Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon Gebran Bassil, Moscow, November 18, 2015
Ladies and gentlemen,
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon Gebran Bassil and I have discussed the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, focusing particularly on the situation in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon itself.
We express solidarity with our Lebanese friends, which continue to suffer the negative consequences of the ongoing conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The terrorist threat persists in Lebanon. We have once again offered our condolences on the November 12 terrorist attack in a Beirut suburb that killed 43 people and injured about 250. Lebanon has accepted 1.5 million Syrian refugees, which is a heavy burden on its infrastructure, given that Lebanon has for many years been home to Palestinian refugees.
Russia has always supported Lebanon’s sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and internal stability. We urge the Lebanese to cope with the current difficulties as soon as possible, above all those linked with their parliament’s inability to choose a presidential candidate for a year and a half. We have expressed hope that the Lebanese themselves will find a solution to these problems through a dialogue between all the political, ethnic and religious groups within the existing constitution and without any outside interference. We welcome the regular round of a nationwide dialogue, which was held yesterday, in which all the Lebanese forces have confirmed the unity of society in the face of the terrorist threat.
Our Lebanese partners share our views on the processes that are underway in the Middle East. In the context of the Syrian crisis, we believe the priority is to mobilise a broad front against the terrorist threat, primarily the ISIS group, and at the same time, to promote the political process in Syria in accordance with the principles and the specific steps agreed upon during the International Syria Support Group meeting in Vienna on November 14. In Vienna, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and I advocated balanced solutions based on respect for the Syrians’ right to determine their future on their own. We are glad that this fundamental position has prevailed in the final documents of both meetings held on October 30 and November 14.
We examined the situation surrounding the fight against terrorism in a wider context, not just in regard to Syria. The “Islamic State” has gained a foothold in Syria and Iraq, has taken root in other countries of the region as well and has publicly announced its plans to create a caliphate on a vast territory stretching from Portugal to Pakistan. ISIS is a common threat. We agree that the UN Security Council must prioritise the creation of an international legal framework to fight this evil and mobilise a truly global coalition to respond to an extremely difficult challenge that is common to us all.
Russia will actively promote international efforts in this area in line with the initiative put forward by President Putin in his remarks in New York at the opening of the UN General Assembly.
We discussed the Palestinian-Israeli settlement as well, and expressed our concern about the stalemate in negotiations. We believe that by taking measures to head off the escalation of violence in the Holy Places, primarily, on the Temple Mount, we cannot limit ourselves to this alone, and should do our best to resume the negotiation process. Representatives of the Quartet will soon visit Israel and Palestine. We hope that their efforts will help us find a way out of this deadlock.
We are certainly interested in further promoting Russian-Lebanese relations, and my colleague and I talked about this today. Russia is prepared, among other things, to act as part of the International Support Group for Lebanon in order to facilitate building up the capacity of the Lebanese army, police and security forces. We also have several projects in the humanitarian sphere, including those related to promoting the inter-civilisational and inter-religious dialogue in accordance with the initiative, which Russia, Lebanon and Armenia, with the participation of the Vatican, put forward in March of this year as part of the UN Council on Human Rights. The issue was about protecting Christians who continue to suffer the negative consequences of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, and protecting any and all ethnicities, and ethnic and religious groups, from discrimination of any kind, and also about them jointly promoting a dialogue among civilisations, religions and cultures. This will remain a priority of Russian-Lebanese cooperation in the international arena.
I would like to sincerely thank my colleague for good talks.
Question (addressed to both ministers): Is Lebanon considering requesting Russian military assistance against terrorism? Would Russia provide this assistance, if it receives such a request?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Gebran Bassil): I have nothing to add. No request has been made, and so there’s nothing to consider. We respect Lebanon’s sovereign right to choose the most effective way to defend its security.
Question: Has the Russian Foreign Ministry asked its partners for information as part of the efforts to find and punish those who are guilty of the terrorist attack on the Russian Airbus A321? Have you received any answers to this request?
Sergey Lavrov: The Ministry’s Information and Press Department issued an official comment yesterday, which said that we have appealed to all governments, in accordance with instructions from President Vladimir Putin, to provide any information that can help us find and call to account the perpetrators of the terrorist attack against the Russian plane. As for replies, we received confirmation of solidarity with us from all capitals the same day. This amounts to a political reply. As for possible evidence, data and information, or the whereabouts of the persons who were involved in that terrorist attack in any manner, we have received some replies from security services. This information cannot be disclosed for understandable reasons.
Question: Before that, President Putin said Russia would find and punish those who are responsible for the crash over the Sinai Peninsula in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter. Can you explain what this means? Exactly what practical actions will Russia take?
Sergey Lavrov: As President Putin said, we will act in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which envisages the right of a state to individual or collective self-defence against an armed attack on it. The terrorist attack over the Sinai Peninsula was an attack on Russian citizens, which is equivalent to attacking the Russian state. We will exercise the right to self-defence by any means available to us, including political, military, intelligence, special services and so on.
Question: Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu has said today that a consensus was reached at the meeting on Syria that President Bashar al-Assad would not take part in the next presidential election. Is this so?
Sergey Lavrov: The final statement of the November 14 meeting on Syria, as well as the statement adopted at the first such meeting in Vienna on October 30, clearly states the agreements reached. There was no agreement under which President Bashar al-Assad would not participate at any stage of the political process. It’s true that some countries, including our Turkish partners, advocated this idea, but it has not received consensus support, and so it would be wrong to say that a certain person has agreed not to participate in some event or another. All our agreements have been put on paper and cannot be interpreted in any way other than as stated.
Question (for both ministers): Have you been able to reach an agreement in Vienna on the status of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist organisations? How are efforts to list other terrorist groups progressing? It is known that some parties at the Vienna talks see this as a problem.
Sergey Lavrov: As you have said, in Vienna we have agreed that all countries represented on the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) submit their proposals regarding whom they regard as terrorist organisations apart from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia has been promoting this initiative for a number of months, and now it has finally been approved by all ISSG participants. Jordan will be in charge of coordinating efforts to sum up these ideas and proposals.
We believe that this process should not take too much time. We have submitted a list of those whom we view as terrorist groups operating in Syria and neighbouring countries a long time ago. A couple of weeks ago our US colleagues and a number of other parties to the process sent us their proposals to this effect. They mostly coincide, but nevertheless there is still much work to do, and it will be quite challenging, taking into account that various extremist groups change colours when their foreign sponsors seeking to make them look more presentable and respectable advise them to renounce radical and terrorist rhetoric and project an image of the so called “moderate opposition” for the international community. The issue of the “chameleon effect” is real, so our intelligence and foreign affairs agencies will have to work together. We hope that our colleagues from Jordan will be able to arrange this process in such a way that we can come to a consensus without delay and have it approved by the UN Security Council. There is an understanding among ISSG participants that once we reach an agreement on specific organisations, on top of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the UN Security Council will have to list them as terrorist entities.
Question: According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the political settlement in Syria could start in a few weeks. Do you agree?
Sergey Lavrov: The documents that were approved in Vienna on November 14 expressly state that we expect UN representatives, in particular, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General Staffan de Mistura and his team, to form, in the coming days or weeks, a common understanding of who is included in the delegation representing the Syrian opposition. It was noted that we welcome the efforts of the states represented in the International Syria Support Group to form such a list. Then, Mr de Mistura (as he reported to the UN Security Council and received UNSC support in August) will conduct preliminary consultations in the working groups on four topics confirmed by the Security Council as an agenda for the inter-Syrian dialogue. The Vienna document expresses hope that the launch of such a process will take place around January 1, 2016. This is not an ultimatum, but a tentative date. However, we hope that we will be able to keep up with this deadline, as the longer we delay the launch of a political process between the Syrian government and the opposition, the worse for the Syrian people. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Again, the idea of forming a delegation representing the opposition dates back several years. After the conference in Montreux in January 2013, we emphasised the need to include all opponents to the regime in the negotiations with the Syrian government. This is required in accordance with the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012, which states that the negotiations should include representatives of the whole spectrum of Syrian society. Unfortunately, until recently, some of our partners in the West and in the region insisted that only one group of Syrian oppositionists should be considered the sole representative of the opposition, if not the entire Syrian nation. Such an obstinate position to keep other political forces of Syria away from the negotiating table cost many lives and led to bloody events, which could perhaps be avoided, had the political process been started earlier. This year, our partners have started becoming aware of the need to provide a genuinely pan-Syrian nature of the political process. During the meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel al-Jubeir in Doha in August, we agreed that we will encourage drafting such a single list of the opposition delegation. Again, for some reason, our partners did not respond to our initiative then, and such a multilateral agreement has been signed only recently, almost six months later. I hope its implementation will take much less time than it took to realise the need for such an approach in accordance with the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012.
Question: What can you say about the possibility of Russia and France coordinating their efforts in fighting terrorism?
Sergey Lavrov: Yesterday, the presidents of the Russian Federation and France agreed that they will coordinate such efforts. We have our aviation group working in Syria. Our Navy is present in the Mediterranean Sea. France is about to deploy an aircraft carrier group in that region as well. You may have heard President Putin live on TV yesterday, while at the National Defence Control Centre, issue an order to our Navy commander to coordinate actions against ISIS and other terrorists with our French colleagues as allies.
I expect that the change in the position of our Western colleagues, which, unfortunately, occurred after many lives were lost in the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks, will also happen with our other Western partners, and the position to the effect that the actual fight against ISIS and the like will start only after the fate of Bashar al-Assad is determined, will be set aside. We spoke about this in detail with our American colleagues, who actively promoted this line of thinking. Now, I believe, there is no doubt left that it is simply unacceptable to put forward any preconditions in order to unite efforts in fighting terrorism in the face of, primarily, ISIS which, of course, has nothing to do with Islam. Our common responsibility is to prevent it from becoming a state, as it tries to create a caliphate, thus threatening a vast number of countries and all of human civilisation.
Question: President Putin said that some G20 countries are financing terrorist groups. Can you share any details on this score?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that President Putin said everything at the news conference in Antalya and in his comments regarding sources of financing terrorist organisations. In addition, we have provided satellite and aerial images, which show an endless stream of petrol and petroleum products going from the territories occupied by ISIS to foreign countries where they are sold, and funds from these sales are used by ISIS to finance their criminal activities.
These matters cause grave concern among all our partners. I think that we can combine our efforts and come up with a kind of work that will not depend on fleeting geopolitical considerations and allow all of us to focus on our key tasks, such as cut short ISIS designs, undermine its financial and material base and, ultimately, destroy this terrorist group.