Interview: Russia and Israel cooperation on counterterrorism

Exclusive interview with Oleg Syromolotov, Russian Federation deputy minister for foreign affairs responsible for counterterrorism.

Oleg Syromolotov (photo credit: COURTESY RUSSIAN EMBASSY IN ISRAEL)
Oleg Syromolotov
Oleg Syromolotov, Russian Federation deputy minister for foreign affairs responsible for counterterrorism, was in Israel recently to meet with Foreign Ministry officials and discuss issues related to counterterrorism, cooperation and regional threats.
During his visit, he sat with
The Jerusalem Post for an exclusive interview and discussed how Israel and Russia can cooperate on counterterrorism and on issues relating to the region and international forums.
Israel and Russia both have a long history of confronting terrorism. How do you see the possibilities for increased cooperation between the two states on international terrorism?
Both the Russia Federation and Israel have experience with the fight against terror and that is based on hard work and human resources and [terrorist] events that happened before and continue to happen.
Our experience historically is in the North Caucasus in which terrorist ideas came from outside, from foreign countries. Terrorists from the Caucasus have gone to the Middle East and to Europe and joined terrorists activities there. We have evidence of 500 who settled in Europe.
In the past, we didn’t have terrorism in the North Caucasus, but locals received information and training from abroad; they took it and founded terrorists networks and systems of extremism and after that some people, including youth, from the Caucasus joined them.
We settled the issue of terrorism in the North Caucasus first by insuring military victory, and then by addressing socioeconomic and political issues.
Israel also has experience fighting terrorism from different roots, but both Israel and Russia understand the threat of terrorism.
There are a number of ways Israel and Russia can work together. One way relates to the sharing of information, as well as cooperation in international forums such as the UN. That is one of the major and important parts of the work we do. In the working group on counterterrorism under the aegis of our foreign ministries, we examine the situation in different regions that are effected by terrorism.
Now, I want to explain why the cooperation of different governments is important. For instance, in Syria, there are many terrorists from a number of countries who return to their home countries and are ready to continue terrorist activities. We need to act together to curb this aspect of the terrorist threat.
The war in Syria has led to an increase in radical forces that threaten Israel and the international community. Do you believe Israel and Russia have commonalities in addressing these issues as regards Syria?
The major important thing in the battle against foreign terror is for the international community to do three things. First it is necessary to set up a joint international database listing foreign terrorists and militants. Second, it is necessary to set up a database and a system for monitoring their movements. And, third, it is necessary to simplify the extradition of foreign terrorists and militants from one state to another, because the extradition procedure is rather lengthy.
There are areas that also pose a great danger along with the Middle East and North Africa, for instance Central Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia..., and looking at Syria, Russia claims that it is impossible to solve the problem in Syria through military means only. There is a legal government and an armed opposition and terrorists. One of the central issues is to separate the opposition from the terrorists, and in the last year we have tried with the Americans to come to an agreement on this and the Americans did not manage to make this distinction between the opposition and terrorists and it didn’t happen, but in the end of December we agreed that there would be a cease-fire between opposition and the government; in Astana in Kazakhstan we succeeded to put on the table an agreement with the opposition and the government, and we did it with Turkey, Russia, Iran, and I think that we have high hopes from the Astana talks.
We think that this will give a strong impetus for Syria in Geneva. The cease-fire holds, the last month there were some violations, we are talking about three-five small violations a day.
The war in Syria has included an increased role of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Israel views both of them as having a role in international terrorism; does Russia view Hezbollah and the IRGC as part of the international terrorist framework?
We have differences in how we look at this. For us Hezbollah is part of the politics of Lebanon and an important part of the population of Lebanon supports them, and they are a part of the parliament. Relating to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps: There are two parts in the military structure of Iran – there is the army, and [there is] the Revolutionary Guards. For that reason there is no way to put them on the list of international terrorists; they cannot be on that. We have our own national terrorist list and it does not include Hezbollah or the Revolutionary Guards.
On the other hand on our list of terrorist organizations we include “the Caucuses Emirate,” which was once a strong terror threat for Russia, and we wonder why that is not on Israel’s list of terror organizations; I would ask Israel that. The Caucuses Emirate did many terrorist bombings including the Beslan [school massacre in 2004] and the bombing in the Moscow [in 1999].
What is also important is whether this or that organization is on the UN counterterrorism sanctions list. Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards are not on the UN list. I understand the fears of Israel relating to Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards in Syria, and you of course fear that they will stay in Syria after the war..., but first they entered Syria at the invitation of the legal government, just as our air force was invited to Syria by the Syrians. And in the issue of peace, in Syria when the situation is settled politically then all the armed groups will leave. And that it is important and of course this relates to Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
So it is Russia’s position that Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards must leave Syria after the war ends? When the situation is politically and finally settled in Syria they will leave.
For many years the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians was seen as a root cause of terrorism in the region. How do you view that today?
Yes, of course, I view it in the same way.
If the Israel-Palestinian conflict would end then the terrorist organizations in the Middle East would not multiply. Hamas is a part of the Palestinian politics. For instance, many voted for Hamas and it won the elections [2006]. We say clearly that the Palestinians should unite and work in order to form a unity government, including Gaza and Ramallah, and then Palestinians could talk with one voice with Israel. Russia is making an effort to help this process and we invited Abbas and Netanyahu to Moscow. However unfortunately Israel and Palestine still have not succeeded to come to Moscow.
Jordan, Egypt, Israel and Russia have shared regional security and counterterror concerns; how important is this bloc of relationships?
Yes, we think that is important and from our perspective there should be cooperation, and we know there is cooperation between Israel and Jordan and with Egypt, and an understanding in the fight against terror, similar to Russia. Egypt for instance is heading the counterterrorism committee at the UN Security Council, and all the countries that you mentioned they can work together in international forums, and we put an emphasis on the issue of Vilayet Sinai [Sinai Province], which relates to the victims of our aircraft [Metrojet Flight 9268] which was bombed over Sinai [in 2015], and after that we have shared much information with Egypt and Jordan and Israel.
Can you discuss the new US administration and hopes for working with it on counterterrorism?
I think that with this new and different government, the Republicans, they are more pragmatic; we heard many things about the new government and their views to do joint work against terror, and cooperation. During the first conversation between President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump the issue of terror came up and they actively discussed this issue, and of course we hope in this situation the new government would want cooperation against terror. We think that the position of Russia and US are most important in fighting terror, and I think that there will be positive changes.
Do you prefer the words ‘Islamist extremism’ or ‘violent extremism’ when discussing types of terrorism? In our view we look at it as extremism. Terrorism and extremism have no relation to any religion.