Address by Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, Permanent Representative of Russia to the EU, at the panel discussion "Russia’s Role in the Middle East" organised by the European Policy Centre , Brussels, 27 January 2016
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to be here today. Realizing that the topic of our discussion may provoke a lengthy, and perhaps lively debate, I will try to be brief. Let me start with an overview of how Russia perceives the Middle East in terms of its foreign policy. And of course I cannot and will not avoid the Syrian crisis, which today dominates the international agenda.
Deep historical connections between Russia and the Middle East are an undeniable fact. As the cradle of civilizations and religions, this region has always been a point of attraction for Russian pilgrims. It was in the mid-19th century that the first Russian Orthodox Mission was sent to Jerusalem. The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, established in 1882, remains active today and is considered to be the oldest Russian NGO. Moreover, there are strong cultural and human bonds between Russia and the Middle East – just consider over 1 million citizens of Israel for whom Russian is their mother tongue, or thousands of mixed families all over the region. This implies a more personal approach on our part, further prioritising the issue of regional security for the Russian Federation.
Both in the Soviet era and today we always placed particular emphasis on maintaining friendly relations with countries of the Middle East. In general, Russia’s current approach may be summarized as follows.
1. Firm commitment to collective methods of crisis management on the basis of international law and with the UN in a central coordinating role;
2. A genuine partnership guided by strategic interests of the people, and not by narrow ambitions;
3. Respect for the right of nations to decide their own fate;
4. Protection of the unique ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of the Middle East, as well as promotion of peaceful coexistence of all segments of society on the basis of inclusive dialogue.
Every effort must be made to resolve numerous regional conflicts, among them the Palestinian-Israeli one, which has for decades been at the core of problems of the Middle East. According to our analysis, its resolution is indispensable to stability in the region. Russia is actively working in this regard, both within the Quartet, a recognized mechanism of international support of the peace process, and bilaterally. The Quartet envoys whose latest visit to the region took place last month, are exploring concrete actions both sides can take to demonstrate their commitment to peace. This implies immediate cessation of violence which claims civilian victims on both sides with further resumption of talks on the final status issues.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict should not be forgotten among other recent dangerous developments. On the contrary, threats of terrorism, sectarian extremism and radicalisation in the Middle East reinforce the need to pursue a negotiated two-state solution that would meet both Israeli security concerns and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty. The two-state solution must be kept afloat – for the sake of peaceful future of the two peoples and a better environment in the broader region.
I will spare you a lengthy account of the recent dramatic turmoil in the Arab world. Suffice to remind that the so-called “Arab spring” was initially welcomed by many as a remedy to help unseat sclerotic authoritarian regimes and propel the region towards democracy and prosperity. Alas, these hopeful expectations did not last long. The violent breakdown of the old regimes has only brought countries of the region instability, political vacuum and suffering. Furthermore, a wave of extremism, terrorism, illegal migration and organised crime unleashed by these events has transcended the boundaries of the Middle East. It now poses a direct threat to countries of the European Union, Russia and the entire world.
This brings us to the Syrian crisis. I would like to expand on Russia’s position, especially since it is all too often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Let me make things clear from the outset. Russia does not stick to supporting a single personality or regime. It is at least naïve to believe that if one day President Assad finds himself out of office or disappears into thin air, any of the Syrian problems would be automatically solved. We proceed from the principles of international law, among them respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Any political process should be Syrian-led, it is up to the Syrian people to decide on their future government which would reflect the aspirations of all segments of the society. It is also important that the nature of statehood should be inclusive and secular. Reforms are obviously needed, but they should stem from the Syrian people and not be imposed from the outside. Let the Syrians make their own choice.
As for the political track, our main achievement is a shared understanding that UNSC Resolution 2254 is the basis upon which we should move forward. It took a long time and a lot of efforts before the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) gathered in Vienna with all the relevant players, including regional ones, at the table. Russia has been consistently advocating in favour of such comprehensive approach since the outset of the Syrian crisis, and, in our view, now is the time for all responsible actors to demonstrate a constructive attitude.
We have a long way to go. If we are to succeed, both Iran and Saudi Arabia must remain committed to the process in spite of recent tensions between them. It is also vital that two lists – that of terrorist groups and that of the Syrian opposition delegation – are finally agreed on. The first part is being handled by Jordan. As for the second part, the already mentioned UNSC Resolution 2254 requests that the UN Secretary-General through his Special Envoy convene the broadest range of Syrian representatives for the peace talks. We hope that the political process will start in January.
Another issue discussed within the ISSG is a set of specific measures to be undertaken in order to enable the conditions for announcing a ceasefire. This of course does not apply to terrorist organisations, such as the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and the like. It is hypocritical and irresponsible to invoke the threat of terrorism while at the same time turning a blind eye to the channels through which terrorists get support, including revenues from illegal oil trade. The fact that the number of Russian and CIS citizens who joined ISIS is estimated at 5 to 6 thousand makes it even more sensitive for our country. ISIS is an absolute enemy of mankind and must be treated as such. We must dispel the illusion it entertains that it can associate itself with Islam.
Our position is consistent - we strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms. Since the early days of the Syrian crisis we have been warning about the terrorist threat and advocating a complex analysis of threats and challenges in the Middle East. It is our unwavering belief that the fight against terrorism should unfold on the solid basis of international law and under the auspices of the UN Security Council, refraining from labeling terrorists as either “good” or “bad”. This should be done within a single pattern in both Syria and Iraq, involving all moderate forces and uniting them in the fight with against this threat.
We call on our international and regional partners to avoid double standards in combating terrorism. Important facts should be recognized, such as that the Syrian army and the Kurds are the only forces fighting terrorists on the ground, as is the case in Iraq with the Army and Kurdish forces. Russia suggests that a broad coalition be set on the basis of international law. The idea of a joint effort was voiced by President Putin at the UN General Assembly last September. And in a few days the Russian Air Forces launched a legitimate operation at the request of legitimate Syrian authorities. Last October Russian and US militaries agreed on “deconflicting” measures to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between aircraft operating in Syrian airspace. We never reject cooperation and exchange of information with all the responsible players. Moreover, we are actively urging them to coordinate.
Another point to be clarified is that numerous allegations in the media that Russia is “striking the wrong targets” do not come from reliable sources. The Russian Defence Ministry is much more transparent in this respect than the US-led coalition and provides all the information about the operation on a daily basis, even organising trips for journalists. So let me repeat the call to refer to facts confirmed.
A few words on Iraq, where ISIS is also posing a serious threat. We are deeply concerned with the situation there, though one year down the line some positive trends are visible. The Iraqi army seems to be recovering from the serious blow it suffered when ISIS launched its expansion. In December 2015 the Iraqi forces managed to regain control over Ramadi. This was an important development, though far from being an overwhelming victory.
Russia stands together with the Iraqi authorities in the fight against terrorism. Baghdad is an important partner whose counter-terrorism offensive relies, among others, on Russian weapons. The Baghdad-based Joint Information Centre (involving Russia, Iraq, Iran and Syria) has become a key hub for planning regional operations. Still, military action alone is insufficient in resolving numerous problems Iraq faces. The path towards lasting peace consists in inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation, guided by a commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.
While tackling terrorism and moving towards a political process we cannot lose sight of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the affected neighbouring countries. Russia is committed to actively allaying the humanitarian situation. We are operating hand in hand with the Syrian authorities, regional parties and international organisations. Since 2013 some 600 tons of Russian humanitarian aid have been delivered to Syria. Over 100 tons of aid have so far been mobilized by Russian NGOs, and donations by Russian citizens have helped furbish a children’s hospital in Damascus with vital technical equipment. Moreover 100 thousand tons of wheat were supplied late in 2015 at the request of the Syrian government. Since January 15, transport aircraft of the Syrian Air Force have air-dropped 50 tons of cargo to areas besieged by terrorists, using the Russian P-7 parachute platforms.
We encourage the Syrian authorities to cooperate with UN humanitarian agencies and ensure humanitarian access wherever possible. These efforts have produced tangible results, confirmed by UN humanitarian agencies in Syria.
In conclusion let me repeat that the war on terror, including the so-called Islamic State, should be consistent, devoid of double standards and with the United Nations in a lead coordinating role. Russia will continue to provide necessary support to the countries of the region in improving capabilities in combating extremism and terrorism. We strongly support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries of the region and emphasize the need to resolve differences on the basis of a broad national inclusive dialogue. Whenever these principles are neglected, whenever the system of state institutions is dismantled, the resulting vacuum is invariably filled with terrorism and violent extremism. Far too many mistakes have been made, and the price has been staggering. It is time to unite our efforts on the basis of international law and in line with principles of the UN before it is too late. Russia is ready to cooperate with those truly committed to peace and stability in this region which, beyond a shadow of doubt, deserves the prospect of a better future.