Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions during a joint news conference with Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Yury Borisov and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic Walid Muallem following talks, Damascus, September 7, 2020
Ladies and gentlemen,
The current visit of our delegation is primarily devoted to discussing the prospects for the further development of cooperation between Russia and the Syrian Arab Republic in the new conditions that have developed within the country, in the region and in the world as a whole.
The key aspect of the current stage is based on the fact that Syria, including with the support of the Russian Federation, has withstood the fight against international terrorism and the forces that hatched the plan to destroy Syrian statehood.
The remaining terrorist hotbeds in Syria are being eliminated and will be completely destroyed.
These conditions give rise to new tasks, which primarily concern Syria’s socioeconomic recovery and the mobilisation of international assistance for these purposes.
Our jointly defined economic tasks were discussed in detail by the co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic Walid Muallem and Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Yury Borisov, which they just talked about.
Today, during a long conversation with President of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad we discussed the situation on the ground in detail. We stated that relative calm has been established in Syria and that we need to work on strengthening this trend. This does not suit everyone, hence the attempts of a number of external players to fire up separatist sentiments in Syria and use unilateral and illegitimate measures to smother the country's economy.
In this connection, today we clearly and unambiguously reaffirmed our commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the Syrian Arab Republic. We reaffirmed the principle under which the Syrian people must decide their own destiny independently and without foreign interference, as UN Security Council Resolution 2254 reads. Russia will consistently advocate respecting and implementing this important principle. We will do this as a nation and as part of the Astana format, the Russia-Iran-Turkey guarantors, and certainly in the context of the Syrian Constitutional Committee which is underway in Geneva.
Question (retranslated from Arabic): Could you please comment on the agreements reached in Moscow, especially in view of the principled respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that you acknowledged?
Sergey Lavrov: For many years – in fact, throughout the entire ongoing conflict in Syria – we have consistently provided the Moscow platform to various Syrian political forces. This time, the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Council and the Moscow Platform met in Moscow, at their own initiative. These two groups signed a memorandum of understanding, without anybody’s help. We did not participate in these contacts and consultations. We have this document; you are welcome to review it. We will not comment on the agreements contained in this memorandum; however, we clearly noted that both groups confirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This corresponds to our own stance. We always proceed from the unfailing principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. The same applies to Syria. We confirmed our stance at a meeting with representatives of these two Syrian groups in Moscow.
As a matter of fact, the role of Moscow as a regular and comfortable platform for respective events is already established and enjoys support and understanding not only from Syrian representatives, who have met in Moscow several times, but also from various Palestinian groups that are wishing to hold a meeting of this kind in the Russian capital once again. There is a Moscow format for resolving Afghanistan’s issues. Intra-Afghan talks have been held in Moscow multiple times. So, if our partners from different countries affected by conflicts are interested in our further hospitality, we are ready to host them. Libya is another example. The parties to the Libyan conflict have met in Moscow several times. It helps them to tap into common approaches to solving rather complicated problems that developed after NATO, in violation of all the principles of international law and the UN Security Council resolution, destroyed the Libyan statehood in 2011. We do not want this unfortunate experience to be repeated in any other country.
Question: Is it true, as the Western media, Turkey and the National Transitional Council of Libya claim, that Russia is using Syria, in particular the Khmeimim air base, as a bridgehead for airlifting armaments and mercenaries to Khalifa Haftar? It is also alleged that these mercenaries are being recruited from among Syrians.
Sergey Lavrov: When it comes to Libya, I would like to repeat what I have already said more than once. All kinds of allegations are routinely made about Russia’s activities in Libya, other countries from Africa to Europe, as well as the United States. You are well aware of this because you have heard and seen this. Not a single fact to prove these allegations has ever been presented to us. That such allegations are immediately leaked to the media, bypassing the existing bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for settling any disputes, suggests the goals of the authors of these statements.
Just as all the other members of the UN Security Council, we supported a special resolution on an arms embargo against Libya. I remember that several months later several European countries blatantly stated through their chiefs of general staff and military representatives that they supported and armed the extremists who were fighting Muammar Gaddafi. These are documented facts. By the way, the arms embargo, its importance and the need to comply with it, were reaffirmed during the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020, which Russia attended and the results of which have been set forth in one more UNSC resolution, which all sides must comply with.
I would like to say once again that we must remember about the genesis of the Libyan conflict, which is rooted in the criminal and aggressive NATO campaign.
Question (retranslated from Arabic, for Walid Muallem): Has the Russian side set any timeframe for the Constitutional Committee to ensure a result by a certain deadline?
Sergey Lavrov: There are no, nor can there be any deadlines for the work of the Constitutional Committee.
Question: Would you comment on the Turkish media allegations about Russia’s destructive role in Libya? What can you say about Turkey’s role in Syria, considering that Russia and Turkey are working together in Syria and hold joint operations and manoeuvres in Idlib? What price will Ankara demand for terminating its presence in Syria, which Damascus regards as illegal and infringing on Syria’s sovereignty?
Sergey Lavrov: As for media reports on Libya, Syria and many other subjects, I suggest that you invite their authors to a journalists’ discussion. There is a variety of opinions to be discussed.
From the very beginning of the Libyan crisis Russia has been the only state to work with all Libyan sides without exception. Other external players and, most importantly, the Libyan sides gradually came to the conclusion that the conflict does not have a military solution and that it is necessary to launch a dialogue.
Several initiatives have been put forth during the past few months to end the hostilities and start peace talks immediately and to launch the implementation of the decisions adopted at the Berlin conference. The latest examples are the Cairo Declaration and the recent joint initiative of President of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk Aguila Saleh and head of the Presidential Council in Tripoli Fayez al-Sarraj. We wholeheartedly support these initiatives. We believe that they must be implemented without any delay, starting with the unconditional and indefinite ceasefire.
As for Syria and our interaction with Turkey and Iran within the Astana format, our interaction is based on the agreements reached by the presidents and supported by the Syrian leadership. There are no commercial elements in these agreements, as you suggested when asking about the price to be paid.
The most important area of the current Russian and Turkish efforts is the Idlib de-escalation zone, where we have coordinated very concrete and clear arrangements and the distribution of responsibilities. They stipulate the separation of the normal and reasonable opposition from the terrorists, the liberation of the М4 highway and the creation of a safety corridor along it. The movement towards these goals is sustainable, though slow. There are grounds to believe that we will complete this job.
As for Syria’s sovereignty, absolutely all documents of the Astana format and the Russian-Turkish agreements say unambiguously that Russia and Turkey will respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and will not encourage any separatist trends. This goal will undoubtedly be achieved with the completion of the settlement process.
I would like to note that the government-controlled part of the Idlib de-escalation zone has increased considerably since the signing of the Russian-Turkish agreements.
Question: It is reported that the Russian and Iranian positions do not tally on all points of the Syrian agenda. Moreover, some people claim that Russia is working to withdraw Iran from Syria. Is this a true fact? You said the work was fruitful in the Astana format. Have all the three guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) reached consensus on all matters or are there any differences?
Sergey Lavrov: The Astana format took shape, when the UN, regrettably, was fully inactive. So, Russia, Turkey and Iran implemented the relevant initiative, with the consent of the Syrian government and all the Syrian sides. This format involves three guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey, and Iran), a delegation from Damascus and a delegation from the opposition, including representatives of armed groups. This is a universally recognised format, which, as is generally acknowledged, is the most productive one, where the development of the approaches to a Syrian settlement is concerned.
As for the differences, there is no one-hundred-percent unanimity anywhere. This refers not only to the positions of individual countries. The US administration lacks a single approach to either Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria. Now they leave these countries, now they stay, or change the reason why they need to linger. There is no such thing as total unanimity anywhere.
There are substantial differences in the Russian, Turkish and Iranian approaches to the Syrian conflict, differences that you can glean from official statements and the situation on the ground. But what Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have in common is the desire in no case to allow in Syria a replay of what happened in Iraq and Libya.
The Astana format is based on unconditional respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as on the principle of non-interference in that country’s internal affairs and inadmissibility of any attempts to fan separatist sentiments, especially from the outside.
As for the Iranian presence in the SAR, it is determined neither by the Russian or any other side, nor by anyone’s desire aside from the position of the Syrian leadership. Therefore, this question should be addressed to Damascus.
Question (speaking after Walid Muallem): If the Constitutional Committee fails to compromise on the Constitution before the presidential election scheduled for next year, could they be postponed? Are they considering a possibility to establish a transitional body of power in Syria in this case?
Sergey Lavrov: The elections in Syria are a matter that concerns the Syrian government. As long as a new constitution is not in place or the effective constitution has not been modified, the current constitution remains in force in the form in which it now exists.
You have mentioned a transitional body. Our UN colleagues led by Mr Staffan de Mistura once attempted to discuss this topic. At some point, there being no COVID-19 epidemic whatsoever, they announced a negotiating lockdown and were doing nothing at all for ten months.
As I mentioned, the Astana format was created to take this situation out of the absolute impasse, where it had been led. Under this initiative, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress was convened one year later, in 2018, which was supported by all Syrians and prioritised the establishment of the Constitutional Committee that we now have. What is needed is to let it work tranquilly.