Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry
Geneva, August 26, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
I know that many placed bets on whether we would break a record for the length of our talks, but the Moscow record has not been beaten: we talked one hour less this time. I believe that we have made several major steps forward in addition to the agreements reached in Moscow, as Mr Kerry said. That we have not issued any documents does not mean that we have failed to find increasingly more points of contact.
Today we discussed issues which will enable us, as Mr Kerry has said, to find technical solutions in addition to the Moscow agreements on the need for a sustainable ceasefire (so far, all parties have violated the ceasefire), for putting a distance, at long last, between the opposition groups that have joined the ceasefire and Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and any other terrorist groups. We discussed ways to settle humanitarian issues more effectively and rapidly in order to provide access to the regions that need humanitarian assistance. In this context, we talked not only about Aleppo, although Aleppo was high on our agenda, but also about developments in Manbij, Al-Hasakah and other parts of Syria and beyond. We also discussed the humanitarian situation in Iraq and Yemen, where international observers have reported serious problems.
We discussed these issues not as journalists or people who sympathise with one party or another, but as professional diplomats who need to search for a solution in cooperation with military professionals.
I would like to say once again that Mr Kerry’s June 15 visit to Moscow was very useful. Some basic principles were coordinated during our talks and formalised at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. For the reasons mentioned by Mr Kerry, we need to completely specify only a few issues. The experts will continue this work in Geneva next week. I hope we’ll be able to submit the results to the international public for consideration soon. It is not easy. You probably see and hear what’s going on, what’s being said in various capitals. But we have managed, and continue to try, to reduce specific areas of disagreement and, maybe the most important thing, to reduce the level of mutual mistrust. It would be impossible to accomplish various objectives or coordinate efforts during personal contact and telephone conversations between President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, unless we show complete openness and trust. We consistently strengthen this trust during every new meeting and every new telephone conversation. And I hope that you will soon see substantial benefits from this, and most importantly, that the people of Syria and the people in this region experiencing the adverse consequences of the Syrian crisis will feel these benefits.
We have agreed on specific cooperation venues. Russia will work with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and with those members of the opposition who cooperate with Moscow. And the United States will work with the opposition that cooperates with it. We and our US colleagues will also cooperate with our regional partners to remove the obstacles that hamper sustained compliance with the ceasefire.
I would like to once again mention a problem being caused by the fact that units cooperating with the United States and the US-led coalition are located in the same areas as Jabhat al-Nusra. Instead of merely staying there, they regularly cooperate with this organisation, and they take part in its operations. I see no chance to guarantee a truly lasting and comprehensive ceasefire that we all strive to achieve, unless normal, “healthy” opposition forces are separated from the terrorists. I would like to note with satisfaction that we and our US partners see this task ever more clearly.
We have discussed very specific actions. We have basically coordinated them, and we still have to clarify some issues regarding provision of humanitarian relief aid to needy Syrian citizens. This primarily concerns eastern and western Aleppo, and our experts will address this issue. We have held a very detailed conversation on this. I am confident that our experts will finalise the relevant agreements in the next few days. We have given them detailed goals. These goals have been laid out, and our experts will be guided by them.
We have also discussed ways to deal with violators of the ceasefire. This is also related to the need to distinguish between the normal opposition and the terrorists.
I also want to say that today we agreed to step up our bilateral contacts, which have dropped off in the past few weeks. I am referring to contacts between our representatives in Geneva, that used to be daily, and also between the leaders of the Russian base at Hmeymim and representatives of the US command headquartered in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I’m convinced that uninterrupted daily dialogue is a key to attaining our objectives.
Mr Kerry mentioned the political process. This is our main objective. To achieve it, we will take efforts to calm the situation on the ground and to improve humanitarian access. We firmly believe that there must be no preliminary conditions. If we wait until the situation becomes absolutely calm before launching the political process, we might fail to attain our objectives. Everything is interconnected. Of course, a decrease in violence helps bring all parties to the negotiating table. At the same time, the start of the talks can help reduce tensions on the ground and allow Russia and the United States to influence the antagonists more effectively.
Today we met with the UN secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. He has interesting and practical ideas on using the UN to settle humanitarian issues. This will also be part of our work. Mr de Mistura also has ideas on resuming – and actually beginning – political talks, because direct talks, which we agreed to launch and the concept of which has been sealed in UN Security Council resolutions, have not started to this day. We wholeheartedly support Mr de Mistura’s resolve and believe that this task is long overdue and that a direct round of talks between the Syrian Government and all opposition groups must be announced as soon as possible. I am drawing your attention to the latter. The inclusive nature of the talks and the inclusive format of the opposition delegation have been sealed in UN Security Council resolutions. We must comply with this principle.
As Mr Kerry said, we also discussed other issues on the international agenda, including Ukraine. We appreciate US interest, the interest shown by the current US administration in helping the Minsk process get off the ground. We have a bilateral channel, which we use quite regularly. We believe that this channel can really boost the efforts undertaken within the Normandy format.
We also discussed certain bilateral issues. You know that there are quite a few of these in the current situation. I am convinced that it is in the fundamental interest of Russia and the United States to have normal relations between our states, between our peoples. I believe that our meeting today has helped us move closer to this.
Question (addressed to US Secretary of State John Kerry): In addition to the remaining issues, does the US feel that it has the power to separate forces? You’ve acknowledged, or the US has acknowledged the overlap with al-Nusra. How are you going to get them to separate if you haven’t been able to up until now?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after John Kerry): As for separating the “healthy” opposition forces from the terrorists, we know that this is a difficult task. Jabhat al-Nusra has changed faces and names, creating ever new “umbrellas” for bringing together different groups that are formally not part of al-Nusra. This calls for close attention and serious analysis, but must be done very quickly. We try to help our American partners do this. Today we updated them on our assessment of al-Nusra’s composition and the small groups within it. I am convinced that our American colleagues will analyse this information and find it useful.
By the way, today we received the first list of the groups that have joined the ceasefire through the US-led coalition from our American colleagues. I would like to remind you that we regularly send to our US colleagues the list of groups that have joined the ceasefire through Russia’s Reconciliation Centre located in Hmeymim. In fact, we update it on a weekly basis.
Question: Mr Lavrov, you said the military should find concrete solutions. So have you agreed to ground Assad’s air force, and is this something Assad has agreed to?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding what this or that air force does, the goal is not to ground anyone but to help the air forces in Syria effectively fight ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. We talked about this in Moscow. We have reached a specific understanding on this. This understanding will be implemented after we coordinate the remaining technical details and launch the plan, which Mr Kerry mentioned but which we cannot make public yet. As I said, our goal is not for any party to the conflict to stop flying, but to ensure that those who make these flights target the terrorists. We have not yet coordinated this issue with our American partners or the US-led coalition. It is one of the issues we have been working on since the Moscow meeting. I hope that our talks today and the upcoming coordination of the technical details by our experts will enable us to start following through.
Question (addressed to both ministers): And one for both of you with the humanitarian developments in Daraya and Aleppo. You’ve expressed concern. The United Nations described an increasingly desperate situation in Aleppo and concerns about the evacuations from Daraya. Can you tell us what the humanitarian aid will be – what guarantees can you give the world that the aid is going to be delivered safely and that these evacuations are going to be carried out safely?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after John Kerry): As far as I know, the evacuation of everyone who wanted to leave Daraya has been completed, based on an agreement between the Syrian Government and those who were in Daraya, primarily the armed groups. Those who wanted to leave have been transported to Idlib on Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society buses, along with their weapons. Those who chose differently have left the city and will integrate into civilian life. I believe that this example will be followed by others. Today our representatives at Hmeymim received news about one more area in Syria where people are interested in a similar operation, to be organised with Russia’s mediation.
Question: Have the parties discussed Turkey’s operation in northern Syria today? Will closing Turkey’s borders promote anti-terrorist activity near Aleppo, in your opinion?
Sergey Lavrov: There are military and armed ground forces from many countries in Syria that are there without consent from the Syrian leaders. Only Russian and Iranian units are there with the consent of the Syrian government. This is the reality. I’d like to note that the Syrian government takes a balanced and pragmatic approach. You must have heard statements from Damascus about their willingness to cooperate with all those who wish to counter terrorism. So there is a need to agree on how this should be done better. I believe that this is the right approach. Gradually, those who have special forces and other units on the ground in Syria, will have to realise that they have to set priorities. I’m sure that in doing so, some won’t be able to escape the issue of terrorism: ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. If someone initially wanted to use these forces to weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, now everyone realises that they mustn’t step on the same rake. This was the case in Afghanistan and in Iraq. This also was the case in Libya. Now all this echoes far beyond the Libyan state, while the state itself is near collapse. I believe that a pragmatic approach and reliance on the fundamental national interests of all states without exception will finally help us focus on countering our common enemy.
Question (addressed to John Kerry): You supported the Kurdish militia, the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, when they crossed the Euphrates towards Manbij, and then asked them to turn back to the Eastern bank. What is your present attitude towards the Kurds, including on the ground? How do you see the role of the Kurds in the political process when your allies in the Syrian opposition forces are totally against involving the Kurds in the peace process?
Sergey Lavrov: As for various aspects of Turkey’s presence in Syria, including the Kurdish variable, which has a lot of media coverage, today we and our US colleagues have confirmed the need for the expeditious resumption of the political process which must involve all Syrian parties. I believe that the Kurds should be fully involved and completely represented in this process. The Kurds must remain part of Syria and part of the settlement, rather than a variable that could be used to split the country as this will result in a chain reaction across the entire region. No one wants this.