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'US [action in Syria] strong violation of international law'

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
April 11, 2017

In an exclusive interview, Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Russian Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, talks about US-Russian relations after Donald Trump launched a missile strike against a Syrian air-base.

Conflict Zone Dreh in Moskau Konstantin Kosachev
Image: DW/M. Martin

Konstantin Kosachev on Conflict Zone

The war in Syria has been raging for six years and has cost the lives of an estimated 400,000 people. Last week marks the first time that the United States (US) has directly targeted Assad's forces, with US President Donald Trump having made the decision to unilaterally bomb a Syrian airfield.

Trump launched a missile strike against a Syrian air base in Shayrat after news broke of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria's Idlib province, which killed at least 80 people.

The Kremlin condemned the American raid, which it called an act of aggression and violation of international law.

In an interview with DW's Conflict Zone, Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council, repeated this claim. 

"It is a very strong violation of international law because even in case one speaks about a so-called humanitarian intervention or a so-called responsibility to protect, one still needs to have authorization from the Security Council of the United Nations which was not the case," he said. 

Syrien Idlib Giftgasangriff
The suspected chemical attack in rebel-held northestern Syria killed at least 80 civilians, including several children Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Haj Kadour

Change in American policy

The missile strikes mark a sharp turn-around in US-Syrian policy, with former President Barack Obama having avoided direct action against the Syrian regime throughout his presidency.

President Trump's reasoning for taking military action against the Assad regime now is that the United States must "prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," as he said in a speech after the raid took place. He added that there was no doubt the Syrian regime carried out a chemical attack.

Technically, the claim of Syrian use of chemical weapons is not yet proven. What is clear is that Syrian government war planes had carried out air strikes on the town of Kan Sheikoon on April 4th. Amateur videos show plumes of dark smoke mixed with a yellowish, white cloud – a telltale sign of a chemical attack, according to experts and activists. 

Symbolbild Syrien IS-Giftgasangriff
World leaders have been fighting over who is responsible for the suspected chemical gas attacks in Syria Image: picture alliance/AA/H. Nasir

Who's to blame for the suspected gas attack?

Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, keeps denying any use of chemical weapons by Assad.

"If there are any hesitations of whether the authorities of Syria fulfilled their commitments in terms of reporting [chemical weapons], it does not prove that they are responsible for the chemical attack in Idlib. It does not prove anything," Kosachev said in the interview with Conflict Zone. 

When confronted by host Tim Sebastian on the topic, Kosachev suggested the weapon was produced by terrorists. 

But the United States and other world powers reject Russia's version. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon even accused Russia of being "responsible" by proxy.

"Assad's principal backer is Russia. By proxy Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week," Fallon wrote in an opinion column published in British weekly "The Sunday Times."

In the interview, Kosochev denied responsibility for the gas attack as well as other atrocities happening under Aassad. 

"We are not in Syria in order to either defend or fight against the ruling authorities there," he said.

"The war was started by other countries against the ruling authorities in Syria. Several years ago Russia interfered in this scenario because we could face a repetition of the previous prejudice of other countries and people in the region like Iraq and Libya."

Conflict Zone Zitate Konstantin Kosachev

Who is Russia really defending?

Accoding to the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zayd bin Ra'ad al-Hussein, the Syrian government is responsible for "some of the gravest violations on record" in the history of the Human Right Council.

But for the past six years, Russia has consistently vetoed resolutions by the UN Security Council to hold Assad accountable. 

Asked how Russia can protect a regime like that, Kosachev said that Russia's involvement isn't about Assad.

"We believe that there is a much more serious problem inside of Syria which needs to be addressed. We need Mr. Assad and his government and his army in order to defeat [ISIS and terrorism]."

When Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian told Kosachev that Russia, one of the most powerful countries in the world, is supporting Assad, one of the biggest human rights violators on the planet, Kosachev said:

Syrien Bürgerkrieg Aleppo Wandbild Assad
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for some of the gravest human rights violations on record, says UN Human Rights Commissioner Zayd bin Ra'ad al-HusseinImage: Reuters/M. Hasano

"We do not protect Mr. Assad. We fight together and along with the Syrian army against terrorists on the territory of Syria."

Kosachev stressed that Russia doesn't take up a position on whether Assad should resign or not.

"I have not seen a single politician in the west, either in the United States, in Germany or elsewhere who would tell me what happens next if Mr. Assad resigns. Will it be better for the country? Will it be better for the people of Syria or will it get worse?"

Asked whether there's no alternative to a massive human rights violator in the shape of Assad's regime, Kosachev downplayed the humanitarian crisis in Syria altogether.

"I've been in Syria many times before the internal crisis in Syria was provoked from outside Syria. It is not the best, but it is also not the worst country in the region. We have many other countries in the region which have much more serious problems with human rights."

Are US-Russian relations ruined?

After the air strike, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said that the US reserves the right to hold accountable anyone guilty of crimes against humanity, including Syria. Confronted with this, Kosachev said:

"Who is Mr Tillerson, the God himself? The secretary of state of the United States of America is not the global judge of the mankind."

Conflict Zone Zitate Konstantin Kosachev

Kosachev condemned the US air strike, saying Trump acted outside of the framework of international law.

"The United States of America does not have any specific right to speak on behalf of mankind, on behalf of the Security Council, on behalf of the United Nations, or on behalf of NATO or the European Union," he said.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had similarly strong words. He said the air strikes on Syria completely ruined relations between the US and Russia and that the two countries were on the verge of a military clash. 

So what happens if the US launches another air strike?

"I do not want to speculate on that because this is a nightmare scenario," Kosochev said in the interview.

But he didn't mince words when it comes to the role of the US as global watchdog.

"The United States of America has destroyed Iraq. The United States of America has destroyed Libya. Now they try to destroy Syria. But the consequences of their mistakes become more and more dangerous because this time the international terrorism becomes much stronger. (...) Now if Syria is defeated, international terrorism will rule the whole world."

You can watch the full interview on April 12.