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Russian Diplomat Urges Political Deal in Syria to Avoid Unending Civil Conflict

December 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Having been an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia is now watching the leader lose ground to the rebels. Judy Woodruff talks to Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, who says that while Russia is not supporting Assad, it remains strong in its rejection of outside military intervention in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.

Let me begin by asking you about the comment today made by your deputy foreign minister, Mr. Bogdanov. He said today — and I quote — “It is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition.”

How would you describe the situation in Syria?

VITALY CHURKIN, Russian Ambassador to United Nations: Well, you know, I think he went on saying that the Syrian government seems to be losing ground in the fighting with the opposition.

And I think that this is an obvious observation. But I don’t think there is anything in that statement which one can welcome or not welcome, because, well, first of all, that doesn’t mean that the trouble will end any time soon.

The fighting may continue for a very long time still and the sort of — the battle may keep going this way or the other way for a long time, because you will recall that when the crisis started, the predictions were that it will last for two to four months, and that President Assad is going to be toppled.

But that didn’t happen. And then another important thing to remember is that, even if the current stage of the crisis were to end in the so-called victory of the opposition that would mean that real trouble in Syria would only be starting.

You will recall that after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq, it was only the beginning of years of severe civil conflict and sectarian conflict in Iraq, which took over 100,000 of lives of civilians.

So, something of this sort could well be happening in Syria even after the so-called victory of the opposition.

My point is that a political outcome, a political deal continues to be urgently needed in the situation in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Urgently needed. So, does that mean that Russia is now prepared to sit down and work toward a resolution that would involve different leadership in Syria?

VITALY CHURKIN: Russia has always maintained that it is for the Syrians themselves to decide who is going to lead the country and the Syrian people.

But Russia has always been prepared to work for a political outcome.

In fact, we were instrumental in putting together the Geneva communique in the action group meeting on the foreign minister level, with the participation of Kofi Annan, who was then the secretary-general’s special envoy, which provides for the steps which are necessary in order to have a political conclusion to the crisis in Syria.

And we agreed just recently with Americans in a meeting in which Mr. Brahimi participated together with Mr. Bogdanov, whom you quoted, and Mr. Burns from the U.S. State Department, that the Geneva communique continues to be the only consensus realistic basis for a political outcome. So this is our platform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me…

VITALY CHURKIN: Yes, please.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you, Mr. Ambassador. If you’re saying it’s up to the Syrians, isn’t that really saying we just let the two sides continue to fight it out, no matter what the cost in lives is? What is it, 40,000 Syrians have already died, two million have been displaced, a half-a-million refugees.

VITALY CHURKIN: It is completely the opposite. What we’re saying is completely the opposite.

The Geneva communique did say that the goal should be putting together a national transitional body composed of representatives from the government and the opposition which are acceptable to each other.

When, sometimes, the future or the stepping down from office of President Assad is put to the fore, when people very often say that first he needs to step down, then our question is, but he is not stepping down.

So what are you going to do about it? If we were to accept that, what would change, if he continues to be in Damascus and continues to be the leader of an important group of the Syrian population at least and the leader of the armed forces?

So that kind of logic would immediately put that strategy into an impasse.


VITALY CHURKIN: And, in fact, it would only limit this — the possibility would be only to fight it out. And this is exactly what has been happening.

So our logic is that we shouldn’t put the Assad future to the fore. We should try to find common ground political and in terms of personalities who could be in that transitional body between various groups of Syrians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But my question remains, as long as there’s a delay in waiting for that to happen, one side doesn’t want to sit on the table with another side, there’s discussion about whether Iran would be at the table, the shape of the negotiations. Meanwhile, people are dying in Syria. So the question is…

VITALY CHURKIN: You’re exactly right, yes. This is absolutely the core of the problem, that, on both sides, they seem to believe that they can win by fighting.

And the idea of the Geneva communique, which we still continue to believe is an important document which we need work on the basis on, is that they all should stop fighting and should sit together and to determine who is going to be the transitional body which will take them to the next stage of their political development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, to understand completely, Mr. Ambassador, you’re saying Russia’s position on Syria, your support for President Assad is as strong as it always has been? You’re saying nothing has changed?

VITALY CHURKIN: We are not supporting President Assad. We’re supporting a political arrangement which needs to be found there.

We are against — we are against trying to resolve the conflict militarily. We think that the effort to make one side the victor militarily in the conflict, to try to topple the government and the entire political system which it represents by force is the root cause of this entire problem.

We’re not supporting Assad. We’re supporting the political outcome. The problem is that Assad is there. You can say “you should go” as many times as you want, but as long as he shows no intention of doing so, that would only leave you at the corner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, to those who look at the situation and say Russia is one of the obstacles to finding a solution because you will not go, your country will not go along with the sanctions required to make an important diplomatic change there?

VITALY CHURKIN: No, the sanctions are — would be completely irrelevant.

You know the government is under all sorts of sanctions. It has been fighting a war which has been very difficult for the government and which it is not exactly winning, to put it mildly. So to think that to change anything, there must be additional pressure on the government, we think, is completely, completely irrelevant.

What we need is to put political pressure on both sides and to persuade those and their position who believe that the only way to win is to fight is a very dangerous strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you about a development here in the United States today. I’m sure you’re aware that the U.S. ambassador to the United States, Susan Rice, whom you know and whom you have worked with, has now withdrawn her name from consideration to be the U.S. secretary of state.

Do you have a reaction to that?

VITALY CHURKIN: Not really. It’s Ambassador Rice’s decision.

The only thing I can say is that, if it means that Ambassador Rice is going to spend four more years in the United Nations, I will have to ask for double pay.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Why — why do you say that?

VITALY CHURKIN: She has been — she has been one tough individual in the United Nations.

But we have had, I think, sometimes a stormy, but most of the time friendly relationship with her. So, I would be looking forward to that, particularly if I’m given double pay for an additional — for the additional effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you think the fact that she won’t be secretary of state is a loss for the United States?

VITALY CHURKIN: You know, I don’t want to get into that. This is definitely a domestic matter for the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Amb. Vitaly Churkin, we thank you for being with us.