Charlie Rose Talks to Vitaly Churkin

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations discusses his nation’s vetoes of sanctions against Syria—and the future of Bashar al-Assad's regime
“The situation in Syria is exacerbated because it is seen as containing very high political stakes” —Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador Photograph by EPA/Justin Lane/Landov

You’ve come from the UN. You’ve no doubt been discussing Syria. Where are we? What’s going on?
We’re not in a good place. We do have the basis to work productively on the situation in Syria, but we don’t use it properly. I’m referring to Kofi Annan’s effort as a joint special envoy of the Secretary General of the United Nations and Arab League … which adopted a very good document. The main goal set in that document is to set up the so-called National Transitional Body in Syria composed of members of the government and the opposition in order to start steering the country away from crisis to a future which would be satisfactory to all Syrians. But frankly, we don’t see much of an effort to implement that goal. What we see is a continued strategy of all-out pressure on the regime of Assad … political, economic, and military pressure in the expectation that, you know, it will break down, and then the entire political structure in Syria will change. This, incidentally, is the fundamental difference we have with the U.S. and others, and it caused our three vetoes. We believe that what the international community needs to do is to put various parties together and work it out in the course of a dialogue, that this is the only way to actually achieve a firm result where neither of the parties will feel the loser. Unfortunately, the U.S. and some others from the outset of the crisis decided that they must topple Assad’s regime at any cost. But for that they needed legitimacy, which can only come from the Security Council.

Hasn’t President Assad brought this on himself by killing his own people?
Definitely. He made two very grave mistakes, and we’ve been saying that openly all along. First of all, he did not immediately introduce dramatic political reforms to indicate that he is not only promising a better future for his country but is actually doing it. And then, yes, there was some excessive use of force. It was not unprovoked, because from the outset of the crisis we believe there were destructive, extreme elements which were provoking the government. But then some excesses clearly did take place.

This isn’t just excessive force. This is the killing of your own people.
This is an extraordinary killing which has been going on, and for that reason we put the monitoring mission in, which would be able to tell us exactly who has done the killing. And the stories they have been coming up with are not so uniformly antigovernment. Some horrible things have been done by the opposition. Our understanding of the situation and what needs to be done is that everybody must be responsible for their crimes. And we need to have objective information about what is going on. That’s why we have been supporting the continuation of the monitoring group which, unfortunately, the U.S. is trying to kill.

Do you believe that the pressure on Syria is not a response to humanitarian issues but is a geopolitical effort to weaken Iran?
I haven’t met too many people who don’t believe that. Definitely the situation in Syria is exacerbated because it is seen as containing very high geopolitical stakes. A change of regime would cut off the influence of Iran. It would correct the unwanted geopolitical consequences of the removal of Saddam Hussein. It may make Israel feel safer. On the other hand, if things go wrong, then everybody may feel less secure, including Israel. And this is one of the reasons why we do not subscribe to this kind of policy.

Will Assad fight to the end?
I don’t know. One thing we do know is that he has not shown any interest in stepping down.

What is your government telling him? I assume that there’s a direct line to Assad because you’re the best friend he’s got.
We do have a direct line, but in terms of friends this is one of the misperceptions. You know, last time he was in Moscow was in the summer of 2008. Since then, he’s made three trips to Paris. So if you measure various indicators …

You measure it, when push comes to shove, by who stands with you.
Yes, that’s a good point.

A word from Russia that it’s over to him would mean “It’s over,” right?
I don’t think so. This is a misperception that he’s sitting there waiting for the call from Moscow to tell him what to do.

Who else is on his side?
He has a 300,000-strong armed force on his side.