Inter-American problems and regional policy
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, published on April 6, 2019
Question: What matters are you planning to discuss with the Egyptian side during your upcoming visit to Cairo?
Sergey Lavrov: This visit to Egypt is of special importance for me. Our countries are linked by years-old bonds of friendship and cooperation. We have repeatedly rendered support to our Egyptian friends. Russian specialists worked in Egypt and built almost 100 signature industrial and infrastructure facilities, including the Aswan High Dam, the Helwan iron and steel mill, and the aluminium smelter in Nag Hammadi. Today, this glorious tradition continues: I’m referring to the establishment of the Russian Industrial Zone and the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power station by Rosatom.
My Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry and I are planning to analyse the implementation of the agreements that were reached during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Russia in October 2018. We will discuss in detail the plans for further expanding bilateral relations as part of the Treaty of Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation signed by the two countries’ leaders.
We will review topical matters related to trade and economic ties that have great potential. Much attention will be paid to organising and holding the Russia-Egypt Humanitarian Cooperation Year in 2020 as part of the effort to intensify cultural and humanitarian exchanges.
Of course, we will address the problem of resuming a full-scale airline service, the more so that some positive shifts have begun to appear in this area. Naturally, an adequate security level is still the most important precondition for Russians to return to the fine Red Sea resorts.
Close foreign policy coordination between Moscow and Cairo is playing an important stabilising role in the entire Middle East space. We are of one mind in that the crises existing in the region should be settled by political and diplomatic means in full conformity with international law. We are planning to have a detailed exchange of views on developments in Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as in the Palestinian territories, including efforts to achieve Palestinian unity, where Egypt plays a special role. We will discuss ways to lower the conflict potential levels, including prospects for establishing a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East.
We will focus on how to counter terrorism and extremism. Given Egypt’s 2019 chairmanship of the African Union, it is planned to review preparations for the first ever Russia-Africa summit scheduled for October 2019 in Sochi.
Question: What is your vision of prospects for Russia-Egypt counterterrorism cooperation?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia and Egypt have a common understanding of the threats confronting the Middle East region, including international terrorism. We hold expert consultations and working meetings on these issues with our Egyptian colleagues and participate in joint counterterrorism exercises.
Moscow fully supports Cairo’s efforts to fight terrorism, including normalising the situation in Sinai. We are confident that neutralising the extremist and terrorist groups operating on the peninsula, groups seeking to spread their influence to other areas in the country and divide Egyptian society, meets the interests of both the Egyptians themselves and all Middle East nations.
In this context, we proceed from the assumption that the eradication of terrorism is only possible if the entire world community pools efforts based on international law. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s well-known initiative to establish a broad antiterrorist coalition under the UN aegis is aimed at solving this problem.
Question: What can you say about Russia’s interaction with Cairo in settling the conflict in Libya?
Sergey Lavrov: The protracted crisis in Libya is a direct effect of the NATO’s illegitimate military interference. As a result the country was plunged into chaos and became a source of regional instability and a hotbed of terrorism.
Moscow and Cairo are working closely together to coordinate their steps in Libyan issues. Our task is to help Libyans overcome the existing differences and reach sustainable arrangements on the parameters of national reconciliation. We have a common view of the ways to restore the Libyan statehood through an inclusive dialogue involving leading military and political forces, civil society and the regions. We support the efforts by UN Secretary-General Special Representative Ghassan Salamé to implement the roadmap to bring the Libyan situation back to normal by holding fair general elections and conducting a constitutional reform. Hopefully, the national conference in Ghadames convened by the Special Representative in mid-April will lead to some progress in putting these ideas into practice.
Question: You are fresh from a tour of several Persian Gulf countries. Have you noticed any change in the positions of these countries towards Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: I am pleased to note the normalisation of the situation around Syria. It includes both the progress in restoring relations between Damascus and other Arab countries and the prospects of returning the Syrian Arab Republic to the Arab League.
Syria is a key Middle Eastern state and an inalienable part of the Arab world. It should not be wrenched out of the regional context just to follow short-sighted, politicized and time-serving goals. Therefore, we support an early return of Damascus to the family of Arab states. This natural and objective process is a tangible confirmation that the armed conflict is ending and the country is gradually getting back to a normal and peaceful life.
I am glad to see that a number of diplomatic missions from Arab countries are already operating in Damascus. Air services between Syria and Tunisia have been re-established and the trade and economic ties with Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon are being resumed. President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir visited the Syrian capital in December 2018. In March a Syrian parliamentary delegation attended the regular Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Amman.
We believe that the normalisation in and around Syria will be conducive to the restoration of inter-Arab concord, as well as a healthier regional situation and greater stability and security in the entire Middle East.
Question: We can see changes in the position of many countries that earlier supported the war against the legitimate Syrian government with a view to overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad and now they are giving up their former policy regarding the Syrian conflict. Is it possible that international resolutions will be adopted obliging those countries to pay compensation and assist in restoring Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia’s principled approaches to overcoming the Syrian crisis are well known. We have consistently advocated a political settlement on the basis of respect for Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as compliance with international law. Therefore, it is heartening to see that with stabilisation and improvement of the situation in Syria, awareness of this truth has developed in those who at the beginning of the conflict fuelled opposition and radical groups, overtly demanding regime change with the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Such an aggressive rhetoric with respect to the Syrian leaders is no longer heard.
Obviously, with the situation in Syria getting back to normal, the main seats of terrorism being destroyed and the country returning to peaceful life, the issues of post-war restoration and humanitarian aid come to the forefront.
Russia continues to provide Syria with all-round support in the restoration of infrastructure and the delivery of humanitarian aid, both on a bilateral basis and using international mechanisms, including the UN system. The figures speak for themselves: over 800 educational establishments and 150 medical facilities have been constructed, more than 1,000 kilometres of roads have been repaired, about 1,000 kilometres of power lines have been laid and 130 water supply facilities have been put into operation with Russian assistance since July 2018. The Russian Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides is engaged in humanitarian activities, delivers aid to different regions of the country and provides medical assistance on a daily basis. An immense mine clearing operation is being carried out. Palmyra and East Aleppo as well as about 2,000 hectares of other territories have been cleared of explosive devices. In February this year, one million US dollars were paid to the UN Mine Action Service budget to finance its demining effort in Syria.
Assistance with Syrian rehabilitation should proceed in strict conformity with international humanitarian law, the principles of neutrality, fairness and impartiality. Aid should be provided to all the Syrians in need without any preliminary conditions or politicising. In this respect the position of the US and the European Union is regrettable in that they continue to make the allocation of funds for the Syrian restoration subject to a “political transition,” in some instances publicly. What can this be other than the politicising of humanitarian aid? The same can be said about the economic sanctions, which were imposed by some Western countries in circumvention of the UN Security Council and which hit the most vulnerable social strata.
Another important topic is facilitating the return of Syrian refugees back home. The relevant Russian initiative has been supported by many countries in the region. We are working on its implementation with our partners.
Question: What do you think of some political commentators’ opinion that Moscow has relaxed its stance with respect to Israel’s continuing air raids in Syria compared to the position declared in September 2018, when the Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down?
Sergey Lavrov: Our position of principle regarding air raids in Syria has not changed. We have always stated our attitude clearly.
We firmly believe that it is essential to respect the Syrian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. We are against turning that country into an arena of armed confrontation between various regional players.
We have made great efforts to stabilise the situation in Syria, including in its southern and southwestern parts. Let me remind you that a decision by the three Astana process guarantors (Russia, Iran and Turkey) established a de-escalation zone there, which made it possible to stop violence. Now these areas are under the Syrian government’s control. Russian military police is assisting in keeping law and order there.
During our contacts with all the parties concerned we emphasise the importance of preventing any upsurge of tensions or a dangerous escalation of the situation in Syria, which is fraught with negative consequences not only for the neighbouring countries but for the entire Middle East.
Question: What is your assessment of the contradictions between the policy conducted by US President Trump and his statements, including on the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, relocation of the US Embassy there and the recognition of the Syrian Golan Heights as Israeli territory?
Sergey Lavrov: Generally speaking, there are no contradictions there. Trump’s statements are followed by concrete steps. The decisions on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are a vivid example of that. Obviously, Washington is seeking to put an end to the world community’s achievements in this area and destroy the universally recognised framework of international law, which is the basis for the search for ways to settle the Middle East situation.
The US recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is a gross violation of the UN Charter, international law and a set of UN Security Council resolutions on the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, primarily Resolution 479.
That decision means Washington’s clear deviation from the principle of “peace in exchange for territories” worked out during the Madrid peace conference in 1991 under Russian and US co-sponsorship and recorded in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. It only jeopardises the chances for achieving a long-term, sustainable and just peace in the Middle East.
The 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement of Forces Agreement has been jeopardised. Let me remind you that leaders of the United States and Israel requested our help in creating requisite conditions for keeping to that agreement. We did it. Thanks to the Russian military police, which took up positions in the vicinity of the Golan Heights, the UN disengagement forces were able to resume their mission in the disengagement area, including to ensure Israel’s security. The US recognition of the Golan Heights annexation by Israel may undermine this hard-won stability.
In our opinion, the US position on the Middle East settlement corresponds to the Washington’s general course on the destruction of fundamental international agreements and replacement of international law by a “rules-based order.”
The Russian position on the Golan Heights remains unchanged. There is no doubt they are part of the Syrian territory. We are consistent in our support of UN Security Council Resolution 497 of December 17, 1981, under which the Israeli decision to establish its own laws, jurisdiction and control in that part of Syria is invalid and has no international legal standing. An overwhelming number of the world community members, including the closest US allies, adhere to the same approach. The resolution on the Occupied Syrian Golan adopted on an annual basis as part of the consideration of agenda item 55 of the UNGA session is tangible evidence of that.
Question: There is a lot of noise surrounding the so-called “deal of the century” to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What is Russia’s opinion on the various statements about this topic? What can Russia suggest to enable the implementation of the relevant UN resolutions, including one creating two states?
Sergey Lavrov: The Americans have not briefed us on what the “deal” is all about. If we are to believe the rumours, these proposals should supposedly lead to peace between the Arabs and Israel based on something other than the generally recognised international legal framework for a Middle East settlement.
We are confident that this is a path leading nowhere. It is obvious that a just, stable and comprehensive peace in the region is impossible unless it is based on the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem.
Russia is consistently working with its partners, including at the UN Security Council and within the Middle East quartet of international mediators, to create conditions for resuming contacts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In the autumn of 2016, President of Russia Vladimir Putin suggested holding a Palestinian-Israeli summit in Moscow without preconditions. We are still ready to receive leaders of Palestine and Israel. We believe that top-level talks like this could help to break the current deadlock.
In coordination with Egypt, we intend to continue helping to heal the inter-Palestinian rift based on the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s political platform. This is a necessary precondition for resuming the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. On February 11-13, Moscow hosted the third meeting of leaders of the 12 main Palestinian parties and movements, including Fatah and Hamas. We hope that the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process will continue to advance, with Egypt’s central mediating role.
In a situation, where the US has discredited itself as an unbiased mediator in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the world community should step up its efforts to lead the Middle East settlement process out of deadlock. Egypt’s role will be quite essential in this regard.