Syrian Arab Republic
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Yevgeny Primakov’s International Review programme on Rossiya 24 TV Channel, Moscow, November 1, 2019
Question: The most dramatic recent events are taking place in Syria. The situation there has changed radically over the past few weeks. What is happening there now? Are we in control of the situation? The Americans have announced that they eliminated the self-proclaimed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan have signed disengagement agreements.
Sergey Lavrov: The Russian Defence Ministry has issued a comment on the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We would like to see additional information regarding it. The announcement was made in a jubilant and exultant tone, but our military are analysing additional facts and so far cannot confirm many of the things claimed by the United States. Therefore, I would rather not talk about this now.
On the other hand, the elimination of the terrorist, if it did take place (al-Baghdadi was declared dead many times before), is a positive development, considering his harmful role in the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) and attempts to create a caliphate. At the same time, we know that al-Baghdadi is (or was, if he is really dead) the brainchild of the United States. ISIS came into existence after the illegal invasion of Iraq, the destruction of the Iraqi state and the release of extremists from prisons by the Americans. Therefore, the Americans have eliminated (if this is true) an evil they themselves had created.
Regarding the overall developments, the agreements reached in Sochi have certainly stopped large-scale bloodshed and moved the problem of confrontation between the Turks and the Kurds to the level of confidence building. Two large zones have been created west and east of the area which the Turkish army entered after the failure of their talks with the United States. Its movement deeper into the Syrian territory was stopped by the agreements reached between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The armed Kurdish units are pulling back from the Turkish-Syrian border together with their weapons. The Syrian border guards and the Russian military police are entering the larger part of this region. The process should be completed within 24 hours, as it was agreed in Sochi, following which the Russian military police and the Turkish army will patrol a 10-kilometre wide zone along the border. The Kurdish units are to pull 30 km back from the border.
There are many questions that will have to be addressed during the implementation of this plan. But the Russian military police have already settled in the region alongside the Syrian border guards. The have contact with the local population. Military personnel have been additionally dispatched to the region to take part in the operations. The locals have been very hospitable towards them.
I believe that we have created conditions for calmly discussing the future of the Syrian Kurds , rather than during short respites from hostilities. This problem cannot be avoided. I would even say that it concerns more than just the Syrian crisis. There are Kurds in Iraq and Iran, and there are very many Kurds in Turkey as well. Nobody wants these countries, or even the region as a whole, to explode over the Kurdish problem, and nobody wants the Kurds to feel like second-class citizens. Therefore, we need agreements that will be based, first, on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each of these countries, and second, that will guarantee the Kurds’ essential language, cultural and other rights, just as in the case of any other ethnic or religious minority.
Question: In our previous programme, we discussed the win-win nature of this situation, where all the parties involved have benefitted from this crisis. The Syrians have regained control over a significant portion of their territory and borders. The Turks have received security guarantees. The United States, according to President Trump, is formally pulling out (although, as it turned out, not fully and its troops will remain in some areas to keep control over oil). Russia is acting as a mediator and guarantor. Recently, I saw a brilliant cartoon with Vladimir Putin holding an enormous ball of snakes that says “The Middle East” and saying: “Finally, Russia is in control of the situation in the Middle East. Now what?” The question asked by viewers and listeners rather than experts is: “What is it for?”
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think Vladimir Putin sees himself as a tamer of a snake pit. This is not how we see the Middle Eastern players.
Question: It’s an American cartoon. This is how they see it, not us.
Sergey Lavrov: That’s between them and their conscience. All I’m saying is we do not position ourselves in this way and do not portray our Middle Eastern partners as such. Everyone there has their own truth and their own interests. There are Eastern traditions at play, including ways to promote one’s interests using not quite open methods. This is about life, diplomacy and much more. National interests can be promoted in a variety of ways.
We operate on the premise that stable, steady and predictable Middle East, with which we have long-standing spiritual, economic, cultural, and political ties, is in our interests. We stood united in the struggle for the decolonisation of Africa, for example, and achieved considerable results.
Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which was initiated by the Soviet Union in conjunction with most countries of the Non-Aligned Movement. Of course, we have a lot in common in terms of Christian traditions. The Middle East is the cradle of the three main monotheistic religions. The fact that this peaceful coexistence of unique cultures began to fall apart following the US aggression in Iraq is a huge tragedy and one of the most negative results of the thoughtless interference in internal affairs of Iraq and then Libya. Now, they tried to accomplish something like that in Syria. Fortunately, this has not materialised and never will.
The Soviet Union cooperated with the countries of this region in rebuilding their economies, and they are very interested in building up such mutually beneficial cooperation with us based on previous achievements. The construction of a Russian industrial zone will start soon right on the bank of the Suez Canal in Egypt. Over 20 large companies have signed up as its future residents. This zone will be used to localise Russian companies’ output for Egypt and other African countries. By the way, other sub-Saharan countries, in particular, Namibia, showed interest in such a project as well.
So, we need the Middle East and North Africa as our partner to promote mutually beneficial cooperation and to ensure the interests of Christians, including Russian pilgrims. We are connected by many things. Portraying Russia’s policy in Syria and the entire region as a manifestation of our artificial designs and ambitions disproportionate to our status (there are such views as well), is simply an illiterate and shortsighted approach by some observers.
Question: So, this is an organic process. Not just me, but many experts as well are saying (this is also part of our national idea) that we are transmitting the values of sovereignty and security, that is, peace.
Sergey Lavrov: Probably, yes. People in the West like to talk about values by which they – neoliberals and the like – largely mean permissiveness. We imbibed our values with mother’s milk and inherited them from our ancestors. These are the values of sovereignty, but I would also say, of good, justice and the truth.
Question: Speaking of the values that the so-called conventional West is trying to relay, you are in the middle of a very interesting discussion with our Western colleagues on whether the new world order is based on a set of rules or, as we insist, on international law and the UN system. For an onlooker, the phrase the “rules-based order” makes sense. What doesn’t suit us in this formula?
Sergey Lavrov: I would frame the question differently. What doesn’t the West like in the “international law” formula? For us, the only rules that exist and which we recognise include international law embodied in conventions and the UN Security Council resolutions, which were adopted in a legitimate manner and are binding for all parties that signed and ratified these documents. To reiterate, these are the conventions and resolutions of the UN Security Council, as well as international treaties.
Resolutions of the UN General Assembly are not international law, but advisory documents, and this is recorded in the UN Charter.
For example, there are UN Security Council resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli settlement which require the creation of two states - Palestine and Israel - coexisting side by side in peace and security with all other countries in that region. These resolutions were adopted by the UN Security Council many times and are binding for all parties. However, they have never been acted upon. The Israeli state was created instantly after the corresponding decision was made by the UN in 1948, whereas the Palestinian state has not so far been created and it seems many of our partners, especially the United States, are reluctant to create it. Instead of implementing these resolutions, the United States has been promising everyone a “deal of the century” for the third year in a row, which, as everyone has already realised, will not involve the creation of a full-fledged Palestinian state. This is an example of how international law in the form of UN Security Council resolutions is replaced by rules engineered by the United States because they seem convenient to them.
Take, for instance, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It was used to create the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has its own Technical Secretariat vested, under the Convention, with the right to investigate incidents involving suspected use of illegal chemicals and to report to the states parties to the Convention whether the prohibited substances’ were used or not. This is all that the Convention has to say about the Technical Secretariat’s functions. The Convention can only be changed by introducing, coordinating and ratifying amendments. Instead, the Western countries convened a conference of the parties and made a decision based on the minority of votes by way of manipulating the rules of procedure. Of the 194 members of the Convention, 82 votes were cast in favour of giving the OPCW Technical Secretariat not only the function of determining whether or not a prohibited substance was used, but also the function and the right to designate the perpetrator (the “attributive function” in professional jargon). This function gives the technical staff of the Technical Secretariat the right to identify the perpetrators. This is also an example of international law in the form of a universally agreed Convention replaced by an illegitimate decision that, in direct violation of the Convention, introduces a new rule that suits our Western colleagues.
Such examples abound. For example, there’s the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). We have been trying to create a verification mechanism for this Convention for about 20 years now, since the time it actually entered into force. Acting practically alone, the United States is blocking the creation of this mechanism. Instead, it is trying, through the UN Secretariat, to promote the idea that the UN Secretariat itself can “keep an eye” on who and how well is complying with the Biological Convention. Another example is when instead of a universally developed element of international law, it tries to push through some self-serving and murky rules. There are lots of such examples.
Question: I can provide other examples as well. They concern our agreements with the United States, including the INF Treaty, whose demise we have witnessed, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Sergey Lavrov: I agree about the JCPOA, because it was approved by the UN Security Council, whose decisions are binding for all the UN member states. The United States has not only withdrawn from the plan but is also prohibiting other countries from implementing the relevant UNSC resolution. The situation with the INF Treaty is different. Either party had the right to provide a six-month notice of its withdrawal.
Question: Is it possible that the anchors we are clinging to are no longer effective? It is said that we need to reform the UN, its Security Council and the system of international law as a whole. Are we gradually entering a completely different world without any rules, where international relations will turn into a political marriage of convenience?
Sergey Lavrov: The recent US actions indicate that Washington would like to destroy the system of international treaties, at the least, in the sphere of strategic stability and arms control. In 2002, it buried the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). This year they killed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). There is rumour about the possible US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty. The United States has officially decided not to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Washington has not responded in any sensible way to our proposal regarding the extension of the New START Treaty before it expires in February 2021, although we regularly remind it about this.
I believe that the international community will eventually speak out in support of preserving the system of strategic stability, parity and arms control agreements. At least we submitted a draft resolution to this effect at the current session of the UN General Assembly, urging the international community to coordinate new approaches that will allow us to feel calmer than we do now.
Question: We remember the previous aggravation, the so-called Euromissile crisis of the 1980s, which was one of the reasons for a new détente. It was in that period that agreements to reduce intermediate- and shorter-range missiles were signed. But do we really hope now that Europe will move away from the US umbrella and cry out: “What are you doing, for God’s sake?” There is internal discord in the United States. Who can we rely on there? The Trump administration, which wants to withdraw from any agreements if possible?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding missiles, we offered Europe – we made this offer to NATO many times – to support our moratorium on the deployment of weapons prohibited under the INF Treaty. They have not responded in any way. President Putin sent the offer to more than 50 leaders, including all the NATO chiefs. They say in response that they cannot do this because Russia has already deployed such missiles in Europe, in the Kaliningrad Region. This statement is based on a groundless allegation that we have tested the 9М729 missile with a range capability of over 500 kilometres, which is prohibited under the INF Treaty. For many years now we have been asking them for satellite images or any other proof of these tests, but they invariably refuse to do so. In the same way, they refuse to show any documents related to the investigation into the Skripal case (the Salisbury poisoning), or explain why the Americans have refused to provide satellite images and the Ukrainians have refused to share their radar data in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing, and so on. They just keep saying that it is “highly likely” we are to blame.
The problem is the same with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), whose Technical Secretariat is being manipulated to support the explanations of the chemical attacks in Syria that put the blame on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, even though the procedures applied to determine who and why used chemical agents there directly contradict the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Question: Could something like another chemical attack happen in Idlib, for example?
Sergey Lavrov: It can happen any day there. The United States continues to support the troublemakers from the White Helmets, who are operating in parts of Idlib controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that is, Jabhat al-Nusra. This alone is proof of the White Helmets’ character. Their direct involvement in a series of provocations has been proven by video footage and at the news conference attended by the children who had been used for such false flag chemical attacks. We organised that news conference in The Hague on the sidelines of an OPCW meeting. It is a big information war going on.
Regarding global tensions, I mentioned the treaties that have guaranteed stability for a long time and which the United States is destroying now. The United States has refused to discuss the proposal on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space, which Russia and China submitted at the Conference on Disarmament. The Pentagon has made public its plans to lower the nuclear threshold and to focus on the creation of low-yield, or tactical, nuclear weapons. It has recently adopted a decision that provides for orbiting weapons as part of the further development of the national ballistic missile defence system. The Americans increasingly see cyberspace as a scene of potential military confrontation, and they are encouraging the other NATO countries to adopt this logic as well.
I see no reason to believe that the Europeans will protest attempts to turn their territory into a potential war theatre. The only exception is the initiatives advanced by President of France Emmanuel Macron on building a European security architecture together with Russia rather than against it, which we regard as reasonable and worthy of attention and discussion. Meanwhile, more people in France and several other European countries are coming to see that the United States wants to use them in its own interests, or rather the interests of its military-industrial complex, while it is not eager to protect Europe. At the least, this concern has been fuelled by certain statements made by senior American officials.
Question: Mr Lavrov, can we see China as an ally, a partner and a standby in this situation? Is our turn to the East, which has long been announced many times, a turn away from the West? The recent news and examples you just mentioned are reminiscent of the pre-war atmosphere of July and August 1914. Many people point to the growing threat of war. And we recently promised China we would work together in the sphere of early warning. Is China our ally?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding our relations with China, they have never been better or based on a higher level of confidence in all areas, including in the economy as the basis of our relations that are vital for protecting our countries’ interests on the international stage. But if you are hinting at a military alliance, neither Russia, nor China plans to create such an alliance. This is set out, by the way, in bilateral documents, including those that were signed during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Russia in June of this year. They say openly that the logic of an unwillingness to create a military alliance is based on a clearly formulated position that Russia and China do not seek to develop their relations to the detriment of other countries.
But if allied relations imply the joint protection of international law and the fundamental principles of world order based on the UN Charter, as well as resistance against any attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, especially in a military way, then Russia and China are clearly allies in this. We are also allies with regard to the issues that call for our response in the global economy, where openly unfair, or even dirty, competition has become common practice contrary to the principles of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the so-called free market. There are many examples of this behaviour.
Nobody is safe from sanctions, not even our American allies. This stick is being used recklessly now. President Putin has said more than once that this is a gross American mistake, because many weak countries will succumb to American ultimatums to avoid sanctions or have them lifted. But in the medium, let alone longer, term this will work against the dollar, because the United States has shown that the dollar is an unreliable currency. Anyone who uses dollars in its economic relations with other countries can become a hostage of US geopolitical plans on any day.
Question: And what has survived of our relations with the US? Diplomatic property is still under seizure. We have pulled Maria Butina back home, but Konstantin Yaroshenko is still in jail. Viktor Bout is in jail. Our Consulate General in San Francisco is closed.
Sergey Lavrov: Six of our properties have, in fact, been taken from us in a crude manner. Contrary to all promises, we have not been allowed to visit any of them yet. We continue to consider our options in this matter. I raise this subject each time I get in touch with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. We are exploring the possibilities of resorting to litigation. Justice in the United States is a complicated matter as you can guess. Their procedures are such that you need to play it really, really safe before you rely on a fair verdict.
It is good that Maria Butina has returned home. We saw how happy she was and how strong she was, even though she had been subjected to psychological pressure for a year and a half, and physically, too, spending a long time in different prisons was taking a toll on her. But there are several dozen Russians still in the United States; some still under trial or investigation, others convicted and sentenced, such as Viktor Bout, Konstantin Yaroshenko and Roman Seleznyov. All these Russian citizens, especially the three I mentioned, are far from an ideal position in terms of international law and international agreements. Access to them is not always provided, as was agreed under various international and bilateral conventions.
Question: But the Russian Foreign Ministry is not abandoning them?
Sergey Lavrov: We will never stop working on this track. We are taking small steps, but at least we are doing something. For example, Viktor Bout’s family went over and stayed for some time and had the opportunity to communicate with him.
Still, what we are dealing with is certainly illegal activity. Any suspicions the United States might have regarding our citizens that they may have been involved in illegal activity, should be reported through the channels agreed by the bilateral consular convention, instead of just kidnapping the suspects. Viktor Bout was extradited from Thailand in violation of Thai law; and Konstantin Yaroshenko was literally kidnapped by US intelligence officers from Liberia, and Roman Seleznev, from the Maldives, in flagrant violation of the sovereignty of these two countries.
So what remains of our relations with the United States apart from these problems? We have resumed consultations on counterterrorism. There is the so-called military-to-military de-conflict channel on Syria between our countries. There is a dialogue between diplomats on how we can contribute to a settlement in Syria, even though for obvious reasons, our goals here coincide with the UN Security Council Resolution on respect for Syria’s territorial integrity, and we are there at the invitation of that country’s legitimate government, while the US insists they respect the same resolution, but you see how they treat Syrian territory: they come and go of their own accord, then change their mind and come back again.
Question: Then again, it’s about oil.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, oil. "Forget ISIS, we’ll defend oil so the Syrian government doesn’t get it." Based on actual documents, our Defence Ministry gave a detailed account of what the Americans are doing with the oil. Oil is shipped outside Syria for refining, and the United States is using oil revenue to back the loyal armed groups.
We maintain a dialogue on Afghanistan with the United States. A Russian-Chinese-American format was created, which Pakistan joined later. Iran may be included in this format as well. This could be promising. We have good interaction on North Korea and on the Korean Peninsula in general.
These are just separate sectoral areas of international politics. So far, we have not observed any systematic progress on initiatives that Russia has put forward more than once, including during the summits of President Putin and President Trump. I am also referring to strategic stability, such as the Treaty on the Reduction of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) and a discussion on issues in strategic stability, not just nuclear stability, but other weapons of mass destruction, non-nuclear strategic weapons, the militarisation of outer space and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as well.
We are not against discussing new types of weapons or new military technologies, including the ones announced by President Russia Putin in 2018 in his Address to the Federal Assembly. They accuse us of hiding things. We are not hiding anything, but are instead suggesting that we talk about all aspects of strategic stability as part of a big general discussion. This is a very clear position, which we have conveyed to the Americans. We have not received any intelligible response yet. The only response was: "Let China, Russia and the United States combine their efforts." What do we have to do with this? If the Chinese agree, we will be happy to expand the format of consultations and talks. Then, we will have to think about the UK and France which are official nuclear powers. Then, there are unofficial nuclear powers. So, if it is all about us persuading China, we are not going to do it. Our Chinese partners have explained to us that their structure of strategic nuclear forces is fundamentally different from ours and the Americans’. This is true. They are not going to join the talks at this stage. That's all there is to it. We respect this position.
There is no progress in the Russia-US dialogue on the crucial topic of strategic stability. There is no progress in another systematic initiative put forward by our President at his first meeting with President Trump. I’m referring to the creation of a Business Council, which would consist of five to six top executives from private companies on each side. We have been working on this for almost three years now with zero result. We may have a shot at it, though, and we’ve been told that there may be some progress in November.
Nothing is being done to create an Expert Council, which was discussed when Secretary Pompeo was in Russia in May. Back then, he was receptive to the idea toget the political scientists involved in assisting diplomats and official representatives of Russia and the United States in seeking agreements that would allow for at least some progress in achieving strategic stability.
Question: As was the case in the 1970s-1980s.
Sergey Lavrov: Back then, all this was called a “one and a half track.” There is no shortage of initiatives from our side to engage our US partners in a mutually respectful and equal dialogue. But so far the response to these initiatives has not been encouraging at all.
Question: At least, there’s something to work with.
Sergey Lavrov: To work or to constantly issue reminders which is what we are doing.
Question: In order not to plunge into a world without rules.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think anyone would want to end up in a world with rules that imply an absence of rights for everyone else. If our European colleagues are taking their lead from the United States in the issues I mentioned, such as the OPCW and a number of other areas, they are acting based on fleeting interests. They do not realise that this bomb will be at play in situations where they have no need to abandon the international legal foundation or receive externally imposed rules. Situations like that are fairly predictable. It is the same as Libya. When they were destroying Libya, they used terrorists to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. When Gaddafi was toppled, the terrorists headed to Mali. At that point, our French colleagues, who openly admitted that they were arming them, began to request support in countering these terrorists in Mali. Instead of implementing the international legal resolution of the UN Security Council, which made arms supply to Libya illegal, they followed the any-means-to-an-end approach to get rid of Gaddafi but in the end got a taste of their own medicine. To this day, these people in Mali continue to keep tensions high and carry out terrorist attacks. The same thing happened in Iraq with ISIS. The same thing happened in Syria when Jabhat al-Nusra supplanted Al-Qaeda. All attempts to use rules that run counter to international law are harmful. International law states that there can be no agreements with terrorists.