ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Russia Friday said the United States, in deciding to arm Syrian rebels, is in danger of repeating the mistake it made in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it backed religious extremists who later formed the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The U.S. move is a “disaster” for efforts to end Syria’s two-year civil war, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview in St. Petersburg. “Al-Qaida was basically born from the Mujahedeen movement financed by the United States when the Soviets were in Afghanistan. Then al-Qaida boomeranged.”
Russia and the U.S. are on a collision course after President Barack Obama’s administration said last week it will supply weapons to Syria’s opposition in the wake of battlefield advances by President Bashar Assad’s forces. The two former Cold War foes, which are now arming opposing sides in Syria, are struggling to keep alive an initiative to stage a peace conference and end a conflict that has killed more than 90,000.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron that the West shouldn’t be supporting people who “not only kill their enemies but cut open their bodies and eat their innards before the public and cameras.”
An Internet video last month appeared to show a Syrian rebel leader mutilating and biting into the heart and liver of a dead enemy soldier.
The Islamic extremist militia Jabhat al-Nusra is the “leading opposition force on the ground” because it’s the “most effective,” Lavrov said in the interview Friday, which Bloomberg conducted together with the Associated Press. Jabhat al-Nusra, which has merged with al-Qaida, was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. in December.
“They are terrorists and they must be treated as terrorists,” Lavrov said. “We have to unite, all of us, against the bad guys.”
The U.S. armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as part of its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, which was forced to end its occupation of the central Asian country in 1989. Many of these Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden, later joined al-Qaida, which carried out the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. that killed almost 3,000 people.
Syrian rebels largely drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority have been fighting to topple Assad’s Alawite-led regime since March 2011, a conflict that has drawn in Hezbollah, the Iran- backed militia based in neighboring Lebanon.
Lavrov said any move to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and provide military supplies to the insurgents would kill any hope of a peace settlement.
If the U.S. seeks to reverse recent gains by pro-Assad forces to strengthen the hand of the opposition in future negotiations, “this would be a disaster for all diplomatic efforts,” Lavrov said.
Obama, who made ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan hallmarks of his presidency, said June 19 that the U.S. isn’t “preparing to go all in and participate in another war.”
“What we want to do is end a war,” Obama said at a joint press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We need to create a transitional governing body with full powers.”
The U.S., Russia and the United Nations will hold a new round of talks next week in Geneva on efforts to host the Syria peace conference, U.N. spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian said in comments posted Friday on the world body’s website.