Excerpts from Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, 5 November 2015
The situation in Syria
The preceding period was marked by an escalation of confrontation between the Syrian government forces and rebel units: ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, and other terrorist groups. The main theatres of operation include Damascus suburbs, the Aleppo area and the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Latakia, Deir ez-Zor and al Quneitra.
The Russian Defence Ministry will provide in-depth information about the situation on the ground. I should note that amid the effective action by the Russian Aerospace Forces against terrorists in Syria, the Syrian Army is stepping up its operations. Russian pinpoint airstrikes have caused serious damage to the terrorists’ command and control system.
The establishment of direct contacts between the Russian Defence Ministry and representatives of a number of armed groups in Syria, which reject terrorism and extremism, was a notable development. This has made it possible to go ahead with the practical coordination of efforts with them, among other things, in carrying out strikes against terrorists.
After terrorist groups were forced out of a number of important areas, several hundred thousand internally displaced people were able to return to their homes, as UN sources also report.
At the same time, terrorist detachments still have significant capabilities and are able to regularly replenish their manpower and weapon supplies. The rebels are putting up fierce resistance against the government forces, counterattacking in some areas and altering their tactics to minimise their losses from Russian airstrikes.
We have continued our consistent line to fight the terrorist threat in Syria and launch a political process between the Syrian government and the opposition as soon as possible. As part of preparations for the next meeting of the Syrian Support Group in Vienna, in contacts with leading international and regional players, we seek to work towards reaching a common and unequivocal understanding of which armed groups operating in Syria are terrorist groups, and clarifying the situation around the united delegation of the Syrian opposition for talks with the Syrian government, in keeping with the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012.
I would recall that yesterday, November 4, talks took place in Moscow between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura. The officials analysed the steps taken after the Vienna meeting with the participation of a broad scope of “external” players and outlined a plan of further action by Russia, the UN and in a multilateral format.
A Western media campaign on the Syrian settlement
I cannot help but comment on the ongoing information campaign in the Western media in connection with the Russian Aerospace Forces’ participation in helping the Syrian army fight the terrorist threat. Practically every day, we hear recurring allegations from our American colleagues to the effect that Russia is engaging the wrong targets in Syria. This point was recently made by US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, who stressed that strikes are delivered on the opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, not on ISIS targets. I would like to point out that in addition to these claims, we observe a lack of concrete information that the US State Department could have provided in the course of their regular briefings. As you saw recently, State Department representatives, to put it diplomatically, dodged the question, but in fact were simply unable to answer the question regarding the hospitals and civilian facilities that US officials speak about while accusing Russia of destroying civilian infrastructure.
This is a vicious circle. First, US officials say that Russia is hitting “the wrong targets and conducting strikes on civilian infrastructure” and then their assertions begin to be cited in the media. When we ask them to disclose the source we are told that this is what a State Department spokesman said at a briefing, confirming the information that the US purportedly has regarding the targets being attacked by the Russian Aerospace Forces. They tell us that this information comes from sources available in the public domain, in particular, from media reports.
You see, first, information is leaked to the media, citing unnamed sources in the Pentagon, the State Department and other government agencies; then it is confirmed in comments by the ambassador and State Department officials; after that, this is published in the media, and then US official representatives cite media reports.
This is a vicious circle that cannot be broken. This is an information campaign, propaganda, pure and simple, a kind of collusion between the establishment and the media, which, to put it mildly, misleads the public, while they constantly criticise us, without providing any facts or figures. To date, we have received no official information from Washington either through diplomatic or other channels. Everything begins and ends in the public arena at briefings and news conferences. You can draw your own conclusions.
We have repeatedly requested information about the so-called moderate Syrian opposition that the US is constantly holding up against us, claiming that Russia invariably hits these targets, destroying their infrastructure and killing representatives of this opposition. We have requested information about this moderate opposition, but none has been provided. The impression is that this information is being deliberately withheld to be used as an excuse to criticise us and accuse the Russian Aerospace Forces of purportedly targeting the opposition. The start of practical contacts between the Russian military and representatives of the Syrian opposition tear to pieces the US theory that Russia is delivering the majority of airstrikes on the armed opposition, rather than ISIS.
Obviously, our Western partners have refused to provide us the relevant information, but we obtained it on our own by establishing the relevant contacts. This is the way we’ll continue to work.
In connection with the numerous appeals to work with open sources, I cannot help but note former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s remarks at Chatham House (the British Royal Institute of International Affairs), admitting that the US military intervention in Iraq has destabilised the region. This statement was made by a person who for years had been at the helm of the US national security and foreign policy course. The impression is that modern American theoreticians are failing the practical exam.
Publication of a report by the International Consultation Group under the aegis of the Council of Europe on the investigation into the Odessa tragedy
The report by the International Consultation Group (ICG) under the aegis of the Council of Europe on the investigation by the Ukrainian authorities into the Odessa tragedy on May 2, 2014, which was presented in Kiev on November 4 and Odessa on November 5 by its head, former President of the European Court of Human Rights Nicolas Bratza, is a specific contribution by the Council of Europe to ensuring an unbiased investigation into the tragic events in Odessa on May 2, 2014.
The report actually states that it is impossible to conduct in the current conditions an independent and effective inquiry into the heavy losses of people during the Euromaidan events in Kiev from November 2013 to February 21, 2014 and in Odessa on May 2, 2014.
We are especially worried by the facts that a year and a half after the death of 48 people in the fire in the Odessa Trade Union House surrounded by militants of the Right Sector (a Ukrainian extremist organisation banned in Russia), no charges have been brought against numerous active participants in the events, an inquiry into many episodes has not been launched, some of the evidence on the fire has been destroyed and the continuing investigation is lop-sided, fragmentary, contradictory and unlikely to establish the truth.
Russia considers it necessary to review at one of the nearest meetings of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers the current report on the Odessa tragedy and an account of measures taken by Ukraine following the first report of the group on the investigation into the Euromaidan events in Kiev from November 2013 to February 21, 2014 and adopt the necessary recommendations.
The Russian Federation again urges the authorities of Ukraine and other member-states of the Council of Europe to render comprehensive support to the ICG efforts until the Ukrainian authorities complete their investigation into the massive violations of the European Convention on Human Rights in Ukraine.
Approval by the UN General Assembly First Committee of the Russian draft resolution on no first placement of weapons in outer space
On November 3, the First Committee of the 70th UN General Assembly session approved the Russian draft of the UN General Assembly resolution on no first placement of weapons in outer space.
As in the past year, the draft was supported by the overwhelming majority of UN members (122 states). Indicatively, the number of the draft’s co-authors has grown compared with the previous session from 34 to 40 states. It is not ruled out that by the time of the voting on this draft during the plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly, the number of co-authors will further increase.
Forty-seven countries, including all EU members, held a vague position by abstaining from voting.
The United States, Israel, Georgia and Ukraine voted against the draft, thereby demonstrating their opposition to international efforts to keep outer space free of weapons.
In general, the voting showed again that the international community viewed our initiative as important and timely. We will continue promoting it in an effort to increase its supporters.
From answers to questions
Question: Can you comment on the UK authorities’ statements regarding the causes of the Russian plane crash in Egypt and the decision to ban British flights over that territory?
The Kommersant newspaper has published a list of Syrian opposition groups, but it does not include the Free Syrian Army. How can you comment on this?
Maria Zakharova: We are aware of the statement made by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in connection with the crash of the Russian airliner in Egypt. As you know, over 200 people died in the disaster, but it’s up to the investigative authorities to establish its causes. I can only reiterate that Russia has been working hard to establish the truth. Russian experts are reporting almost regularly online from Egypt. Several agencies are coordinating this work. The goal is to collect information, establish the facts, and determine what precisely happened to the airliner. We have to wait for the conclusions by the experts who are involved in the investigation.
It’s surprising that a person who is not a [technical] professional or an expert, but the head of a foreign policy agency has made public statements on an issue where facts are of crucial importance. It’s really shocking to think that the UK government may have certain information that may shed light on the Egyptian air accident. This may mean that they are withholding information from Russia, and, considering that the announcement came from the UK foreign minister, they do have this information.
We are appealing to all countries that may have official information to share it with Russia, because it is of crucial importance for us to establish the real causes of the tragedy. If they don’t provide this information and use it exclusively for public statements, we may conclude that there are certain ulterior motives. We proceed from the assumption that any country possessing information about the Russian airliner’s crash over Egypt must provide these details to the authority that is investigating the circumstances and establishing the facts. I am again asking that this information, if they have it, be provided to the investigative authority.
As for the flight bans, it is the sovereign decision of the UK authorities that is most probably governed by national law.
I’d like to say a few words about the list [of the Syrian opposition groups]. The lists that have been published by the media are a separate story and a question that should be addressed to the media. We have been working with a wide range of Syrian opposition forces. Russian foreign ministry officials, including the foreign minister and his deputy, have said time and again that far from avoiding contacts with this group [the Free Syrian Army], we have, on the contrary, asked the countries that encouraged us to accept its representatives as partners to provide at least some specific information about it. We’ve been attempting to work with this group. Why “attempting?” The Syrian opposition has many faces and it is fragmented. Many people claim to be the official representatives of this or that Syrian organisation, but later their claims are refuted. Our task is to understand who really represents the Syrian opposition and to establish contacts with them so we can work together. We have redoubled our efforts at this stage. A meeting in Vienna was held, and the Syria Contact Group has adopted a Joint Statement appealing to the UN to invite the Damascus government and the opposition groups for negotiations. We haven’t stopped working on this and have even increased our efforts towards this end.
As for the list, we don’t keep it secret and have sent it to our colleagues. This list is a result of many years of Russia’s collaboration with Damascus and the Syrian opposition. You know that two meetings between the Syrian government and the opposition were held in Moscow, and you know who attended them. As you understand, the groundwork we did is part of the negotiating process. We are willing to listen and we are listening. We are discussing this list with our colleagues in the UN and in some countries. We are open to a dialogue. We are ready to consider different views, if any. This is the homework we did. But this doesn’t mean that nothing more can be done, or that we don’t see any other options, or that we won’t consider other proposals. We are open to cooperation, and we have been working hard towards this end.