Statements and speeches by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic Walid Muallem and Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mohammed Javad Zarif , Moscow, October 28, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
I held a bilateral meeting with my colleague Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic Walid Muallem, and a bilateral meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif. We have just concluded trilateral talks. This is not the first time the three of us got together. The previous meeting took place in Moscow in January 2014. Today, we had a chance to reaffirm for ourselves that this is a useful format that allows us to have a meaningful and candid exchange of views on how to implement the UN Security Council resolutions on the Syrian settlement.
We focused primarily on the need to continue and intensify the uncompromising fight against terrorists, while focusing on improving the humanitarian situation, re-introducing the cessation of hostilities arrangements and, of course, starting as soon as possible the intra-Syrian talks in accordance with the UN resolutions, that is, without any preconditions.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and I reaffirmed our principled support of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria and our willingness to address these issues together, which include, as I mentioned earlier, the destruction of terrorists and the restoration of peace, the economy, and civil infrastructure. Speaking yesterday at a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, President Putin suggested that we already start thinking about something along the lines of the Marshall Plan for Syria.
We stated that the responsibility for the deterioration of the economic situation of the Syrian people lies not only with terrorists, but also with the countries that imposed illegal unilateral economic sanctions on Syria, which primarily affect ordinary people in that country. We also expressed our shared belief that all states must strictly follow the fundamental principles of international law, including not interfering in countries’ internal affairs, not threatening to use force, and settling political differences through political means. We stand united in our belief that any attempts from abroad to impose any prescriptions on anyone, or to use double standards are unacceptable and that all issues must be addressed in a mutually respectful and equitable manner by means of negotiations. We are united by the understanding that there is no alternative to resolving the conflict in Syria through political and diplomatic means. We have supported the decision of the Syrian leadership to resume the political process based on the decisions adopted by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and UN Security Council resolutions, in particular, Resolution 2254. We welcomed the assurances provided by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem that the delegation of the Syrian government is willing to come to Geneva overnight in order to conduct talks under the auspices of the United Nations with representatives of all opposition groups in accordance with the UNSC resolution.
The situation in Syria, especially in the Aleppo province, has seriously deteriorated. The implementation of the cessation of hostilities was disrupted by the armed opposition. The United States and its allies in the region were unable or unwilling to have it enforced by the opposition groups they back. As a result, the lives of thousands of civilians in eastern Aleppo, whom the terrorists use as a human shield, are in jeopardy. However, based on humanitarian considerations, Russia and Syria have suspended operations against terrorists. The Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force have remained on the ground for a full ten days now. Our warplanes do not approach closer than 10 km from the front lines around Aleppo. We seriously hoped that our American partners would use the humanitarian pause and the absence of air strikes to finally convince the “moderate opposition” to dissociate themselves from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Al-Nusra Front), which, in fact, rules the roost in eastern Aleppo and issues orders to all other armed opposition groups located there. Unfortunately, once again, they failed to draw such a line. Clearly, the terrorists have cut off the humanitarian corridors created specifically for civilians. Instead of letting civilians leave town, these corridors now come under targeted fire from the militants.
We could not let the, to put it mildly, inadequate work of the UN humanitarian agencies go unnoticed. Their inaction made it possible for the so-called local council in eastern Aleppo to disrupt medical evacuation, on which they themselves insisted. We are disappointed to see that the statements made by the representatives of the UN humanitarian agencies in the public spotlight are reminiscent of the attempts to create a smokescreen for unworthy politicised designs. We call upon the UN representatives not to succumb to the current hysterical campaign of lies with regard to what’s happening in Aleppo, especially the humanitarian situation.
An incident that took place on October 27 in Idlib, when a school came under attack, is being built up. The allegations are directed primarily at Russia and Syria. We are accused of airstriking the school. In response to these allegations, the Defence Ministry distributed information with facts (it is available) refuting these assertions and showing that this planted story was fabricated. I would also like to point out that on the same day, October 27, a school in western Aleppo was hit by a mine and a gas cylinder that came from eastern Aleppo. At the same time, the humanitarian corridor, which was opened near the school, came under attack by militants from eastern Aleppo. Twelve civilians were killed and 20 injured. It is impossible to alter or distort this information in any way. Incidentally, our reporters visited the area. They recorded evidence of an absolutely inhuman crime that was committed by militants from eastern Aleppo. All of this must be thoroughly investigated. By the way, it is also necessary to investigate the September 19 attack on the aid convoy to eastern Aleppo. At that time it was also alleged that this was done by Russian or Syrian aviation. However, the investigation that has at last been announced should take into account one important factor that is related to UN aid agencies: The moment the convoy started moving (and it had been prepared very thoroughly) it transpired that it was not accompanied by UN representatives, although in the past, officials from UN aid agencies always accompanied them. We are wondering whether that was accidentally. UN officials say they were unable to accompany the convoy for purely bureaucratic reasons. No doubt, this fact should be taken into account when establishing what really happened to the convoy on September 19.
Nevertheless, Russia and Iran welcome the Syrian leadership’s commitment, which was reaffirmed today, to continue and even expand cooperation with the UN in addressing humanitarian issues. We believe that UN representatives should act impartially, without succumbing to media provocations, as befits representatives of an international agency.
We also reaffirmed our readiness, through joint efforts, to do all we can in the fight against terrorists in Syria and outlined an array of steps to be taken in the near future, above all, in intensifying the fight against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, and, as I said, provide humanitarian aid to the population. Unfortunately, I have to repeat that many outside players are using the humanitarian problems of the Syrian people for self-promotion, serving their own ends, including their financial interests, at the expense of the Syria crisis.
We also exchanged opinions on the situation in neighbouring Iraq, where the so-called international anti-ISIS coalition has mounted an operation to free Mosul. We are interested in taking measures, together with our Iraqi colleagues, to prevent the escape of terrorists from Mosul to Syria with their arms and heavy equipment, which will, of course, seriously aggravate the situation in Syria. We consider it important to prevent this. We will take up the issue with the Americans and other members of their coalition. Terrorists must not be allowed to get away and move into Syria.
As I said, there were also two bilateral meetings with our colleagues in the course of which we discussed our relations and reaffirmed our mutual interest in furthering political, economic, humanitarian, and security cooperation. We commend the regular contacts between our countries’ leadership. We also addressed the implementation of the agreements that were reached between President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian leader’s visit to Russia and during a recent telephone conversation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and I discussed the implementation of the decisions that had been coordinated during the recent meeting between President Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Baku on August 8.
We are going to have important bilateral events. In November, there will be a meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation between Russia and Syria and in December, a meeting of the Russian-Iranian Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation and the Russian-Iranian Commission on Scientific and Technological Cooperation.
I believe that our busy agenda today has allowed us to address the most topical aspects of bilateral relations between Russia and Iran and Russia and Syria, as well as the most pressing issues related to the settlement of the situation in and around Syria. I am grateful to my colleagues for coming to Moscow. I believe that this format has proved its worth, and we will continue to use it.
Question (addressed to all ministers): Very intensive talks took place today. Various issues were discussed. What coordination of action did you agree on in order to prevent the supply of arms and military equipment to terrorist groups so that the United States and a number of Arab states commit to stop providing military assistance to these groups?
Sergey Lavrov (adds after Mohammad Javad Zarif): There are political aspects here and there are practical aspects that fall within the purview of the military. First of all, stopping any and all support for terrorists. This is not somebody’s whim but the demand of the UN Security Council, enshrined in its resolutions. The Security Council has prohibited any support for them, including from abroad. We will insist on meeting these UN demands, including in our contact with member countries of the US-led coalition. We have corresponding channels for dialogue.
At the practical level, this is up to the military to decide, and these decisions should not always be made public. I should add that our three countries, as well as Iraq, at one time set up a joint centre in Baghdad that provides a framework for the coordination of practical approaches in the fight against terrorists. I believe that the centre has a lot to offer. Maybe it will have even more to offer than before, taking into account what we have just talked about: when there is a real danger that terrorists will be ejected from Mosul and redeployed to Syria.
Question (addressed to all ministers): US Secretary of State John Kerry recently admitted that it is impossible to resolve the Syria crisis without Russia and Iran. On the other hand, we see that, as Mr Lavrov has repeatedly stated, the US is reluctant or unable to ensure the separation of Jabhat al-Nusra from the so-called moderate opposition, especially in Aleppo. Do you believe there is a gap between words and deeds here or something else?
Sergey Lavrov (adds after Walid Muallem): Since this concerns our relations with the United States on the Syria settlement and the agreements that we coordinated with US Secretary of State John Kerry as a result of hard work and with support from Russian and US military experts, I will also add a few words.
First of all, our agreements with the Americans began with the statement that the key priority is the separation of the moderate opposition from terrorists. Here, as Mr Muallem said, there has been no progress and, frankly, I don’t expect any, at least not any time soon. It may be recalled that our agreements with the Americans linked this separation to a seven-day period of quiet. At the end of the period, the Americans undertook to show us on the map exactly where they believed there were terrorists and where there were none. On this basis, we should have jointly coordinated targets for effective engagement. To reiterate, they requested seven days for that, insisting that a seven-day pause should be a precondition. We announced this pause but it was violated with a strike against Syrian Army detachments three days later. President Vladimir Putin spoke about that in detail yesterday in Sochi. Remember they needed seven days, when our aviation would be grounded.
For 10 days now neither Russia nor Syria has used its Aerospace Forces or Air Force around Aleppo. Naturally, this is enough time to ensure the separation in eastern Aleppo, let alone in other parts of Syria, even though this is also a pressing issue elsewhere in the country. It turns out that all these repeated calls for a ceasefire are only designed to gain time and give the extremists a respite. Needless to say, they are taking advantage of that. During the time when neither we nor the Syrians fly over the city, its western parts are continuously shelled from eastern Aleppo, as are the humanitarian corridors that were created for civilians to get out of there. I already cited the incident when a mine and a gas cylinder hit a school building in western Aleppo, killing and injuring many people.
Every time we present facts, our Western colleagues for the most part make groundless accusations or manipulate the facts, thus essentially providing cover to the terrorists, while they must be finished off. Whereas our Western partners are fighting terrorism only in words we are determined to see this through to the end in reality.
Question: How will the operation to free Mosul impact the balance of forces in the region and specifically on the Syrian front? You said that you will not allow the “export” of terrorists from Iraq to Syria. How can that be done? The Russian Defence Ministry says that our combat aviation is ready to bomb terrorists who are now moving from Iraq to Syria. Will this in fact be done?
Speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club yesterday, President Putin said our patience is not infinite. Have any concrete steps been outlined today to free Aleppo from terrorists?
Sergey Lavrov (adds after Walid Muallem): Regarding the way the operation to free Mosul will impact the lineup of forces in the region and on the Syrian front, I believe it can have a significant impact. We already mentioned the danger of the outflow of terrorists from Mosul to other parts, including Syria, as many are predicting. According to a UN estimate, hundreds of thousands – up to 1 million civilians may leave Mosul. This means there will be new flows of refugees who are unlikely to remain in Iraq. They will probably move to Turkey while many may try to get to Europe. The balance of forces may change significantly for many participants in this process, even those who are far from Iraq and Syria.
I will add that when we were preparing the operation to free Aleppo together with our Syrian colleagues, our Western partners and even UN representatives criticised us for purportedly trying to drive civilians out of it, not allowing them to remain there and not wanting the situation there to remain unchanged. In other words, we were in fact urged to accept that eastern Aleppo would be controlled by terrorists. In particular, our US colleagues said that it would be very difficult to persuade the moderate opposition to leave eastern Aleppo so that only Jabhat al-Nusra would be left there. They told us that it would be difficult to persuade them because those opposition members lived there, had their families and homes there, and people would have to be relocated. The situation in Mosul was exactly the same. They said civilians should leave the city. They are fleeing their homes and nobody is upset about that, although I do not see any difference. In both instances we create problems for civilians but these problems are inevitable when and if terrorists have to be fought. There is no getting away from this in Mosul and Aleppo.
In Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremists, who have not yet been put on terrorist lists, regularly execute those who want voluntarily to leave eastern Aleppo. Here is a case in point. The day before yesterday, Reuters quoted the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as saying 232 people were executed in Mosul. The executions were designed to serve as an object lesson for others who might try to avoid a situation where they would end up together with terrorists under attack by the US-led coalition and the Iraqi army. Here, all of us should apply the same standards and not try to pretend that one party does this right while another does it wrong, leading to hysterical accusations which have reached the point of a psychosis.
In connection with President Putin’s remarks yesterday, to the effect that our patience is not infinite (this applies, among other things, to the elimination of terrorists in Aleppo), I will cite one example. At the beginning of this year, at an ISSG meeting (and it includes over 20 countries at the level of foreign ministers), US Secretary of State John Kerry said in public, through the microphone, that if the moderate opposition did not want to be associated with terrorists then moderate opposition detachments should leave ISIS- and Jabhat al-Nusra-controlled areas and join the ceasefire. In closing, Mr Kerry said that if any of the moderate opposition detachments did not dissociate themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra they would become legitimate targets, just as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are. Given that there are absolutely no indications that the moderate opposition is going to dissociate itself from Jabhat al-Nusra in eastern Aleppo, the time has come for some practical action following Mr Kerry’s logic.