Exclusive: Russian Premier Remains Defiant on Bombing of Syrian Rebels

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Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev during a meeting with the Bavarian state premier in Munich on Feb. 13, 2016

 

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev tells TIME that the peace deal won’t stop the war in Syria

Russia has no plans to stop its bombing campaign against rebel positions in Syria until Moscow’s allies in Damascus can achieve peace on favorable terms, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev tells TIME in an exclusive interview. As for the targets of the Syrian regime’s ongoing offensive around Aleppo and other cities, he said that rebels “who run around with automatic weapons” should be fair game — not only the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

“They are all bandits and terrorists,” the Prime Minister said on Saturday in a wide-ranging interview in Munich, where he was leading the Russian delegation to an annual conference on global security. “They move around amongst themselves for various reasons: They get paid more somewhere else, or somebody has a falling out with somebody else. So it is very difficult for us to tell the difference between the very moderate ones and the not-so-moderate ones, the good from the bad.”

The conditions he listed for such a peace indicate how far out of reach it remains. First, Syrian President Bashar Assad would have to sit down at the negotiating table with the rebel forces “who are capable of reaching an agreement,” Medvedev said. “That circle of people still has to be determined.” After that, the negotiating parties would have to agree on Syria’s political structure and the process of democratic reforms. They would also have to figure out Assad’s role in a future Syria, “because otherwise it would be strange,” Medvedev said. “At that moment,” he added, the fighting “should come to an end.”

But Assad clearly has no intention of finishing up just yet. His troops have come back from the brink of defeat since Russia began intervening on his behalf in late September, retaking territory from rebels forces that have been trying to topple him since 2011. Hours before the peace deal was announced, Assad made clear his intention to claw back control of all of Syria. “Regardless of whether we can do that or not, this is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation,” he told the French news agency Agence France-Presse.

Medvedev would not directly answer TIME’s question about whether Russia shares this goal with Assad. “He is not the one who will determine the extent of Russia’s military presence over there,” Medvedev said. The Prime Minister did, however, suggest that Moscow would resist any division of Syria between Assad and the opposition.

“We would like Syria to stay within its historic borders as a unified country,” he said, adding: “None of us need another Libya, which broke up into several pieces, nor do we need the kind of chaos in which various territories are under the control of field commanders or, to put it plainly, bandits, regardless what religious rhetoric they use as cover.”

In recent weeks, Western officials have begun to concede that Russia holds the cards in Syria, and that the success or failure of any peace deal will depend on Russia’s willingness to stop bombing rebel positions. “Frankly, it depends on what Russia wants,” British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. “Unless Russia, over the next days, is going to stop or significantly scale back that bombing, the moderate armed opposition will not join in this process. They cannot be expected to join in this process.”

Even before the Russian bombing campaign began last fall, Western diplomats found it difficult to get rebel factions to negotiate with Assad, whom they accuse of widespread atrocities. Nearly half a million people have been killed during the four-year-old conflict, and more than 10 million people — or about half the population — have been driven from their homes. Many of them have sought sanctuary in Europe, where the massive flow of asylum seekers has destabilized the European Union. On Feb. 8, the U.N. Human Rights Council became the latest international watchdog to accuse Assad’s government of crimes against humanity, including the systematic torture and killing of detainees.

Some alliances, such as the ones between prewar Syria and its former partners in France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, can fall apart in no time when conflicts flare. “They helped Syria develop, and then reversed their positions overnight,” Medvedev said, while the bonds between Russia and Syria have proven more resilient. “So, the question now is not about who we call an ally, but about responsible behavior.”

Continuing on the subject of uncomfortable alliances, the Prime Minister noted that a variety of corrupt and violent despots have enjoyed U.S. support over the years. To make the point, he invoked the famous phrase—“He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”— that President Franklin Roosevelt is alleged to have said of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1939.

The Russian alliance with Syria may not be much different, Medvedev suggested. “Of course, we do our best to honor our contractual obligations. If someone asks us for help, we try to assist. Do we use the famous formula of the United States, about our son of a bitch? Not always,” he said, chuckling. “That’s an American idea.”

Full article: Exclusive: Russian Premier Remains Defiant on Bombing of Syrian Rebels (Time)

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