Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following trilateral talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Moscow, December 20, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have just finished our meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey. In parallel, contacts between our defence ministers took place in different formats in Moscow. The developments in Syria were the focus.
We all agree that it is necessary to fully respect Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity, and that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. We believe there is no alternative to a political and diplomatic settlement of this conflict. Needless to say, the main task is to stop the suffering of completely innocent people, resolve humanitarian issues and wage a relentless fight against terrorism.
We have coordinated a joint statement of the ministers of foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey on agreed upon measures to step up the political process with a view to ending the Syrian conflict. As I have already said, this is a joint statement of three foreign ministers, but the defence ministers who held parallel meetings also made their contribution. The statement reaffirms our respect for the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multiethnic, multi-religious, democratic and secular state.
Iran, Russia and Turkey are convinced that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. They recognise the important role of the UN in the efforts to resolve this crisis in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The ministers also take note of the decisions of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). They are urging all members of the international community to maintain good-faith cooperation in order to remove obstacles in the way of implementing the agreements contained in the aforementioned documents.
Iran, Russia and Turkey welcome the joint efforts in east Aleppo on the voluntary evacuation of civilians and organised withdrawal of the armed opposition. The ministers also welcome the partial evacuation of civilians from Al-Fu'ah, Kafrai, Al-Zabadani and Madaya. They are committed to ensuring the continuous, safe and reliable completion of this process.
The ministers agree on the importance of extending the ceasefire, unhindered access to humanitarian aid, and civilians’ free travel in Syria. Iran, Russia and Turkey are ready to help forge the agreement that is the subject of talks between the Syrian Government and the opposition. They are willing to act as its guarantors. They have called on all the countries that have influence on the ground to do the same.
Our nations are profoundly confident that this agreement will give the necessary impetus to resume the political process in Syria in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 – I mean the agreement which the Syrian Government and the opposition are working toward.
The ministers have taken into consideration the Kazakhstani President’s kind invitation to meet for the talks in Astana.
In conclusion, Iran, Russia and Turkey confirm their resolve to fight ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra together, and draw a line between them and the armed opposition groups.
We are satisfied with the results achieved. We are confident that, while implementation of the UNSC resolutions is at a standstill, the initiative taken by our three countries can help to overcome the stagnation in efforts to achieve a settlement in Syria on the basis of these resolutions and advance efforts to put an end to the violence, deliver humanitarian aid and provide conditions for an effective and inclusive political process.
I heartily thank my colleagues. We did good and very useful work together. We have agreed to structure our further interaction around the joint statement approved today.
Question: There are several parallel formats for Syria talks – Russia-Iran-Turkey, Russia-USA, and the Geneva consultations under UN aegis. As they made it clear today at the office of Mr Staffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Syria, his staff is monitoring the outcomes of the Moscow talks, and there is a view that another round of intra-Syrian talks will be held in February. Which format of talks do you find the most effective and how do they compare?
Sergey Lavrov: I think the format you see now is the most effective. Not that I mean to tarnish the efforts of all our other partners as we seek progress toward a settlement in Syria. I am merely stating a fact. Today, the trilateral format of Iran-Russia-Turkey has proved that there is a need for it with practical efforts.
We certainly have other formats, too. You mentioned the ISSG, which was established, in particular, with the efforts of the countries represented here, the United States, the Arab countries of the Gulf, and some other states. The group met several times and adopted critical documents that formed the basis for UNSC Resolution 2254, which stipulates parallel progress on all key aspects of the Syria settlement: ending the violence, guarantees of ceasefire, unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, and the start of a political process without preconditions, which should involve all Syrian ethnic, religious and political forces. We were united in our view that this is the approach to be taken by the international community.
Unfortunately, since the spring meeting, the ISSG has failed to play its role to ensure the implementation of the decisions that were made or to monitor the implementation process. The last time, in May, our colleagues at the UN tried to ramp up activity regarding the political process. But, regrettably, their efforts ran out of steam. Nevertheless, as you can see from our joint statement, we reaffirm the important role of the UN and Resolution 2254.
Nor should we ignore the work that was accomplished by Russia and the US, among other things, in contacts between the Russian foreign minister and US Secretary of State John Kerry. We were not only close to producing a result – we achieved it in September, or so we thought. Unfortunately, the US failed to confirm its participation in coordinated actions. Yesterday I read John Kerry’s interview in The Baltimore Sun where he stated bluntly that not all officials in President Obama’s administration were interested in seeing the Russian-US agreements go into effect. I can only say that I consider this evaluation to be fair, but that does nothing to change our negative perception of what has happened to the Russian-US agreements. The second time, in early December, we were very close to an agreement on Aleppo. However, our American colleagues again withdrew their own initiative on concrete ways of ensuring the evacuation.
I do not think anyone can reproach us. All those present here have tried to work in broader formats on a collective basis. However, the disastrous situation in eastern Aleppo, the plight of the people in that part of the city and the need to minimise possible casualties, losses, as well as the need to reduce the number of militants, did not allow us to adopt a wait and see position. Over the past few days, our capitals have been actively considering the possibility of using the levers that each of our countries has to influence the opposing sides in Syria to resolve the crisis in eastern Aleppo. These intensive discussions have led to this meeting and the adoption of the document that will be distributed today.
At the same time we were not simply preparing to adopt the document. In reality, in practice, over the past several days and weeks we coordinated measures that made it possible to evacuate the greater part of civilians from eastern Aleppo problem-free with help from the International Red Cross Committee and WHO officers. Our agreements on precisely how to influence the opposing sides played their role here. Apart from the evacuation of civilians, our cooperation has ensured the orderly withdrawal from eastern Aleppo of most groups of armed opposition fighters along coordinated directions to coordinated areas. The evacuation is now in its final stages and we hope it will be completed in one or two days at the most.
Among other things, this shows the effectiveness of the format involving states that at present are probably better prepared than others to contribute to the settlement of the Syria crisis with real actions, not just words. As you will be able to see from our joint statement, we will continue this cooperation. We are not closing ourselves off from contact with all other countries, but on the contrary, are inviting them to join the processes that, in our view, have positive potential and that we recorded today in our joint agreement.
Question (addressed to all three ministers): One of the most important issues is the termination of outside support to terrorist groups. Did today’s meeting focus on this issue? If we believe in a durable peace and the peaceful resolution of the Syria conflict, shouldn’t all support for terrorists be stopped as soon as possible?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking last): For my part, I will point out that the fight against terrorism does not abide double standards. This is clearly stated in UN Security Council resolutions. This fight should be conducted relentlessly without any ambiguous action. To reiterate, the principle that there can be no dealings with terrorists is enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions, in particular Resolution 2254. We must not turn a blind eye to the fact that they are receiving outside support. There is nothing to agree on with them out of a sense of self-preservation. This must not be done if only because no deals with them have ever saved those who enter into them.
An analysis of the situation shows that no country can, in one way or another, be involved in the Syria conflict or in the efforts to resolve it and fence itself off completely from the terrorist threat. Recently, all countries present here, other Syrian neighbours, European states and the US have suffered terrorist attacks, primarily on the part of ISIS, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Yesterday, a heinous terrorist attack was perpetrated against Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov, which cost him his life. I would like once again – as I did before the start of today’s talks – to express gratitude to our colleagues for their solidarity with us at this difficult moment, for their condolences and readiness to help. As you know, Russian and Turkish experts are conducting a joint investigation. Within the next few hours we are expecting a special flight with our ambassador’s body to arrive. We will carry out President Putin’s instructions to preserve Mr Karlov’s memory and posthumously confer a state award upon him.
Going back to the issue of terrorism and the fact that no one can fence himself off from it, I would like to remind you about how Al Qaeda came into being. It arose from the mujahedin who were fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, who were supported by the United States. Those mujahedin transformed into Al Qaeda, and it was Al Qaeda that on September 11, 2001 struck the US, becoming the enemy of those who had helped create it. Today, Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al Qaeda, is a generally recognised terrorist organisation that has been put on corresponding lists by the UN, Russia, the US and many other countries and, together with ISIS, has been outlawed. All the efforts that we are taking to resolve the Syria crisis, ensure the cessation of hostilities and extend the ceasefire across Syria’s entire territory absolutely exclude Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and affiliated groups from these arrangements. This is the decision of the UN Security Council and this is what we should be guided by.
Question (addressed to all three ministers): Will Turkey stop Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria, against which the Syrian government has protested? Were you able to overcome major differences in your countries’ positions on Syria?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking last): The situation in Syria is tremendously complicated. There are many religious, ethnic and political groups that are joining forces or fighting each other there. Plus there is the overall crisis in relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Besides, Syria has been at the crossroads of many countries’ interests for ages, both neighbouring countries and those that do not border Syria. All these states have their own interests in Syria, such as compatriot support, security interests and many other issues. When a crisis developed as part of the so-called Arab Spring, many external parties attempted to use it to their own advantage and in their own interests. As you remember, some countries declared the goal of changing the government in Syria.
But gradually, as many colleagues have told me, they came to see the threat of terrorism, the threat of ISIS seizing this ancient country that is so important for the Middle East, and this awareness dominated their thoughts about what they should do in Syria. They are coming to see that the top priority should not be government change but the liquidation of the terrorist threat. The three countries that are represented here share this understanding. We have a common stand on this issue.
As for the groups and countries that are present in Syria, there are those that have been invited by the Syrian government, UN member states, and those who entered Syria without an invitation. As I said, the objective of our presence there is to fight terrorism. This is the objective of the US-led coalition and Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield. All those who are in Syria by invitation and without it have reaffirmed their respect for Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and independence.
We are convinced that by enhancing our coordination, as President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference in Japan when speaking about Palmyra, by overcoming discoordination among those who want to defeat terrorism in Syria, we will be able to more consistently and effectively focus our attention on ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and associated groups. I am convinced that as we increase our achievements in the fight against terrorism and help Syrians launch a political process, we will be able to formulate common approaches, which will clearly rely on our proclaimed goals – to defeat terrorism and restore Syria’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence and unity. We are united on this. All this has been sealed in our joint statement. We will work to achieve the objectives set out in this statement.