Interview of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Al Mayadeen TV-channel from Lebanon, Moscow, 13 May 2013
Question: I would like to start our conversation from your last international contacts and, first of all, from your meeting with US Secretary of State in Moscow on 7 May. The day after he left Moscow, John Kerry made a statement in Rome that there is no place for President Bashar al-Assad in the new transitional government. There were also statements that the White House had not made its final decision about armament of the opposition and is waiting for the results of the investigation of the use of chemical weapons in SAR to make this decision. We know about the agreements reached between Russia and the USA in Moscow, however, we would still like to understand why we have heard other statements, which do not fit within the framework of the agreements reached the day before, as soon as the US Secretary of State left Moscow.
Sergey Lavrov: I will start from stating that we had very good negotiations, when John Kerry was in Moscow. He had a long conversation with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, during which they touched upon the topic of Syria and several other international problems along with a detailed discussion of a number of bilateral issues. As to Syria, John Kerry provided the analysis that is very close to what we talk about, when spotting threats as a result of preservation of status quo and stimulation of the inexorable opposition to grab power, solve the problem in a military way. We talk (and John Kerry supported it) about the need to stop bloodshed, start political negotiations according to the logic established in the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which was signed by almost all key external players affecting the situation in Syria one way or another. John Kerry opted in favour of convention of the next international meeting with participation of the parties to stimulate them to move in the political direction of formation of a transitional governing body based on unanimous consent of SAR Government and all the opposition groups, to make them prepare stable agreements ensuring safety and rights of all the ethnic, religious and other groups in Syria.
We have been advocating for such forum for a sufficiently long time. We proposed to convene Geneva-2 last August. That time our Western partners, Arab participants of the Geneva process and Turkey told that they were not ready yet. Our American, French and British colleagues, Europeans in general, talked in favour of the unity of the opposition on a constructive platform of readiness to negotiations. The National Coalition was created; however, unfortunately, it was formed on an absolutely opposite platform – overthrow of the regime and dismantling of all institutes. The decision of the League of Arab States that the National Coalition is the only representative of the Syrian people and should occupy the place of Syria in LAS did not help either. To that end, the question arises: what about the rest of opposition groups, because the National Coalition is not the only group? There is an external opposition that is not represented in the coalition, there is an internal opposition as well, which has never left Syria and opts for the internal reform of the country.
On this background, we welcome the consent of Americans represented by John Kerry to the concept of holding the conference without preconditions (no preconditions were formulated in things we have coordinated with our US colleague). The President of Russia Vladimir Putin supported the idea expressed by the US Secretary of State, and placed me in charge of formulating ideas on paper together with my US colleague, as we did by voicing them at the joint press-conference. I have agreed with John Kerry that we will secure consent of the governments to the formulated propositions. The President Vladimir Putin is also working with a number of countries, which have to be involved into such conference, but the American party will continue its efforts in uniting the opposition on a platform of support of such approach.
These efforts are continuing. I heard about the statements made by John Kerry in Rome, and about statements of other colleagues of ours. I presume that it is difficult to persuade the opposition. Unlike the Government of Syria, that made a sufficiently positive statement in response to the Russian-American initiative, it has not done it, but was ambiguous by saying that, in fact, it would welcome any initiative, which could stop violence, but Bashar al-Assad should “disappear” first – that is, they expressed again the approaches that have been causes of the deadlock in the Syrian crisis for many months. Therefore, we continue our actions and contacts with many partners. The President Vladimir Putin had a meeting with the UK Prime Minister David Cameron in Sochi some days ago, where they also supported the Russian-American initiative. I know that another meeting of opposition forces attracted to the National Coalition is scheduled in Istanbul in a few days, presumably on 19-20 May. Immediately after that, the National Coordination Committee will hold a meeting of the internal constructive patriotic opposition in Madrid, I think. We will see what approaches will be expressed as a result of these events.
We think that we need to refuse from preconditions, because we need to be realistic rather than because we like or dislike somebody. While realism and taking care of interests of the Syrian people require stopping violence as soon as possible without any preconditions. Any preconditions will only drag on this vicious circle of bloodshed.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, you have mentioned negotiations of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin with David Cameron in Sochi. After this meeting, we heard statements, in particular those of Yuri Ushakov, that there are inconsistencies in the agenda of Geneva-2, its composition and powers. This may be the cause for the conference not to take place at the end of this month. Could you clarify, what inconsistencies was he talking about, and what “legitimacy” of opposition representatives means for them to be able fulfil the obligations undertaken as a result of the negotiations?
Sergey Lavrov: There are some problems here, because the Russian-American initiative could not embrace all the details. This was not our goal. Our goal was to stimulate the process of refusing from the current unacceptable situation and transition to preparation of the negotiations. There is a lot to do for that purpose. For instance (I have already told about it answering to your first question), it is crucially important to have a single opinion and position of those who are against the regime, and the negotiation team, which would represent all the opposition members.
It is certainly important to have a negotiation team from the Syrian government as well. The day before the visit of John Kerry, I called my colleague, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and asked him again, whether the committee created for the advancement of the dialog and reforms headed by the Prime Minister of Syria, is authorized to conduct negotiations with the opposition. I was said that it has such powers. Now we will wait, how fast and how effective the other party (those to whom the opposition listens more) will be able to achieve the same reaction from opposition members: this is our negotiation team and it represents all the opposition forces, it has proper powers. This is the first task that has not been solved year.
The second problem consists in, as you said correctly, the agreement with other participants of the conference. We presume that all members of the meeting in Geneva last 30 June plus two key players who were not present last year in Geneva – Iran and Saudi Arabia – should be invited to it. We will also be happy to see Jordan, Lebanon and all neighbours of Syria. We should not exclude the country such as Iran from this process because of some geopolitical preferences. This is still a very important external player. We have no agreement about that yet.
Some of our Western colleagues (this manifested itself during negotiations with David Cameron in Sochi) wish to narrow the circle of external participants and to start this process from a very small group of countries, which would, in fact, prejudge negotiation teams, agenda, and may be even the outcome of the negotiations. Then, if we follow the logic of our Western colleagues, the propositions would be transferred to SAR Government and the opposition, and everybody would apply pressure on both sides to proceed with such scheme invented without participation of Syrians.
We still give preference to other approach. First of all, we wish such things to be done with participation of regional countries rather than privately. The President of Russia Vladimir Putin emphasized our position at the meeting in Sochi. External players should not decide for Syrians, they should rather stimulate the government and all opposition groups to make them agree between themselves. This is quite a difference. We do not think it is right that external players deal with “social and political engineering” and draw any schemes for Syrians. Syrians must agree themselves. These will not be easy things and quite a long process, but only in this case we can count on a stable agreement.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, yesterday representatives of the National Coordination Committee who frequently visit Moscow and meet with you, confirmed that they had received the invitation from the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Paris. Could you approximately determine the range of participants of such meeting? Whom would you exclude?
Sergey Lavrov: I would not exclude anybody, except those who are terrorists rather than opposition members. For instance, Djebhat an-Nusra movement is a well-known structure listed as a terrorist organization by the USA, and its heads openly state that they receive orders from Al-Qaeda. There are some other terrorist groupings. There is certainly no place for them at such meetings. We are talking about the political, even military opposition, at the same time understanding that there is no place for terrorists at the negotiation table.
Question: You have mentioned Iran as an important and key regional player. As far as I understand, Western partners do not wish to see Tehran as a participant of this conference yet. In your opinion, what role could this country play in settling the conflict in SAR, and how do you see the role of Hezbollah, a sufficiently powerful and weighty organization?
Sergey Lavrov: Iran may play the same role as other external players, directly interacting and supporting any Syrian party in a political or other way. There are evident things: Iran repeatedly emphasized its solidarity with the Syrian Government, representatives of the Iranian government visit Damascus on a regular basis. There should not be any doubts. I will emphasize that geopolitical preferences should not become an obstacle for Iran’s participation in the process of preparation and holding conferences from the very beginning.
As to Hezbollah, we all know well that this is a result of the development of the political life of Lebanon and the manifestation of Shiism of Lebanon rather than an “imported product”. As far as I understand, they have no other goals beyond the territory of Lebanon. Currently Hezbollah is saying openly that the only purpose, as they emphasize it, for which they have sent their battle units to Syria, is to protect sanctities of Shiites. We all know well that religious sanctities in Syria are being vandalized. Just yesterday, I read about destruction of one Orthodox temple, including the image of a saint equally worshiped by the Orthodox and Muslims. Therefore, the people who do it should be stopped and excluded from any political processes dedicated to the future of Syria.
Question: There was a massive explosion in the region of Reyhanli, Hatay Province, Turkey several days ago. Turkish authorities sprang to accuse Syrian intelligence agencies and turned to NATO. It is clear what it is all about. It seems that they wish to accuse Syrian authorities and to prepare ground for intervention and harsh reaction from the West or NATO. What do you think about it?
Sergey Lavrov: We have expressed our deepest sympathy to the Turkish authorities and people, near and dear ones of dozens of deceased and injured persons. Any terrorist incident deserves strong denunciation; therefore Russia long ago developed a single standard in the UNSC consisting in unanimous and ordinary reaction of the Security Council to any manifestations of terrorism. It is regretful that for about a year terrorist incidents inside Syria have not been denounced by some Western colleagues. I think that terrorist activities deserve denunciation; there should be no double standards. We need to consolidate the single front of struggle with terrorism. The President Vladimir Putin had a detailed phone conversation about it with the President Barack Obama after a known terrorist incident during the Boston Marathon.
As to the situation that established specifically after the terrorist incident in the region of Reyhanli at the border between Syria and Turkey, I think that we need to wait for an investigation, all the more so that the Turkish authorities have announced about detention of several suspects. Therefore, I would not lay any unambiguous charges against anybody, especially on the stage, when it is only the beginning of the investigation.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, on 10 May of this year in Warsaw you confirmed again that Russia intends to complete supplies of AD systems based on earlier reached agreements signed several years ago. To that end, Israel, that made an air strike on Syria recently, started to worry and talk that it is about C-300 systems. Is it so?
Sergey Lavrov: I will say again that we have not concluded any new contracts, but fulfil (and have already partially fulfilled and are completing) all old contracts concerning antiaircraft defences. Those, who do not plan any aggressive actions against a sovereign state, have nothing to worry about, because antiaircraft defences are exclusively defensive systems (as their name suggests) required for dealing with air strikes. We do not break any laws here and do not want to lose our reputation of a reliable supplier.
Question: At the beginning of May, Israel aviation made strikes on sites in the territory of SAR. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia made a statement indicating that Moscow is analysing and investigating this incident to make proper conclusions. Some parties perceived your statements in Warsaw as some response to the events related to the air raid. Can statements of the Russian party be evaluated as assistance to Syria in strengthening its air defence systems to avoid such air raids?
Sergey Lavrov: The primary purpose of AD systems is to protect the buying country from air raids. However, these contracts were concluded long before these air strikes last year and now. When we said that we wish to get to the bottom of circumstances of this case, we have already clarified a lot for ourselves. I wished to understand which targets were struck. According to our estimates, these targets are related to functioning of the military and defence system of the Syrian state. I do not want to go into details.
Question: Some analysts and observers have an opinion that Russia supports the Syrian regime and will consolidate its support, especially after the Syrian army started to show some success on the battlefield. What is your attitude to this opinion?
Sergey Lavrov: We told many times that our position is open and honest, everybody knows it, it is not for the sake of preserving the regime or any particular person heading this regime or in this regime, but to stop sufferings of the Syrian people, nobody violated the international law, no basic principles of the UN such as respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of a state, non-interference into internal affairs were put in doubt. We are convinced that no other ways aimed at changes in this or other region will provide for a sustainable settlement. Look what is happening in the countries overtaken by the Arab spring. The situation is far from being stable there, though we do everything to support reformation processes using politics, morals, humanitarian aid. However, these are very painful processes, mostly because of the way of their implementation.
Question: You have said that Russia guides itself by the supremacy of law, international law, etc. However, Russia certainly has its own geopolitical and economic interests. Could you please define the scope of interests of Russia in the region in general and in Syria in particular?
Sergey Lavrov: Our interests do not differ from interests of the region in general. We want this region to be stable, to have mutually profitable trade with it, so that we can make profitable investments into it in conditions of a stable social and economic situation, help develop the economy of countries of the region and at the same time help the activity of Russian companies. Together with countries of the region, we are interested in assisting in the solution of the most pressing problems having a global dimension, primarily the Palestine-Israel Peace Process, the Nuclear Program of Iran. I will also mention the task of creation of a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. We agreed about it sufficiently long ago, but three years ago we decided to convene an international conference for that purpose in 2012. Unfortunately, it was not our fault that it has not been done. We are still convinced that all the countries of the region need to participate in such conference. Our efforts as one of its co-chairs (together with Americans and Englishmen) are aimed at it. The UN Secretary-General is also involved here.
Thus, we are interested in economy, and conflict settlement, and political dialog, which we value a lot and are developing well. The first ministerial meeting between Russia and the League of Arab States was held at the beginning of the year, foreign ministers from Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon came to us. I will add deep traditions of our humanitarian and religious links here. We are worried a lot by the fate of Christians, primarily, the Orthodox, living in the region. They have been living in Syria “side by side” with the main group of the population – Sunni and other religious minority – Shiites, Alawites, Druzes, and Kurds for centuries. Therefore, we also need stability from this point of view. We do not want countries of the region to turn into mono-ethnic and mono-religious states. This sounds wild in the 21st century.
This is what we guide ourselves by, when protecting principles of international law in the context of the process happening in the region.
Question: Sergey Viktorovich, you talked about the danger of conflicts between ethnicities and religions in one of your interviews about a year ago. They criticized you in certain countries of the Persian Gulf that time. Do you think that this danger still exists? Do you feel that we can overcome the explosive situation in the region?
Sergey Lavrov: I have a hope that there will be a possibility to overcome and prevent this. However, the sharpness of inter-religious contradictions still remains. I have never hid it and I do not agree to the critics that have sounded in response to my statements. If purpose of these critics was to “shade” concerns of those who uttered it, then it is understandable. However,, there is not way to artificially hide this problem “under the carpet”. It does exist, and we all see it. I have already told about examples, when religions sanctities (this time Christian) are suffering, but contradictions inside Islam are very serious. We are worried by this, therefore we are interested in the harmonic development of the Islamic world, as envisaged by the Amman Declaration (adopted by religious scholars of all Islamic sects in Jordan in 2005). Unfortunately, the principles fixed there are under a very hard test now.
Question: It seems that nobody can fully realize that Russia is a powerful and great state, it is indeed strong in its position, defends its interests and interests of the international law in general. Many are constantly trying to find some “catch” here thinking that there are some “behind-the-scene” agreements based on which Russia will back off, for example, in Syria, Iran or some other place, but Western countries and the USA will cooperate in ADM or other issues topical for the post-Soviet space. What is your attitude to such statements?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not serious. I think that those, who are trying to make such assumptions, indulge in wishful thinking. They all know well that Russia is not subject to volatile fluctuations in a whole range of principal issues. This does not mean that it is formulated as an ultimatum. We advocate only for those things that are the basis of the modern world order – principles of the UN Charter and other international legal documents and we insist on their fulfilment. We do not want and will not put up with attempts of distorting the content of reached agreements, especially those legally settled. However, we are ready to seek for compromises constructively and flexibly, primarily for the parties of the existing conflict within the framework of what I have just told about.
Question: I cannot put aside the topic of the Middle East peace process, where Palestinian issue is in the central place. It will be difficult to settle other issues without solving this problem. In your opinion, are there any prospects to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” on this track in the nearest decades?
Sergey Lavrov: I agree to you absolutely concerning the importance of the Palestinian issue. I said it many years ago and I am still convinced that the non-settlement of this problem is the only most significant factor allowing recruiting extremists into different radical structures. Unfortunately, it is continuing, because the deadlock, we have been having for many years, is used for rearing youths in intolerance to those who are seeking for a political solution. This is presented in such a way that politicians started a dialog, it came to the deadlock, but they continue to persuade the neighbour country to restart negotiations. Let us act in other way, like men, we will use force, etc. This is a dangerous trend. The process has not stopped yet. The fact that we see proliferation of extremist and terrorist manifestations far outside this region (the Sahara-Sahel region is already overtaken by similar threats), is a consequence of non-settlement of the Palestinian problem.
We have been consistently drawing attention of our partners that the Quartet on the Middle East is inadmissible passive for many years. It practically does not work, its activity is paralyzed. Members of the Quartet on the level of foreign ministers of Russia, the USA, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the UN Secretary-General could meet several times and even were present in one location, for example, during the UN General Assembly in September 2012, but could not do it, because our American colleagues were not ready. First, they referred to the forthcoming elections, then, after them, Americans started to refer to elections in Israel. Now we would like to organize a meeting of the Quartet in London “on the fields” of the session of ministers of foreign affairs of the Group of Eight, but we did not manage to do it. We are concerned about it, because the critics addressed to the Quartet are absolutely fair, but we do not want to be unfairly criticized, because Russia is striving to restart the negotiation process. We need conditions for that.
We are also convinced that at this stage it is not sufficient just to collect the Quartet and to discuss formulations that will be later presented to Israeli and Palestinians. We are convinced that we need to involve LAS actively into this activity. All the more so that LAS, in my opinion, has too much indulged in Syrian matters, and the Palestinian problem has fallen into the shade for some time it seemed that the situation started to change some time ago. Representatives of the League visited Washington, where they presented their approaches, as we were told, to a “flexible” implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative, to the American government. We have not been presented these ideas yet, but we reckon that the Arab Peace Initiative will not be revised, because this is the most important document, opening up ways for a stable world between Arabs and Israeli, sustainable development in the Middle East. Let us not forget that beside Arab countries this initiative was supported by all Muslim states within OIC. I would be careful with this document. It is basic along with UNSC resolutions on the Palestinian problem. By the way, the Arab Peace Initiative along with the PLO platform is a basis for Fatah and Hamas. I hope that the efforts undertaken by Egypt in this line, which we actively support, will be successful, but the turbulent events of the Arab spring do not knock the bottom out of the way of the Palestinian unity in accordance with reached principal agreements.