The official, who keeps a close watch on developments in Syria, characterized Khatib’s initiative as a glimmer of light in the darkness of the Syrian crisis.
Although it was regrettable that Khatib had attached tough conditions to his offer, he said that this move was courageous.
“The situation is extremely dangerous, and courage is what is called for,” he said, warning that failure to move toward a political settlement to the crisis would open the door to all outcomes, including interminable war.
The Russian official was critical of some countries, both in and outside the region, which he said claim to be impartial and want peace in Syria, yet “have been acting to obstruct rather than encourage dialogue.”
The Americans seem to increasingly share the broader international sense of alarm about the deteriorating situation in Syria. This was underlined by the three meetings (only two of which were reported in the media) held between Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss resolving the crisis.
“If Khatib is brave and enters into a dialogue, ignoring the criticism directed at him, other opposition groups will join too,” the official predicted.
Moscow would like to see both sides make concessions and meet half way, but is aware that the opposition is divided and not fully in control of its own decisions, while the Syrian government has placed its own conditions on dialogue.
It also faults Brahimi for trying to re-interpret the substance of the Geneva document by seeking to include its reference to a “transitional government with full powers” in the text of a resolution to be issued by the UN Security Council.
The Russian official did not think a summit meeting between the US and Russian presidents could help resolve the crisis in Syria, remarking that “the conflicting parties are not under the control of Moscow or Washington.”
Nor did he agree that the civil war was merely the outcome of the regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests. “In the beginning there were peaceful demonstrations, but there were also elements that used them as cover for sabotage. They carried out armed attacks on government buildings,” he said. “At that stage we put pressure on the government and urged it to hold a dialogue with the opposition and change the constitution. They did that, but [it wasn’t] enough to address the opposition’s fears…Subsequently, the peaceful protest movement retreated and the gunmen came to the forefront.”
The fact that many of the gunmen in Syria are non-Syrian is proof of regional and foreign involvement in the conflict, the official said.
The official also affirmed that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are not under Russian control, and that there is a real risk that armed opposition groups could succeed in their efforts to seize some of them. In this scenario, he said it was likely that armed opposition groups could use chemical weapons, but – in a bid to provoke foreign military intervention – claim it was the Syrian army.
This being the case, Russia “cannot guarantee anything” regarding these stockpiles, the official said.
As for Russia’s arming of the regime, the official said: “Syria is a country surrounded by enemies. It needs the means to defend itself, and Russia supplies it, under contract, with defensive weapons systems only.”
The official pointed to the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons in the hands of non-state actors throughout the region, which no country could control. He noted that the Israeli representative at the UN had twice spoken at the Security Council of weapons originating in Qatar being transferred from Libya to the Gaza Strip.
The US representative to the UN Susan Rice also raised the case of a 20,000-ton Qatari shipment of arms, including anti-aircraft missiles, to Libya in violation of the UN arms embargo.
The official said Russia had repeatedly raised this issue at the Security Council and elsewhere, but its warnings had not been taken seriously. Moscow wants any future international treaty regulating the arms trade to cover unofficial supplies of this nature.
The official indicated that humanitarian aid to civilians in Syria should continue to be delivered under the auspices of the Syrian Red Crescent. He said it was unreasonable to demand humanitarian access by foreign agencies without Syrian oversight, as the government fears weapons could be supplied to opposition fighters along with aid.
Russia is fearful of the changes underway in the region, especially the prospect of power being assumed by Islamist groups with shady agendas. The official could not categorically confirm reports that Chechen rebels are among the foreign fighters active in Syria, but he thought it likely.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.