Excerpts from the Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

April 5, 2017

Developments in Syria

The situation in Syria is noted for attempts taken by the destructive forces that want to prevent a settlement in Syria, to derail recent positive initiatives. These actions are spearheaded primarily at violating the ceasefire and vital agreements on local ceasefires, as well as at delivering a blow to the Astana process and the intra-Syrian consultations that have resumed in Geneva.

On the practical level, these attempts are orchestrated by the terrorists who do not want peace to be restored in Syria. They want confusion to prevail in the country and to spread throughout the Middle East and beyond. It was Jabhat al-Nusra that organised large-scale raids near Damascus and in North Hama in late March, in which it involved other armed groups that are still considered to be moderate opposition.

It is not just the terrorists’ actions that are unsettling (what else can you expect from terrorists?) but the position of some of our international and regional partners. Instead of firmly condemning the terrorist movement, they are trying to whitewash al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. They appear willing to support any justification and fake news planted by the adherents of terrorism in order to bring charges against the Syrian government without bothering to check the facts.

There have been many instances when Western politicians and media outlets have expressed solidarity with ISIS and al-Nusra. We cannot understand the reason for this sympathy and the surprising amount of trust London, Paris and Brussels feel for these thugs, criminals and media opportunists, who provide alleged evidence which the West uses to present its case. It appears that the West would support anyone who is willing to throw stones at the legitimate Syrian government and spread any rumour. In addition to moral support, we also see material backing that is motivating and stimulating these actions.

On April 4, Syrian Air Force planes taking part in the operation to clear up the consequences of the recent terrorist offensive in the Hama Province delivered airstrikes at the extremists’ positions on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun. They bombed the accumulation of military hardware and a munitions warehouse. The facility they bombed included shops where chemical munitions were produced.

The internet and politically influenced media have published reports alleging that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. It is remarkable that initially they claimed that the chemical bombs were dropped from Russian aircraft. After that, they provided the number of casualties of the chemical attack and videos of dying and dead children, women and old people.

Responding to the media activity over the events at Khan Sheikhoun, the Russian Defence Ministry stated that the terrorists had previously used chemical bombs from that warehouse to bomb Aleppo and also delivered them to Iraq. Russian military experts reported the use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in the autumn of 2016. I want you to take note of these facts, because we not only reported the attacks but also placed them on record and forwarded the reports, together with soil samples, to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Regrettably, nothing has been done to investigate those attacks. Using exclusively fake news and fabricated reports planted in the media, the United States, France and Britain have planted – this is the right word for their action – yet another openly anti-Syrian draft resolution at the UN Security Council. This document will add fuel to the already complicated military-political situation in Syria and the rest of the region.

In addition, I would like to say that this action, this performance is clearly designed to stimulate political destabilisation in Syria. Apart from the military and political implications, this move is also designed, as we see it, to complicate and even stall the nascent intra-Syrian talks.

Russia will continue to work towards an early settlement of the serious military-political conflict in Syria. We urge all the parties concerned to assess the events objectively and in a responsible manner and not just talk but take action to promote political negotiations on a settlement in Syria and its liberation from the evil of terrorism.

UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria

I would like to dwell separately on the issue I have mentioned and outline the Russian approaches to the UN Security Council’s draft resolution planted by the UK, France, and the United States.

Let me note that the text they have submitted is absolutely unacceptable. Its flaw (and the case in point is a fundamental flaw) is that it pre-empts the investigation results and hastily allocates blame, pointing a finger at Damascus. I will explain why we do not see any particular need for adopting a resolution at this stage.

The earlier decisions are quite sufficient for a thorough investigation into this incident. But if certain members of the UN Security Council regard a new resolution as desirable, necessary and timely, this resolution should look totally different. We have a concrete suggestion on this score.

It should have been pointed out in any event that the Security Council is deeply concerned about the news of numerous deaths caused by chemical poisoning at Khan Sheikhoun and that this dictates the need for a full-scale investigation to clarify what has happened in reality and who is to blame. Any use of chemical weapons by whatever party should have been denounced as well. It would be important to urge the OPCW Fact Finding Mission to fully investigate the reported incident on location under the mandatory condition that a list of the Mission’s personnel taking part in the investigation should be submitted to the UN Security Council. It should also be of a geographically balanced nature. What I mean is that representatives of Western countries must not dominate among the people who will be directly involved in clarifying these matters. For the Western nations, the fate of Syria has been reduced exclusively to the issue of regime change. [If they dominate the proceedings], there can be no full-scale, balanced and fitting investigation or analysis.

We have already witnessed examples of such work, when some or other structures tasked with finding out the truth were from the start pre-programmed for political bias. This case is different. It is vitally important to be absolutely impartial and enable oneself and this mechanism to avoid political bias. It would also be necessary to envisage a demand that the illegal armed groups, which control the area where the incident has occurred, should provide investigators with full and safe access to both the location in question and the information they need.

As you understand, the draft has failed to include the things I have just mentioned. It is being actively lobbied under canons and rules other than those accepted by the UN Security Council and with the only aim to put everyone in a situation where it would be either approved or vetoed bypassing any analysis or joint work. Joint work is aimed at achieving concrete results, which is the bedrock of UN Security Council activities.

I would like to say that in recent years, the Russian side, the leaders of the Russian Federation and Foreign Ministry representatives at all levels have repeatedly identified and promoted this issue as one of the UN Security Council’s focal points. They emphasised the urgent imperative to hold an investigation into crimes involving the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the region as a whole. Each time we called on others to avoid politicisation so that we have clarity with regard to the motives, perpetrators and consequences of these crimes.

At this point, the main task is to conduct an objective analysis of what happened. I would like to say that the falsified reports on this issue are sourced to the notorious White Helmets and the odious London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Neither can be trusted. These sources have seriously undermined their credibility by releasing staged videos and information that was subsequently refuted by all parties. Why then do the people who assume responsibility for adopting decisions that will be binding for all countries, such as UN Security Council resolutions, rely on information coming from untrustworthy agencies? These agencies have long discredited themselves. The information they provide must not be used to take far-reaching decisions that will be binding for all countries.

We have grown used to hearing unsubstantiated allegations against Damascus and its demonisation. These actions have only one goal in sight: to remove the legitimate Syrian government from power at any cost, and, failing that, to at least rally the political support and a propaganda campaign for the proposed decision that would ultimately force Russia to accept or veto it.

Here is an example from my personal experience. When I worked at Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, I communicated with our Western colleagues, including the press secretary and the representative of one of the topmost three Western missions. That was in 2005 and 2006, at the height of the Iraq war, when we had no proof that the reasons and pretexts for the invasion of Iraq as stated by the United States and its allies had been falsified. We took part in debates and went to the editorial boards of various newspapers and magazines, where the press secretaries of the five permanent UNSC members upheld the positions of their countries. Once I said that the US-led coalition was acting in Iraq illegally because it did not have a mandate or a UNSC resolution on an armed operation against Iraq. In reply, one of my colleagues urged me to count the number of UNSC resolutions and decisions denouncing Iraq and the number of proposals they had made for a collective decision to launch a military operation against Iraq. It came as a revelation to me that attempts also count, that they help create an information environment for justifying the subsequent use of armed force in the eyes of the public and the international community. It may be illegal from the legal viewpoint, but the atmosphere for such actions was created deliberately and consistently.

I see the same happening with regard to Syria. It is absolutely clear to everyone involved that illegal decisions based on falsified information will be not accepted. So why are they planting it at the last possible minute? Why is this information not discussed properly? Why has this obviously no-win proposal been made? All of this is being done to create the necessary information and propaganda environment. Nobody knew in the early 2000s that Colin Powell holding up a vial that allegedly contained anthrax was a huge fake. The world came to discover this much later. As I have said, the propaganda campaign included efforts to encourage the UNSC to adopt a resolution condemning Iraq and also a resolution approving the use of armed force against it. This is all I wanted to say to explain what is happening around Syria.

We would also like to draw your attention to the controversial nature of reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons. The White Helmets, which everyone is citing, keep changing their reports. First they say that the bombs were dropped from a helicopter and then change it to a fixed-wing plane. They cannot decide which chemical agent it was – chlorine gas or sarin, and are undecided about the number of casualties. The video and photo materials posted on the social media show that the White Helmets helping the victims are not using proper protective equipment and are otherwise acting unprofessionally. Also, their appearance is much too calm for such an emergency. Taken together, this means that these video materials have been staged.

We have no doubt of the incendiary purposes of this campaign. I would like to remind you once again that it was not a representative of a non-governmental organisation or movement that brought a vial with a white substance and put on a performance at the UN Security Council, but the US Secretary of State. It was much more powerful than the staged video of the White Helmets, because the vial was brought to the UNSC by a senior official of a global power. That performance created a pretext for intervening in Iraq. Later everyone, including Washington, admitted that it was a mistake, that there was no reliable proof, that the proof they had was falsified, and that some high-ranking US officials knew this but did not expose the falsification because it was not in their interests at the time.

Shall we allow something of the kind to be now perpetrated against another country? The contradictions I’ve mentioned have been reflected in the draft resolution. For example, it mentions, I quote, the “horrors” related to the incident, which is presented as an established fact. Simultaneously, the same draft insists on finding out whether or not this incident took place at all. See in what haste they were compiling the resolution? Its authors understood that it stood no chance of being approved, but they needed an effect, a concrete result, a bit of propaganda. In other words, the draft was being prepared with much haste and is remarkable for its sloppiness. We have no doubt as to the tasks its authors faced. It’s simply outrageous to suggest that the Security Council approve this text. The Western public opinion should know how diplomats representing their countries’ interests in the UN Security Council do their job. Will the Western public let them step on the same rake again and use a fake to promote serious international legal documents?

Let me say a few words about the putative incident that took place in that area which has been controlled by the terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra since 2014. From 11:30 to 12:30 am local time on April 4, the Syrian aviation attacked a major ammunition storage facility and a fleet of military equipment in the eastern suburb of Khan Sheikhoun. The facility included shops that manufactured land mines with chemical agents intended for use in Iraq, as well as in Aleppo. Their use in the same province was recorded by Russian military experts late last year, as I said. The signs of poisoning at Khan Sheikhoun in the video and the social media are exactly the same as in Aleppo last autumn. At that time, all the facts related to the use of chemical weapons, along with soil samples taken in that city, were put on record and submitted to the OPCW. The Organisation is still analysing them.

Whatever the finale of yet another chemical weapons saga, it is already clear that chemical terrorism is getting into high gear and that it should be resisted in the most resolute manner. Regrettably, all our attempts over the last three years to provoke a reaction from the Security Council to crimes perpetrated by terrorists, who increasingly often use chemical weapons, have met with no success because of the stance adopted by our Western partners. Characteristically, they were absolutely indifferent to ISIS using toxic agents in Mosul the other day. But now that they saw an opportunity to bring yet another charge against Damascus, the very same countries plunged into action with a kind of unreal deftness and in violation of all rules of decency and evading consultations within the UN Security Council rushed a vote on a resolution accusing the Syrian government.

Let me stress again that there were no consultations before this draft was planted in the UN Security Council. We believe that a full-scale and effective investigation should be held. It is certainly high time we put an end to remote investigative actions based on information derived from the internet or requested from neighbouring countries clearly biased against the legitimate Syrian authorities. To find out the truth, OPCW and Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) experts should, in keeping with their mandates, reach the location in question and use the entire spectrum of methods, including sampling, forensic tests and more. The importance of such a strictly scientific approach was stressed in JIM reports No. 4 and No. 5 (p. 49 and p. 11, respectively).

I understand that our information will not reach Western audiences, except the diplomats; it will be blocked. Your representatives are bringing a falsified document based entirely on fake news to the UN Security Council. It’s Colin Powell and his test tube all over again! Later you’ll feel ashamed for your authorities’ actions in the UN Security Council. I am addressing the Western audiences: Stop your representatives!

Question: Could you clarify the date and agenda of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit? Do the departments of both countries maintain any dialogue?

Maria Zakharova: The visit is on the agenda, and preparations are underway. In principle, our departments maintain multi-format dialogue. The Russian and US embassies are working in Washington DC and Moscow. We maintain diplomatic contacts. We are preparing for the visit and coordinating the exact date and issues for discussion. I will certainly share the visit’s date and agenda with you as soon as possible. Both sides are coordinating this issue.

Question: Several hours ago, you posted on Facebook, commenting on a photo that shows Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Russia Today television channel, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. How would you comment on this photo? What can you say about the US intelligence report in this connection?

Maria Zakharova: To my mind, this story is quite sensational. US Senator Jeanne Shaheen has gained notoriety for her openly foolish escapades. I would like to tell US officials that the next time someone offers them any “classified” photos of Margarita Simonyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for handsome sums of money, they can get them absolutely free on the Russia Today website or from the Foreign Ministry. If you have any extra money, you would do better to donate it to a charity foundation.

This time, the US senator has submitted a “declassified” photo that has already gone viral and that shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan attending a project presentation. The senator has asked everyone to think about what they see in this photo and what some people have come to. I don’t quite understand what someone has come to. Is she referring to the President of Russia, the RT television channel or everything taken together?

As I see it, the photo clearly shows that our Russia Today television channel now ranks among the largest Russian and global TV channels. The photo shows that Russian leaders, including the President, federal government ministers, top regional leaders and local authorities, are open to media outlets, and that they regularly meet with journalists in various formats. These formats include news conferences involving hundreds of journalists, presentations of new studios, exhibitions organised by media outlets, as well as open and off-the-record meetings with various agencies, channels and foreign media outlets. The US senator does not understand this, but we have also borrowed from US experience in our work. We agree or disagree with them on some aspects, and we consider certain experience to be extremely important and useful. We were largely guided by US methods for dealing with the media in terms of openness, the availability of official information to media outlets. We did not invent anything new. All major countries operate foreign-language broadcasting networks. Moreover, these networks have taken on a global scale. But they can also operate on a regional scale. Last time, a representative of Bulgaria discussed the work of a Turkish-language television channel in his country.

What does this photo mean? To me, it is also evidence, and very important evidence, that women in my country are appointed to positions based on their talents, not because of nepotism or protectionism. There are no gender, age or nationality qualifications. The main criterion is professionalism and whether you satisfy the requirements of a given position. What Margarita Simonyan did when she was appointed editor-in-chief of the RT television network many years ago was a heroic feat that changed the mentality of many people in Russia. First, she created a high quality product from scratch. She did not inherit a product that had worked well before. She created this television network from scratch and made it a huge success. Her achievements have been noticed not just by the Russian authorities and the public. Wherever we go, for example to the Middle East, people express a positive attitude to the appearance of an alternative view on information in the media. People are tired of listening to the same old mantra from the mainstream media, which serve the interests of a certain group of countries. You can reject the views expressed by RT, but at least we have our own views. This is good, because it creates competition.

The second thing that is very important relative to Simonyan’s appointment is that young professionals see that their career depends on them and that the state is coming to trust young people. It is extremely important when young people get this impetus in the most creative and important period of their lives. This young woman is a trailblazer of sorts, a mental trailblazer. It’s important. I know many women who see Simonyan as an example.

Regrettably, this is not what the honourable senator saw in this photo. She probably focused on the word “declassified.” The other details are available in my blog.