Russia said the U.S., in deciding to arm Syrian rebels, is in danger of repeating the mistake it made in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it backed religious extremists who later formed the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
The U.S. move is a “disaster” for efforts to end Syria’s two-year civil war, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview in St. Petersburg. “Al-Qaeda was basically born from the Mujahedeen movement financed by the United States when the Soviets were in Afghanistan. Then al-Qaeda boomeranged.”
Russia and the U.S. are on a collision course after President Barack Obama’s administration said last week it will supply weapons to Syria’s opposition in the wake of battlefield advances by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The two former Cold War foes, which are now arming opposing sides in Syria, are struggling to keep alive an initiative to stage a peace conference and end a conflict that has killed more than 90,000.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week at a joint press conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron that the West shouldn’t be supporting people who “not only kill their enemies but cut open their bodies and eat their innards before the public and cameras.”
An Internet video last month appeared to show a Syrian rebel leader mutilating and biting into the heart and liver of a dead enemy soldier.
The Islamic extremist militia Jabhat al-Nusra is the “leading opposition force on the ground” because it’s the “most effective,” Lavrov said in the interview today, which Bloomberg conducted together with the Associated Press. Jabhat al-Nusra, which has merged with al-Qaeda, was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. in December.
“They are terrorists and they must be treated as terrorists,” Lavrov said. “We have to unite, all of us, against the bad guys.”
The U.S. armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as part of its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, which was forced to end its occupation of the central Asian country in 1989. Many of these Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden, later joined al-Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. that killed almost 3,000 people.
Syrian rebels largely drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority have been fighting to topple Assad’s Alawite-led regime since March 2011, a conflict that has drawn in Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia based in neighboring Lebanon.
Lavrov said any move to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and provide military supplies to the insurgents would kill any hope of a peace settlement.
If the U.S. seeks to reverse recent gains by pro-Assad forces to strengthen the hand of the opposition in future negotiations, “this would be a disaster for all diplomatic efforts,” Lavrov said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to meet this weekend with European and Mideast allies to discuss what weapons to provide Syrian rebels, according to French officials. Government troops, backed by Hezbollah, defeated insurgents in the strategic town of al-Qusair this month and are now turning their forces on Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and the suburbs of Damascus.
Obama, who made ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan hallmarks of his presidency, said June 19 that the U.S. isn’t “preparing to go all in and participate in another war.”
“What we want to do is end a war,” Obama said at a joint press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We need to create a transitional governing body with full powers.”
At this week’s Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland, Obama, Putin and the other G-8 leaders agreed on a statement urging the establishment of a transitional government as quickly as possible. They stopped short of calling for Assad’s ouster because of Russian opposition.
The U.S., Russia and the United Nations will hold a new round of talks next week in Geneva on efforts to host the Syria peace conference, UN spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian said in comments posted today on the world body’s website.
The U.S. will supply small arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels, according to a U.S. official familiar with the decision.
The head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Command, Major General Salim Idris, has given friendly governments a weapons wish list, ranging from non-military supplies to anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, the French officials said.
Russia, which has billions of dollars of weapons deals with Assad, hasn’t yet sent advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, though the contract is “absolutely legal,” Lavrov said. Putin said June 4 that Russia temporarily froze the S-300 deal to avoid upsetting the regional balance of power after warnings from Israel and the U.S.
Russia, which has blocked UN sanctions against Syria during the conflict, maintains its only Mediterranean naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus.
The Syrian president inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel in the 1970s.
To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com