Speech by Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov at the 6th Middle East Dialogue Conference “The Middle East: When Will Tomorrow Come?” held by the Valdai International Discussion Club, Moscow, February 27, 2017
I am happy to take part in this sixth conference held by the Valdai International Discussion Club.
The organisers of this event have assumed that efforts to maintain security remain a key factor in global politics in 2017. One cannot help but agree with them. The annual Munich Security Conference opened in Germany about a week ago, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attending the event. In his speech, he noted that, in 2007, President Vladimir Putin addressed conference delegates and underscored the need to renounce unilateral actions, to convert to honest and mutually respectful cooperation, based on international law, in international relations, to jointly evaluate global problems and to adopt collective decisions. Many people in the West then regarded his words as a challenge or even a threat. His warnings, voiced ten years ago, have now become a reality.
Middle East developments are a bitter and very convincing reminder of the consequences of the ‘democratisation” line that aimed to impose pseudo-liberal values and implement reforms under alien concepts imposed from outside, without any consideration for the modern world’s cultural and civilisational diversity. Bleeding wounds, including Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, have appeared in the vast Middle East and North Africa region. And it appears that these wounds will not heal soon.
The problem of terrorism has become common. Terrorist acts have affected the residents of European cities, the Middle East countries and have killed Andrey Karlov, the Russian Ambassador in Ankara. The fact that the international community has so far failed to unite in earnest and establish a broad anti-terrorist front, as urged from the UN rostrum by President Vladimir Putin in September 2015, evokes serious concern and regret.
What the world needs desperately, primarily, to defeat ISIS, is a general coalition to fight international terrorism on the basis of the UN Charter, international law and UN Security Council resolutions. It is encouraging that during their telephone conversation on January 28, President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump referred to the issue of joining efforts to fight international terrorism as their priority and spoke in favour of establishing real coordination in order to crush ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria.
Fighting terrorism was the main reason why the Syrian leaders approached the Russian Federation in 2015, asking for assistance in confronting the terrorist threat. Based on this request, our Aerospace Forces have been assisting the Syrian armed forces in fighting terrorism ever since. Last December, proceeding from our shared counter-terrorism priorities, we agreed with our Turkish and Iranian partners to broker a ceasefire deal between the Syrian Government and the armed opposition in a bid to join efforts in fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was unanimously approved in December 2015, remains a key element of the internationally recognised basis for a Syria settlement. It identifies the priority areas of the multilateral effort and calls for cooperation in facilitating talks between the Syrian Government and the entire spectrum of the Syrian opposition. This document reflects our fundamental approach to the ways the Syria crisis can be resolved, which remains unchanged. We believe that only the Syrian people can shape their future without any outside interference. The same applies in full to the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
As for the current situation in Syria on the ground, so to speak, we note with satisfaction that the ceasefire, which came into effect across the larger part of the country on December 30, 2016 and is guaranteed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, was instrumental in bringing down violence. The ceasefire zone has expanded with groups of the Southern Front armed opposition joining the ceasefire – this time under Russia’s and Jordan’s guarantees. We remain committed to continuing our work to make sure that ceasefire holds. For this purpose, we will get the Joint Group, which was established at the international meeting on a Syria settlement in Astana on January 23-24, involved in the process. Members of the group are Russia, Iran and Turkey, while Syria and other interested parties may also be involved.
During the meeting in Astana in January 2017, the Russian delegation circulated a draft constitution prepared for Syria by Russian experts. Please note that this document is not the last word but an attempt to bring together the common elements in the parties’ approaches to the issue. It should be seen as an invitation to a constructive discussion among the Syrians who alone can decide their country’s future.
We see the Astana process as an instrument for using the cessation of hostilities as the basis for creating conditions in which a comprehensive political process can be launched and promoted in Geneva. We welcome the resumption of intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. We believe that these talks must be broad and inclusive as per UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
We want Libya to overcome its protracted crisis and again become a prosperous country with strong government institutions, an effective army and law enforcement agencies, and with the status of a major regional player. Our top priority is the preservation of Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This is why we welcomed the Libyan Political Agreement on the parameters for national reconciliation signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015 and supported the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2269, which strengthened the agreement. At our initiative, the resolution includes provisions on the inclusive nature of the political process in Libya.
More than a year has passed, but the situation in Libya has not improved. The Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord, which have been created in keeping with the Skhirat agreement, have not become fully effective. Other top provisions of the transition period as stipulated in the Skhirat roadmap have not been implemented either, that is, work on the constitution has not been completed and general elections, following which permanent government bodies should be created, have not been held. The Council of Deputies in Tobruk has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Cabinet of Ministers because not all Libyan political forces are represented in it.
Confrontation between Tobruk and Tripoli has essentially paralysed the Libyan system of governance, which has aggravated socioeconomic problems. ISIS and al-Qaeda have been able to maintain their presence in the country due to the power vacuum in some regions, and local extremist groups connected with them remain active.
We are convinced that this problem can be resolved only if representatives of a broad range of socio-political forces, tribes and regional groups participate in the work of government bodies at all levels. It is obvious that the Libyans themselves must decide the future of their country. We regard the attempts to force ready-made solutions on them as counterproductive. At the same time, we must continue working painstakingly and systematically with both centres of power in Libya – Tripoli and the Tobruk opponents, urging them to overcome their internal differences and to move towards mutually acceptable solutions to all controversial issues and parameters of national reconciliation. We will continue to consistently pursue this balanced policy.
We are constantly telling our Western partners, including Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya Martin Kobler and the Libyans themselves, including Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Haftar, who was in Moscow in November 2016, and Aguila Saleh, President of the Libyan House of Representatives who visited Russia in December 2016, about the importance of fostering a constructive dialogue. We will speak with Fayez al-Sarraj about the need to foster a constructive dialogue with the opposition , while hosting him in Moscow soon.
We are closely following the situation in Yemen. Everyone already realises that the situation in this long-suffering country is disastrous. This is fully confirmed by the latest UN data. The economy has been paralysed, most civil infrastructure facilities have been damaged by air strikes, and the people are suffering from famine and widespread epidemics.
Everyone is talking about Syria today. But, in reality, civilians in Yemen are facing even more difficult circumstances. According to the most conservative estimates, at least 7,500 people have been killed during hostilities and over 40,000 more wounded since March 2015. Over 80 per cent of the country’s population, or about 19 million people, are in need of humanitarian relief. Two million Yemenis, not to mention many tens of thousands of refugees, have become displaced persons in their own country. The country is affected by widespread famine. Ninety-seven per cent of children are malnourished. Air strikes have seriously damaged the civil infrastructure, schools, hospitals and transport facilities have been destroyed. The continuing air and naval blockade makes it impossible to deliver food and fuel to this country. There is an acute shortage of medications, with many Yemenis dying from perfectly treatable diseases.
Against this dramatic backdrop we consistently urge the international community to rapidly ease the socioeconomic situation in the Republic of Yemen, to provide unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas of this country and to lift the air and naval blockade as soon as possible.
We firmly believe that the crisis in Yemen can only be resolved by peaceful methods, on the basis of broad national dialogue that heeds the interests of all leading national political forces. We wholeheartedly support UN efforts to immediately stop the war. We are confident that the Yemeni problem cannot be solved by force. We insistently advocate the resumption of the political process and the reinstatement of Yemeni statehood.
For this purpose, we cooperate with all political forces in this country, and we have therefore temporarily sent the Russian Ambassador in Yemen to Riyadh. He has been instructed to maintain contact with the Yemeni government in exile there and to persuade the supporters of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to search for negotiated solutions that would be seen as mutually acceptable to both parties to the conflict. At the same time, we maintain our embassy in Sanaa. We cooperate with the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) and the General People’s Congress party via the Russian charge d’affaires.
Here is another highly important aspect. Unfortunately, the truth is that only ISIS, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other extremist groups stand to gain from the Yemeni civil war. This trend is illustrated most vividly in the country’s southern regions where extremists have taken advantage of the power vacuum and established control over large territories and even entire cities.
Based on developments in Syria, we know that it is vital to combat terrorists now, without putting this task off. The sooner all Yemeni political forces work together to combat the terrorist threat, the lesser the chances of radical extremists holding their positions.
We are interested in resolving the conflict in Iraq as soon as possible. It is important to eradicate the ISIS threat that originated there. We offer political and practical support for the efforts of Iraqi leaders to restore control over the country’s extremist-controlled territories and to guarantee its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Obviously, ISIS is sustaining a military defeat in Iraq. They no longer control any major cities, except Mosul whose liberation is a matter of time. However, no quick victory over the terrorists has been achieved. Over four months have passed since the start of the operation to retake Mosul, and ISIS still controls most of the city. They had enough time to become entrenched there, and they use civilians as human shields. It is important to protect them and to take care of the almost 200,000 people fleeing from Mosul.
The attempts of certain parties to take advantage of internal Iraqi disputes add fuel to the fire. We are particularly worried by the religious card being played by them. Various channels for resupplying terrorist groups and recruiting their adherents have not yet been eliminated.
In the context of the situation in Iraq, we consider any military presence in Iraq, in circumvention of its official authorities, unacceptable. Everyone knows our principled position on this score. It is based on international law. We believe that foreign troops can be deployed elsewhere, be it in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else, only with the consent of national governments or by a decision of the UN Security Council. We will continue to support the Iraqi Government’s legitimate demands to respect the country’s national sovereignty.
In turn, we actively cooperate with Iraq in its fight against ISIS, that is, in Iraq itself and in neighbouring Syria. The Baghdad-based four-way information centre involving militaries from Iraq, Russia, Syria and Iran aims to accomplish these tasks. The delivery of Russian weapons and military equipment to Iraq boosts the combat readiness of the Iraqi armed forces. We also help Iraqi Kurdistan.
At the same time, it is impossible to restore stability in Iraq by force alone. We are convinced that Iraq’s problems can be resolved through forging national accord in the country. It is important for the Iraqis themselves to work together on the basis of a comprehensive intra-Iraqi dialogue and to reach agreements based on consensus so that the interests of all ethnic groups and religious denominations are respected. Otherwise it is impossible to achieve lasting reconciliation. In our contacts with our Iraqi partners, we are persuading them to work along precisely these lines.
I would like to note, by way of summing up, that it would be impossible to bring the situation in the Middle East and North Africa back to normal and effectively fight terrorism across the board without finding effective peaceful solutions to conflicts of which there are plenty in the region. At the same time the main principle we are guided by is that there is no place where a settlement can be achieved by military force. We invariably repeat this at various forums. The new Foreign Policy Concept approved by the Russian President last November incorporates a provision to the effect that Russia will continue working to stabilise the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, support joint efforts to avert threats from international terrorist groups and pursue a consistent policy aimed at achieving a political and diplomatic settlement of conflicts raging in the countries of this region on the basis of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of these countries and their right to determine their future without any external interference. Russia’s commitment to seeking a solution to the long-lasting Arab-Israeli conflict has also been written into this policy-making document.
Russia pursues an independent and pragmatic foreign policy, defending its national interests and developing fair cooperation with all countries who are interested in it. An ever increasing number of countries share Russia’s approach to resolving key global problems on the basis of joint efforts and respect for international law. The role of our country as a balancing factor that helps enhance global stability and security has been gaining recognition.
However, I would like to get back to the beginning of my speech. Today, when the situation in the world remains extremely complicated, there is particular demand for the scrupulous and well-coordinated daily work of the entire international community. Only by working together can we overcome existing disagreements and make progress toward resolving problems and accomplishing the task of helping people in the region achieve the political and socioeconomic rehabilitation of the Middle East and North Africa.