The Minister’s meetings
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, Moscow, March 29, 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have had very productive talks with UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and his delegation.
For our part, we reaffirmed that Russia attaches great importance to the United Nations’ role in searching for solutions to the Syrian conflict. The steps that the Syrians agreed upon at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress convened at the initiative of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Sochi, will be implemented jointly under the guidance of the United Nations and in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We have discussed this in detail today. We talked about the coordinated principles of how the Syrian state should operate, which a large and representative group of the Congress participants have in fact confirmed and consolidated. I am referring to the 12 principles that Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura formulated after taking office as the foundation for promoting a political settlement and constitutional process.
We have certainly noted – this is our common position – that the idea stipulated in the UN Security Council resolutions remains fundamentally important: a political settlement is possible only through direct negotiations between the Syrian parties on the basis of their mutual consent.
For obvious reasons, we paid special attention to the humanitarian situation in Syria. The counterterrorist operation nearing completion in Eastern Ghouta has left that suburb of the Syrian capital almost cleared of terrorists and extremists who have been killing, injuring and endangering the civilians of Damascus for years, shelling residential quarters, infrastructure facilities and foreign diplomatic missions from mortars, including Russian missions. It is very important that during the operation in Eastern Ghouta, Syrian troops and officers of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria organised humanitarian corridors making it possible for civilians to leave the combat area. Until recently, militants actively prevented this, using residents as a live shield. Unfortunately, the operation was accompanied by a veiled campaign to support the militants (as we are accustomed to), including planted information about famine as a result of the siege and indiscriminate bombing, also using prohibited types of ammunition. Rumours were again circulated about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army despite the absurdity of such statements, even from the military tactical point of view; about alleged mass arrests and massacres of those who left the towns in Eastern Ghouta – that is, the same accusations we heard during the operation for the liberation of Aleppo and which turned out to be myths.
I would like to note that humanitarian workers who directly observed the exit of civilians from Eastern Ghouta on the site, and who know the situation firsthand, not from reports of the White Helmets or any kind of British observer groups, did not confirm such speculations and praised the actions of the Russian military. This was also confirmed by the residents of Eastern Ghouta who escaped from the terrorist captivity.
Now most of the militants have been evacuated, and peaceful life is being restored. Government forces have reclaimed control of about 90 per cent of Eastern Ghouta. The provision of urgent assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) is of the utmost importance. We hope that the UN will increase its involvement in the collective effort to help the residents of the areas that suffered from the tyranny of terrorists to return to their homes as soon as possible. We have discussed this in detail today. Russia is already doing a lot to this end. We deliver humanitarian aid, and recently we ensured the passage of several UN convoys. We expect this joint work to become more and more effective.
At the same time, we should certainly not forget about other affected areas, where the need for humanitarian and other assistance is no less acute. In particular, I mean the enclaves of Fua and Kefraya, the Rukban camp located in a zone illegally staked by the US in the southeast of Syria, as well as Raqqa, which was razed to the ground by US-led coalition forces without any humanitarian corridors. Only now, after urgent demands, did we finally reach an agreement involving the Syrian Government on sending a UN assessment mission to Raqqa.
We also agreed that we need to continue coordinating our actions, and to decide how we will work following the upcoming summit of the Astana process guarantor nations – Russia, Turkey and Iran – due to be held on April 4 in Ankara. We consider it very important to make sure ahead of this summit that we are on the same page with UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and his team, given the Astana trio’s focus on continued support of the political process under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as the role of Russia, Turkey and Iran in eliminating the remnants of terrorist groups, improving the functioning of de-escalation zones, consolidating the ceasefire and creating conditions for more effective solutions to pressing humanitarian problems.
I am sincerely grateful to UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and his colleagues for this important meeting.
Question: Many criticise Russia for changing its stance towards the Syrian Kurds. Could you provide an update on the relations between Russia and the Syrian Kurds against the backdrop of Turkey’s operation?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia’s relations with the Syrian Kurds remain unchanged, and the same applies to the relations with Kurds residing in other countries and forming an integral part of society in Iraq, Iran and Turkey. We strongly believe that not a single conflict in areas where Kurds live can be settled without the Kurdish people.
We are fully committed to implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a political settlement with the participation of all ethnic and religious groups within the Syrian society. Russia feels empathy toward the Kurdish people, including in Syria. It has to be taken into consideration that our US colleagues attempted to speculate on the Kurdish factor as they sought to put the Syrian territory under their control in what amounted to a flagrant violation of international law. What we are witnessing in Afrin results from attempts to create some kind of a sanitary cordon by relying on Kurdish armed groups. We insist on all sides coming to an agreement on ways to end the hostilities and promote efforts to bring life back to normal, while fully respecting Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Question: Have you discussed the creation of the Constitutional Commission on Syria in Geneva? If so, at what stage is this process?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Staffan de Mistura): As Staffan just mentioned, we circulated the final document of the National Dialogue Congress that was held in Sochi as an official document of the UN Security Council. The document states that the declaration alongside the Sochi Congress contribute to promoting a political settlement under UN Security Council resolution 2254, including the creation of the Constitutional Commission. For understandable reasons agreeing on the lists requires a rigorous effort. The Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, Staffan de Mistura, will be the one to sum up the outcome of this work. Russia supports the view whereby this should be completed as quickly as possible. However, you must also understand that the situation is far from simple. After so many years of conflict, I think that a little more patience would not hurt. In this case, what matters the most is the quality of this work, and not expediency, so that the Constitutional Commission overseen by Staffan de Mistura is effective.
Question: Will the expansion of the de-escalation zones be on the agenda of the upcoming Ankara summit? Will Idlib remain a de-escalation zone considering that many military organisations’ fighters, including Jabhat al-Nusra, currently operate in this region?
Sergey Lavrov: De-escalation zones will remain in place as agreed by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The southwestern zone was formed by Russia, US and Jordan. So far there are no plans to increase the number of these zones. Our efforts in Eastern Ghouta are about to be completed. With 90 per cent of its territory liberated, we hope that the cessation of the hostilities regime will be restored in this and other de-escalation zones. The regime was not respected after fighters from Jaysh al-Islam, Failak ar-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham failed to honour their obligations under the agreement to set up a de-escalation zone in Eastern Ghouta. Instead of separating themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, they formed a joint command of sorts just as they had promised in order to fight the Government army. These violations have now been suppressed. I strongly believe that life in Eastern Ghouta will get back to normal quite rapidly in the near future.
As for Idlib, the situation is quite challenging as well. I hope no serious combat action will take place there soon. This question will be on the agenda of the summit in Ankara on April 4.
Question: Will you provide a reciprocal response to the expulsion of Russian diplomats, or are you planning a stronger measure?
Sergey Lavrov: The response will be more than just reciprocal. This very minute US Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been invited to the Foreign Ministry, where Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov will notify him of our response. It includes the expulsion of the same number of US diplomats and also our decision to cancel our permission for the operation of the US Consulate General in St Petersburg. As for the other countries, our response regarding the number of diplomats to be expelled from Russia will be reciprocal as well. That is all, for the time being.
I would like to say that we will not just respond to the absolutely unacceptable actions taken under tough US and UK pressure under the pretext of the Skripal case. By the way, I note with satisfaction that the UK authorities have at least informed us about the health of Yulia Skripal today. They write that Yulia’s condition is rapidly improving. We have again asked them for permission to visit Yulia, who is a Russian citizen. I hope that the British side will honour its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
We will not just react to the actions taken against us by the Anglo-Saxon group, which is forcing others to follow their anti-Russia policies. We want to establish the truth. We said at the very beginning of this crisis that UK Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Russia of involvement in the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter without any proof. She issued an ultimatum to which we could not respond, giving us 24 hours to admit that the Russian authorities had ordered the poisoning of Skripals or that they had lost control of Russia’s chemical stocks. We could not respond to this ultimatum even if we tried hard to find any answers. Instead, we proposed applying international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which contains an article regarding such situations. According to it, in case of any doubts regarding compliance with the convention, the signatory states should first establish contact and exchange information and consultations to clarify the matter. The British side arrogantly refused to do this and instead found a technical clause in the convention allowing signatory states to seek the assistance of the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat. OPCW experts have arrived in Britain at the invitation of the government to form their own opinion and to analyse the agent that was used to poison Sergey and Yulia Skripal, as the British side claims. I want to point out that the article cited by the British side only allows the Technical Secretariat to establish the chemical composition of the agent submitted for analysis. The Technical Secretariat cannot confirm or verify the conclusions made by the British side. It has no right to do this. By the way, the inquiry is not over yet. As you know, Scotland Yard has said it could take months, yet the verdict has already been delivered. This is highly regrettable. We have not witnessed such mockery of international law for a very long time.
Seeking to launch normal interaction and to establish the truth, we have officially proposed convening an extraordinary session of the OPCW Executive Council on April 4, where we will provide a summary of the practical questions we have asked many times. I hope our Western partners will not evade an honest discussion. If they do, it will be further proof that the current developments are a deliberate and crude provocation.