Russia’s foreign minister criticized the United States and other countries trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday, warning that U.S.-led campaigns that got rid of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi brought those countries turmoil, not peace.
Sergey Lavrov dismissed those who say the Islamic State group can be defeated with Assad out of the way as “not very serious.”
He implied that Assad’s departure during a political transition would help the Islamic State group, which already controls two-thirds of the country, in its quest to take over all of Syria for its caliphate.
Lavrov told a news conference the world should draw lessons about Syria from the deaths of Saddam and Gadhafi.
“Is Iraq a better place, a safer place? … Is Libya a better place?” he asked. “Now we’re demonizing Assad.”
Lavrov said the top international priority now must be “fighting terrorism,” especially the Islamic State group.
“Yes, there must be political change in Syria, but ISIL is building a caliphate,” Lavrov said, referring to an IS group acronym. “It’s dangerous. They want to build a caliphate from Portugal to Pakistan taking everything in between.”
He said that “we cannot condition fighting ISIL by changing the political system in Syria.”
The United States and its Western and Sunni Arab allies remain and odds with Russia, a close ally of Syria, not only on the priorities to end the conflict, now in its fifth year, but on how to implement a 2012 Geneva agreement to restore peace.
That agreement — backed by the U.S., Russia and many nations — calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers, on the basis of mutual consent, leading to the drafting of a constitution and elections.
The United States and its allies blame Assad for the conflict and the more than 250,000 killings and insist he must hand over power during the transition, a demand opposed by Russia.
While Russia believes fighting terrorism must be a priority, Lavrov said, “parallel with this — not after — but parallel with this, many things could be done on the political front.”
He said the entire spectrum of Syrian society must agree on the key outlines of a secular state with democratic elections and the rights of all ethnic groups and religious minorities, and a constitution. He said the opposition Free Syrian Army and other “Syrian patriotic opposition individuals” must be part of the political process.
If a deal is reached and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, and Syrians can see that the constitution protects their rights, “I think that the problems of one or another personality would be much easier to resolve,” Lavrov said.
He said that’s what he discussed with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Gulf ministers on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting, which ends Saturday.
“Yes, we disagreed,” Lavrov said, again pointing to differences over Assad and the results in Libya and Iraq.
Lavrov spoke a day after Russia launched airstrikes in Syria.
He was critical of U.S. Secretary of State Ash Carter’s comments Wednesday that Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes against the IS group while supporting Assad, without pursuing a parallel political transition, was tantamount “to pouring gasoline on the fire.”
“We know about many fires, gasoline by the Pentagon in the region, and we believe that our position is absolutely in line with international law,” Lavrov said.
But he said Moscow and Washington see “eye-to-eye” on targeting the Islamic State and other “terrorist groups” in Syria. “If the United States-led coalition targets only terrorist groups,” he said “then we do the same.”