'Russia Must Sow Seeds of Peace' - Elena Suponina on Russia's Role in ME

Elena Suponina, adviser to the head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, gave an exclusive interview to the editor-in-chief of the website of the Russia - Islamic World strategic vision group, Ekaterina Podkolzina.

Ms Suponina, how do you assess the outcome of the Astana talks?

The Astana talks have been definitely a step forward. The results are modest but the fact that the meeting took place is a breakthrough in itself.

Many things have happened in Astana for the first time, e.g. the leaders of the armed opposition met the Syrian government for the first time. There were no direct talks but they sat at the negotiating table together and discussed vital issues.

What will change with the new US administration in place vis-a-vis Syria, and Russia?

Since Donald Trump has come to power, the US stance has become much closer to the position of Russia. Trump says that tackling terrorism not toppling Assad, like it was under Obama, must be a priority. However, some of his statements do raise concerns. For example, during his campaign, Trump said that Syria should create safe zones for refugees.

But there's a big question: will Washington coordinate it with the Assad government? If not, then this initiative will be a violation of Syria's territorial sovereignty.

The situation in this country, as well as around it, has been extremely complex at that. It seems that Donald Trump has not considered all of the consequences of his idea. It could be a very dangerous move. Instead of bringing relief, it could instead make things even more complicated.

Will the current ceasefire in Syria hold?

The situation in Syria is still tense. It’s been getting better in the past weeks but things may take a bad turn any time.

Anyway, it’s getting calmer and the credit goes to Russia as well as Turkey and Iran.

The warring parties are tired. Some of the armed opposition groups agreed to come to Astana because of a new reality on the battleground. They’ve been retreating in the past months, in part due to the Russian military support for the government forces.

Eventually, the most reasonable part of the opposition finally realized that the war cannot last forever.

There are still a lot of hot heads, though, who don’t want to see a stable Syria. There are those who aim to fight until they succeed. That’s why the other part of the opposition is reluctant to join the talks, which is alarming. Donald Trump’s contradicting statements also raise a lot of questions. We would like to see more clarity from Washington. It also needs to join the fight against terrorism in a tangible way.

Following the talks in Astana, Russian delegates said there could be new guarantors of the ceasefire if they have real say with the opposition. Who could it be?

The Astana meeting was not designed to replace other formats. Moscow favours negotiations at other levels, too. By the way, another opposition delegation came to Moscow straight after the Astana talks. Moscow believes it is important to develop multilateral as well as bilateral contacts with the stakeholders.

There would definitely be no contact with hardcore terrorists. Terrorist groups shall be destroyed, there’s no other alternative.

The Astana talks will not replace the Geneva format. The more contacts there are about the future of Syria, the better. Russia also thinks there could be more than three parties. It’s not possible to resolve the Syrian conflict through the efforts of Russia, Turkey and Iran only. They need to engage others, including the US and Gulf countries.

There’s one fact that cannot be avoided: Russia’s interests will be taken into account when resolving the Syria crisis. Two or three years ago the US simply ignored Russia’s stance, today things have changed. Russia is back in the Middle East. Moscow has a presence in Syria and at the same time it is also developing ties with other Middle Eastern nations.

It’s a stark contrast to the 1990s when Moscow withdrew from the Middle East following the collapse of the USSR…

I was part of the Russian delegation when President Putin paid his first visits to the Middle East. In 2005 he came to Egypt, Israel and Palestine, and three years later he went to Libya.

It was then that Putin recalled one oriental proverb: “It only takes one seed to tip the scale”. We went on to explain that Russia is sowing seeds in the Middle East and there will be time when it will reap a harvest.

So even today under very challenging circumstances Russia is sowing seeds, so that, sooner or later, it could reap a harvest.

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