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Examining Russia's Role In The Syrian Conflict


We're trying to answer a question this morning. What does Russia want in Syria? Russia has been working with the U.S. to at least pause the violence there. And Secretary of State John Kerry says that could happen in a matter of days after some delays. Publicly, the U.S. and Russia want the same thing, to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups. However, Russia has also seemed determined to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. We spoke this morning with Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He says Russia's main goal is fighting terrorism.

VLADIMIR SOTNIKOV: The main goal for Russia is just to cope with the jihadist threat emanating from the severe civil war in Syria and from this area of the world. Russia stands for - not for Bashar Assad personally. The main strategy is just to support Syria and just to preserve its unity actually.

GREENE: Then may I ask - there's a map on the Institute for War's website that uses U.S. military data. And it seems based on that data, that the vast majority of Russian air-strikes do not appear to be hitting ISIS. And there has been the impression that Russia has been hitting targets in order to keep the Assad regime in power. Do you see things differently?

SOTNIKOV: Yeah, I see it differently. But first of all, well, I haven't seen this map actually, and I do not agree that the main targets of Russian air-strikes are the main opposition groups in Syria because this is an insinuation (ph) which probably are very popular among our Western partners, and especially in the United States because everybody thinks that Russia's goal is just to support the Bashar Assad regime. But again, this is not the main point, I think.

GREENE: Because it has seemed like there is a disconnect. I mean, the United States and Russia publicly say that their goal is to defeat terrorism.


GREENE: But it - there has been also an impression that there are different agendas happening, that you have Russia still supportive of Assad, who's been an ally for so many years and the United States wanting Assad out of power.

SOTNIKOV: Yeah, this is the main difference actually, which I think the two major stakeholders in this whole Syrian crisis should somehow overcome in the future. But can I ask you a question by the way...

GREENE: Sure, please.

SOTNIKOV: ...David? What do you think? Will it be good for Syrian's future, I mean, if, for example, say in a couple of months or in a couple of weeks even, that Bashar Assad will be removed from power? Could you just imagine that there will be just disarray in Syria because immediately the victories of the Bashar Assad army, they will stop? And there will be just a big run out of the country - and a lot of, by the way, people who are trying to leave - to leave Syria and especially areas where the severe fighting is going on. But that means that there will be no - any peace deal reached for a very long time.

GREENE: You're the expert, so I'm not the one to answer the question. But I think what I hear you saying is that Russia is not necessarily committed to Bashar al-Assad.

SOTNIKOV: Right, right, right.

GREENE: But Russia believes that if Assad is out of power anytime soon, there will be a level of chaos in Syria that is not acceptable. Is that - is that right?

SOTNIKOV: Yeah, that's right. That's what I'm going to say actually.

GREENE: Now, but isn't this where the fundamental disagreement is between the United States and Russia because the United States believes that the Assad regime is committing many atrocities and making this civil war worse?

SOTNIKOV: But the opposition forces also committed a lot of atrocities, by the way, let alone the jihadist radicals from the so-called Islamic State. So who is more to blame in this whole Syria quagmire actually? I mean, the question as I see it now is just to really - first to reach the truce and then proceed to negotiations between all the rivaling factions.

GREENE: And you're optimistic that even though there is this disagreement between the U.S. and Russia, you're optimistic that this agreement can be put into effect and there will be a path to peace in Syria.

SOTNIKOV: Well, at least I hope so.

GREENE: I want to go back for a moment to October, when Bashar al-Assad made a surprise trip to Moscow.


GREENE: And there was video of that meeting between President Putin and Assad. And it looked like Putin was looking down at the floor while Assad was trying to make eye contact. It did not seem like a very warm meeting.

SOTNIKOV: Reception, you mean, yeah?

GREENE: Yeah. Was that a sign that Putin was beginning to...

SOTNIKOV: Lose patience.

GREENE: ...Lose patience with Assad?

SOTNIKOV: I think so, yeah. I think so. It might be so. I'm not President Putin, you know, I cannot say what he has in his mind. But, probably you're right. You're right.

GREENE: Vladimir Sotnikov, always good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

SOTNIKOV: Thank You.

GREENE: He's a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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