Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at the Masterclass working session held as part of the 2019 Paris Peace Forum, Paris, November 12, 2019
Thank you for coming to this panel.
For the sake of time, my introductory remarks will be brief.
The burning issues on the international agenda have been debated in quite a detail lately. I try to contribute to these conversations, including with remarks at the General Debate of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27. The English and French versions of my statement in New York in September are available on the Foreign Ministry’s website. So I will just sum up briefly what we believe is going on.
Of course, the world is changing. These changes are going take a long period of time. The essence of this change is the emergence of a multipolar world order. Today multilateralism is mentioned as a slogan. We believe that regardless of the terminology you use, be it a polycentric world, a multipolar world or a multilateral world, the essence is the same. No one, no single country, no group of countries, like what we call the “historical West,” can rule the world in this situation alone. New centres of economic growth, financial power and political influence are emerging right before our very eyes. China, India, Brazil, other Latin American countries, African countries are rising, and very soon, from a historical perspective, they will certainly demand to have more say in the world affairs.
It is for this reason that the key issues on the international agenda are no longer discussed at the G7. Nine years ago the G20 was reinvigorated to give more room to the countries from other regions, other than the EU and the United States. This is a very healthy trend, because the more powerhouses there are, the more sustainable the international situation will be.
Of course, our Western friends are not happy, because for more than five centuries they dominated politics, economics, culture and civilisation on this planet. They try to put a brake on these objective processes, and try to impede this objective reality from materialising. One of the manifestations of this position was the invention of a new concept. Instead of referring, as we have been doing for years, to international law, they call on everybody to respect a rules-based world order. What does this mean? When it is in the interests of the West, they for example declare that the right of the people to self-determination is sacrosanct, but when it does not fit their interests, they declare this right to be illegitimate. Compare Kosovo and Crimea: a referendum was held in Crimea, and there was no referendum in Kosovo. Still, Kosovo was immediately recognised as an independent state by most of the Western countries.
Another example of how the “rules” are being introduced in real life is what is going on with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). There is the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC), which created the Technical Secretariat authorised to respond to official requests from OPCW member states when they wish to find out whether a prohibited substance has been used or not. Period. The Technical Secretariat has no other function. The Western countries, by a vote, imposed on the Technical Secretariat a competence of the UN Security Council: not only to establish whether a prohibited substance has been used but also to establish who is guilty, to point the finger at those whom they want to accuse of doing this. And this decision was a radical change of the Convention itself. To modify a convention, you need to introduce amendments, negotiate them and have them ratified by all participants.
That was a very unfortunate twist in the behaviour of the Western countries that, for the reasons of political feasibility, are violating international law and introducing the rules they develop themselves, and these rules can differ from one case to another.
Dismantling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear issue falls in the same category, as do the absolute rebuttal by the United States of all international decisions on Palestine, ignoring everything that was done by the UN Security Council and became part of international law, and, of course, extraterritorial application of national legislation. The list goes on.
Our point is that we have to really accept the reality. We cannot ignore the interests of any group of countries, including the Western countries. But the West should stop trying to present itself as a final judge and prosecutor. And I think a very healthy discussion should be held and supported in the G20 format, where the G7 and BRICS are represented, as well as other developing regions that are not party to the BRICS structure. It is a very representative group of countries. And I believe it is not by chance that G20, which was launched to deal with key financial and economic issues, is increasingly addressing the political agenda of the international community.
In a sense, this is to compensate for the lack of progress towards the UN Security Council reform. The countries that want to be heard in the global political discussions believe that the G20 provides a platform where this could be done. But this does not mean that we have to forget about the UN Security Council reform. The key deficiency of the UN Security Council is under-representation of the developing countries. It is only if we increase the representation of Asia, Latin America and Africa that we can resolve this problem. The higher representation of the West is not going to help or bring any added value. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that in any configuration of the UN Security Council, the West has at least one third of the seats and sometimes more.
So I call for a debate during which it will be recognised that “end of history” that was proclaimed with triumph after the demise of the Soviet Union did not take place, history is alive and well, and the eternal domination of the West predicted by Francis Fukuyama did not materialise. The recognition of this reality is manifest in quite a number of analytical pieces, as well as in the recent statements by President of France Emmanuel Macron and in his interviews. So let us discuss where we are headed.
Question: If I were to summarise your statement, would I be right in saying the West is pretty much to be blamed for everything?
Sergey Lavrov: No, not for everything. Just for its own mistakes.
Question: To kick this off, I wanted to start with a question, and this question is about Syria. Russia for all intents and purposes has really become one of the key players in the Middle East, not only in Syria. I heard someone say recently that Russia has become “the sheriff of the Middle East.” To stay in that metaphor, one should probably say that as a sheriff, Russia is also the one to make sure that the city stays a safe place. So with great power comes great responsibility, as we know ever since Superman. So my question to you would be: is your country, is Russia prepared to provide for public good in the Middle East and in Syria in particular?
Sergey Lavrov: This sheriff mentality, acting as the world’s policeman is a Western invention. This logic does not apply to what we are witnessing in Syria. Don’t forget that the Syrian crisis started against the backdrop of grave crimes committed in the Middle East, not by us.
Take the invasion of Iraq. When it was announced in 2003 that democracy prevailed in that country, who can remember this episode when George W. Bush declared victory of democracy in Iraq? Look at Iraq, and what is going on there now. By the way, just as Al-Qaeda was born after the Americans supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1970s in the expectation that after the Soviets are out, the Americans would be able to control the mujahideen. Instead, Al-Qaeda was created, which boomeranged against the United States on 9/11 in 2001. By the same token, in Iraq after the invasion in 2003, a few years later ISIS was established, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was released from an American prison, and he became number one in this terrible caliphate. The aggression against Libya, and later against Syria gave birth to another manifestation of Al-Qaeda named Jabhat al-Nusra, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or whatever they call themselves.
The aggression against Libya created several waves of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, and of illegal migration into Europe. Those were the results of the reckless undertakings in Iraq, Libya and Syria. And when the Syrian government was about to be toppled by ISIS, when the terrorists were on the outskirts of Damascus, and when the President of Syria asked us for help, yes, we helped, and I believe that we did the right thing. Apart from Idlib and some areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the terrorists are not in control of that country, and the legitimate government is back in the driver’s seat.
Question: There are people who say that supporting Assad really pushes the Syrian Sunnis yet even more into the arms of radical forces on the extremist side – Jabhat al-Nusra and others. What’s your thinking about that?
Sergey Lavrov: We have to deal with what we inherited in Syria after the French left the country. And it was the French design of power sharing in Syria. This is the fact. We never had colonies, yet we have to deal with the results of the colonial period.
Take a look at the borders in Africa, including the north of Africa – just straight lines cutting across ethnic and religious groups. Next year we will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of the declaration of the UN General Assembly on [the granting of] independence to colonial countries and peoples. I believe we should remember how this declaration was adopted, and what is still not resolved, because some countries did not receive independence as was required by the General Assembly.
Some say we need not remember colonial times because we should live day by day. But people, including in Europe, want to reopen the issues related to the end of WWII, which was 20 years before decolonisation. Decolonisation is a much younger phenomenon. To ignore it and to ignore the need to analyse how exactly decolonisation took place, whether this was the end of it and whether the remaining colonial people should remain under metropolises, is an open issue.
So, back to Syria. Many Sunnis became part of the system. They are active in business and in the administrative life of their country. I do not believe that all Sunnis would like to topple the legitimate government and be embraced by the terrorists. I don’t think so.
Question: And no concern that Russia may be seen as a new colonial power in the Middle East?
Sergey Lavrov: We have been invited, unlike the United States, France, Germany and other members of the so-called anti-terrorist coalition, who are present in Syria illegitimately. We have been invited by a legitimate government. I don’t believe that this fits into the description of colonialism.
Question: How do you view what’s happening in Iraq in terms of the revolution or uprising, whatever term you use, as well as what is happening in Lebanon? Does Russia support or oppose these movements? Are they healthy for the evolution of the country or not?
Sergey Lavrov: You wouldn’t believe me, but only yesterday I was dwelling upon these issues, because we got used to the allegation that we are involved in everything that is going on on earth: the Salisbury poisoning, Brexit, Catalonia, etc. Recently we’ve been mentioned as the ones who meddle in the situation in Chile – this is why the APEC summit was cancelled. And I was wondering why we are not mentioned in relation to the developments in Iraq, Lebanon and now in Bolivia. Somehow we have not been accused of the coup in Bolivia, and this is strange. Something is happening in the minds of those who normally create the geopolitical agenda.
I believe that what we see in Iraq is regrettable. It is very regrettable to see Lebanon in the state of distress. But don’t forget that in Iraq the people still try to overcome the consequences of the American invasion and of the ruthless political engineering, which Paul Bremer introduced in Iraq, throwing away all Baath party members from anywhere. By the way, the best fighters in ISIS are former Saddam Hussein officers, who lost their jobs because of what Paul Bremer did. As Winston Churchill said, the Americans always do the right thing after they have tried everything else. In Lebanon, we support the efforts of Saad Hariri to establish a government, a caretaker government. But as far as I understand, his idea, and the idea of some of his friends, is to make this government entirely technocratic, without any political affiliation. I don’t believe that this is realistic in Lebanon right now.
Question: Russia plays a big role in the Middle East, especially in the conflicts, supporting whoever seeks an ally against the US, which in a way can be seen as Russia giving help to whoever serves its interests against the USA. Is this how you see what Russia is doing in the Middle East, or do you disagree? If so, why don’t we see Russia, instead of helping create safe zones in Syria and supporting a regime which there is an uprising against and some call illegitimate, rebuild the cities that were actually destroyed by Russian airstrikes?
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, the regime, as you call it, is the government of a state which is a full member of the United Nations without any restrictions on its rights. So when people say “regime,” I leave it to your own conscience.
Second, never ever have we been designing our foreign policy just to be nasty to the United States. Not at all. If you take the Middle East, Russia is the only country which talks to everybody, be it Syria where we talk to the government, the opposition, the Kurds and to the Americans, by the way. Our military have developed a close mechanism on deconflicting. If you take Libya, we talk to the head of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj, we talk to Speaker of the Parliament Aguila Saleh, we talk to commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar, we talk to everyone. The same is true in Iraq. We talk to the Sunnis, to the Shia, to the Kurds. I recently visited Iraq, including Baghdad and Erbil. And of course, we also work closely with Turkey and Iran on Syria. May I remind you that until the Astana group was formed in 2017, at the end of 2016, there was no dialogue between the Syrian government and the real opposition? The only opposition which was groomed by the West at that time were immigrants living in Istanbul, Riyadh, Europe and the United States. And they were presented as a partner for a dialogue. Then Russia, Turkey and Iran arranged for a format where the government and those who fight the government with weapons in their hands sat down at the negotiating table. And that’s how we managed to convene the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, that’s how we managed to create the Constitutional Committee, and that’s how the ceasefire on a vast part of the Syrian territory was established. Actually before that, in 2013, we were very close with the United States on a deal how to resolve the Syrian conflict. The deal, which we struck with US Secretary of State John Kerry and which was agreed by the Syrian government, was that the Syrian government air force would not fly at all, and that any operations by the US air force and by the Russian air force would be agreed between us. In other words, the US and Russia had a veto on each other’s actions in Syria. The only condition for this to enter into force was for the United States to separate the armed opposition from terrorists, from Jabhat al-Nusra. They never did this, and they never managed to do this. I have reasons to believe, based on the real examples of the past years, that the United States still supports al-Nusra in spite of the fact that this organisation has been listed in the United States as terrorist. They see al-Nusra as a counterbalance against the Syrian Government. It’s another mistake, after they were banking on the mujahideen, who organised the September 11 terrorist attack. After they did what they did in Iraq and ISIS was born. And now they are grooming al-Nusra in the illusionary expectation that they will be able to control them. It’s an illusion.
Speaking of rebuilding the country, we have been promoting projects together with the Syrian government, inviting all others to create conditions for modernising the infrastructure for the return of refugees, so that the country can get back to normal life. The United States categorically denies the need for this and prohibits all its allies – NATO, the EU and countries in the region – from investing in any project on the territory controlled by the Syrian government. On the other hand, they are doing everything on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River to build quasi-state structures. And they ask the Gulf countries to invest heavily so that they can create a local administration based on the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish YPG and others, with a very blunt intention: to separate this part of Syria and to control the oilfields there. I believe the BBC is a serious outlet. You can compare the real facts, and don’t be guided by slogans.
Question: You just said that the best ISIS fighters are the former Baath Party members. I just returned from the Syrian-Turkish border, where, as you know, last month Turkey launched, with Russia’s official or unofficial okay, Operation Peace Spring. My question is: you mentioned the Kurds in Iraq quite a bit but what about the Kurds in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: Operation Peace Spring was not endorsed by Russia. It was endorsed by the United States, if you are accurate with the facts. They tried to negotiate with Turkey but then said they could not reach the deal so “Kurds, you are on your own, we are leaving.” Then, after they left the Kurds and left Syria, they said they do not have any more obligations to the Kurds but they are coming back for oil (not for the Kurds). It is an interesting zigzagging in foreign policy. Back to Churchill, who said that the Americans always do the right thing after they have tried everything else.
The Kurds in Syria must have a place in the political dialogue. But the Kurds in Syria must be consistent. If at the beginning of the conflict they decided that they can go unilateral with the support of the United States, when they declared the creation of this federation of Rojava and they thought that they would always be supported by the United States in this separatist movement, it was their decision. We tried to explain to them and to the Syrian government that it is important to start a dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds. The Kurds were not interested. They believed that they would always be covered by the United States. When the United States made this twist, the Kurds started asking us to help them start a dialogue with the government, which we were ready to do. But then, when the Americans said they are coming back to control the oil fields, the Kurds again lost interest in this dialogue. So we need some consistency.
I have no doubt that at the end of the day, the solution to the Syrian crisis can only be achieved by taking into account the interests of the Kurds and all the ethnic and confessional groups in Syria. The Kurds are represented in the Constitutional Committee in Geneva but there is no representation of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). And you know what Turks think about the YPG. We believe this issue requires a very thorough discussion and a solution that would be strictly political but which can only be found with all the key players sitting at the same table and thinking in terms of respecting the territorial integrity of Syria and resolving all the national, ethnic and confessional issues within the context of the territorial integrity of Syria. That is what the Constitutional Committee is about.
Question: We talked a lot about the United States today. The US presidential elections are coming up in 2020. How is Russia getting ready for that?
Sergey Lavrov: We will resolve this problem, don’t worry.