Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsendiyn Munkh-Orgil, Moscow, February 13, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have held talks with my Mongolian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia Tsendiyn Munkh-Orgil, which were meaningful and trust-based. Once again, they proved the well-known fact that we value our friendly and neighbourly relations.
Last year, we marked the 95th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between our countries. A comprehensive programme of events was implemented, confirming the mutual feelings of friendship and affinity that have traditionally connected our nations.
We have intensified our political dialogue, including at the high and top levels. Our inter-parliamentary contacts are expanding, as is the work between our foreign ministries and other agencies. The mid-term programme for developing bilateral strategic partnership, worked out on instructions from the Russian and Mongolian presidents and signed last April, has served as an impetus for development and cooperation in all areas of our relations. We thoroughly reviewed the progress in implementing this major document.
We noted that the Russian-Mongolian Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, whose 20th meeting took place in Ulaanbaatar in December 2016, has outlined additional measures to tap the potential of our cooperation in transport infrastructure, energy and other areas.
We see good prospects for the dialogue that has started between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Mongolia. In early February, Ulaanbaatar hosted the second meeting of the Working Group of the Eurasian Economic Commission (EAEC) and the Government of Mongolia, where the sides agreed on practical steps to expand inter-regional and border links and boost exchanges between the two countries’ business communities. The Mongolian side confirmed its interest in developing a free trade agreement together with the Eurasian Economic Union and establishing a joint research group to this end. This interest has met with a positive response from Russia and other EAEU and EAEC member states.
We have exchanged opinions on guaranteeing the environmental safety of Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Russia understands the concern of our Mongolian friends in expanding their country’s power industry, with due account for national economic development requirements. We have confirmed that members of a working group, established by mutual agreement and due to meet soon, will discuss various options for meeting Mongolia’s demand, while reducing any risks for the stability of Lake Baikal’s ecosystem, with due consideration for essential environmental impact assessments.
We voice coinciding or similar positions on key regional and global issues. We have reviewed our interaction at the UN, the OSCE and other multilateral forums, including those in the Asia Pacific region. We have agreed to hold special consultations on foreign policy planning during the first quarter of 2017. I consider this agreement to be quite useful.
We have also discussed Mongolia’s involvement in the SCO as an observer country, for the time being, but we hope that its status will be raised. In any event, our Mongolian friends can cooperate without any restrictions in implementing SCO projects and programmes in security, energy, transport, agriculture and within the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure.
We are extremely satisfied with our talks that clearly confirm a striving to further expand Russian-Mongolian ties in all areas.
Question: Will the Syrian armed opposition attend the February 15-16 meeting in Astana?
Sergey Lavrov: The format of the February 15-16 meeting in Astana will be the same as the first meeting on January 23-24. To be more precise, the meeting is to include three guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey and Iran), representatives of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and armed opposition units from among those that have signed a ceasefire agreement with Damascus on December 29. The agreement also aims to jointly combat ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated terrorist groups. In addition, UN Secretary General Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura was invited in the context of his role as mediator. Our American colleagues were also invited to attend as observers, who were represented in Astana by the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan.
The parties agreed to invite the same participants for the February 15-16 round.
Preparatory work is nearing completion, the parties are specifying the lists of delegations and other organisational aspects linked with holding the second round. Between these rounds, Astana hosted one more meeting involving only guarantor countries: Russia, Turkey and Iran. This was motivated by the need to finalise the details of a mechanism to monitor compliance with the ceasefire agreement. As you may remember, this mechanism was created by Moscow, Tehran and Ankara during the first Astana meeting. The incipient mechanism was praised abroad, including by the UN, with which we closely cooperate.
We proceed from the need to continue using the Astana venue for monitoring the parties’ compliance with their ceasefire obligations and for promoting and encouraging the process of political reform. We consider it important for representatives of the armed opposition to take part in the political process. Their voice must be heard during this dialogue.
Question: The offensive against ISIS positions in al-Bab continues. The operation involves the Turkish armed forces, the Free Syrian Army, the government forces and the Kurds. Experts are increasingly talking about the possibility of direct clashes between these forces. Is there clear coordination, delimitation or agreement on who will be controlling the city? What does Moscow think of Turkish President Erdogan’s statements that the next target of the Turkish military will be Raqqa and Manbij and the intention to create a safe zone in that area? Can you also comment on the status of Jordan in the upcoming Astana talks?
Sergey Lavrov: We have agreed that the participants in the Astana talks include the parties directly involved in military action (the Syrian government and the armed opposition groups that signed a corresponding agreement) and the countries that guarantee these ceasefire agreements and have influence with the Syrian parties to these agreements. Russia and Iran have influence with the government while Turkey has influence with the opposition. Already this month, the December 29 ceasefire agreement was joined by several more groups of the so-called Army of Islam (an armed opposition group operating in southern Syria, with which Jordan has influence). Therefore, we invited a Jordanian representative, who participated in discussions of certain aspects concerning Jordan’s role, to the first meeting in Astana. So, Jordanian representatives would be quite helpful at the next meeting. We are working on the details right now.
Speaking of the issues dealt with by commanders of general staffs of different countries, I can say that, first of all, eliminating the hotbed of terrorism in Syria is the main and obvious priority. It unites everybody who in one way or another is involved in the resolution of the Syrian conflict. At any rate, there have been statements to this effect from all the “external players.”
The fight against terrorism has been the main reason why the Syrian leadership requested Russian assistance to combat the terrorist threat. This is the reason why the Russian Aerospace Forces are helping the Syrian armed forces in the fight against terrorists. It was based on anti-terrorist priorities that we agreed with our Turkish and Iranian counterparts to assist with the ceasefire between the government and the armed opposition and to join forces against the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. It was to intensify and increase efficiency of the anti-terrorist efforts that we made an agreement with the Obama administration. Unfortunately, at the last minute the administration was not capable of fulfilling the agreements reached. It is with the purpose of fighting terrorism that we hope to establish closer and much more efficient cooperation on Syria with the Trump Administration, considering the US President’s clear approach to terrorism as an absolute evil. This is the criterion, the linchpin that unites us.
Of course, when there are so many participants directly or indirectly involved in the events in Syria – even if they are all united by one goal and are on the same ‘battlefield’ (I mean, the Syrian government forces and the numerous opposition groups, the Russian Aerospace Forces, Hezbollah supported by our Iranian neighbours, and the US-led coalition), there must be clear coordination of activities. This is basically what we are doing. It goes without saying that while coordinating our efforts, the interests of the Syrian government, Syrian armed forces must be fully taken into account. All the external players that I just mentioned have repeatedly, publicly and loudly confirmed that they respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is reflected in all the UN Security Council resolutions that have been adopted with respect to the Syrian crisis.
Those who are now directly involved in this process on the ground must coordinate their activities based on the principles I just listed. This concerns both the current operation in al-Bab, future developments around Manbij and Raqqa, etc. For obvious reasons I will not go into further details but I have spoken extensively about the principles our work is based on.