Remarks and answers to questions by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Middle East Conference of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Moscow, February 19, 2018
Once again I am pleased to attend an event organised by Valdai Discussion Club which has proved its usefulness. It is always heartening to see interested and engaged faces which express the wish of the participants to argue in order to arrive, if not at the truth, at least at some common approaches to extremely complex problems which, of course, cannot be solved in one sitting.
We are discussing the Middle East and North Africa. The region is living through a huge tragedy. The “Arab spring” which started seven years ago is certainly a misnomer. A different season would perhaps have been more appropriate in describing, if only partially, what happened there: absolutely mindless, myopic outside interference, extremely complex processes of transformation which were germinating in the region turning into chaos, which the jihadists were quick to take advantage of. A surge of terrorism we saw at the start of the “Arab spring,” or rather, when crude attempts were made to manipulate it, and that threat is still there.
It was no accident that the goal of creating a truly collective front to fight terrorism emerged early on in the discussion. Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed it while speaking at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly. Unfortunately, despite all the statements about the need to join efforts to fight this common evil, attempts are still being made to use this situation for one’s own geopolitical and selfish purposes and to avoid truly collective work. However, there is a growing understanding that this is wrong and that this approach needs to be changed, and this is a good thing.
I believe that Russia’s involvement in the fight against terrorism at the request of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic signalled the turning point in this fight. The Russian Aerospace Forces and military police jointly with our partners in the Astana process, Iran and Turkey, and, as you know, Jordan and the United States in the south-west of Syria, have created four de-escalation zones where violence levels have been significantly reduced. Of course, sometimes violations occur, in which case they are handled by the guarantors of the Astana process. Conditions that are more conducive to resolving pressing humanitarian issues and initiating a political process have been put in place.
Speaking of our numerous efforts, in addition to the creation of four de-escalation zones, I would like to focus on the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which was held at the joint initiative of the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey, who announced it at their meeting in Sochi on November 22. The congress held in the same city on January 30 was an unprecedented forum, in terms of the number of Syrians from different ethnic and faith backgrounds, as well as representatives of various political forces who took part in it. It was the first time that Syrians have agreed on 12 principles they want to underlie their system of government. It is a very important result of the forum. True, not all were able to take part in the congress, both for objective and subjective reasons, nonetheless, it was attended by representatives of the so-called Negotiations Committee, which our Saudi colleagues, with our support, established by consolidating the Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo groups, who spoke on behalf of the members of the opposition who look to Turkey for support.
I see the creation of a mechanism in which all Syrian ethnic and religious political forces without exception can and will be represented as a major achievement of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress.
The broadest possible assistance should be provided to the 12 principles adopted at the Congress for the development of the state of Syria and for launching a constitutional reform, as well as the appeal to the international community for humanitarian aid and for helping Syria rebuild its infrastructure plus its economy. These decisions have been circulated in the UN.
Of course, the commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria is fully in keeping with international law, in general, and UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in particular. We are deeply concerned about the attempts to split Syria. This concern is raised by the plans the United States is implementing on the ground, primarily east of the Euphrates in the vast area between the river and Syria’s border with Iraq and Turkey. The claims made by our American colleagues that the fight against ISIS and the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity are their only goal in Syria should be backed with practical actions towards this end.
Regrettably, these provocative actions by the United States, which have involved part of the Kurds’ Democratic Union Party in undermining the territorial integrity of Syria, have increased tension in relations with Turkey. You know about the developments in Afrin. I once again urge our American colleagues to stop playing around with fire but instead to redirect their actions from short-term political considerations to primarily the long-term interests of the Syrian people and all other peoples in the region, including, of course, the Kurds of Syria, Iraq and other regional countries.
Major achievements in the fight against ISIS have been made in Iraq, just as in Syria. I believe that the idea of the Islamic caliphate as a quasi-state has been buried. But some jihadist groups have taken up subversive and terrorist tactics, which also needs our daily attention.
We welcome the latest contacts between Bagdad and Erbil, which have helped normalise relations between the central authorities and the Kurdish autonomous region. We still believe that the Kurds’ legitimate interests must be honoured. We are convinced that this can and should be done within the integral state of Iraq.
Libya is where the Arab Spring began and turned the country into a black hole of arms trafficking and illegal migration as well as a route used by the militants to reach the Sub-Saharan Region, yet another open wound that must be healed by providing support to the so-called G5 Sahel, the five countries of the Sahel region.
Speaking about Libya, the other day I had a meeting in Munich with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative Ghassan Salamé. We support his initiatives, including the roadmap and dialogue between Tobruk and Tripoli, which has not yet gained traction. The implementation of the July agreements, which were reached with the mediation of President of France Emmanuel Macron, has slowed down. However, we are actively supporting all those who are contributing to the settlement of this situation, including Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and the Arab League. Of course, the UN should provide coordinating assistance to harmonise these efforts.
I have not mentioned Yemen. The UN has described the situation there as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Some 19 million people in Yemen are in acute need of medical aid and access to food and safe water. Confrontation must stop and talks must resume there as soon as possible. There is no other alternative. Like in any other crisis, we are working in Yemen with absolutely all parties without exception and we will continue to do so.
These conflicts, although all of them are acute, must not overshadow the Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The situation has deteriorated as a result of the US decision [regarding Jerusalem]. We are doing our utmost to prevent the negotiating process from collapsing in its entirety. As you know, over the past two weeks Moscow was visited by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas. King Abdullah II of Jordan has recently paid a visit to Russia as well.
We are convinced that there is no alternative to direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We confirm what we said 18 months ago regarding our readiness to provide a venue for a meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders without any preconditions. We are still waiting for a response to our proposal.
And one last thing. As I have already said, we are working with all the political forces in each and every conflict of this kind, and the same applies to the region in general. We work with all countries without exception, including those with opposing views. We see a lingering danger of external forces playing their geopolitical games in the region, including by playing on the relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims within the Islamic World, which is the most dangerous thing to do. I strongly believe that we need to find ways to get this dialogue going. We have had an initiative for many years now to start a conversation on confidence building measures and security in the Persian Gulf region with all the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Islamic Republic of Iran. We have been promoting this initiative without trying to impose it on anyone, even though we believe that there is no alternative. On a broader scale, I think that this format would be also beneficial for the entire Middle East. Only recently Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, put forward an initiative of this kind, and Russia supported it at the recent Munich Security Conference.
Question: You have talked at length about what is really needed in the region. What else could Russia do, especially in Syria? Russia is currently well positioned in this country, but new conflicts are emerging in the south of the Syrian Arab Republic, the relations between Syria and Israel have reached a dangerous level, and Iran and Hezbollah are also active in the country. What can Russia do to prevent the conflict between the two sides from escalating?
Sergey Lavrov: You asked me what else there is that Russia can do in Syria. I think that the success of a settlement in Syria does not depend on what else Russia can contribute, but rather on what the US refrains from doing. The US should have stopped playing dangerous games that could result in the partition of the Syrian state. The US creates on the territories under its responsibility to the east of the Euphrates and up to the Syrian state border, authorities that are intentionally formed in such a way as not to have any communications with Damascus, and provides various forms of “assistance” to them. This could be a major obstacle in terms of ensuring Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as required by the UN Security Council.
As for the southern de-escalation zone, its creation was negotiated by Russia, Jordan and the United States. I do not think that I would reveal any secrets if I point out that our Israeli colleagues were aware of all the discussions, received updates and were able to express their views. At this stage, in order to implement all of the agreements, we need to focus on one of the provisions whereby all the parties to these arrangements make sure that there are no non-Syrian armed forces in or around this de-escalation zone in the southwest. This was a mutual agreement, so it would be incorrect and also inappropriate to view it as a unilateral commitment, as you have unfortunately formulated it.This was something that was only recently discussed during the visit made by Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu to the Russian Federation. The Israeli Prime Minister confirmed that the initiative to establish the de-escalation zone in the south-west of the country was based on this understanding.
What we did not agree upon was the unilateral initiative by the US to designate an area within 55 kilometres from At-Tanf as a safe zone, a zone of its influence. The Rukban refugee camp is nearby. There are regular reports about the presence of jihadists within the safe zone created unilaterally by the US in At-Tanf, as well as in the Rukban refugee camp. They use these areas to recover their moral and physical strength, as well as a base for carrying out attacks across the Syrian Arab Republic.
This zone should be dismantled immediately, and humanitarian access provided to the refugee camp. For some reason, our UN colleagues are unwilling to note that the humanitarian convoys are unable to penetrate the area under US control due to the lack of guarantees from the US. This is the information we have. Instead they focus on the humanitarian situation in Idlib, in Eastern Ghouta, while failing to mention that the Syrian army is fighting Jabhat al-Nusra there. Provocations by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters continue unabated in this region. Specifically, they are shelling residential neighbourhoods of Damascus, including where the Russian Embassy and Trade Mission are located. Nevertheless, for some reason our Western partners prefer making a row about these two areas, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, failing to mention that what is happening there has to do with provocations by Jabhat al-Nusra. I have said it on numerous occasions, and I will say it once again: there is growing evidence to cast doubt on whether our Western colleagues from the US-led coalition are serious about fighting Jabhat al-Nusra, even though this group is recognised as a terrorist organisation in all the UN Security Council resolutions.
I do not know if you are satisfied with my answer. I just wanted to highlight the complexity of the situation as well as the importance of having a broader perspective instead of holding on to lopsided clichés.
Question: You mentioned a new security mechanism in the region. Could you clarify this point? Does it mean that the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) should be dissolved before its member countries can participate in a new agreement? Who do you think should become members of this new regional alignment? Will it include only individual countries, or will the GCC be able to join as a bloc?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the first question about the mechanism of confidence and security in the Persian Gulf, as I already said, we have been discussing it for at least 15 years now. We stressed the importance of them considering this initiative at every ministerial meeting with our GCC colleagues. A considerable part of the Council members spoke in a constructive manner. I hope that we will be able to help this organisation start a sensible dialogue with Iran in the near future. Of course, no one is suggesting, and Mr Zarif confirmed this, that the GCC should be dissolved.
When we came up with our idea many years ago, we had in mind the GCC and Iran with the assistance of external players. We named the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the European Union, the League of Arab States, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as a possible configuration for such external support. Should such a process become a matter of practical implementation, the main part will be played by the Arabs and the Iranians, who, in fact, are the primary and key beneficiaries of such a project.
Question: Speaking of the borders and the need to respect them, how does it relate to the fact that there are Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which moves freely from Lebanon to Syria? Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps is present in Syria as well. Are you concerned that something can go wrong between the Israelis and Iranians in Syria and Lebanon? I’m aware that Russia is playing a critical role. Do you feel that things may spiral out of control? Is there a mechanism to prevent this from happening?
Sergey Lavrov: Unfortunately, the relations between Israel and Iran are taking a turn for the worse, and there are historical causes for that. We have repeatedly said that allegations to the effect that, as a Zionist entity, Israel must be destroyed and wiped from the face of the Earth, are unacceptable. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way for someone to promote their interests. By the same token, we do not agree that the attempts are being made to look into any regional issue through the prism of the need to oppose Iran. This can be seen in Syria and Yemen, and even the latest developments around Palestine, including Washington announcing its decision to recognise Jerusalem as the only capital of Israel, is largely dictated by the same anti-Iranian bias. Either one is fraught with the risk of further aggravating the situation in the region, which is already very bad.
Regarding the specific incident involving the drone and everything that followed, Mr Zarif called it a gimmick. I cannot comment on that, because there is not enough evidence. Following the incident, there were discussions in the Israeli and the US media and in social media about what really happened there and the drone itself. They pointed out the fact that a picture of one kind of UAV was posted on social networks, and then there was another photo showing a different drone. I believe that most importantly (we talked about this when Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu was here) we should not use unsubstantiated facts to make political decisions. There’s a generally approved mechanism to deal with such incidents. I’m referring to two UN operations: the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights (UNDOF), and the Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO). The mandates of both mechanisms include provisions that entitle them to investigate such incidents. I believe it would be useful to conduct such investigations. Otherwise, we will start going downhill to a place where just about any incident will be declared someone else's fault, and events will ensue that , without any investigation, will lead to military implications. We want, and we have repeatedly said so, our Israeli colleagues to feel completely safe. However, in order for security to be mutual and region-wide, which is what the UN Security Council resolutions require, dialogues are needed. There’s a need to talk with an eye towards finding generally acceptable solutions, and to defend one’s own interests in a way that does not ignore the interests of others.
This is the principle of the indivisibility of security, which we are promoting in Europe and the Asia-Pacific Region. I don’t see why it cannot be applied in the Middle East and North Africa.
Question: The Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi has indeed opened up many opportunities for the Syrian settlement, especially given the fact that it has brought together so many Syrians, and also provided the support of the guarantor countries, namely, Turkey and Iran. Do you think the UN now has all the means to launch a constitutional committee, the creation of which has become the focus of the SNDC’s final declaration?
Sergey Lavrov: The answer to this question can be found in the SNDC’s final declaration, which enshrined the approval of the twelve fundamental Syrian state structure principles by all the participants. These principles are fully based on international law as well as the UN Charter. The declaration also includes a decision to create a Constitutional Committee. It also requests the UN to provide assistance in finalising this mechanism from the point of view of its membership (the corresponding lists have been submitted to the UN, and are still coming), and from the point of view of the rules, procedures, mandate, and operating guidelines for this committee. All this must be agreed upon by all the Syrians. In accordance with Resolution 2254, the UN should play the role of a facilitator in this process.
However, all the steps that must be taken in order to achieve the Syrian settlement, such as the constitutional committee, the subsequent elections together with everything else must meet the key prerequisite of UN Security Council Resolution 2254: only the Syrians themselves shall determine their future, and any agreements regarding the constitution or the elections should be the product of mutual consent of the government and all the opposition groups. This is the premise we are based on. As I understand it, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Syria Staffan de Mistura, and his deputy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, who is present here, interpret the results of the Sochi Congress the same way as Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Question: At the Munich conference, you spoke about the possibility of developing a new mechanism for the Middle East, the process of the creation of which involves a lot of challenges. How optimistic are you about this idea?
Sergey Lavrov: If I comprehend this correctly, you are talking about a new Palestinian-Israeli settlement mechanism. We are aware that the President of the State of Palestine, Mr Abbas, has been strongly promoting this idea after the Palestinians expressed their thoughts about Washington’s decision on Jerusalem, which was construed as running counter to all the existing agreements, since all the key matters of the final status can be reliably and sustainably resolved only in the context of direct talks. President Abbas brought up this initiative when he was in Moscow and had talks with President Putin. He spoke in favour of returning the role of the Quartet and not creating a situation where someone is trying to usurp the functions of an intermediary. He also said that the Quartet should be reinforced and expanded primarily through the inclusion of the Arab states. This fully corresponds to the initiative which Russia has been promoting for 10 years now – to add a representative of the Arab League to the Quartet. Many previous meetings of the Quartet were organised in a way where the four got together and agreed on something. After that, the Arab League representatives were invited and informed about the decision. From the outset, I thought it was not a very polite and correct way of doing things. We have always advocated the idea that the representatives of the League of Arab States should directly participate in developing the decisions made by the Quartet. The rest of our partners have taken this proposal with varying degrees of neutrality or negativity. So far, it has not been implemented.
A new turn of events surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli settlement calls for understanding how the international community will try to support this process in order to create proper conditions for direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. There’s no other way than to resolve all issues through direct talks. We must help create proper conditions for such direct talks.
Question: I am a Kurd, but no one is perfect. The 20th century was very cruel on the Kurds in the Middle East. We survived genocide, ethnic cleansing, and systematic trampling of our national dignity. The first decade of the 21st century was not spectacular for our people, either. Now, the Kurds in Afrin are living through a terrible aggression unleashed by Turkey, which is NATO’s second largest stronghold in the region, while the UN Security Council has not spent a single day, since its inception, to discuss the fate of 40 million people in the Middle East. They also want to live with dignity and in peace, and they are also entitled to a spot under the sun and want their rights respected. I hope that the UN will urgently call on Turkey to end the aggression in Afrin, to stop calling the Kurds terrorists, and themselves angels and followers of Prophet Muhammad. The international community is just watching, but doing nothing about what’s happening in Kurdistan.
Sergey Lavrov: I understand the feelings that overwhelm many Kurds. But we are here to try to understand what’s going on. Perhaps, slogans are better saved for public functions where public opinion is stirred, but here it is necessary to ponder the matters based on actual events. We have repeatedly stated (this is our principled position) that we fully support the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people to live in accordance with their traditions and customs, and their centuries-old glorious history. At the same time, we believe it is wrong when these aspirations of the Kurdish people are used by someone in their geopolitical games, which have nothing to do with the interests of the Kurds and regional security.
I’m not going to get into any details, but in order to defuse the situation in Afrin and not to create reasons for speculating on the Kurdish factor, there were contacts between the representatives of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian government with the Kurds who reside there. Unfortunately, as you said, no one is perfect. In that situation, this principle also worked. We are now witnessing an attempt to use the Kurds in a game that has nothing in common with their interests. We call upon everyone who is now involved in these processes to stop and start talks based on the balance of interests rather than the attempts to outsmart someone by speculating on Kurdish aspirations.