Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and an answer to a media question at a news conference following a meeting of the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers, Astana, April 21, 2017
The meeting of the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers has come to a close. It was the last stage in the preparations for the next SCO Summit, which will be held in Astana between June 8-9. We have discussed a package of documents that will be offered for approval by our heads of state. These primarily include the decisions on completing the procedure for the full accession of India and Pakistan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It will be an event of historical significance, which will help strengthen the SCO’s prestige and influence on the international stage. Following the addition of India and Pakistan, the SCO will account for 43 per cent of the world’s population and 24 per cent of global GDP.
The next country we will discuss to join is Iran. As many participants at the meeting said today, Iran has settled the problem of the UN Security Council sanctions and hence fully meets the SCO membership criteria. We hope that during their June summit in Astana the heads of our states will be able to discuss the possibility of launching the procedure for admitting Iran into the organisation as a full member.
The other documents we discussed include the draft Convention on Combatting Extremism. It is an extremely important and innovative document, which offers provisions based on internal law for combatting extremist ideology and extremism as a factor that undermines the stability of countries. We hope that this convention will be approved by our heads of state.
Work on the SCO strategy against narcotic drugs has continued for a second year. Today we have agreed to boost the work of the concerned agencies in our countries to complete the programme and the action plan for its implementation in time for the Astana summit.
We also discussed a draft convention on cooperation in environmental protection, which is also an issue of concern to us. As you know, this is one of Russia’s priorities, and our SCO partners are acting likewise.
Lastly, we expect to sign an intergovernmental agreement on the SCO University, which operates as a network of 80 universities from the SCO countries.
Our discussions on international matters included Syria, of course. This issue cannot leave anyone indifferent considering the related geopolitical events, in particular, the recent ungrounded accusations of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and our Western colleagues’ refusal to send inspectors to the site so that they would see for themselves what happened there and collect samples.
We told our partners how the Syrian issue was discussed during the recent visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Russia and also during a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria in Moscow on April 14. All parties have confirmed the need for strict compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which provides for an exclusively peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis based on an inclusive dialogue between all Syrians. It also says that the Syrians themselves must decide the future of their country.
Our SCO partners also clearly reaffirmed the importance of compliance with UN Security Council decisions on the approval of the Minsk Agreements on the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis.
These are the main results of our meeting. I believe our talks were very positive, useful, business-like and also practical.
Question: You said you discussed the Syrian agenda. According to Russia as a guarantor of the ceasefire, which of the Syrian opposition forces is more committed to implementing their obligations: the armed opposition or the High Negotiations Committee? What is the main obstacle hindering the intra-Syrian talks?
Sergey Lavrov: We are indeed worried by the actions taken by the United States and its Western allies to prevent inspectors from going to the site of the chemical incident in order to establish the truth. As I have said, this is an attempt to find a pretext to refrain from the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 on a political settlement in Syria and to encourage the international community to accept this as a reason to return to the old plan for changing the Syrian government.
The overwhelming majority of the UN member states reject this policy. I also believe that this course is also rejected by those who support the Astana process, which was initiated by Russia and Turkey with support from Iran. These three countries act as the guarantors of the ceasefire agreement signed between the Syrian government and the armed opposition. We have been working to convince more armed opposition groups to join the ceasefire agreement. The situation has been complicated by a reverse activity: those who support Jabhat al-Nusra are trying to involve new armed groups into this terrorist organisation in order to keep them away from the Astana process.
The situation on the ground is very complicated, because there are very many armed players, primarily the Syrian Army and Russia’s Aerospace Forces that support it, Iranian units and Hezbollah, which are contributing to the fight against terrorism at the request of the Syrian government. There are also special operations forces from some Western countries there, as well as Turkish armed forces and the US-led coalition forces. If all these forces could be convinced to turn against terrorism – ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, a positive result would be achieved very quickly. However, we have not yet succeeded in this. Conflicts between the armed opposition have not abated and the Kurdish forces, with whom Russia and the United States are cooperating, which the Turkish authorities consider to be wrong, are a matter of contention.
There are very many external factors here. It is very important to see that we are using the Astana process to strengthen the ceasefire regime and determine the criteria which all forces willing to dissociate themselves from the terrorists must comply to. We also use the Astana platform to create joint mechanisms with Turkey and Iran which will be used not just to register ceasefire violations but also to respond to these violations by calling their perpetrators to account. In addition to this, an agreement is being formulated at the Astana platform to stabilise the situation by uniting the districts that comply with the ceasefire agreement into a constructive group which will contribute to the efforts to drive extremists from Syria.
We will not abandon the political process. We are actively advocating the need to start working on a new Syrian constitution as soon as possible. You have mentioned the so-called High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which refuses to work on the new constitution or to accept the UN initiatives advanced in Geneva, under which work on the constitution, preparations for elections and the fight against terrorism must begin now. The HNC doesn’t agree to discuss anything but the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, which is not stipulated but is directly prohibited in the UN Security Council resolution.
There is serious work ahead, and those who directly influence and finance the HNC should review their policy of kowtowing to the opposition who persist in their destructive stand.