26 May 201616:49

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister and GCC Chair Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir following the Fourth Ministerial Round of the Russia-GCC Strategic Dialogue, Moscow, May 26, 2016

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Ladies and gentlemen,

We have held the Fourth Round of the Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Strategic Dialogue. This is the first time the event has taken place in Moscow. I’m grateful to all foreign ministers and the GCC secretary general for accepting our invitation.

Our shared position is that during the five years of their existence, consultations in this format have evolved as an effective mechanism to coordinate our efforts in the interest of strengthening regional and global security and stability and expanding economic collaboration and humanitarian ties between Russia and the Arab countries of the Gulf.

Even though we do not see eye to eye on every aspect of a particular crisis situation in the Middle East, the general conclusion that we made today is that during these years we have not only begun to understand each other better, but have also achieved an effective level of coordination on an array of important issues. Today, both sides have stressed that the problems faced by countries of the Middle East should be overcome based on respect for international law through an inclusive national dialogue and respect for the independence and territorial integrity of all states. Having said this, we agree that it is extremely important in these processes to ensure equal rights and freedoms for various religious and ethnic groups.

We have reaffirmed our full commitment to the decisions that were made with regard to the Syrian settlement within the framework of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and the UN Security Council. We supported the UN-brokered search for a settlement in Yemen, Libya and a number of other regions of the Middle East and North Africa. We also discussed the situation in Iraq.

We addressed the situation in the Gulf. We firmly believe in the need to build neighbourly relations and promote respect for each other’s interests here. I’m referring to the Arab countries of the Gulf and Iran.

We reaffirmed our adherence to a comprehensive, just and durable settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the existing foundation of international law, which provides for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within generally recognised borders, coexisting in peace and security with all its neighbours. In this context, both sides stressed today that the speedy restoration of Palestinian unity is crucial for rapid progress towards these goals.

We agree that the threats of terrorism and extremism require uncompromising counter efforts to thwart the plans that are being hatched by ISIS, al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the like.

We drew our partners’ attention again to President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to form a broad antiterrorist front under the auspices of the UN. In this context, the conferees welcomed the creation of an “Islamic coalition” by Saudi Arabia and spoke in favour of better coordination of action between Russia and the US-led coalition to fight terrorism in Syria.

Today, at the level of foreign ministers, we approved the final communiqué of our meeting, which, in addition to the presentation of general approaches towards international and regional issues, identifies areas for the development of trade, economic, investment and humanitarian ties between Russia and the GCC countries. This includes promoting specific projects between Russia and our Arab friends in the oil and gas sphere, energy, including nuclear energy, information and communication technology, peaceful space programmes, healthcare, transport infrastructure and other areas. We tasked our experts with preparing a Russia-GCC plan of action in the areas I just mentioned, as well as others, so that the ministers can consider and approve it tentatively in September, when we plan to hold another meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

I believe this meeting, held within the framework of our strategic dialogue, has been very useful. I know that my colleagues share this view. I’m sure that further collaboration between Russia and the GCC will be more effective, based on the results that were achieved today.

Question: Is there any progress in eliminating the disagreements over Iran’s role in the Gulf region? What can Russia propose to address this issue?

Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Ahmed Al-Jubeir): As I listened to what Mr Al-Jubeir had to say, I realised that I was actually asked a different question. First of all, I’d like to completely support everything the Saudi foreign minister has said about the importance of our format.

If I understand correctly, I was asked a question about Iran’s role in the region, the way Russia sees its role, our Arab friends’ position regarding its role, what disagreements there are and what can be done in this respect.

We act on the premise that any country in any region is naturally interested, and has a right to develop contacts with its neighbours, make new friends and build relations with them. It is perfectly natural for any country to look for ways of strengthening its influence beyond its borders. Needless to say, we operate on the assumption that this should be done on the basis of full respect for the principles of international law, in a transparent and legitimate way, without any hidden agendas and without any attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.

We apply these criteria to the relations that have historically evolved between the GCC and Iran. We know about the specific disagreements that exist at present. However, we also know about the very dangerous attempts to cast these disagreements as a split within the Muslim world. We consider attempts to escalate the situation along these lines unacceptable. We are confident that it is in the interests of Islam to ensure the unity of all its branches.

Regarding the specific problems that arise between Arab countries of the Gulf and Iran, as my colleague and friend said, Russia would like to help resolve them. We have good relations with the GCC countries and with Iran. We stand ready to take advantage of these good relations to help create conditions for a substantive conversation on ways of normalising them, which can take place solely through a direct dialogue between the parties concerned.

Question: Russia offered to conduct joint military operations with the United States against ISIS and Jabhat-al-Nusra. This offer was followed by contradictory statements from Moscow and Washington. What was the outcome of the talks on this issue? Are there any results? The Russian Defence Ministry announced yesterday that the bombing of the ISIS and Jabhat-al-Nusra positions scheduled for May 25 was cancelled. Is this linked with the Russian-US talks?

Sergey Lavrov: As for Russian-US coordination of the anti-terrorist efforts in Syria, it has not yet been fully established. There is progress on coordinating actions in Syria’s air space but we are moving ahead slower than we wanted. Since the Russian Aerospace Forces started taking action against terrorists at the request of the Syrian Government in that country, we have offered the Americans and the coalition they lead to establish practical coordination on combat-related issues. Initially they were only interested in a deal to avoid incidents in Syria. In three to five months they agreed to establish a channel to exchange information on those who were observing the ceasefire. For the time being the United States is not yet ready for real combat coordination.

The effectiveness of the anti-terrorist operation in Syria is still being impeded by the fact that many groups of the so-called “patriotic opposition” are mixed in on the ground with terrorist groups, primarily Jabhat-al-Nusra. Since last February the Americans have promised us in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and via bilateral channels that they will soon achieve, through representatives loyal to them, the division “on the ground” of the loyal patriotic opposition from Jabhat-al-Nusra. This has not happened for the time being even though the ceasefire declared by the UN Security Council took effect three months ago. It seems that those who wanted to withdraw from the positions held by terrorists and officially join the ceasefire regime could have done this many times. As you know, a week ago we proposed to our American partners to set May 25 as the date for separating those who are ready for a political settlement from those who do not want to join the truce. The Americans reviewed our proposal and our military had several rounds of contacts on it. Eventually, they asked us to give them some more time to determine their position. We met them halfway.

On the whole, I’d like to emphasise my agreement with what Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said in his opening remarks: a key to success lies in the complete and rigorous implementation of the ISSG decisions affirmed in the UN Security Council resolutions by all sides in Syria and beyond without exception.

Question (to both ministers): Have you managed to overcome disagreements regarding the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? It is common knowledge that the views of Russia and the Arab Gulf countries were diametrically opposite on this score. What role can these countries and regional players play in facilitating the separation of the moderate opposition and Jabhat al-Nusra?

Sergey Lavrov: As I said, the only way to settlement lies through meticulous fulfilment of the ISSG decisions and relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We have all agreed to seal in these decisions a principle under which the Syrian people alone will decide Syria’s destiny. To prevent any attempts to abuse this concept we reaffirmed in the UN Security Council resolutions a very clear-cut plan of political reforms. The first step is to establish an inclusive mechanism, based on the agreement reached between the Syrian Government and the entire range of the opposition, which will assume administrative functions, primarily the drafting of the new Constitution and organising elections. The second step is to adopt the new Constitution and hold the elections (including those in foreign Syrian refugee camps), and here I’d like to emphasise, under very strict international monitoring. We allotted about 18 months for this process and the UN Security Council affirmed this. The clock is already ticking.

The only problem is that to take the first step and create the aforementioned inclusive mechanism, the Syrians need to sit down and try to agree on its membership and functions. All attempts to gather them at the same table have failed so far. The shuttle diplomacy by Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, involved a couple of rounds of indirect talks. When we held a regular ISSG meeting on May 17 where everyone encouraged Mr Mistura and his team to continue, we hoped that another round of intra-Syrian talks would be held in May and the process would speed up. Now reports are coming out that this round is unlikely to be convened before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and will have to be held later. Frankly speaking, we are upset about this delay. Moreover, the lack of desire to speed up the intra-Syrian dialogue is prompting some of our Western colleagues to say that August 1 is the deadline for establishing a joint administrative mechanism. If some dates that nobody approved in the UN Security Council have to be set, it is at least necessary to encourage one’s “underlings” to sit at the negotiating table. Otherwise, it is all just for show.

I’m convinced that our friends in the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, are interested in convening a regular round of talks as soon as possible and, in general, in accelerating the intra-Syrian negotiating process with a view to implementing the UN Security Council resolutions, all the more so since Saudi Arabia and personally Mr Adel Al-Jubeir have done so much to form a fairly representative delegation of the opposition that is, on a par with a couple of other groups, a key negotiator at the Geneva talks with the Syrian Government. Understandably, as at any other talks, different sides in Syria represented at the Geneva talks are trying to manoeuver, stake out better starting positions and set requirements but the mission of Mr Mistura and his team is to influence them and achieve the goals that we all agreed.

Russia is fully committed to a comprehensive approach to achieving the settlement in Syria affirmed by relevant UN Security Council resolutions, including the content, sequence, and approximate schedule for political reforms.

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