Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic Walid Muallem, Moscow, August 30, 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
We covered the entire spectrum of foreign policy cooperation during our talks and consider them to be very useful.
Of course, we focused on the situation in and around Syria and the situation in the Middle East and North Africa in general.
We noted with satisfaction that the larger portion of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic has been liberated from terrorists. We must still eliminate the remaining hotbeds of terrorism, primarily in the vicinity of the Idlib de-escalation zone. It is unacceptable that the terrorists, primarily from Jabhat al-Nusra, who have holed up there, are trying to use this de-escalation zone to prepare attacks on the positions of the Syrian army and even attempts to use drones to attack the Russian military base in Khmeimim.
We exchanged our assessments of the course of action to separate the armed opposition groups that are willing to establish a dialogue with the Syrian government from the remaining terrorists. We discussed the talks that Russia is conducting with Turkey on that issue.
Our Syrian friends shared information about their efforts to achieve more local ceasefires with the armed groups in Idlib who would like to dissociate themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as their efforts to ensure the safety of civilians in this de-escalation zone.
Both sides confirmed their commitment to the early start of a political process based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the agreements that were reached between the Syrians themselves during the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi.
We reviewed issues related to creating proper conditions for the expeditious return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes. Minister Muallem spoke about the steps taken by the Syrian Government to ensure that such a return would include a safe and non-discriminatory attitude towards the returnees.
We are unanimous in our belief that mobilising the international community to participate in creating conditions for the return of refugees, including humanitarian aid, assistance in restoring socioeconomic infrastructure, and implementing projects to provide jobs for the returnees are urgent matters. Russia is willing to increase its contribution to resolving these issues which will be priority discussion items during tomorrow's talks between the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem and Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Yury Borisov acting as co-chairmen of the Russian-Syrian Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation.
We believe other countries should actively join these efforts. The UN has a special role to play here, as well as the institutions that function within the organisation, such as various specialised agencies, foundations and programmes. In accordance with their statutory documents, they should be actively involved in mobilising international assistance for the above purposes.
It is well known that progress in a Syrian settlement and fighting terrorism, addressing humanitarian issues and creating proper conditions for returning refugees are not to everyone's liking. Efforts are being made to hamper these processes through various provocateurs, including extremists and established provocateurs who call themselves White Helmets and are notorious for staging scenes of alleged use of chemical agents by the Syrian government to give Western countries an excuse to attack Syria. Another such provocation is underway in order to obstruct the anti-terrorist operation in Idlib. Through our Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry, we used facts to clearly and strictly talk our Western partners out of “playing with fire.”
Instead of unilateral geopolitical projects, we urge everyone, including the Arab countries, Europe and the United States, to join forces for a peaceful and stable Syria. Stability in this country is critical for ensuring security and prosperity in the entire Middle Eastern and North African region.
We agreed on further coordination of our actions on the Syrian settlement and other aspects of the agenda in this region which is important for the future of the world.
Question (to both ministers): What do you think of the US’s “impressive” statements to Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Walid Muallem): As to chemical weapons and the threats from the US and other Western nations, their track record in this area is well known. It is based on provocations that were arranged to have a pretext for attacking Syrian army positions.
It is indicative that the April 2017 Khan-Shaykhun and 2018 Douma incidents that were used as pretexts for strikes, have not been closed by the inspectors of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In both cases there were gross violations of the standards and norms prescribed by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The OPCW has not yet released a report on the April 2018 incident. We have pointed out to our Western colleagues a number of times the unacceptability of manipulating this international organisation. However, attempts at manipulating the OPCW continue and are even increasing.
Question: What do you think of the US military presence in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: The presence of the US and other Western countries on Syrian territory is illegitimate. The Americans, including President Trump, have repeatedly promised and said publicly, that they would leave Syria. However, they continue to find new excuses to stay. At first they said that they would go as soon as they eliminate ISIS. Then another condition appeared — the need to stabilise the general situation in the country. Now they say they must stay until the so-called “political transition” process begins, if not finishes. All of this somewhat discredits our American partners. Also, they promised to us a number of times to close the so-called “security zone” al-Tanf that they had set up unilaterally and illegally, and to secure access for the UN and other international organisations to the Rukban refugee camp which is being used by the remaining ISIS fighters to gain strength, rehabilitate and strike Syrian army positions. I will also say that in the course of our latest meetings with the Americans, an understanding seemed to emerge that the Rukban camp should be opened as soon as possible and the refugees should be evacuated from it under UN guidance, so they can return to their homes. I hope this understanding will materialise and will translate into practical actions.
The US presence in Syria does not have a military aspect alone. Our US colleagues categorically object to engaging the international community in creating conditions for the return of refugees to government-controlled territory in Syria, and at the same time they are actively rebuilding the eastern bank of the Euphrates, restoring infrastructure there, socioeconomic systems and even setting up quasi-state local government bodies. This causes concern and is fraught with attempts to divide Syria, which is absolutely unacceptable and is a gross violation of every UNSC resolution that demands respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Let me emphasise again that unilateral actions are a road to nowhere. We all should have learned from the invasion of Iraq and the aggression against Libya. The problems of Syria and the region can only be resolved via collective actions without concealed unilateral agendas and double standards. We are ready, as before, for such open work with every external party without exception, and with the region’s countries, of course.
Question: Yesterday and today you talked about the efforts by the Russian and Turkish militaries to work out the start of the operation in Idlid and to separate Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists from the armed opposition groups that are ready to participate in a political process. Is there any schedule for this process? Will it happen before the guarantor nations’ summit in Iran or after it?
Sergey Lavrov: With regard to Russian-Turkish contacts, primarily, on resolving particular issues related to easing the situation in the Idlid de-escalation zone to preclude further use of the area by terrorists, mainly by Jabhat al-Nusra, to separating terrorists from the armed opposition, which is ready for dialogue with the Syrian government, they are ongoing as we speak. We do not have any artificial schedules or deadlines, but this needs to be done as soon as possible. I am sure you will learn about it as soon as the agreement is reached.
Question: Yesterday you met with your Saudi colleague Adel Al-Jubeir. Does Russia play a role in the rapprochement of the Damascus’ position with those of other Arab countries?
Sergey Lavrov: We indeed discussed the region’s problems in a broader context. I got the impression from my meetings with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia Al-Jubeir and my colleagues from other countries in the region that they are coming to understand the reality, which is that the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic ensures the sovereignty and legitimate interests of security of their country.
We always advocate the unity of the Arab community. This community has many problems today. We stand for Arab countries to determine themselves how they should live in their region, and to curb attempts to manipulate their interests in order to achieve someone else’s geopolitical goals.