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With Russia's Help, Syrian Government Forces Are About To Take Aleppo


The Syrian Civil War, which had seemed for a time to be a military stalemate, appears to be turning decisively in favor of the government of Bashar al-Assad. And the reasons, say many observers, is Russian air power. Syria's largest city, Aleppo, now in ruins, is days away from being encircled by the Assad regime's forces, and tens of thousands of its residents have fled to the Turkish border. To discuss Russia's role, we reached Alexi Borodavkin. He's Russia's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. And thank you for joining us.


MONTAGNE: Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was, quote, "not just appalled but horrified" by the aerial bombing, which is primarily Russian. How does Russia justify this assault on the citizens of Aleppo?

BORODAVKIN: Well, you know, the offensive which was undertaken by the Syrian forces in Aleppo is against, primarily, the terrorist organization which is called Jabhat al-Nusra.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Nusra Front, as it is also known, is also viewed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., but it is part of the larger rebel group. It is not ISIS, which is what Russia claimed it was going after when it entered this war on the side of the regime. What about that? I mean, Russia is attacking rebels, mostly.

BORODAVKIN: Well, nobody denies that we also hit Islamic State, and our military have quite active and intensive strikes against this organization as well.

MONTAGNE: Still, in all, this attack on Aleppo is very extreme. How does Russia justify an assault on what is mainly a civilian area?

BORODAVKIN: Well, collateral casualties are inevitable. They occur during the U.S. strikes in Syria or in Iraq. So what can we do about this? But it is important to notice that Russia is waging a war against terrorism in Syria, and not with the Syrian population.

MONTAGNE: Well, many would argue that Russia is waging a war against terrorism on behalf of the Assad regime. And in fact, the Syrian opposition has accused Russia and the Assad administration in beginning this assault on Aleppo as using it as a way to stop negations.

BORODAVKIN: From the very outset of the Syrian conflict, Russia was for negotiations and was proposing to immediately start negotiations until finally we pursued our partners to switch to this political diplomatic mode. But it is important also to notice that the future of Syria should be identified by the people themselves through free and fair elections.

MONTAGNE: In simple terms, Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and the decades-old Assad regime, which was considered a repressive regime to the point of being a police state. Russia believes - right? - that if Bashar al-Assad's government falls, it will be replaced by much worse, like ISIS, or the Islamic State. But how can you suggest there would be free and fair elections under the circumstances anytime soon?

BORODAVKIN: Well, first of all, there should be cease-fire, certainly. And we are talking and discussing that with the American partners. And we want inter-Syrian talks, which, as I've said, started in Geneva but unfortunately were suspended because the position of the group of opposition. As a result of this political transformation, we hope there should be new constitution and a government of national unity.

MONTAGNE: What would Russia consider a successful outcome in Syria, and would that have to include Bashar al-Assad?

BORODAVKIN: Well, it's for the Syrian people to decide who will be their leader. And this - I've said already that this should be decided in a free, fair election. And we expect that Syria will become a democratic state, a secular state, with human rights observed, with territorial integrity maintained, and with all rights of minorities strictly observed.

MONTAGNE: Alexi Borodavkin is Russia's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, speaking to us from Geneva.

BORODAVKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.