Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening remarks at a joint news conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura following a meeting of the International Syria Support Group, Munich, 11 February 2016
Statement of the International Syria Support Group, 12 February 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
Adding to the comments of my colleague, US Secretary of State John Kerry, I’d like to express gratitude to our German hosts and to thank the UN team for its efforts in arranging this meeting.
The meeting has been held at the right time, considering the overall concern we have over the hindrances to the implementation of the agreements reached at our previous meetings. The main result of our meeting today was our full and unconditional support for UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including humanitarian aspects, the political process, the fight against terrorism, and a ceasefire, with the obvious exception of the terrorist organisations that have been declared as such by the UN Security Council.
We took a closer look at all the problems that hinder the implementation of the above resolution. Mr Kerry mentioned some of them in his speech. We focused, for understandable reasons, on the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the improvement of which, just as with the implementation of all of our previous agreements, calls for a real collective effort, something we have been advocating since the beginning of our aerospace operation in Syria and the importance of which our partners are coming to see. This is a pleasant development.
As for humanitarian issues, we are glad that today we were able to reach agreement on the principles for their settlement and on ensuring access to all the besieged Syrian regions without exception. We will carry out these measures simultaneously so as not to discriminate against anyone and to prevent the settlement of problems in one part of Syria at the expense of others. In particular, we were worried that previous UN efforts to coordinate such decisions jointly with the Syrian government and the opposition were often derailed by the opposition. My American colleague mentioned Madaya, Fuaa and Kafraya. The UN has been working hard and for a long time, jointly with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to synchronise the delivery of humanitarian assistance to each of these towns. The Syrian Government was responsible for access to Madaya, while the opposition promised to facilitate humanitarian deliveries to Fuaa and Kafraya. The Syrian Government fulfilled its obligations last month, whereas the opposition has gone back on its pledge. The UN and the ICRC were forced to issue statements denouncing such unwarranted termination of the opposition’s obligations. Now that we have put on paper the importance of a comprehensive solution to all these problems, I hope that the opposition and those who control various opposition groups will have no justification for evading their obligations.
As Mr Kerry has mentioned, we have agreed to create a task group, which will meet as soon as tomorrow in Geneva and will henceforth work regularly under the co-chairmanship of Russia and the United States and with expert assistance. Its goal is to help the UN and other humanitarian organisations implement their obligations with regard to the civilian population of Syria. We have worked out a mechanism for the objective consideration of any problems that may arise and for finding prompt solutions to them. The documents on which we agreed today say that we will work jointly with the Syrian Government and the opposition groups that maintain contact with us, and we hope that the United States, regional countries and other members of the International Syria Support Group will employ their influence on opposition groups to convince them to fully cooperate with the UN. We share the same resolve to ease the suffering of the Syrian people, and we hope to achieve this goal. This is especially important in that some of the recent efforts to ease the humanitarian situation in Syria only concerned refugees and did not address the huge number of internally displaced persons.
Therefore, there are grounds to hope that today we have done a good deed, one that will materialise into action. We welcome the willingness of the United States and some other countries to join the Russian-Syrian operations to airlift humanitarian assistance to the residents of Deir ez-Zor, the largest of the besieged communities in Syria. We also agreed to parachute humanitarian cargo to the other regions where this is possible. However, the bulk of these efforts should be carried out on the ground.
A ceasefire and an end to armed confrontation as the first step is another important achievement of today’s meeting. This is a difficult task because too many parties are involved in the hostilities. It is important to use the unique potential of the International Syria Support Group that unites virtually all countries influencing warring parties on the ground one way or another.
We have agreed to draft priority concepts that would determine the timeline for the cessation of hostilities over a period of seven days. We believe that the Government of Syria and opposition groups will be able to take the required action during this time in order to prepare for a cessation of hostilities, and that the concepts will be drafted by another expert group that was also established today and whose work will be co-chaired by Russia and the United States. It will include diplomats and military personnel, without whom it is very hard to address practical issues. The planned concepts are important. I would also like to single out an agreement that the mandate of this expert group includes charting common approaches towards territories that are controlled by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups listed as such by the UN Security Council. All these months we conducted a rather emotional discussion as to who was hitting the right and wrong targets, and we repeatedly suggested addressing this issue in a professional manner. Now that we’ve agreed that the expert group will also determine the areas controlled by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as by other terrorists, we have taken a highly important practical step in this direction. I would like to note that for the first time in our work the document which was approved today formalises the need for cooperation and coordination on political and humanitarian issues and on the military dimension of the Syrian crisis. This is a drastic change in approaches which we are praising and have repeatedly advocated.
Today’s document clearly confirms the need to completely fulfil UN Security Council resolutions that call for stopping the influx of terrorists and militants from foreign states, illegal oil trade and other contraband. This is no less important. This serves as an important reminder of the UN Security Council resolution in its entirety.
The task of resuming the negotiating process that was suspended in circumstances when part of the opposition voiced a completely unconstructive stance and tried to advance pre-conditions was also underscored. We wrote down that the talks should resume as soon as possible, without any ultimatums, in full conformity with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and should include a wide range of opposition forces. As you know, not all real opposition members from certain groups of the Syrian population have been invited to attend these talks. As we confirmed today, the UN will be strictly guided by principles formalised in Resolution 2254.
In sum, I would like to support the concluding remarks made by US Secretary of State John Kerry. An ability to respect our obligations and to fulfil our agreements will serve as a real endurance test for our relations. Unfortunately, this problem arises not only in the context of the Syrian crisis. We constantly see the inability of some our partners to negotiate. I have already mentioned attempts to reinterpret Resolution 2254. We are facing similar approaches while, for example, reviewing the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution that has approved a package of measures to resolve the Ukrainian crisis and on other issues. I am not talking about the Palestinian problem. We should learn somehow not to merely compromise but to fulfil other agreements formalised by them. It is not beneficial when one of the sides tries to find reasons not to fulfil agreements. The complete fulfillment of the agreements we reached today, rather than only those components that suit one or several members of the International Syria Support Group, will become a real endurance test. We have also agreed that our group will continue the Vienna process. The number of problems is not diminishing. If we manage to achieve progress in the areas on which we have agreed today, this will help us address other tasks stemming from Resolution 2254.
Question (addressed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura): Could you explain how a ceasefire differs from “cessation of hostilities?”
Question (addressed to US Secretary of State John Kerry): As you said, Russian air strikes in the past few weeks strengthened the positions of Bashar Assad and his allies and allowed him to establish de facto control over Aleppo for the first time in four years. If the military operations were to stop, these “freezing” measures would give Assad a brilliant opportunity to control the country years after US President Barack Obama said Assad must go?
Question (addressed to Sergey Lavrov): What would you answer be to humanitarian organisations that are unanimously saying that Russian air strikes in Syria are killing civilians every day? Your government is denying these allegations. Does it mean that the humanitarian organisations aren’t telling the truth?
Sergey Lavrov: As for the difference between a ceasefire and “cessation of hostilities,” the UN Security Council Resolution envisages a ceasefire only. Some countries in the International Syria Support Group don’t like this term. This is where we should all stick to the agreements we’ve reached and not try to rewrite the consensus each time to secure unilateral advantages. We agreed with this because the resolution clearly states that it’s the first step on the way to a ceasefire. John Kerry has explained that the difference is really very small. But this game of terms refers me to the statements about a certain plan B and about the need to prepare land forces. It is a very slippery path. They say we need this to defeat the Islamic State. No doubt it will only aggravate the conflict. Moreover, many countries, including the United States, remain focused on “the issue of Assad,” though the UN Security Council Resolution stipulates, and we reiterated it today, that only the Syrian people will decide the fate of Syria. The political process should be based on mutual understanding between the Government and the entire spectrum of the opposition forces. We spoke about Aleppo a lot today. Accusations were made against us, which I won’t repeat now because you can hear them every day.
You mentioned some humanitarian agencies, which, as you said, accuse Russia of killing civilians every day. I haven’t heard any such accusations from UN humanitarian agencies, so I can’t say whether they are lying or not. But somebody is. If I’m not mistaken, I think it was a respected British edition that borrowed Ban Ki-moon’s interview and published it, dishonestly twisting his words. In that interview, the UN Secretary General never mentioned Russia and only called for stopping any actions that could incur suffering to civilians, but the interviewer decided to put words in Ban Ki-moon’s mouth and said he was referring to Russia. So we can say that somebody is lying, but not the humanitarian agencies. We cooperate with these organisations. If you ask them, and there is no pressure, they would admit that the Syrian Government is far more cooperative in tackling humanitarian issues than the opposition.
Many are now trying to appear part of the mainstream, which is unfortunately shaped by the press and is trying to distract attention from our main shared task of preventing the Islamic State from implementing their criminal plans. Once again, attempts are in place to cut it all down to regime change, as if Iraq and Lybia never happened. Some are still nurturing the illusion that “we change the regime in Syria, and everything will be fine.”
As for Aleppo, John Kerry expressed concern over what he called the Government’s recent “aggressive” actions. If the liberation of a city occupied by illegal armed groups may be described as an act of aggression, well, probably… But it is necessary to attack those who occupied your land, all the more so since this is primarily Jabhat al-Nusra. The western suburbs of Aleppo are still being controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham. The eliminated leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, was fairly eloquent in expressing the ideology of this movement. Modern communications will help you find his statement online. He voiced the need to rid the entire Levant from “bogeys and dirt.” That is what he called the Alawites, whom he described as even more faithless than Jews and Christians. He called Jabhat al-Nusra fighters his brethren alongside of whom he was fighting the common enemies. These are the kind of guys that are now around Aleppo, at least on its western side.
In the east, the Russia-assisted government forces have already unblocked the city, and, according to our information, militants are fleeing the city. It is important to remember that all those who are now around Aleppo – Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham, as well as a number of more moderate groups – use the same supply route from one and the same place in Turkey. This fact is important because the resolution of the UN Security Council that preceded Resolution 2254 prohibits providing any supplies to the terrorist groups.
You might think that John Kerry’s and my assessments of the events do not always coincide. We have differences, indeed. This is exactly why it is so important to establish direct contacts to clear up these and other issues. We need contacts not only on procedures for avoiding incidents but also on cooperation in Syria between the military, notably, the US-led coalition and the Russian military, which is now operating in Syria at the invitation of its legitimate government. This will be our point of departure. I’d like to repeat that I’m absolutely certain that practical issues will be resolved effectively if what we agreed upon will be done, that is, if the military develop such contacts and cooperation. There are no grounds to say we have been doing something wrong for five months and to refuse to look at the facts with maps in hand. Such actions amount to propaganda rather than an approach. Propaganda was popular in the Soviet Union. Thank God, we gave it up but we see its numerous manifestations in the foreign media. It is probably time to put an end to this and understand that we have a common enemy instead of pointing fingers at each other over and over again. All concerns about one’s pre-election political image or over some domestic political events in this or that country should be set aside. Instead of playing geopolitical games, all parties should focus on resolving an issue that has become truly existential for human civilisation.
To be continued...
Statement of the International Syria Support Group, 12 February 2016