Original by Aleksandr Kots and Dmitriy Steshin published by Komsomolskaya Pravda; translation by J.Hawk
“With a pen and a sword”
The civil war has no front lines. It can erupt anywhere and at any time. Three years ago, the Russian embassy in Damascus managed to survive one of the largest terrorist attacks of the Syrian schism. A truck carrying half a ton of explosives blew up on the busy road next to the embassy. Another such bomb, carried by a minivan, failed to explode. Luckily (if that’s the right word) the first blast also killed the second suicide driver. We were 5km from the epicenter, and we still felt the blast wave which rocked the building and knocked out the windows. Body parts could be found at a distance of 1km of the explosion site. There are no words to describe what happened on the busy road itself. House facades collapsed. Our diplomats also suffered from the glass fragments from shattered windows. The terrorists did not even need to enter the heavily protected “security zone.” A few months later, Russian diplomats found themselves practically on the front lines. The militants captured the Jobar district, which was only 4km distant.
–You are practically a frontline embassy. But few know about it…–that’s how we started our conversation with Aleksandr Kinshchak, Russian Federation’s Ambassador to the Syrian Arab Republic.
–There are two other hot spots, Baghdad and Kabul. I would not want to say who has it worse. WE have a range of threats that we track and analyze, take preventive measures to reduce the level of danger. You’ve seen our perimeter defenses–concrete slabs, metal gates. Syria’s elite security forces. If anyone were to attempt to a suicide bomber attack, they’d likely fail. We are well protected against that. There’s also the danger of rocket and artillery attack. But the whole city lives in fear of that–bombs fall, people die. We haven’t had fatalities yet, only material damage. I think we have implemented adequate anti-shrapnel measures. Our staff understands the danger, and they are focused on dealing with it. Here’s our sports field, we play volleyball here. One day a mortar bomb fell on it. It did not explode. Now the staff spends less time outside. We have a gym, and it was an incentive to improve its equipment.
The Geneva dead-end
We walk toward the volleyball court through a narrow corridor of blue barrels filled with sand. The court is almost empty. Diplomats don’t leave the buildings unless they need to. These anti-shrapnel passages are set up in order to enable caught outside during a bombardment to quickly find shelter. The corridors connect embassy office buildings with the cafeteria, the middle school which was opened right on embassy grounds, to the gym and children’s playground which, naturally, has not seen any children for a long time. An embassy staffer is jogging around the courtyard. At his own risk. Then again, nowadays shelling is a rarity. But, according to the ambassador, the militants continue to target the embassy. It regularly receives anonymous threats over the internet. But security measures are so effective that even suicide attackers can’t approach its walls. The last attempt occurred a month and a half ago, when a terrorist tried to reach an embassy on a bomb-carrying bicycle. But he couldn’t penetrated the security and abandoned his two-wheel bomb at a checkpoint on the approaches to the embassy.
As a rule, terror attacks against Russian diplomats are the work of one of Syria’s terrorist organizations, namely Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam). Riyadh has included it on its list of negotiating parties for the quickly halted Geneva talks.
–Syrians were supposed to interact through the UN intermediary, but even that formula failed, ambassador Kinshchak says. There were many reasons for the collapse, including the disunity among the opposition. They had at least two teams, and each of them demanded to have complete negotiating power on behalf of the entire opposition. There were also disagreements within the teams. Plus the sensitive issue of ensuring Kurds are represented at the talks. In our view, it is vital that they be represented, as they are a major part of the Syrian people. They control sizable territory, which means it’s improper to discuss the country’s future without their participation. They also have armed formations, which makes them an important participant in the struggle against ISIS. How can they be ignored?
–But that was Ankara’s condition.
–The Turks view the Syrian Kurds as terrorists and insist on excluding them from the process altogether. But the main reason Geneva talks failed is that the Syrian government’s opponents are not ready for a dialogue. Even before arriving at Geneva, the Riyadh group began to impose preconditions: stop the bombing, release all prisoners, lift blockades of areas surrounded by government forces. But no mention of areas surrounded by the militants. I won’t even mention their provocative inclusion of Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam representatives in the Riyadh group. Ash-Sham are Salafites who are fighting side by side with al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda branch, as part of a single alliance with Jaysh al-Islam and are little different from the al-Nusra itself. Jaysh al-Islam continuously shells Damascus, including the embassy, and attempts to kill Russian diplomats. They are terrorists, they were deliberately included on the list in order to provoke Damascus into ending the negotiations. But our Syrian partners acted with restraint. In the end, they found a reason to explain the talks’ collapse, namely the Syrian army offensive with Russian air support. One gets the impression they did not really want to have a dialogue. When they were forced to come to Geneva, as soon as they got there they started to make conditions and grand-stand…
–Whom can one negotiate with now?
–We must work with the radical segment of the opposition. I hope our partners in the Syrian international support group which will assemble in Munich on February 11, manage to convince their pupils from among the “implacable opposition.”
Diplomatic Special Operations
There aren’t many people at the consular office, the day is almost done. They are preparing documents for entire families who represent a slice of the entire Syrian society within these white walls. An urban middle class family. The woman wears very bright tennis shoes, jeans, but with a head scarf. She is disciplining a fidgety son by pinching his sides. The father is not taking part in this. He sits, grasping a Russian passport in his hands. There is a rural family, judging by their desert tans. A historian, member of the intelligentsia, is quickly filling out a questionnaire: he’s going to Russia for a seminar on the Tigris-Euphrates delta. The consulate is continuing its work. It did not close even when it seemed Damascus was about to fall…
–How does our diplomatic post help Russian citizens, of whom there are 10 thousand in Syria? What are their issues?
–Nobody knows exactly how many Russian citizens are in Syria, we haven’t had mandatory consular registration in many years. But the number of requests we receive has not decreased. At the start of the crisis, many left. Now their numbers have stabilized. Those who remained, I think, have adapted to the new conditions. Their lives vary, the situation is not the same in all parts of the country. It’s relatively safe along the coastline, elsewhere the danger is greater. Then there are the territories controlled by the militants. Our people are there too. We help them however we can, especially if their lives are in danger.
–Have you had to rescue anyone?
–There were two striking cases during my tenure here. A woman with children was taken hostage during the clashes in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus. Her husband perished. She tried to run but couldn’t. She got in touch with the consulate, we used our connections and assets and evacuated her. Then sent her and the kids back to Russia. There was another episode when a family, a Russian woman with her Syrian husband who had Russian citizenship, was taken out of Palmyra one day before it fell. That was a genuine special operation, a night march from Palmyra to Homs. But it all ended well. Had we been late, they would have perished.
Syria awaits business
–There has been something of a military breakthrough. Should Russian business start thinking about coming to Syria?
–Yes, there is a breakthrough. A real breakthrough. The balance of forces has shifted in Syria’s favor. Should that trend stimulate our businesses? There are also negative factors. Security. Unclear political future. I’m referring to the Geneva talks. Not knowing what tomorrow brings, it’s difficult to seriously invest in a country. There are also the “unilateral sanctions” introduced by the US and EU. That’s a big risk for our major firms which have assets in the West. Once they appear in Syria, they can endanger their business elsewhere.
–In other words, risks still outweigh gains?
–From the point of view of our country, that’s wrong. We believe that only UNSC can introduce sanctions, not the US Treasury Department. But I believe that our businessmen are still wrong to act they way they do. There are various ways of running a business. In an era of total offshorization, we have learned to find workarounds (ambassador laughs). But you are right, one shouldn’t wait until the situation works itself but instead take advantage of the moment and come to Syria. Syrians are ready for it and have shown interest. They promise and offer various advantages and privileges to those who are not afraid. I don’t want to mention specific firms so as not to advertise them. There are several quasi-state firms whose task is to increase trade between our countries. Syria offers products we need. The relationship with Turkey has changed. There are projects which do not require major investments. In Adra, which was recently liberated, there is a Russian-Belarusian-Syrian project to manufacture transformers. There is also a large enterprise which has been working in Syria since before the crisis and hasn’t gone anywhere. Once the war ends, there will be a feeding frenzy. I think that one should take advantage of the situation and come to Syria now. Syria is ready, we need to show interest. The embassy always helps, that’s part of our mission.
–Why is the Russian cultural center in Damascus closed? Especially considering how incredibly well we are regarded right now?
–Yes, that’s a painful topic, and all concerned agencies, including in Moscow, understand that the situation ought to be changed. The center was closed last August for security reasons. There were genuine fears that everything was going to spin out of control. Militants already entrenched themselves on the outskirts. There was danger of cutting the “lifeline” from Lebanon. The center was an attractive target for terrorists. Since then the situation has greatly improved. That’s a major factor. Secondly, we really need the center to resume operating. Apart from being used as a gathering place for expats, there’s the question for selecting candidates to study in Russia on government scholarships. We’re talking several hundred people. Syria’s minister of education flew to Moscow, he was promised the quota would be increased to 500, I think. Who will select them? That was always the center’s task, and now we could undermine the process. The embassy has no ability to perform this task, or otherwise we’ll do it unprofessionally. Therefore I was always in favor of returning the Rossotrudnichestvo representative here.