The Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan has said Russia has been “a very malign influence” while leading the Syrian peace initiative involving Iran and Turkey, adding he was not convinced Russia genuinely wanted to solve the crisis.
Under subtle pressure to tone down the UK’s traditionally tough stance towards Russia due to President-elect Donald Trump’s sympathy towards Vladimir Putin, Duncan gave no early sign of a change of British course, accusing Russia of waging political cyber wars, straying from the truth and undermining the territorial integrity of other countries. He said Russia was involved in “a power play and a calculated deliberate extension of its sphere of influence”.
Speaking to the foreign affairs select committee alongside Duncan, Sir Tim Barrow, Foreign Office political director, said the UK was not going to support any initiative that “does not take account of the needs of the Syrian people and an inclusive government”.
Russia, capitalising on the totemic recapture of Eastern Aleppo, on Wednesday staged a Syrian peace summit in Moscow jointly with Iran and Turkey, in a move that exposes America’s current loss of influence.
Neil Crompton, Foreign Office Middle East director, accused Russia of changing its rationale for intervention in Syria and said the dominant defeated forces in eastern Aleppo had been moderate fighters and not, as Russia claimed, the supporters of al-Nusra, the al-Qaida linked Syrian group.
He said the number of al-Nusra fighters in Aleppo had been close to 200 and 300 fighters, one of the lowest numbers advanced by Western powers. “We are talking about hundreds, not thousands. The rest are moderate opposition fighters.”
Challenged by Crispin Blunt, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, that there is a “vanishingly small” number of moderate fighters, and instead mainly “various grades of Islamist fighters”, Crompton insisted the Russians falsely try to present all fighters as al-Qaida linked.
Barrow said that “the tactics of the regime, including barrel bombs, are in our view more likely than not to create radicalisation rather than managing to defeat terrorist elements. There is a complex picture that shifts under the pressure of the battle field.”
Duncan challenged Russian claims that the “utterly heinous” murder of its ambassador in Turkey was “the fault of the west,” a claim being made in Russian and Turkish media where it is argued that the assassin was a supporter of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who has been given asylum in the US.
Duncan also said it was undeniable that Russia is using cyber warfare to interfere in western democratic politics. He said: “There is no doubt that, using modern technology, they are interfering in many parts of the world.” He said that Russia had seriously interfered in recent Montenegro elections. He also referred to claims by the CIA that Russia interfered in the US presidential elections, adding: “Quite what the effect was, or exactly what they did in the US, is unclear but we have to accept it as a fact that cyber warfare is now a part of modern life and the Russians are using it as best they can to interfere in politics. That is one of the threats we have to be aware of, and be on guard. The world is changing and there are new threats.”
Although Duncan said the UK wanted respectful engagement with Russia, he did not hold back in his criticism of Russian behaviour in Aleppo: “You probably had 3,000 civilians killed by Russian activity, a lot of what was destroyed was medical activity including hospitals, at one point half a million were under siege and the Russians were blocking humanitarian aid and the ability of people to leave. Nothing can get more severe than that.”
Asked if Russia had committed war crimes in Syria, Crompton said: “If there had been deliberate targeting of civilians, that would put them on the wrong side of international humanitarian law.”
The UK has asked a UN commission of inquiry to see if war crimes have been committed by the regime or by the Russians, and expressed support for moves to circumvent the Russian veto at the UN security council by convening a meeting of the UN general assembly.
Insisting the UK will offer Russia respectful engagement, Duncan denied the UK will speak to Russia in a “hectoring, lecturing or shrill way”.
Barrow, a former UK ambassador to Moscow, admitted it took the UK time after the collapse of the USSR for the UK “to find the right point of balance. I think at some point after the collapse of the Soviet Union that there was a presumed convergence, an end of history. Well, history did not stop and history looms large.” But the officials admitted that no UK minister had visited Moscow for over a year.