MOSCOW (AP) — Syrian refugees should be given an opportunity to cast their ballots in the country's future elections, Russia's security chief has told The Associated Press, adding that the international community should focus on creating conditions for a free vote in Syria.
However, demands for the immediate departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad would be counterproductive, said Nikolai Patrushev, a longtime associate of President Vladimir Putin who serves as the executive secretary of the presidential Security Council.
"Let's remember the sad experience of Iraq and Libya," Patrushev told the AP in a written reply to questions Tuesday — his first remarks ever to a foreign news organization. "Have they succeeded in stabilizing the situation there following a foreign intervention and physical removal of those countries' leaders?"
Russia has recently joined forces with the United States and a dozen other nations to help broker Syrian peace talks set to start in Geneva on Friday, which are intended to pave the way for a new constitution and new elections in a year and a half.
The nearly five-year Syrian conflict began in 2011 with protests against Assad's rule and has morphed into an all-out civil war, involving a myriad of opposition units. It has seen the Islamic State group carve out a sizeable chunk of the country's territory and killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions. Moscow has staunchly backed Assad throughout the war, shielding his government from U.N. sanctions and providing it with weapons.
Patrushev reaffirmed Russia's longtime stance that it's up to the Syrian people to determine Assad's fate and the country's future.
"What Syria should look like and who should be at its helm tomorrow must be determined by the Syrian people, not Russia or any other country," Patrushev said.
Moscow has denied media reports claiming that Russia's top military intelligence officer recently visited Damascus to urge Assad to step down.
"Different assessments could be made of the incumbent Syrian president, but insisting on his immediate departure isn't just political short-sightedness but an open interference into affairs of a sovereign state," Patrushev said.
"Efforts by the international community must be directed exclusively at creating the necessary preconditions for ensuring a free expression of will of all citizens of Syria," he added. "Russia is ready to support the idea to create opportunities for Syrian refugees to vote, naturally under the same strict international control as in Syria itself."
Amid tough bargaining over who should represent the opposition in the Geneva talks, Moscow has pressed its air campaign in Syria. Russian warplanes have flown nearly 6,000 combat missions in Syria since Moscow launched the air blitz on Sept. 30, helping Assad's military to gain ground in recent weeks.
Moscow says it's targeting IS and other extremist groups, but the U.S. and its allies claim Russian warplanes have also targeted the moderate opposition in a bid to shore up Assad.
Patrushev said that Russia believes it's necessary to more actively engage in political settlement with "constructive opposition forces, which are ready to fight the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations."
"After approving a list of terrorist groups at an international level, it would be necessary to precisely determine locations of non-radical militant units, which are ready to confront terrorists, to avoid hitting them with air strikes," he said.
The Russian security chief noted that Moscow's military action in Syria has prompted France, Britain, Germany, Italy and NATO as a whole to show more interest in joint efforts with Russia in fighting terrorism.
He emphasized that "attempts to divide terrorists into good and bad ones are categorically unacceptable," adding that "it's necessary to renounce any preconditions while creating a joint front against terrorism."
Patrushev said that Moscow's relations with the U.S. and its NATO allies have been strained by the Ukrainian crisis and the alliance's expansion eastward that put Russia's security at risk.
"We have seen a pointed buildup of NATO's military activity, the replacement of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe with newer models, and we have heard NATO generals' hostile statements about our country," Patrushev said.
He emphasized a "serious destabilizing potential" has been created by the continuing development of NATO's U.S.-led missile defense in Europe.
Patrushev noted that the latest edition of Russia's national security doctrine reflects the challenges posed by NATO's expansion to Russia's borders and its ongoing military buildup. Like Putin and other Russian officials, he chafed at U.S. action in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, saying it has destabilized the international situation and contributed to the spread of terrorism.
Despite the tensions, Patrushev voiced hope for improving ties with the U.S., saying that "we are interested in developing a full-fledged partnership with the United States on the basis of common interests, including in the economic sphere, and taking into account a key impact of Russian-American relations on the international situation."
"It's necessary to return to a normal dialogue, strengthen cooperation in the sphere of arms control and non-proliferation of mass destruction weapons," he said. "Russia and the United States have big experience in anti-terror cooperation and the settlement of regional conflicts."