Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Adel Al-Jubeir, Jeddah, September 10, 2017
Mr Minister, colleagues, friends,
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to thank our Saudi partners for the warm welcome given to the Russian delegation. By tradition, the talks in Jeddah have been conducted in a friendly atmosphere and have been fairly substantive.
I would like to make a special mention of the conversation that took place in the morning when our delegation was received by His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. During the audience with His Majesty and at the talks in the Saudi Foreign Ministry we discussed the current condition and prospects of Russian-Saudi relations that are spreading to new areas, and mapped future cooperation plans. We are obviously interested in enhancing regular political dialogue at all levels. We agreed to step up cultural and humanitarian contacts that are helping our people learn more about each other. In general, human contact facilitates cooperation in all areas, the economy included. We agreed to consider what could be done to provide easier visa procedures for Russian and Saudi entrepreneurs that are involved in joint projects.
We have the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation. We are now discussing the schedule for the next regular meeting. We hope the commission will promote the positive growth trend in trade that was recorded this year after the 2016 decline. We highly appreciate the developing cooperation between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
We reaffirmed to our colleagues that Russian economic operators are ready to take part in joint projects with Riyadh in the energy, industrial, infrastructure, agricultural and other promising areas both in Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Our partners reaffirmed their desire to continue coordinating actions in the world hydrocarbon market and their commitment to the OPEC-plus agreements on regulating global oil supplies.
We exchanged views on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. As my colleague Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said we noted that there is no alternative to settling all these crises on the firm foundation of international law and respect for the principles of the UN Charter. These problems can only be resolved by political and diplomatic means, via national dialogue with the participation of all ethnic and religious groups. I would like to repeat that we emphasised the need to unite the efforts of the world community against international terrorism and extremism.
We paid special attention to Syria in this context. We agreed that the formation of de-escalation zones in that country is a major step forward, which helps consolidate the ceasefire and resolve humanitarian problems of civilians and creates the conditions for promoting the political process on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The Russian Federation is actively supporting the efforts of its Saudi partners to unite different opposition groups – known as the Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo groups – to establish a single negotiating team for talks with the Syrian Government in Geneva. As you know, the same kind of work is carried also in Astana where Syrian Government representatives began to talk directly with field commanders.
We also discussed the situation in other hot spots of the region, including Yemen, Iraq and Libya and spoke in detail about prospects of the Middle East peace process. We share the view that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be settled on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative that was made by the late King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Needless to say, we exchanged views on the situation in the Persian Gulf in the context of the disagreements that some countries have with Qatar. We reaffirmed our position in favour of settling these disagreements at negotiations, directly expressing concerns and seeking decisions that will take into account the concerns and interests of all sides. In this context we continue supporting the mediation of Emir of Kuwait Sabah IV Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and recent US efforts to act as a go-between. We are confident that it is in our common interests to restore the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council as a major instrument of resolving many issues of this much-suffering region.
On the whole I am sure the results of the talks will facilitate the consistent development of Russian-Saudi cooperation in the most diverse areas, which will help our countries promote the resolution of the region’s problems and stabilise the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Question: Many say there can only be a political solution to the crisis in Syria. Have the Russian and Saudi positions moved closer on the issue? The discussion concerned an agreement on uniting representatives of the opposition into a single delegation at the upcoming negotiations. Is it realistic to expect this delegation to sit at the negotiating table without any preconditions?
Sergey Lavrov: We have no disagreements with the KSA on the political commitment to settle crises politically. It so happened that bloody conflicts broke out in many parts of the region. They are being used primarily by extremists and terrorists that are trying to expand their influence there. This evil can be only countered by armed force. The KSA leaders and President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly spoken about being uncompromising on this front. For achieving a definitive settlement of these conflicts, when the terrorist threat recedes and the terrorists are defeated, which is already happening in Iraq and Syria, it will certainly be necessary to look at the political settlement processes that, I believe, should by all means involve all ethnic and religious groups in inclusive dialogue and a search for solutions to create a structure for a functioning government that will allow all citizens of a certain country to co-exist in peace and security.
As I have already said, we are actively supporting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to unite all opposition representatives into one group. The platform for their unification is largely determined by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which mentions the Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo groups as a mandatory component of talks on the opposition side, and says that only Syrians themselves can decide the destiny of their country.
I share the position of my Saudi colleague. We believe that once this unification takes place, we should encourage all members of the delegation to elaborate a platform designed to achieve this goal so that Syrians themselves agree on a settlement path. Naturally, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 does not contain any preconditions for the start of the talks or any ultimatums or unilateral demands.
I am convinced that when the opposition unites (I think this will take place by all means), we will advise the participants of this united delegation to elaborate a constructive position that will make it possible to move forward in Geneva.
Question: The situation in the Persian Gulf remains complicated. The sides are exchanging accusations. What possible ways of resolving this issue do Russia and Saudi Arabia see?
Sergey Lavrov: As for the crisis in the Gulf, I have already said we have an interest in the outcome of the ongoing mediation and in restoring unity in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Question: Russia and KSA understand each other on the oil issue. On what issues do they disagree?
Sergey Lavrov: As for our oil cooperation, this is a responsibility of energy ministries rather than foreign ministers. As I said, at the meeting with His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, His Majesty expressed satisfaction with our cooperation in this area. This assessment fully coincides with the opinion of the Russian leadership.
Question: How do you envision Syria’s future?
Sergey Lavrov: There is never unity in each individual step on the way to a common goal. If you look at all players involved that influence the situation on the ground, including Russia, Turkey, Iran and the members of the US-led coalition, you will have to admit that their methods of reaching the goals set by the UN Security Council do not always coincide, far from it. This is exactly why the Astana process emerged, with Russia, Turkey and Iran as guarantors, the United States and Jordan as observers, the team of UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, as well as representatives of the Syrian Government and armed opposition all trying to find a common denominator among views on how to solve this problem. Currently they are making progress towards this goal. Three de-escalation zones have been established. The first one was the southern zone set up with the help of Russia, the US and Jordan, and the other two zones were established in Homs and Eastern Ghouta.
Next week Astana will host another meeting. I hope its participants will reach agreements on all parameters of the fourth zone in Idlib.
The parties involved should not focus on current issues that are not always easy to agree on. The bottom line is to understand that we are all moving towards the goal that was formulated by consensus on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with full respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the principle of non-interference in the efforts of the Syrians to decide the future of their own country. As my Saudi colleague said, we and the KSA are fully committed to these goals.
Question (for both ministers): It has been a long time since positive advances were made in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Is there going to be a meeting of the Middle East Quartet in the near future, maybe on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly? Hasn’t this format outlived itself yet? Is it possible that new approaches and platforms are required?
Sergey Lavrov: Because the Middle East Quartet was mentioned, I will answer that Russia, as a member of the Quartet, is interested in keeping this mechanism going. The Quartet’s activity is based on the universally recognised decisions of the United Nations. It is also based on the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative that we have already mentioned today. It all reflects the consensus of the international community. I believe it would be counterproductive and a mistake to depart from this consensus.
It is true that the settlement process is, to put it mildly, stalled. There is still a virtual deadlock and we cannot find ways out, although attempts are being made.
For the first time since the change of administration in the US, the Quartet’s envoys met in Jerusalem this July. They released a modest and perhaps not high-profile statement (without any breakthrough or revelations). But at least it confirmed the need to follow the plans that had been agreed upon. It may be important to prove the “relevance” of the Quartet. Still, we always spoke out against the Quartet operating in a vacuum, in favour of the Quartet closely coordinating its actions with the Arab League. We also spoke in favour of not just inviting representatives of the Arab League for briefings after the Quartet’s meetings, but to actively participate in developing pathways that can lead to a settlement. This is especially important, because, as I’ve already said, the Arab Peace Initiative is the cornerstone of the common effort. Consequently, the participation of the Arab countries would be more than appropriate.
One of the fundamental reasons we are unable to move forward faster is the absence of Palestinian unity. The Palestinians are divided; the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip has deteriorated. The Gaza Strip no longer receives many essential goods for everyday life, to meet the daily needs of the population. We are trying to reconcile those who live and work in the Gaza Strip with those in the West Bank and Mahmoud Abbas’ administration. We are in contact with Hamas and Fatah to get them to resume implementation of the agreements reached not long ago, to unite under the single roof of the Ramallah administration and to hold general presidential and parliamentary elections.
I repeat, this rift is currently one of the main reasons the efforts to resume talks have not been effective. We know that many Arab countries work to help restore Palestinian unity. We are ready to coordinate our approaches with them.
Another reason warrants mention. Despite the appointment of a special envoy, who has visited the region 20 times already, the US has not clearly expressed a position on the Israeli-Palestinian settlement. We communicate with all the sides, including the special envoy appointed by Washington. Of course, we talk with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently visited Russia. He held talks with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. Although the bulk of the talks was dedicated to other issues (Syria and everything around it), we also reiterated how important it is not to let the Israeli-Palestinian settlement process drop out of view. It is discussed as one of the most ancient, if not the most ancient, conflict on the planet. I share the belief that the absence of a settlement and a Palestinian state for almost 70 years after the corresponding decision was made is one of the main reasons the extremists are able to recruit young people under the pretext of discrimination against the Palestinian people and the inability of the international community to implement the decision of the UN General Assembly to establish a Palestinian state living side by side with the Israeli state in peace, harmony and safety, as the rest of their neighbours.
Question: What is the purpose of creating de-escalation zones in Syria? Who exactly works there?
Sergey Lavrov: The purpose of creating de-escalation zones in Syria is to stop the violence. It is not a permanent measure. No one who agreed to form them intends to keep them forever, essentially establishing something like enclaves on the Syrian territory. There is an agreement that they will function for six months. The results are already clear. The ceasefire is generally respected. There are observation posts and checkpoints located along the perimeters of these zones, so that the humanitarian aid can pass without obstacle, so that civilians can walk both ways without any difficulties. There is also, for instance, Russian military police working along the perimeter of these zones. It proved to be acceptable for all parties of the conflict: government forces and opposition inside the de-escalation zones who signed the ceasefire agreement.
Of course, the purpose of these zones is to begin expanding the space where the cessation of hostilities is respected and peaceful life can return throughout Syria. Another important element of the concept of forming de-escalation zones is to establish a dialogue through national reconciliation committees. Inside these zones, there is interest in establishing such committees to begin talking to the government. This will be a very important addition to the efforts taken in Geneva to ensure a direct dialogue at the negotiating table under the auspices of the United Nations. If we establish the same reconciliation process at the local level, then, I believe, the general process will go faster and be more effective, and the area where the ceasefire is respected and the national dialogue is established will grow. Ultimately, it should cover the entire Syrian Arab Republic.