Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has slammed the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria as "inconsistent with international law and standard counterterrorism practices" and insisted that the "sovereign states" of Syria and Iraq should be empowered to fight terrorism.
Bogdanov's comments were made in a lengthy interview with the Interfax news agency, published on November 24 -- just two days before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is expected to visit Moscow for talks on Syria. The interview is clearly intended to set out Russia's position on the situation in Syria, including regarding the fight against IS.
The Russian deputy foreign minister's comments also come after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on November 21 that "international cooperation" was needed to destroy IS. Assad's remarks were in response to U.S. President Barack Obama's rejection of any alliance with Assad against IS.
In his interview, Bogdanov reemphasizes Moscow's stance on the U.S.-led coalition in Syria: that Washington and its allies should not carry out air strikes in Syria without the consent of Russia's ally, Assad. Moscow, which like Damascus is concerned that the U.S.-led air strikes against IS militants could be extended to degrade Syrian government positions and boost the U.S.-backed moderate opposition, has insisted that any action in Syria should be both in partnership with the Assad government and carried out via the UN Security Council.
The Russian deputy foreign minister said that the threat from IS was expanding and now "affects not only Syria and Iraq."
"Some terrorist organizations in Egypt have already sworn allegiance to IS. In all likelihood, this terrorist group has contacts in Africa. There are IS supporters in Lebanon, trying to destabilize the situation in that country. The phenomenon of the "terrorist international" has not only regional but international dimensions," Bogdanov told Interfax.
Bogdanov said that while the United States was coordinating with Baghdad regarding the coalition's operations in Iraq, they "will not come to an agreement with the Syrian government because they say they consider it to be illegitimate. In our opinion, this is a destructive position."
Bogdanov said that air strikes against IS were not enough and should be "supported by actions on the ground."
While Washington was supportive of ground operations by the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq, it "denied the legitimacy of the leadership of [Syria] and does not want to have anything to do with Damascus, even in the fight against a common enemy -- terrorism."
Bogdanov cast doubt on the United States' plans to arm the moderate Syrian opposition, noting the recent surrender by the U.S. armed and trained Free Syrian Army group Harakat al-Hazm to the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib province.
Moving on to discuss the fight against IS in Iraq in the context of Russian oil interests in Iraq, Bogdanov said that the extremist Sunni group's control of oil fields and its selling of oil was "extremely dangerous."
Bogdanov added that IS was likely more dangerous than Al-Qaeda because it has "serious sources of self-finance" via the oil fields under its control, and its practice of selling the oil cheaply via intermediaries. The Russian deputy foreign minister called for this issue to be addressed via the UN Security Council.
Russia has substantial oil interests in Iraq. In May, Russian oil giant LUKoil opened a giant Iraqi oil field, West Qurna-2, with a target daily output of four million barrels. LUKoil owns a 75 percent stake in the field.
Asked whether it was possible to block IS's access to Syrian and Iraqi oil fields via ground operations, and whether Russian troops would take part in such an operation, Bogdanov again insisted that the international community should cooperate with the Syrian and Iraqi governments.
"The armed forces of these countries should implement ground and all other operations in the fight against terrorists," Bogdanov said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk