12 Aug 2021

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov: We can't talk about eradicating terrorism in Afghanistan in near future

Oleg Syromolotov

Oleg Syromolotov
Photo courtesy of the Department of Information and Press of the Russian MFA


Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov, who is responsible for international anti-terrorist cooperation, has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about interaction with the United States on counterterrorism, the activity of ISIL, which is banned in Russia, and other terrorist organizations in Syria and Afghanistan. He also said that it is impossible to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan amid the internal political standoff.

Question: You said last September that the U.S. halted counterterrorism dialogue with Russia. Has the situation changed since the Biden administration came to power?

Answer: Our cooperation with the U.S. on antiterrorism has not resumed. Following the recent meeting of the Russian and U.S. leaders in Geneva, we have not received any clear messages from Washington indicating a wish to restore the dialogue held under the aegis of the foreign affairs departments in 2018-2019, which, by the way, was quite productive. As you know, it was stopped at the initiative of the U.S. side under a far-fetched pretext.

To our knowledge, certain contacts in the exchange of data have been preserved between security services.

We have repeatedly said that cooperation requires mutual interest, above all. Russia cannot need the dialogue on antiterrorism issues more than the United States does. What is more, all explanations of the questions raised by Washington have been given, and that was done on a high level.

Of course, we can live without the antiterrorism dialogue with the United States, especially as we have a sufficient number of partners in this area. At the same time, we have a natural interest in its resumption, while the lack of interaction in this area only plays into the hands of international terrorism. But we wouldn't like U.S. partners to realize the need for resuming this dialogue only after 'ISIL Caliphate 2.0' has revived in any part of the world.

Q.: How big is the threat of terrorist organizations, in particular ISIL, coming from Afghanistan now? What are Russia's estimates of the number of ISIL militants in Afghanistan? What territories do they control? Is it possible to say that Afghanistan has become a new ISIL base and that terrorists from Syria and Iraq have moved there?

A.: A regional branch of ISIL, i.e. ISIL-Khorasan, is one of the most active terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan. According to our estimates, it consists of 1,500 to 2,000 fighters. The leadership of this terrorist network views the territory of Afghanistan as a bridgehead for spreading its influence into the Central Asian region in the course of the 'worldwide caliphate' project. Hence, back in May 2019, Russia together with the U.S. added ISIL-Khorasan to the sanctions list of the UN Security Council Committee 1267/1989/2253 on ISIL, Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia) and associated persons, groups, enterprises and entities.

First and foremost, we are concerned about the remaining influence of ISIL in north and northeastern Afghanistan, and a threat of terrorist activities being projected from Afghanistan to Central Asia and the Jihadists' use of the existing domestic political tensions to undermine the peace process. According to the latest UN data, ISIL forces stationed in that region are seeking to recover from their financial blow and depleted numbers, and are trying to regroup their units and to restore their potential. They put the emphasis on the recruitment and training new supporters, primarily from Iraq and Syria.

The absence of a common approach of Taliban movement members to the Doha agreements of September 2020 may become an additional factor of instability in the region. It is also possible that the most radicalized part of the aforementioned group, which puts the philosophy of war above a peaceful political settlement, may side with the terrorist networks.

Q.: Are the Afghan authorities now capable of defeating terrorism in Afghanistan without outside help? What could Russia do to prevent this threat? Is the possibility of Russian resources, both financial and the 201st military base, being used to reinforce the Tajik-Afghan border being discussed? Is Russia ready together with its CSTO partners to destroy terrorists while they are still only on the approaches to the CIS?

A.: An effective fight against terrorist organizations in Afghanistan requires the collective effort of all political forces in the country, in the first place. Alas, we can't talk about eradicating terrorism in the near future in a situation where their attention is focused on their own standoff.

For our part, we are adopting the consistent position of promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan. We are assisting in building a neutral state, free from the terrorist threat and drugs crimes. Various formats of negotiations conducted on international platforms, including the Moscow format, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, and the extended troika of Russia, China, the United States and Pakistan, will inevitably contribute to that.

We are maintaining regular working contacts with Tajikistan at the level of defense ministries and special services. We are ready to use our 201st military base in order to assist Dushanbe if necessary. We are constantly strengthening its combat and technical potential. For example, a number of Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes were redeployed from the Kant military base in Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan at the end of July. Just a few days ago a batch of 17 modernized BMP-2M infantry combat vehicles was delivered to the base. The hardware was tested during a military exercise held by Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Harb-Maidon range near the Afghan border 10 and would then be put on combat duty.

Moreover, round-the-clock monitoring of the border situation by means of aerial and electronic surveillance systems at the disposal of Russian servicemen has been organized.

We are extending financial assistance to Tajikistan. At the request of our partners, Russia has allocated $1.1 million to fund the construction of a modern border outpost in Tajikistan's Khatlon region, one of the most vulnerable sections on the border with Afghanistan. The relevant agreement is expected to be signed during the next contacts at the highest level.

As for the elimination of terrorists on the approaches to the CIS, at this particular moment, we do not see a direct threat of fighters breaking through the southern borders of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, every possible scenario of the escalation of tensions on the border with Afghanistan is being considered and reaction to the worst case developments will be drilled during the military maneuvers you mentioned. I believe that this demonstration of strength will cool the ardor of everyone wishing to test our might.

Q.: Despite the Sochi agreements reached between Russia and Turkey back in 2018, attacks in Syria from the territories controlled by pro-Turkish militants are being reported regularly. Turkey is making accusations as well. In your opinion, how big is the terrorist threat in Syria? Has the situation there been improving, or is it becoming tenser?

A.: Thanks to consistent actions by Russian and Syrian troops in the past few years the potential of terrorist organizations acting in Syria has been significantly dented. A lot of militant forces and hardware have been eliminated, and their logistical support has been reduced. A sustainable ceasefire has been holding in most of Syria.

Nevertheless, despite these successes, individual terrorist cells continue to operate, posing a serious threat.

The largest of them is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, the precursor of which is Jabhat al-Nusra [both organizations are banned in Russia]. According to various estimates, it has from 10,000 to 15,000 members, including natives of Central Asia and the North Caucasus. It is the dominant force in the Idlib de-escalation area, it stages sorties against government forces of Syria and its allies, including Russia, and it continues to terrorize the local population, enforcing Sharia law.

We are concerned that sometimes we see attempts to absolve Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and portray it as some kind of a political organization. We view as unacceptable such overtures to terrorists who have been designated as such by the UN Security Council. We would like to call on our Western allies not to fall into the same trap twice and to stop dividing terrorists into 'bad' and 'good’.

As regards ISIL, this terrorist organization, as a matter of fact, has ceased to exist as a unified territorial entity, but has transformed itself into a far-flung covert terrorist network. Its leaders have concentrated the main forces on restoring the combat potential of its formations and have switched to guerrilla warfare methods against state administration employees and the local population. However, ISIL is currently most active in the east of Syria.

The Hurras al-Din terrorist organization [banned in Russia], which claims to be the official branch of Al Qaeda in Syria, continues to stage sorties. According to various estimates, it is has from 3,500 to 5,000 jihadists, half of whom belong to so-called foreign terrorist militants from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia.

For our part, we continue to offer the necessary assistance to the Syrian authorities in countering terrorists.

Q.: Earlier, you said that Russia favors taking its citizens from armed conflict zones and bringing those involved in terrorist activities to justice. Has such work begun? How many such people have been taken out of Syria and Iraq?

A.: We call for inescapable punishment for terrorist crimes and urge the entire global community to pool efforts to this end. Consistent with international obligations, international fighters involved in terrorist activities on the territory of Syria, Iraq, or any other state should be repatriated to their home countries, where they should be held responsible in proportion to the severity of their crimes or stand trial at the place where the crime was committed in keeping with the national laws of the relevant state.

Obviously, there are objective difficulties on this path, including those caused by the fact that persons staying in the camps for internally displaced people sometimes lack documents to identify them and their citizenship.

It should be underlined that we have built up unique experience of working with the family members of foreign terrorists and militants. This is being done under the aegis of the office of presidential children's rights commissioner Anna Kuznetsova.

For instance, efforts are being taken to evacuate Russian children from Iraq and Syria with their future social rehabilitation and reintegration into society. A total of 341 children have been evacuated from conflict zones in the Middle East since December 2018. The past three years have demonstrated the practical nature and the efficiency of the Russian approach to the repatriation of minors. We believe this could set a good example for other countries. Therefore, we are ready to share our practices in this area with other states.

Q.: At the beginning of his presidential term U.S. President Joe Biden announced his intention to close the Guantanamo prison. Is this a timely decision? Is Russia working on the return of its citizens serving sentences in this prison? How many Russians are there now?

A.: Joe Biden's declared intention to close down the notorious prison in Guantanamo can well be described as rather long overdue, because Barack Obama made the same statement during his presidency. Later, during the administration of Donald Trump, this initiative was somewhat forgotten.

Some 800 foreigners have passed through Guantanamo. Most of them have never been formally indicted, and yet they were kept in detention without an investigation or trial for years. It is widely known that convicts at that special institution have been subjected to torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment.

Human rights activists have repeatedly expressed their concerns that the U.S. authorities keep trying to downplay the use of torture in that special prison. This is being done even despite the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has acknowledged in judgements on lawsuits filed by former convicts against the authorities of Lithuania, Poland, and Romania that the rights of persons convicted at secret CIA prisons have been violated.

The Guantanamo detention camp is also known for the high cost of keeping suspects there. The New York Times in 2019 published data on financial costs to the U.S. budget of keeping detainees there. According to journalists' estimates, in 2017 alone over $540 million was spent on maintaining the Guantanamo prison.

International human rights mechanisms and civil society organizations have repeatedly urged Washington to close that prison. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights called for closing that special center and transferring the cases of its convicts to courts in its report in November 2015. Special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council demanded the same in January 2021. They said that the very existence of that prison is inconsistent with Washington's international legal obligations.

Amnesty International issued a special report on the prison's functioning in January 2021 and also called on the U.S. government to close it in March 2021.

As for the rights of Russian citizens in foreign countries, including our citizens in prisons, the ministry pays the most careful attention to them.

This is not just monitoring. The Russian Foreign Ministry is taking every possible diplomatic step to protect the rights of Russian citizens in prisons in foreign countries. Russian diplomatic missions are taking care of such cases, and if necessary they are discussed at the highest level. Diplomats are providing consular support to arrested Russians within the scope of their powers, seeking the unconditional observance of their lawful rights and interests, and working on ways to change restraint measures for them and transferring them to the homeland.

The problem of observing the rights of Russian citizens is regularly reflected in the Russian Foreign Ministry's reports on the global human rights situation. The country sections of these documents include information on certain cases of violating the rights of Russians and compatriots, including high-profile cases of their political persecution by the authorities of relevant states. Moreover, a separate report on the violation of the rights of Russians and compatriots in foreign countries is published on the Foreign Ministry's website.