Chess Leader Visits Syria Under Cloud of Ambiguity

The president of the World Chess Federation, an eccentric Russian millionaire who last year tried to negotiate a settlement in Libya’s civil war, has again shown up for talks with a faltering dictator.

The federation president, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, a wiry, energetic former regional governor from the south of Russia, was in Damascus, Syria’s capital, this week to meet with President Bashar al-Assad.

Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, head of the World Chess Federation

Though he holds no formal diplomatic position with the Russian government, his repeated visits to Arab countries in turmoil have reinforced the impression that he is serving as an informal envoy, using the chess organization’s business as a fittingly Russian ruse.

Mr. Ilyumzhinov told the Russian news agency Interfax on Wednesday that he held a three-hour meeting with Mr. Assad on Sunday, during a weekend visit to the beleaguered Syrian capital. He reported that Mr. Assad, a Russian ally, had assured him of his commitment to a United Nations-brokered cease-fire, which is supported by Russia.

“Assad is dedicated to the peace plan,” Mr. Ilyumzhinov told gazeta.ru, an online newspaper. “But the situation is being destabilized by the opposition, which is receiving weapons in large quantities from neighboring countries.”

In an echo of the ambiguity of Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s role in Libya, a spokesman for him declined to say whether the visit had been coordinated with the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Officially, as was the case in Libya, the visit’s purpose was to further chess as a sport. The two men negotiated an agreement between the World Chess Federation and the Syrian government to teach chess as a subject in elementary schools and agreed to organize amateur chess matches at a Russian cultural center in the capital, according to the chess federation’s Web site. Mr. Ilyumzhinov has remarked in the past that he judges leaders above all else on their attitudes toward chess.

The Syria visit, though, came at a pivotal time for Russian diplomacy.

The plan, presented by the United Nations and backed by the Russians, would leave Mr. Assad, a major purchaser of weapons from Moscow stretching back to the Soviet period, in power while preventing his forces from retaliating against regions of the country that rebelled against him last year. The United Nations Security Council adopted it as a cease-fire agreement after Russia, together with China, vetoed resolutions condoning support for the opposition.

The plan is already coming apart, with reports of violence emerging from Syria daily. An estimated 9,000 people have died.

During the Libyan crisis, Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who called the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi a friend, emerged as an improbable instrument of Russian diplomacy. Sergei A. Karaganov, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said it was unclear whether Mr. Ilyumzhinov had a personal relationship with Mr. Assad, an ophthalmologist trained in Britain.

During his shuttle diplomacy in Libya, Mr. Ilyumzhinov was often dismissed as an improbable ambassador for Moscow because he has, over many years, declined to back down from his publicly asserted belief in space aliens, including a detailed account of an abduction. In fact, Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s frequent comments about extraterrestrials would seem to rule out any formal role as an envoy, although they also mean he can be easily distanced from official Kremlin policy in the event of failure, as happened in Libya.

Source: The New York Times

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