An interview with Yevgeni Primakov, Russia's former prime minister, foreign minister, and foreign intelligence chief, and the country's senior diplomatic specialist on the Arab world, appeared in the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta today, under the provocative headline, "The Very Near East." The date of its publication, exactly four years after Georgia's attack on Russian peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, underscored Primakov's sober warning about the prospects for renewed war in Southeast Asia and its strategic implications. He discussed both Syria and Iran.
Interviewer Vladimir Snegirev asked about the likelihood of "a strike by Israel, with or without the support of the States, against Iran's nuclear facilities." Primakov replied, "The United States doesn't want that to happen now, before the President elections. They are restraining Israel." But, he went on to say that there are different factions on this matter in both Israel and the USA, making it "difficult to say who will have the upper hand." Primakov compared the situation with August 2008, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had told Georgian President Michael Saakashvili not to move into South Ossetia, but Saakashvili had relied on a belief he got from contacts with Vice President Dick Cheney, "that NATO would intervene in his support." Specifically: "Saakashvili thought that he could reach the Roki Tunnel and block it, whereupon Russia would be unable to get its tanks across the mountains. And at that point the Americans would intervene. The Israelis are following the same model. Obama is not the only one they are in contact with. Somebody might be telling them: if you make a strike, then the United States, even if they don't want to, will support you anyway."
Snegirev: "So the probability of such a strike remains? And that presents a danger for this entire, enormous region?"
Primakov: "It is very dangerous. Because the impact of an air strike — and a ground operation is not at issue — could be miniscule. Within two years Iran will completely recover, exit the NPT with fanfares, and then for sure will build its own weapons of mass destruction."
Concerning Syria, Primakov described the situation as "fullscale civil war with the involvement of outside forces." He mentioned Saudi and Qatari financing of opposition guerrillas, mercenaries, and volunteers from outside of Syria, and Turkish support for the opposition, adding, "And here's the latest: President Obama has directly ordered the CIA to support the Syrian opposition." Primakov called these activities "gross interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation that presents no threat whatsoever to the United States or anybody else."
Primakov said he thought that Russia's position toward the situation in Syria "could be called the only correct one in this situation." This is not necessarily a policy which will prevail, he said, but "we are taking a moral approach, based on concern for the lives and security of millions of people and the future stability of an enormous and important region." He added that Russia's sticking to its policy, especially of not advocating the ouster of President Bashar Assad, was not being done for narrow advantage, and was even hurting Russia's relations with several Arab countries. Members of the Arab League that are primarily Sunni, he pointed out, are worried that Assad's prevailing in the conflict will "create the conditions for the formation of a Shi'ite belt of Iraq-Iran-Syria-Lebanon, whereas the overthrow of Assad would mean the establishment of a Sunni regime in Damascus, launching mass repressions against Baath Party members and Alawites generally. Thus, said Primakov, "all talk to the effect that the West, in supporting the opposition, wants to establish democracy and stability in Syria holds no water at all."
In a discussion of the Arab Spring, Primakov cautioned against "demonizing" the United States as its orchestrator. He emphasized the economic crisis, especially for youth facing high unemployment, as a key trigger. Even now, Primakov disagreed with the notion that "radicals" have come out on top everywhere. In Egypt, for example, he called the Muslim Brotherhood "a fairly moderate organization," compared with its branches elsewhere, and there the political question for the country will be the Brotherhood's interaction with the more radical Salafites.
Primakov also discussed Kurdish issues, Israel-Palestine relations, and Afghanistan in the wide-ranging interview.