the US election campaign is now in full swing. The domestic political struggle in the United States seriously influences all current developments, including those on the Syrian track. The current US administration is already packing up, and will soon be replaced by the new one.
Question: Does this mean that we don’t expect any substantial moves under the current US administration?
Oleg Syromolotov: We should not rule out anything. We continue to coordinate air operations, so as to prevent any incidents between Russian, US and coalition planes. Therefore, we should not rule out anything in this case. We should always hope for the better. And, most importantly, the changing situation on the ground may force us to take unprecedented action. So it remains to be seen.
Question: But does our demand for disengagement, which is formalised in Russian-US agreements, remain in force, or can we somewhat tone down our position in this respect?
Oleg Syromolotov: Not everything boiled down to disengagement at the latest talks. The US side says that the Syrian Army should first stop using aviation and should stop attacking Aleppo, and that terrorist groups and the so-called opposition would then start withdrawing their forces. The US side says that Syrian government forces should be the first to withdraw from Castello Road. In reality, we have already tried this. We are asking for three days. No, they demand seven days. Seven days amounts to a large-scale regrouping, and we would revert to this situation many times again. Everything boils down to this little simple issue. We continue to reach an agreement on some issue, and we face new demands tomorrow. We need consistency, no matter what.
Question: Considering the current intensity of our struggle against terrorists in Aleppo, considering these conditions, is it possible to guarantee the sustained delivery of humanitarian relief aid? It is possible to synchronise these processes, or do we believe that terrorists should first be expelled from the entire vicinity, including Castello Road?
Oleg Syromolotov: You see, a mechanism was created, the Syrian Army withdrew by four kilometres, and checkpoints with Russian service personnel were established. But why didn’t humanitarian convoys arrive? They were attacked from the other side, and humanitarian relief aid deliveries were thwarted. At the same time, they are blaming Russia for preventing humanitarian access, and so on.
Question: Is it possible to synchronise these processes and to deliver humanitarian relief aid there, while conducting counter-terrorist operations?
Oleg Syromolotov: In this situation, both sides should assume absolutely clear obligations not to hamper humanitarian relief aid deliveries and not to attack convoys. That’s all there is to it. The Syrian Army is ready to do this.
Question: My question concerns the parallels with Russian military operations during the Chechen campaigns. Is it possible to say that the parallels being drawn in the West are inappropriate?
Oleg Syromolotov: There are some similarities. I cannot say that this is a parallel situation. We had only one terrorist group there [in Chechnya], whereas there are numerous terrorist groups of different hues operating here [in Syria]. Some call themselves the opposition, others say they represent al-Qaeda and others side with ISIS, a separate terrorist organisation. Therefore, it is impossible to draw this parallel; we had a single enemy there, and here… By the way, a single enemy did not appear just like that in Chechnya in the late 1990s, when the central Russian government had become considerably weakened, and when various foundations and NGOs started flocking to the North Caucasus. And who came with them? Real terrorists who arrived at the head of youth NGOs, including one who became the so-called chief of the Caucasus Imarate’s general staff.
Question: Do we admit, in general, that civilian fatalities are possible during our operations in Syria, including Aleppo?
Oleg Syromolotov: Of course, the civilian population may get hit. How do militants act when military aviation is used? They hide behind civilians. Two years ago, for example, Jaysh al-Islam militants placed civilians in cages on buildings occupied by terrorists, so that they would avoid being hit. That's one example. And the same is happening now there. We established corridors in Aleppo together with the Syrian Army for evacuating civilians. Terrorists do not let them go, and they hide behind civilians. And, see for yourself, everything hinges on provocations. Everyone is now shouting that chemical weapons are being used. I believe that a provocation will be staged in the near future, and the Syrian Army will be accused of using chemical weapons. This amounts to standard tactics, including strikes against civilians, a disastrous humanitarian situation and the use of banned munitions. Chemical weapons are now expected to appear, although Russia and the United States removed chemical weapons from the Syrian Army several years ago.
Question: Official Washington is discussing several scenarios for subsequent operations in Syria. For example, they are studying the possibility of hitting the Syrian military infrastructure. What does Russian intelligence report?
Oleg Syromolotov: We can’t rule anything out, because the Deir ez-Zor attack had been planned in advance and was hardly accidental. I believe that various decision-making agencies in Washington are now holding intensive consultations. As we can see, these agencies voice different opinions. The US Department of State’s opinion differs from that of the Department of Defense and the CIA. And above it all stands a president who is on his way out. Let’s see what comes of it.
Question: Will Russia assist Bashar al-Assad proportionately in case of any hostile US actions?
Oleg Syromolotov: I am not Commander in Chief, and I cannot make such decisions. We have the President who will make the appropriate decision after consultations with various agencies.