Interview with Malcolm Rifkind, part 4 On US attack on Syria, meeting Tillerson — Lavrov and terrorist threat from Central Asia

VM: In recent days, we faced dramatic events: the terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg and Stockholm, the US strike in Syria.

Let us start with the US attack with cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase. This attack, according to Washington, was taken as a response to the use of the chemical weapon by the Syrian air force against the anti-government forces.

The Russian and the Syrian governments reject the possibility that Assad regime was behind the chemical attack. The UN representatives on the ground are not sure what gas was used and who was to be blamed. The Turkish government has agreed to carry out investigation three days after the US attack and, as it seems, under pressure from Moscow. As a result of his negotiations in Moscow with Lavrov and Putin, Tillerson also agreed to carry out impartial investigation and, as I understand, that will be discussed in Geneva at a meeting between Russian, UN and US representatives. I am quite sure, that the UN and International organizations will carry out the investigation and the world will know who used the chemical weapon. Why has President Trump had decided not to wait for results of investigation? If it was not the Syrian air force? How you can comment on the political decisions and diplomatic efforts by the US and Russia, the reaction of the two powers on what had happened in Syria?

MR: — Great power diplomacy can, sometimes, be impressive. Sometimes it is not.

The Kremlin’s response when news broke that hundreds of Syrians, including women and children, had been killed or seriously injured as a result of an  attack using chemical weapons, was particularly controversial as Russia brokered the deal in 2013 which was supposed to have removed all of Assad’s chemical weapons stocks. If Assad was responsible, either Russia was deceived by him in 2013 or, Assad, with or without Moscow’s knowledge, has created new chemical weapons during the last three years.

The Russian Government should have expressed its shock and disapproval at what had happened and said that, if there was proof that  Assad had been responsible,  it would  do all in its power to ensure that the government in Damascus never repeated this war crime. Instead the international community was told that the building that was hit by one of the Syrian bombs, by an extraordinary coincidence, was a building, controlled by the rebels, which contained chemical weapons supplies which were released  into the atmosphere.

There has been no evidence provided in support of this claim. If  there is to be a UN investigation it will be interesting to hear what they conclude.

The other example of unimpressive diplomacy has been the demand by the White House and the US Secretary of State, amongst others, that Assad must resign and that the Russian Government must end their alliance with the Syrian President and work with the West to create a new transitional government that will not include the current regime in Damascus.

In making these demands, President Trump, Rex Tillerson and other Western leaders, were well aware that there was not the slightest prospect of this happening.

Over the last two years, with Russian support, Assad has retaken Aleppo as well as much other territory previously controlled by the opposition. Assad is much more powerful today than he was before Russia used its military might in his support. He is more powerful than his opponents and that cannot be ignored.

When the great powers make claims or demands which are manifestly unrealistic or incredible they reduce their own authority and make the resolution of international crises far more difficult. They should resist the temptation to do so.

Already that appears to be being realized by the Trump Administration. After his meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Rex Tillerson said that the need for Assad to go was not a US demand. It is a pity that he and President Trump did not make that clear some days ago.

What should happen now? The reality is that the US air strikes have changed the international dynamic and strategic reality within Syria. Putin now has to take that into account. For three years he could be confident that Russia could use military force in Syria but the US would not. That meant that there was no risk of a US-Russian military confrontation. He can no longer have that confidence.

Both the US and Russia now have an interest in bringing the Syrian civil war to an early end. The Kremlin can be satisfied that, at least for a transitional period, Assad will still have a role. They can also assume that even when he eventually goes there will still be part of his regime that will be involved in the government of Syria.

VM: In our previous discussion, you spoke about an attempt by Russia to control the former Soviet States in Central Asia, like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Only few days back, Russia faced the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg, and it appeared that terrorists, who made the blast that killed 14 and wounded 49 people, were of Kyrgyz origin. It seems that Russia is facing a new terrorist threat, now from radical Islam of Central Asia. Do you agree with this assessment?

MR: — May I first say that I do not believe that Russia is trying to control Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as regards their domestic policy. However, Mr Putin does believe that these countries and other former republics of the USSR should accept that their foreign policy and international alliances must be acceptable to Russia.

The terrorist attack in St Petersburg was a terrible atrocity and the whole world sympathizes with the people of Russia and, in particular, with those who lost their lives or were injured in the attack. In the United Kingdom we had a terrorist attack recently near our Parliament by a person supporting Islamic jihadi terrorism. On this issue we stand should to shoulder with the Russian people.

You ask whether Russia is facing a new threat from radical Islam originating from Central Asia. Sadly, it is not a new threat as Russia has experienced a number of terrorist outrages in recent years, by Islamist fanatics that have killed many people. There are many terrorists who appear to be of Chechen or Dagestani origin, who are Russian citizens who have been responsible for terrorist attacks within Russia or have gone to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State.

VM: — By naming a new threat, which originates from the Central Asia, I wanted to say that during Boris Eltsin time, Russia was moving out of the Central Asia and losing its influence. In 1990-s new Russian elite was interesting in consolidation of power, in dividing and privatizing the Soviet heritage. The West and China were moving into vacuum created by Eltsin in Central Asia, but there was a third and most active force, which succeeded mostly – the Islamic States of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey. In the last twenty years, hundreds of thousands of young men from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan went to these countries to study in Islamic Centers and Universities. They were invited, they were financially supported, travelling and education were free for them. After studies and training, they returned home. I know parents in former Soviet Central Asian republics, who were communists, who are still atheists and believe in communist ideas. Their children returned from the Middle East, they wear beards, turbans and traditional Islamic dress, they don’t watch television, don’t read newspapers. They get information and news from mosques and Islamic centers. Their parents are horrified. They understand that their children are potential, if not active, supporters of Islamic radicals. They are afraid that radical Islam will get control over their countries. Until recently, this threat was a potential one, but after the terrorist act in St. Petersburg and in Stockholm, where the terrorist attack was also carried out by a man from Central Asia, from Uzbekistan, this threat became real and direct. Does anybody in the UK or EU study the situation in the Central Asia from this point of view? Do you have a feeling that radical Islam may attack Europe from the Central Asia?

MR: — Your question raises a very valid concern but not one that is limited to Central Asia. There are also many young Muslims in Indonesia or elsewhere in the Far East, in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, and in other parts of the world who were invited to these Islamic centres and madrassahs where they were persuaded to adopt extreme views and a jihadi religious commitment.

It has not always required them to travel to the Middle East. Until recently, some of that radicalization was done within the United Kingdom and other countries. That is now much less easy in the UK as both the Government and the Muslim community have taken steps to identify extreme Muslim mullahs and others. Centres for radicalization have been identified and closed down wherever that has been legally possible. Promoting terrorism by any means is a criminal offence and prosecutions have been successful in our Courts.

I doubt if the UK will face a significant direct threat from Islamic extremists from Central Asia. Our direct links with those countries are modest and there has been relatively little migration.

I recognise the problem may be more acute in Central Asia. Having been subject for many years to a Communist ideology where practice of religion was either banned or very difficult, the collapse of the USSR created a vacuum and many young people found Islam a potential alternative ideology as well as a religious faith.

Although there are many detailed differences, the discouragement and elimination of extreme jihadi Islamism is an area where Russia and the United Kingdom have a common interest and where co-operation should be possible.»

VM: — There is a feeling of growing differences between Russia and the West in attitude and understanding of the processes and problems in the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia, supported by Iran and, for example, China, looks at ISIS State as the worst possible scenario of political development. Part of the US political establishment hopes to be able to control and coexist with the Caliphate…   Russia, China, Iran support Assad and believe that there is no possibility of political stability in the region without the present regime. Russia does not believe that a pro-Western or pro-foreign regime can survive in Afghanistan. From the Soviet experience, Moscow knows that the US and its allies may continue war in Afghanistan for twenty years more, spent hundreds of billion dollars, but they will fail to create a stable regime in Afghanistan. As soon as they reduce their involvement in the war or move out, the regime will collapse, and the anti-Western Islamic forces will come to power in Kabul. It may be Taliban, who wants to establish strict Islamic regime inside the country, or ISIS, who wants to spread radical Islam all over the world. Moscow prefers Taliban, because ISIS immediately will attack the Central Asian countries. That is the reason of growing conflict of interests and conflict of policies between Russia, Central Asian countries, China and the US in Afghanistan… By the way, the Central Asia is more close to the UK than it seems. From 55 to 60% of the Afghan population are ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks or Turkmens, and there are hundreds of thousand Afghan refugees already in Europe. I am sure that many of them have close links to Central Asia. In Russia, there is a feeling that the West simply doesn’t “understand the East”, and that is the reason for so many mistakes in its policy… Do you think that there is a possibility of a change in the US and NATO approach to the solution of the conflict in Afghanistan, or at least, of a dialogue between Moscow and Washington on this matter? 

MR: — I do not think there is any significant difference between Russia and the West as regards the threat posed by ISIS. There may be some individuals in the US, who think that we could co-exist with a «Caliphate» controlled by ISIS but I do not know who they are and there is no evidence that they have any influence on US foreign policy.

VM: — For example, David Petraeus, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and coalition forces in Iraq. He recently spoke about that possibility in London. He was a candidate to one of the top jobs in Trump’s Administration.

MR: — President Trump has made clear that the defeat of ISIS is one of his most important foreign policy objectives and on this question, I do not disagree with him. In Syria the US, UK and other Western countries have been using air power to attack ISIS while Russia appears to have given priority to assisting the Assad regime attacking other Syrian opposition forces, both secular and Islamist.

As regards Afghanistan, most Western Governments acknowledge that it will not be possible to eliminate the Taliban but it may also not be possible for the Taliban to achieve control of the whole of Afghanistan over the years ahead. There is a willingness to support negotiations with the Taliban to see if some compromise between them and the Afghan Government might be possible. It would be helpful if the Russian Government gave active support to such an objective.

I agree that the Taliban may be less of a threat than ISIS to the international community but, in the past, it was the Taliban that gave active support to al Qaeda which was what led to their overthrow by the US.

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