A senior Russian diplomat urged the incoming U.S. president to work with his country to resolve the war in Syria and avoid escalation, as he defended the Kremlin’s military intervention in the conflict as a fight against terrorism.
Alexei Borodavkin, who’s represented Russia at Syria peace talks as ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said President Vladimir Putin is seeking to cement a more than two-week-old pause in bombing of the city of Aleppo into a lasting truce through talks with the U.S. and regional powers.
“I hope there will be no undesirable gap in the efforts to re-establish peace during the transitional period in the United States,” Borodavkin said in an interview at the Russian mission in the Swiss city, emphasizing that Russia is ready to work with any president who is elected by the American people. “We are not looking for any additional tension or escalation in Syria.”
The halt to airstrikes by Russian and Syrian forces came amid growing international outrage over the attacks on Aleppo, where some 275,000 people remain trapped. The bombings prompted U.S. and European leaders to threaten possible sanctions and to warn that Russia may be committing war crimes.
The attacks followed the collapse of a cease-fire deal for Syria negotiated in September by the U.S. and Russia to try to end a war that’s killed more than 300,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe. Putin turned the tide of the war in Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s favor by ordering Russia’s military to begin the airstrikes in September last year.
While Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he’d consider allying with Putin to fight Islamic State in Syria, Democratic contender Hillary Clinton has pledged to set up a no-fly zone to protect civilians, risking a potential stand-off with Russia. Trump warned last week that Clinton’s plans for Syria could lead to “World War III” because of the risk of a military conflict with the nuclear-armed power.
Putin on Friday rejected a request from the Russian military to resume bombing of militants in Aleppo that were suspended Oct. 18. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin wanted to give the U.S. more time to fulfill a pledge under the September cease-fire deal to separate moderate Syrian rebels from terrorist groups.
Putin ordered the so-called humanitarian pause to be extended to 7 p.m. on Friday, the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday. The length of time that bombing is suspended depends on the actions of the “terrorists” in Aleppo, Peskov told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
“We keep hearing Aleppo, Aleppo, Aleppo. But what is the issue here?” Putin told the Valdai international forum in Russia’s Sochi on Oct. 27. “Do we leave the nest of terrorists in place there, or do we squeeze them out, doing our best to minimize and avoid civilian casualties?”
There’s “no alternative. We need to fight,” Putin said. “If we keep retreating, we will always lose.”
A naval task force bound for Syria has entered the Mediterranean, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday, according to an e-mailed statement. While it was surprising that some countries refused to allow the ships to use their ports under pressure from the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the decision hasn’t disrupted the strike force’s schedule, he said.
“It seems this is how our partners understand their contribution to the fight against international terrorism in Syria,” Shoigu said. “It’s time Western colleagues decided with whom they’re really fighting — with terrorists or with Russia.”
The pause in bombing by Russia and Syria is being exploited by militants, who launched attacks last week aimed at breaking the siege of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, to get additional ammunition and weapons into the country, said Borodavkin, the diplomat.
“They use the time to get more troops and regroup,” he said. “And finally they launch an offensive operation against government-held territory.”
If talks with the U.S. and regional powers including Turkey are successful in negotiating the withdrawal from Aleppo of al-Qaeda linked fighters, a durable cease-fire could follow that paves the way for a resumption of Syrian peace talks, according to the envoy. Russia seeks a negotiated settlement, Borodavkin said.
“Whether it is with the Obama administration or it will be with the next president, the problems and the means to resolve them will remain the same,” he said. “There is certainly no military solution to the Syrian conflict.”