The talks with my colleague, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Eritrea Osman Saleh, were constructive and informative.
We value our friendly dialogue with Eritrea. Like our Eritrean friends, we intend to promote our bilateral relations, primarily economic, investment and cultural ties, which we can certainly do, taking into account the high level of political dialogue we have attained over the past few years. We noted the promising spheres of cooperation, such as mining, banking and personnel training. We agreed to provide assistance to our business communities’ efforts to develop and strengthen direct contacts. The first steps towards this goal have been taken.
Today and tomorrow, our Eritrean colleagues, who are led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh, will hold several meetings at the Agriculture Ministry and other Russian departments and companies to discuss specific aspects of strengthening our practical cooperation.
We discussed issues on the regional and international agenda. We have close or coincident approaches to them. Like Eritrea, Russia has been working consistently towards greater democracy in international relations, respect for national identity and the right of nations to determine their future.
We have agreed to carry on our cooperation at the UN and other multilateral venues in the interest of fighting against common threats and challenges. We will continue to work together based on the February 2014 Protocol on Consultations between the Foreign Ministries of Russia and Eritrea. Today we have agreed that the contacts that are stipulated in the protocol should be more regular.
We discussed in detail the situation in Africa. We agree on the need to find exclusively political and diplomatic solutions to crises in the Horn of Africa, South Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa. We will do our best to promote this approach, including at the UN Security Council, advocating dialogue and compromise and stressing that reliance on sanctions to the detriment of talks is a counterproductive method.
Russia and Eritrea have similar approaches to developments in the Middle East and North Africa, notably Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, primarily in the light of the fight against the threat of terrorism in the region, which is spreading south, towards Central, West and East Africa. We have drawn the attention of our Eritrean partners to the idea of a broad international coalition against terrorism advanced by President Vladimir Putin. We note the growing interest in this initiative and awareness of its importance.
We have had good talks. We have reaffirmed our shared intention to continue to strengthen Russian-Eritrean cooperation. We will act in accordance with the arrangements we have made today.
Question: How do you assess the results of the first telephone conversation between President Vladimir Putin and President of the United States Donald Trump? Do you think there are prospects for better relations with the new US administration now in office?
Sergey Lavrov: The telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump on Saturday was a good one on the political and human level and showed both presidents’ mutual respect and desire for relations without moralising, relations based, let me stress, on each country’s national interests. This is the position both presidents take. The conversation understandably focused on conceptual matters, without going into the details, but a number of areas were identified in which Russia and the United States share common interests. The two leaders agreed to continue work at the expert level and during their own future contacts, which look quite certain to take place (the dates and details are still to be settled). Work at the expert level will probably become regular once Mr Trump’s cabinet, in particular as concerns foreign policy, is formed. These contacts will make clear to what extent our common interests in various areas, particularly the fight against terrorism, can be translated into joint coordinated action and joint mechanisms for resolving what are common problems for Russia, the USA, and the international community in general. We have the desire to achieve results, but the practical work is still ahead. We will therefore implement the understandings reached during the telephone conversation of January 28 on terrorism and the other areas outlined in the Kremlin and White House press releases.
Question: During the telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, the need to take concrete steps in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria was clearly stressed. What kind of steps might this include if the new US administration is talking about the need to create buffer zones in Syria? May Russia agree on this measure?
The Syrian opposition, whose representatives are still in Moscow, aims to create a single group to go to talks with official Damascus in Geneva at the end of the month. This cannot be said about the Riyadh Group, which continues to block all initiatives to create such a single group. Can these talks be held without the Riyadh Group, to your mind?
Sergey Lavrov: I will start with the second question. I do believe that those who are interested in the settlement of the Syrian crisis and the creation of conditions in which Syrians themselves, all Syrian groups – ethnic, political and religious – will be able to decide what kind of country they want, should accept the invitation to participate in talks. And we should continue to invite but not convince or persuade those who put forward preconditions not covered by the UN Security Council resolutions and who pretend to be the only legitimate opposition formation. As soon as the next round is announced, it is necessary to invite all opposition groups and formations. Those who want to come should come. It is up to the opposition to decide whether they need to have a single opposition delegation. Generally speaking, we would like the Syrian Government to have one negotiating partner, but we do not see any problem if it has several partners. If those who came to Moscow on January 27 to participate in a briefing on Syria peace talks held in Astana decide to team up, we will certainly welcome this.
I would also like to add that there is a new participant in the political process. This is a group representing armed opposition units, who acted as a single delegation in Astana. There is a common opinion on the need to integrate this group in the political process, especially since they have entered into preliminary talks with the Syrian Government. We understand that the dialogue is only just beginning, but we expect that the draft constitution, which was distributed in Astana and then submitted to the political opposition, will motivate Syrians to seek mutually acceptable approaches.
We believe that agreements cannot be imposed from the outside. Given the deep impasse of the process initiated under the auspices of the UN, we have no doubts about the need to add a practical dimension to all these efforts to stimulate the thinking process and concrete talks.
With regard to possible forms of cooperation with the United States to combat ISIS (which, I repeat, is Russia’s and the United States’ top priority in the international arena, which was clearly confirmed during the telephone conversation between the two presidents on January 28), I can see almost unlimited possibilities provided there is the political will and commitment of our militaries to translate this political will into concrete agreements and actions. As you are aware, the Russian Aerospace Forces are now working in Syria alongside the Syrian Army and Air Force and other foreign troops invited by the Syrian Government (including Hezbollah and our Iranian colleagues). They are fighting terrorism together with Damascus and Russia’s Aerospace Forces. Also operating in Syria is the US-led coalition. Unlike us and the Iranians, it was not invited by the Syrian Government, although when these issues were discussed, Damascus declared its willingness to accept the current situation provided two conditions are met: first, if everyone will actually fight ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and, second, if the US-led coalition will coordinate its actions with Russia’s Aerospace Forces. Regrettably, so far, this coordination is limited only to an agreement on deconflicting flights. However, as you know, talks were underway during the past year with the participation of foreign and defence ministries of Russia and the United States. They ended with the coordination of a document on actual military coordination of actions against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, including the creation of a standing facility which is the Joint Executive Centre (JRC), which would be used to coordinate intelligence and the targets to attack to neutralise ISIS and Nusra on Syrian territory. At the last moment, when all these agreements had been signed, the Obama administration failed to muster the strength to put the problem of combating terrorism above its Russophobic intentions. Unfortunately, this is a fact.
I’m not sure whether it is possible to revive the JRC in its original form in order to deal with ISIS or Nusra. I’m positive that today there’s room for an ideology-free and professional exchange between Russian and US military, which would be aimed at developing a specific military response to suppress the terrorists in Syria. When the presidents spoke about the need to re-invigorate our cooperation in fighting ISIS, they meant this aspect, too. We will be ready for such a conversation at any time through our Defence Ministry, our special and intelligence services, as well as through our diplomatic offices.
We should remember that ISIS is active not only in Syria but also in Iraq. The US-led coalition is fighting it in Iraq with Baghdad’s agreement. If the Iraqi authorities request it, we could provide additional assistance, at least by exchanging intelligence data and also in other formats. I would like to remind you that Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia have established a coordination centre in this sphere in Baghdad. It can be used to more effectively coordinate the fight against ISIS, which is active in Syria, Iraq and other countries in the region. By the way, Russia and Jordan have created a coordination centre in Amman. The need to use it more effectively for other purposes was discussed during a recent visit by King Abdullah II of Jordan to Russia. The point at issue is to create a united front to fight ISIS. In the case of Syria, this would mean admitting that the most effective force fighting ISIS on the ground is the Syrian Army plus militia groups supported by Russia’s Aerospace Forces. If our American partners coordinated their capabilities (we know about and openly acknowledge that apart from aviation they also rely on special operations forces from several countries, including Western ones, on the ground) with the Syrian Government and the forces that are cooperating with it, as well as with the operations of the US-led coalition, which should be directed clearly at fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups, as US President Donald Trump has said, we would achieve serious positive results in achieving our counterterrorism goals.
As for creating security zones in Syria, we will clarify this issue during our dialogue with the American colleagues. The idea has been formulated differently from the initiatives advanced at the previous stages of the Syrian crisis, which provided for creating a site for an alternative government in Syria that would work towards overthrowing the current government. This would replicate the scenario executed in Libya, where a site for an alternative government was created near Benghazi and was subsequently used as a pretext for a military intervention to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in violation of the UN Security Council decisions. As I see it, the US initiative on safe zones in Syria where refugees could feel safe is aimed at easing the migration burden on the neighbouring countries and other countries in the region, as well as Europe and, ultimately, the United States. If the idea is to create zones where the people who had to leave their homes because of the armed conflict in Syria could feel safe until their homes are rebuilt and peace is restored in their communities, where they would be able to receive basic services and where their children would feel safe and would have at least partial access to education, we can join forces with the UN Refugee Agency, the International Organisation for Migration and other agencies to consider creating zones for internally displaced persons in Syria. Of course, this would call for coordinating the details and the underlying principle for such zones with the Syrian Government.
So, there is a great deal to do at the military level and for easing the humanitarian consequences of the current situation in Syria. As I said, we are set for constructive practical work to put into action as fully as possible the obvious interest of the Russian and US presidents, to translate it into practical agreements on fighting ISIS. Moreover, this fight must not last forever but must be aimed at inflicting a crushing defeat on ISIS and other terrorist organisations.