Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’ remarks and answers to media questions during the Rome MED: Mediterranean Dialogues international conference
Rome, December 1, 2017
S. Lavrov: Thank you very much and it is really a pleasure to be here for the third time. I appreciate the invitation and if my interventions are helpful then I think it is in our common interests. I am sure that the previous speakers listed the problems facing the Middle East region, the Mediterranean region. Migration, outburst of terrorism which is to be defeated and we are moving towards this goal in Syria. But it is not going to be the end of terrorism in the region and beyond. The illegal flow of arms, foreign terrorist fighters moving freely through Libya, some other countries, to Sahara Sahel region. And we all have to fight these threats and these challenges. We have to address these challenges. But we never must forget how all this started.
The problems of the region, the turmoil in the region, as you described it, is a direct result of outside interference, of the attempts of geopolitical engineering under the slogan of removing dictators. Saddam Hussein was removed. And I am sure that you understand what kind of situation is in Iraq. Muammar Qaddafi was murdered – I cannot find another word – by those who grossly violated the Security Council resolution about no-fly zone. And OK this authoritarian regime was also removed and what happened to Libya. Some people say it would be close to impossible to restore the statehood of that country.
So we do have to understand that while addressing the problems like migration, like illegal flow of arms, terrorism that we don’t make similar mistakes. We don’t allow anyone to make similar mistakes in the future. Ruining countries for the sake of very doubtful process, imposing somebody’s values, somebody’s way of life on others with different culture, with different traditions, I believe it is very reckless. And we don’t want another region to become, you know, a shop where china has been broken all over the place.
I stop here and I am ready to entertain your comments. I’m sure I can count on the previous speakers to describe the attitude towards what is going on and I don’t want to repeat them. So let’s become interactive.
Question: Minister, thank you very much. Also, thanks for framing the discussion in a way that will allow for an exchange of views. As you said, we had the previous speakers to describe each from their point of view the developments in the Middle East. And you have hinted what you consider the roots of the problems we are facing nowadays. Let me try to move you a step further in the discussion. You hinted that the roots…
S. Lavrov: No, I did not hint. I gave you names.
Question: You gave them for you made clear and we know what your views are on this. Could I ask you to elaborate a bit more on the vision Russia has of the Middle East. What sort of region you wish for, you hope for and you – I imagine – you think you are contributing at the moment?
S. Lavrov: Well, it’s peace. It’s stability. It’s conditions for development. It’s openness to the outside world. It’s also keeping the centuries-long tradition of ethnic and confessional groups of different nature living together. The future of Christians in the Middle East is very important. This is probably the most suffered group because of the crisis which is going on. And certainly the Middle East where all countries, including Iraq, including Syria, including Libya, all others choose the way they want to live. And certainly this is a region where the Palestinian problem has been resolved on the basis of what we have been deciding many many years ago and on the basis of direct deal between Israelis and Palestinians for a viable Palestinian state and for security of all countries in the region, including of course the security of Israel. This is more or less the picture which I believe we would prefer.
Question: How do you move from the current situation to the picture you have described?
S. Lavrov: First, we have to overcome the results of very reckless, very brutal intervention in Iraq first under the entirely false pretext, as you know now, then in Libya, as I said, violating grossly the Security Council mandate for no-fly zone. And the same was attempted to be done to Syria. So we have to now overcome the consequences of these absolutely reckless unacceptable policies.
If you take Syria, we have to move towards the inclusive Syrian dialogue, national dialogue between all Syrians. The same is necessary for Libya. The same is necessary for Iraq. Inclusive national dialogue is, I believe, the feature which would be represented in any country if we want political solutions.
On migration I understand that these days there was a meeting in Abidjan between the European Union and the African Union. So it would be waiting for some ideas which might be operational and might be helpful in practical terms. I met today with Prime Minister Gentiloni and Minister Alfano. And we supported the intention of Italy as it begins to chair the OSCE next year to make migration one of the key topics. It’s a very elaborate approach which Italian friends presented to us and we support it.
And of course restoration of cultural heritage. What ISIL and Nusra were doing in Syria, in Iraq, ruining the temples and the churches, is a loss for the entire world civilization. And we’re now suggesting that UNESCO should become a bit more active in studying the necessary work in Aleppo and including on Umayyad Mosque which was almost ruined.
And certainly we need to have much more humanitarian assistance on the ground. Be it Syria, be it Yemen, especially in these two countries it is absolutely important. And also to think about future, restoration of economy of the countries who have been ruined by the war, by wars actually. And I believe it is not very correct, to put it mildly, to condition the programmes to restore economic and social sectors in countries under question by demanding the regime change as we now watch some people say about Syria. So that’s what we have to do. And that’s demining of course is another goal which we have to promote. It’s a huge task in Syria and anywhere else to move along these lines while keeping the pledge which we are all given to respect: sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity, non-sectarian nature. But there is no other way. If we allow Syria to fall apart as some outside players I believe wouldn’t mind, then it would be reverberating all over the region and in a very bad way.
Question: Mr. Minister looking at the outcome of the Sochi summit, it appears in the region that Russia is willing to take a leadership role in ending the conflict in Syria. And then also at the same time it looks that at this point in time Russia is the only power that speaks with all the protagonists in the region. So I wanted to ask, first of all, does Russia envision a much more structured peace process moving forward? And also, as part of that, does it see a role for itself, for instance, to mediate between some of the countries in the region like Iran and Saudi Arabia which have zero-sum positions on Syria in order to facilitate a broader deal. And then also when you arrive at a deal, do you envision staying in the region longer to protect that deal and to make sure that ISIS doesn’t return, that things don’t fall apart again.
S. Lavrov: Well, first, we were not trying to lead for the sake of being considered a leader. We have interfered at the request of the legitimate government of United Nations Member State in September 2015 to save the State of Syria from falling in the hands of ISIL which was getting very close to Damascus and controlled most of the Syrian territory by that time, with Nusra also taking control of some places.
And I believe we achieved quite considerable results especially now that ISIL is almost defeated, the operation on the Eastern bank of the Euphrates river goes on and I think that we have to really concentrate on the help to those who fight terrorists in Syria. First of all, this is the Syrian army. We are doing this, we are helping them together with Iran, who was also invited. Others, yes, fight terrorists but they were not invited. There is a problem but we managed being pragmatic to establish some understanding with the United States, starting by „de-conflicting“, as they call it, but this „de-conflicting“ is quite substantive, I would say. And hopefully we would be guided, all of us, first of all, the United States, by what Rex Tillerson and quite a number of other officials in Washington publicly stated several times, namely, that the only goal why the United States is in Syria is to fight ISIL. Now we hear a slightly nuanced approach saying that, yes, this would also require staying longer for a year and a half, a couple of years, just to make sure that ISIL, or ISIS, does not return. We believe that after the end of the war against ISIS all foreign units who were not invited by the legitimate government of a UN Member State or who are not there under the Security Council resolution, because there is none on this score, they should leave.
About the leading, as you call it, you know, after we interfered with our Air Force to help the Syrian government fight terrorists, we were very much in favor of the peace process in Geneva under the United Nations auspices, as you might have heard, together with John Kerry at the instructions of Presidents Putin and Obama in September 2016. We managed to compile a common document, which basically was not about de-conflicting, but it was about coordination, including coordination of the efforts of the US and Russia against terrorist targets. In other words, no one strikes until the other side agrees that this is a legitimate and the right target. The only thing which was required for this agreement to become operational was for the United States to deliver on its commitment to separate the opposition with whom they cooperate from Nusra. ISIL was not a problem because ISIL was not mixing with others. Nusra was mixing some units for joining it and dropping from it. And we have noticed long ago that for the last three years, at least when the United States compiled the coalition and they moved into Syrian airspace, that Nusra was spared. Yes, they were taking ISIL not as intensively as we would like them to do, but Nusra was almost never touched, which of course was brought in our discussions with them. And they were saying that this is not the case but there was some suspicion that they were keeping Nusra just in case when the Plan B would be required so that it could be used against the regime. It is not this way now and I hope that our regular contacts with American military were useful to promote a common understanding of what is the right counter-terrorist strategy in Syria.
And so, when the Americans and the Obama administration failed to deliver on the separation of the patriotic opposition from Nusra, we understood that the administration was not credible any longer on the Syrian situation. And then we had to be pragmatic and we started this Astana process together with Turkey and Iran, which is not really a couple of countries who are very much natural in doing something together, and I think that the results of the Astana process, especially the creation of de-escalation areas, one of which was negotiated between us, the Americans and Jordan, is really making a difference on the ground. Everybody recognizes this but we have to be very careful not to allow these de-escalation areas to become a step towards splitting Syria in various parts. Unfortunately, the Americans unilaterally created a 55-kilometer radius zone in At Tanf, which, we believe, is absolutely unnecessary, and inside this unilaterally proclaimed area is the Ruban refugee camp, which is being used regularly by ISIL remnants, who even have been making some inroads from outside that circle. We are raising this issue with the United States, and I hope that they will accept the conclusions which we have through our military convey to them that it is no longer necessary. And unless they really want to carve out some part of Syria and establish the local administrations loyal to the United States and not talking to the central government, unless this is their plan, I hope that we can handle this situation.
We, on the contrary, we are promoting the national reconciliation mechanisms between the authorities who are inside the de-escalation areas on the one hand and the Damascus government on the other hand. Humanitarian assistance is moving in and so on and so forth.
But when Astana process was launched in late December last year with the meeting of Foreign Ministers and Defense Ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Moscow, it was only after this was announced that we created this troika that our United Nations friends started moving. Before that, there were about nine months of absence of any meeting in Geneva, so, in a way, Astana process stimulated the United Nations not to drag behind and to do something. By the same token, there was a huge pause again this year when our Saudi colleagues were trying to bring the various groups of opposition together. Eventually, they managed to do this, which we discussed today with Minister Jubeir. But as they were negotiating with these opposition groups, Geneva process was non-existent. But when the meeting between the Presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey took place, when it was announced, immediately my good friend Staffan de Mistura announced his own date for the resumption of the Geneva process.
So those efforts, those initiatives are mutually supportive and we certainly, as the President of Russia repeatedly stated, we want the solution to be based firmly on the Resolution 2254 under the United Nations umbrella, Constitution, new Constitution, parliamentary and presidential elections under United Nations supervision. This is our position as we describe it.
Question: Well, I just wanted to sort of maybe ask specifically what step comes after Sochi particularly in engaging Arab countries who were not present in Sochi – to also sort of subscribe to an endgame in Syria.
S. Lavrov: Well, the three countries who met in Sochi are the three countries of the Astana process, which is also a process where the opposition started talking directly to the government. This never happened before. And the opposition which is represented in the Astana context is the opposition who fights the government. Before Astana, the representation of opposition in Geneva was compiled basically from immigrants living in Istanbul, Ar Riyadh, Doha, Paris, London, and now the military opposition which participated in Astana is also included in the delegation of the opposition in Geneva, which the Saudis, as I said, quite successfully organized.
So, in Astana, apart from the government and the opposition delegations, apart from the three countries who are guaranteeing this process, Russia, Iran and Turkey, observers participate from the United States, from Jordan, and there were requests from other countries to become observers and we were quite positively disposed of these requests but eventually it was decided since, in any case, it’s linked to Geneva, to keep this process compact, in a compact way. By the way, in Geneva, the creation of Russian and American leadership, which is called International Syria Support Group, which met couple of times at the ministerial level and which wrote the Resolution 2254 a couple of years ago, it does not convene at the plenary level anymore, but the two task forces – one on cessation of hostilities and another on humanitarian issues – meet every week. So countries for who are interested in the Syrian settlement most of them, if not all of them, are in these task forces in Geneva, and they meet, as I said, weekly.
I don’t believe that we need to create any new mechanisms, I don’t believe that those who want to contribute do not have this opportunity. We want to help Geneva process by convening Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue. The statement adopted in Sochi says that the three countries will consult and agree on the list of participants. We brief Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations in general about what we have been doing and we want to use this forthcoming Congress – the date will have to be agreed later, after we agree on the list of participants – to use it to help Geneva to launch the sustainable, constitutional reform process and the preparation for elections.
Question: Can I build on Professor Nasr question and your answers? There is no doubt that the Syrian crisis set in motion dynamics which have a regional impact. Iran has become an important player. There is the Iranian-Saudi difficult problematical relationship, the Israeli position. So there are dynamics which are not necessarily compatible. How do you judge these dynamics and how, in longer term, how do you see them somehow reconcilable?
S. Lavrov: Well, we have been raising the issue of Saudi-Iranian differences many times, including publicly. But we also, when talking to each of them, indicate that we really believe that they should start talking. And we are ready to help in whatever way. We believe it is really very very unfortunate for the region to have two countries who are very important, very influential to symbolize the split of Islam basically. Sunnis-Shias divide is very dangerous. It was in 2004 when King Abdullah of Jordan convened the meeting to declare that all Muslims must be seen as brothers, sisters, united, one religion, one culture. And there was Amman declaration adopted on that occasion but it does not work. Maybe we need a new try through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation probably. But this would be up to our Muslim friends. And certainly it is not realistic when people say Iran must just be put in the box. You cannot put in the box a country like Iran, a country like Saudi Arabia. They have their legitimate interest in the region and as long as these interests are legitimately promoted we have to accept this as a given and help these interests of various players in the region to be harmonized. And, I did say, by the way, that one of the problems in the region is the Palestinian issue. We would certainly remove a couple of trump cards from those who recruit terrorists among the young people if they resolve the Palestinian problem on a just and fair basis. The young girls and boys are being told by extremists that Palestinians were fooled by the United Nations, because seventy years ago a state was promised and they never got one. And this is really feeding the extremists, giving the recruiters a pretext to get more supporters.
Speaking of extremism, by the way, I said that the reasons for this crisis, the roots of this crisis are in the attempts to meddle from outside and this meddling unlike some other meddling is very well documented but Obama administration before they left they convened the meeting on the United Nations premises, but not under the United Nations aegis. They just used the premises, they invited the countries whom they wanted and they declared the need to develop a new concept of countering the violent extremism.
It’s a very interesting story, by the way. The Secretariat of the United Nations under the previous Secretary-General, without any prompting, without any request from the General Assembly or from any other organ wrote a report on countering the violent extremism. In a nutshell the American concept went the following way. The dictators and authoritarian rulers they get divorced from the population, they ignore the needs of the population, and because of the dictatorship the population becomes extremist and violently extremist for that matter. Therefore the international community must reach over the heads of dictators to the civil society and explain to them how to become democratic. I believe you understand that this is absolutely contrary to all and each principles of the United Nations Charter. And we have to be very careful, because this concept is intended to explain and to legitimize the interferences in Iraq and Libya, in Syria and elsewhere. We would be very much cautious about this discussion, which was not, once again, commissioned by any of the United Nations organ.
Question: Maybe I can also ask you about the Iran nuclear deal in which you were very involved (S. Lavrov: sure) and yesterday questions was asked to the Iranian Foreign Minister. Where do you see this still going, and also what role Russia may play in terms of preserving the deal or managing it going forward?
S. Lavrov: Well, the deal is there. Few days ago the Director General of IAEA Y.Amano once again confirmed that Iran is in compliance with its commitments under this deal. The deal was endorsed by the Security Council resolution unanimously, and it’s part of international law. Full stop. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Question: If you have any additional comment?
Question: Well, I guess the question would be that if the United States end up being determined to…
S. Lavrov: Well, we cannot really do anything if the United States decide to drop from this deal, this would be a violation of its commitment, that would be violation of something initiated by the previous administration, by the way, something which was to a large extent negotiated not in this group of six countries with Iran, but directly between Washington and Tehran in the series of very quiet meetings. Others were only happy when Iran and the United States were reaching some compromises on one or another part of the deal. So, if the United States drops from this deal now, it’s become not very credible in the eyes of those who are now requested to drop the nuclear programme like North Korea. We all, including the United States, demand that they stop the nuclear program and start negotiating the security concerns and the denuclearization of the peninsula and what kind of example is the leader of North Korea getting from the US position if the United States drop from the deal. He would say, why shall I give away, give up on this programme, even if they give me a deal who knows what happens when next president comes to the White House. So, I think and well, I know that most serious analysts in the United States including quite a number of officials understand this and I hope that there would be no breach of the deal on the part of anyone.
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