Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at a joint press conference following talks with French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Jean-Marc Ayrault, Moscow, October 6, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today we held in-depth discussions with my French colleague, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Jean-Marc Ayrault.
We discussed preparations for the October 19 visit of President of Russia Vladimir Putin to France. We hope this visit will provide fresh impetus to relations between our countries. France is a long-time partner of Russia, and we deeply care about the quality of our relations with it.
Our talks focused on the situation in and around Syria. We are very much concerned about the current developments there. Moscow and Paris are worried about the continued violence and problems with humanitarian access to the Syrians in need. We are closely cooperating with our French partners on Syria, including on a bilateral basis and at the UN, the UN Security Council, the International Syria Support Group and its auxiliary agencies – the Ceasefire Task Force and the Humanitarian Task Force. France’s stance on Syria and on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa as a whole has always been of interest to us.
Russia is advocating an early peaceful and fair settlement of the bloody conflict in Syria. We see our main tasks there, as the UN Security Council has identified, as eradicating the terrorist threat, improving the humanitarian situation, and launching a political process as soon as possible. It goes without saying that this is impossible to achieve without a sustainable cessation of hostilities.
At the same time, we want the fight against terrorism to be waged collectively and based on international law. You know that over a year ago, President Vladimir Putin suggested creating a broad anti-terrorist front in his speech at the 70th UN General Assembly in New-York. We invited all countries to cooperate on this, and France was one of the first countries to which we addressed this initiative. Our presidents discussed it in the autumn of 2015.
Today we talked about Russian-US arrangements on which we worked throughout this year until we coordinated a package of documents on September 9. Russia has done everything in its power to start implementing these arrangements. Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in this, so far. Our American partners and their coalition allies cannot separate the moderate opposition from the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists. I would like to say that Russia and the Syrian Government are ready to implement their obligations under these arrangements, which concern the ceasefire, which illegal armed groups have violated, and humanitarian access, primarily via Castello Road. Unlike the Syrian Armed Forces, the opposition is unable to pull its forces back from the road. The survival of civilians in Aleppo depends on this major humanitarian channel.
It is regrettable that our American partners have decided to suspend out bilateral cooperation on Syria. We have noted that this decision does not affect our multilateral formats, which they are willing to use.
According to available information, a meeting of two International Syria Support Group (ISSG) auxiliary agencies – the Ceasefire Task Force and the Humanitarian Task Force – will be held in Geneva today. We fully agree that control and monitoring of the ceasefire must be ensured. This is stipulated in the Russian-US arrangements. We are convinced that these arrangements can put an end, without any additional efforts, to the fighting and ensure humanitarian access to people in Aleppo and other areas in Syria. Everyone knows, and this is stipulated in UN Security Council decisions, that the cessation of hostilities does not influence and will never include ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and those who have aligned with these terrorist organisations.
We told our French colleagues that Russia continues working to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Syria, including Aleppo, and regularly sends humanitarian aid to the specified sites. We are convinced – and I believe that we do not differ on this with our French colleagues – that there is no alternative to implementing UN Security Council decisions on launching a political process based on mutual respect and inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue without any preliminary conditions. Likewise, there is no alternative to a parallel cession of hostilities, expanded humanitarian access and, of course, an increasingly effective struggle against terrorism.
I would like to say that yesterday I spoke on the phone with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. Both parties have reaffirmed that each of the goals set by the UN Security Council must be achieved regardless of any preliminary conditions put forth by opposition groups. We must not allow ourselves to be held hostage to the whims of those who are working on the ground to attain their opportunistic goals. We also know that the EU has proposed a new humanitarian plan for Aleppo. We have read this document and consider it to be worth discussing and supporting. We would like to add that in response to an EU proposal, the Syrian authorities have agreed to open an EU humanitarian office in Damascus.
When Mr Ayrault and I started these talks, we learned that the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, has advanced a new initiative to normalise the situation in Aleppo, stop the fighting and remove the causes of the continuing violence there. We would like to thoroughly analyse this initiative, and we will do this as soon as we receive the text.
We have had productive talks today. We discussed the French initiative submitted to the UN Security Council. We will work on it from the above mentioned positions of principle, which have been sealed in the Russian-US arrangements, and based on the decisions of the UN Security Council and the ISSG, which must not be overlooked.
I am grateful to Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for his cooperation.
Question (addressed to both ministers): Is the French draft of a UN Security Council resolution on the cessation of hostilities in Aleppo in line with Moscow’s demands regarding the separation of the moderate opposition from terrorists? What points, in your opinion, should be amended for Russia to endorse the draft? What form of liability should be introduced in the draft resolution for violating the ceasefire? Who should decide who violated the ceasefire and when? Will a special mechanism be created for that?
Sergey Lavrov: We are studying the draft. We hope that our ideas and amendments, which will be conveyed to our French colleagues after our meeting today, will be closely studied and taken into account. These amendments include proposals providing for demands on behalf of the UN Security Council that the moderate opposition dissociates itself from Jabhat al-Nusra. These demands were formulated in the framework of the ISSG and the documents that we coordinated with the Americans. I do not think that in this situation Russia will be able to soften the wording that has already been approved.
Regarding the provisions that need amending. This is rather a long conversation. It should be conducted by experts. Such consultations are getting under way in New York. What liability should be introduced for violating the ceasefire? The ISSG already created a mechanism to identify violations when it set up two special subgroups: the Humanitarian Task Force and the Ceasefire Task Force. It described the mechanism in detail based on the proposals put forward by Russia and the United States. If I’m not mistaken, the mechanism was approved under UN Security Council Resolution 2268. We believe that it should be used to the maximum degree possible. Under this mechanism, all ISSG member countries have a right and an obligation to report any information regarding violations of the ceasefire for this information to be closely analysed, but until now they have displayed no initiative on the issue. Today, we urged our French colleagues, as we are also urging other members of this group, to make an effective use of the available opportunities.
Question (addressed to Jean-Marc Ayrault): It became known today that Germany is considering the possibility of introducing new anti-Russian sanctions in connection with the situation in Syria. Is France ready to support such sanctions?
Sergey Lavrov: We’ve read [reports] that Germany is allegedly considering the possibility of introducing new sanctions against Russia in connection with the situation in Syria. That is of course up to the German government. The issue is on the conscience of those who pass judgment on what is actually going on in Syria. The situation is amusing. The situation in Ukraine is very well known to everyone. The Minsk Agreements were signed but are not being implemented, while the European Union, including Germany, one of the EU’s leading countries, has adopted a position whereby sanctions against Russia will be lifted as soon as the Minsk Agreements are fulfilled. Although we all know very well who the implementation of the Minsk Agreements depends on and who their demands on what needs to be done are addressed to, with the indication of specific deadlines, including constitutional amendments and the status of Donbass. What’s more, the status of Donbass in the Minsk Agreements was spelled out personally by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. However, they are unable to fulfil the agreements. Our partners are not in a position to influence Kiev to implement them while sanctions are introduced against Russia.
Now about Syria. There are Russian-US agreements that our US partners failed to begin implementing but now the issue of sanctions against Russia has been raised. I don’t think there’s any need to explain what I mean. In my opinion, the situation is self-evident. I very much hope that, first, common sense will prevail and second, the wish to blame Russia for every sin under the sun will not get the upper hand but the striving to normalise the situation in different parts of the world, including Ukraine and the Middle East, proceeding, above all, from the interests of the peoples who live there.
Question: You have quoted Mr Staffan de Mistura as saying that Aleppo’s eastern districts may disappear before the year is out. They are currently being bombed by the Syrian Regime and Russian aviation. What is Russia prepared to do to improve the humanitarian situation and to end this humanitarian drama in eastern Aleppo? Why are you deploying S-300 systems? I have heard that this aims to defend the Russian base. But are there any threats to Russian bases in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: If you have followed news reports over the past 12 months, you should know that the Russian Aerospace Forces have already faced some threats. Those threats were not only voiced but also implemented. Since then, we have deployed S-400 surface-to-air missile systems at our base in Hmeymim to prevent similar incidents in the future. For some reason, the delivery of S-300 systems has caused a much bigger media outcry. No one has commented on S-400 deliveries. We now simply have to reliably protect our service personnel, Aerospace Forces and our logistics support facility in Tartus in a situation that is yet to subside. I spoke with US Secretary of State John Kerry over the telephone yesterday, and I asked him whether US media reports that Washington is studying possible cruise missile strikes against airfields being used by the Syrian Air Force are correct. You see, when a cruise missile is flying, it is probably hard to quickly identify its target. Therefore it would be wise to use caution. I repeat, the S-400 and S-300 systems are purely defensive and threaten no one.
As Jean-Marc Ayrault said earlier, he did not come here to make threats. We don’t expect any threats from our French friends, while meeting with the French side. I am confident that tomorrow’s trip to Washington, announced by Mr Ayrault, will not entail any threats either.
Regarding the situation in Aleppo, I would like to ask you to think about the entire population of Aleppo, and not the residents of its eastern sector alone. We are now extremely concerned about the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, including eastern Aleppo, but not only there. I would like to recall that, in August 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra-led militants advanced on Ramouseh district in southwestern Aleppo. They surrounded the district, as well as over one million civilians. At the same time, Jabhat al-Nusra-led militants blocked the only motor road leading into that district of Aleppo. The local population therefore faced the prospect of famine, food and fuel shortages. In the end, these Aleppo districts had to be supplied via dirt roads that cannot accommodate heavy-duty lorries. That was a very grave humanitarian situation. I don’t recall that anyone, including representatives of the esteemed media outlets present here, devoted any attention to this problem.
I would like to stress that we don’t divide Aleppo into the government-controlled sector and the militant-controlled sector. We want to help defuse this situation by all available means. I repeat, we coordinated a specific method with the US side, which provided for a 72-hour pause and for an equidistant withdrawal of government forces and opposition units from the main humanitarian artery leading into Aleppo. These distances were coordinated on paper by Russian and US military representatives and formalised in a document that was approved on September 9. But when it came to fulfilling the document, the US side told us they cannot guarantee that the opposition would withdraw its units from Castello Road. At first, the government started withdrawing its units, but the opposition immediately moved to seize the vacated territories, and the entire cycle resumed. In a situation when the Americans admitted their inability to secure the withdrawal of opposition units, as they had pledged, they suddenly made the following proposal to us: let’s not press for the withdrawal of government and opposition forces, let everything remain as it is, and let humanitarian convoys arrive in the current conditions. They also requested that Russian service personnel should be deployed to protect this road. Do you see what this is all about? Nevertheless, we said that we did not want to maintain security alone and suggested doing this together with US service personnel. They replied that this was too risky. This is the sum total of our exchange of opinions on how to address the humanitarian problems in Aleppo.
We remain convinced that unblocking Castello Road is the main task in ensuring unimpeded deliveries of humanitarian relief aid. Of course, we need to bring to reason militants controlling eastern Aleppo, who are saying loudly that they will not allow humanitarian relief aid deliveries via Castello Road and who are shelling it from time to time.
I have already said this, but people probably tend to forget about it. Let me say once again that on August 26, I met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva. On that day, we were joined by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who said that the Syrian government and Turkey had agreed that UN humanitarian convoys would pass along Castello Road from Turkey. This would have been symbolic because this would have taken place during a meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State in Geneva. We were filled with enthusiasm, and we believed that this, indeed, will turn the tide in overcoming the humanitarian crisis. At the same time, militants controlling eastern Aleppo said they would not allow this convoy to pass, and that they would shoot at it if it drives along Castello Road. The UN took a two-day break to try and talk the militants into complying. The militants refused to comply; attempts were made in September to change their minds but unsuccessfully.
Therefore, when we say so emotionally that it is necessary to resolve Aleppo’s humanitarian problems as soon as possible, I would like to ask you to assess the issue in its entirety and not to focus on one specific episode, no matter how tragic. Your files probably contain data on the events of those days and on how this happened, as all of this was publicly announced.
Speaking of UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, we always strive to search for some constructive step. He has made a statement. As far as I understand you, you have heard only one phrase of his statement, namely, that eastern Aleppo may disappear in 20 days. The most important message of his statement was that we must not allow this to happen. To the best of my knowledge (I have not read his entire statement, and I have just heard quotes from it), his main proposal is to resolve this situation. Apart from merely voicing alarmist statements, we need to resolve the problem: Militants must withdraw from there, and eastern Aleppo must be preserved in the form in which it is now governed by the local council. I repeat, this is what I heard, but so far I have been unable to read Staffan de Mistura’s full statement. I believe this proposal, at least the way it sounds, deserves the closest examination.
Question: Washington says military pressure on Russia cannot be ruled out if diplomatic methods are no longer effective. How far could you go in a military confrontation with the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: I regularly speak with US Secretary of State John Kerry. I have mentioned the figures – I don’t remember exactly, but we have had over 55 telephone conversations and about a dozen meetings this year. I have never heard him talk about this – at least not in our conversations, but I know that there can be leaks – including on a military solution to the Syrian crisis. When the ISSG was created, Russia, Iran and the United States insisted on adding a provision to our basic document that the Syrian crisis has no military solution – a statement that was adopted last autumn. As I said, this provision was advocated by Russia, the United States, Iran, Egypt and several other countries. But several other ISSG member countries did not support it. I am not going to name them, but the United States was not one of them. The United States, speaking through Mr Kerry, called for adding a provision on the absence of a military solution in Syria to the statement. The initiative was not approved. You can draw your own conclusions from this.
Now for the failure of diplomacy, which Mr Kerry mentioned in his speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. He said that [Syria and Russia have] rejected diplomacy. I will tell you about the development of our relations with the United States and why the documents, which we coordinated over many long months, carefully calibrating every word and action to be taken under these documents, have not taken effect yet. It is not our initiative but a unilateral US decision to put these documents aside. Therefore, at this point the question about why diplomacy doesn’t work should be addressed to the United States.
Of course, we have heard the rumour that Washington is allegedly discussing the use of military force against President Bashar al-Assad. Many experts in Russia and the West, including the United States, believe (and this belief has been reaffirmed by much evidence) that the US bombing raid on the Syrian Army positions at Deir ez-Zor was a military signal sent to President al-Assad. The Syrian Army has been blocked in that city by ISIS for about two years. ISIS launched an offensive against the Syrian troops following that bombing by the US and its coalition allies. We do not believe in conspiracy theories, yet I would like to quote what a Pentagon representative, Air Force Col. John Thomas, said about the September 19 attack on Deir ez-Zor. He said: “It was a dynamic target so it was not a planned deliberate strike, but we did take a couple of days to develop the target and a decision was made by the decision authority that it was a good target, after looking at all the intelligence and considering it. So the decision was not made on the spur of the moment.” How about that?
I discussed this with Mr Kerry in New York and later. He said firmly that it was a clear mistake and that we should forget about it rather than interpret it as a new US policy. As I said, the Syrian Government has issued a harsh statement on withdrawing from the ceasefire immediately after that attack in which about 80 Syrian military personnel were killed and 150 wounded. It was a very severe strike; the bombing lasted for over an hour, and if it was a mistake it should have been stopped sooner. We tried to convince Damascus that they should not react so sharply. But we continue to see reports that there are people in Washington who are advocating the use of force [against the Syrian forces]. This is no secret. I hope this view will not prevail. The official White House spokesperson has made reasonable comments on these rumours. We hope they reflect the base line of the Obama Administration.
Yesterday I had a telephone conversation with Mr Kerry. We have agreed that we should continue working and that we have a common goal – peaceful settlement in Syria. I fully agree with what Jean-Marc Ayrault has said here, that peace in Syria cannot be achieved without a political process. By the way, this process should be launched in keeping with UN Security Council resolutions, which say that the dialogue must be inclusive, launched without preconditions, and result in the establishment of non-sectarian transition governance. “Non-sectarian” is the term that was used in the text, as Jean-Marc has said. We hope that all Syrian parties agree that Syria should be a non-sectarian state. However, the High Negotiations Committee, which some opposition groups formed in Riyadh and which several Western countries, including France, support, has not said even once that it wants Syria to be non-sectarian. In this sense, I find solace in Jean-Marc’s words that all Syrian groups without exception must take part in intra-Syrian talks. We fully agree, but some external players believe that only the High Negotiations Committee can represent the Syrian opposition, if not the Syrian people as a whole.
You see that we have more things in common with our French colleagues than differences. I hope this will help us find the necessary formulas in the UN Security Council to preserve the unity of this vital international agency.