Excerpts from the Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

August 24, 2017

Developments in Syria

The military-political situation in the Syrian Arab Republic took a largely positive turn after the signing of the memorandum on the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria by guarantor countries of the Astana process – Russia, Iran and Turkey – on May 4 and the subsequent creation of these zones in southwestern Syria, Eastern Ghouta and in the north of the Homs Province.

The Syrian government forces continue their efforts to rid the country of terrorists from ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (or Jabhat al-Nusra) and the groups that support these organisations.

The counterterrorism operation is ongoing against al-Nusra in the Jobar district of Damascus and in the neighbouring Ayn Terma. The jihadists are shelling residential districts in Damascus, in particular, Bab Touma and Al-Hamidiya. Several shells have been fired towards the 59th Damascus International Fair, killing four people. But the international fair, which has been held for the first time since 2011, has not suspended its work.

Aleppo, the most densely populated province in Syria, has been fully liberated from the terrorists. Overall, 50 towns and over 2,700 square kilometres of Syrian territory have been liberated.

The assault groups of the Syrian army, who are fighting in the east of the Hama Province with support from Russia’s Aerospace Forces, have assumed control over several commanding heights near the towns of Hisayah and es-Savannet and have surrounded a large group of ISIS fighters near Uqayribat. The terrorists have been trying to break out of the trap and flee towards Deir ez-Zor.

The Syrian army is carrying on the offensive near the town of Abu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border towards the Euphrates.

The combined Kurdish and Arab units of the Syrian Democratic Forces continue the operation to liberate Raqqa from ISIS fighters. These units have assumed control over some 60 per cent of the city area.

Tensions persist between Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam, which has joined the de-escalation agreement. These groups are fighting each other on the battlefield and in the media, where they question the other party’s loyalty to the “revolutionary ideals.”

Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra has been trying to escape public censure as a terrorist organisation by blending in among the locals in the administrative units it has created in the areas it controls in the Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces. With this aim in view, it has been working to create its own “government” and local governments and to merge the allied terrorist groups into the so-called Northern Army.

The current developments in Syria point to an urgent need to expedite the creation of de-escalation zones, strengthen the ceasefire regime and improve the humanitarian situation in the country as soon as possible. We call on our regional and international partners to support the efforts to rout terrorists in Syria ahead of the sixth International Meeting on Syria, which will convene in Astana in mid-September, and to take additional efforts to help the conflicting sides find compromise solutions that would put an end to drawn-out confrontation in Syria.

US Department of State’s allegations of Syrian government’s involvement in chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun

We would like to draw your attention to the press statement on the August 21, 2013 chemical attack in the eastern suburb of Damascus, which the US State Department’s Office of Press Relations issued on August 21. Without a shadow of a doubt in its exceptional righteousness and exclusive right to the truth, which has, unfortunately, become the prerogative of our American colleagues, the US State Department has again blamed the Syrian government for the chemical attack perpetrated four years ago, as usual, without any substance. In the same statement, the Americans again repeated the allegation of Damascus’ involvement in the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack on April 4, 2017.

I would like to remind everyone that the Russian Foreign Ministry has more than once provided detailed comments on Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun. We have yet to receive any reasonable and objective arguments to substantiate this allegation, and so we do not understand why Washington is convinced that the blame rests with the government of Bashar al-Assad. Washington’s conviction is so strong that it delivered a missile strike on the Syrian government forces on April 7 in gross disregard for international law.

We view the events in Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun, as well as the commotion raised over them by the biased Western media and officials, as clear elements of the information war that is being waged against sovereign and independent Syria and as attempts to torpedo the efforts towards a political settlement of the Syrian crisis based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

The new US strategy on Afghanistan and a statement by US State Secretary Rex Tillerson

We took note that a new strategy on Afghanistan announced by US President Donald Trump on August 21 focuses on a military solution to the Afghan issue, including through beefing up foreign military contingents.

This approach is in tune with the prescriptions for Afghanistan issued by the previous US administration, which, as is known, failed to improve the security in the region.

Regrettably, the strategy does not reflect the danger posed by the Afghan offshoot of the ISIS terrorist group, which is actively spreading its influence in Afghanistan, and completely ignores drug production in Afghanistan as well. Russia, the UN and corresponding entities have repeatedly said that the drug production represents a major source of revenue for terrorists.

We expect that the planned expansion of powers of the US armed forces in Afghanistan will not violate sovereignty of that country or infringe upon the national interests of the states in that region.

For our part, we are willing to continue to assist Kabul in training and equipping its national security forces as the main guarantor of security in Afghanistan, as well as in advancing the national reconciliation process. We reaffirm our openness to cooperation in these areas with the United States and other stakeholders.

US State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson’s remarks during a briefing on August 22 to clarify a new US strategy on Afghanistan, where he accused Russia of alleged arms supplies to the Taliban, are extremely perplexing. Of course, you are all perfectly aware of our position on this matter. We repeatedly rejected all accusations, and also asked our American colleagues to provide evidence, but to no avail. To reiterate, such statements aren’t conducive to the establishment of effective cooperation between our countries in Afghanistan. Once again, we state that we do not provide any support to the Taliban.

I would like to say once again that all the statements or comments that we made over the past year on this account are available on our official Foreign Ministry website. When quoting the current or future statements by US officials, please be mindful of the official position of the Russian Federation.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula

We noted a certain decrease in intensity of bellicose rhetoric surrounding the Korean Peninsula. The lack of an alternative to a peaceful settlement of the issues faced by the sub-region is becoming increasingly clear for all, albeit with some difficulties.

However, we believe that conducting large-scale naval exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea (Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 2017, August 21 – September 1) is not helpful for de-escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula. We call upon all parties to be very careful. Since the region is flooded with weapons, any rash move or even an unintended incident may trigger off a military conflict.

We expect the DPRK to continue to exercise restraint and not react to these maneuvers in a military manner.

We are convinced that the need for nuclear missile tests or military exercises will disappear after the stakeholders reach basic agreements on mutual relations and the principles of peaceful coexistence. To do so, the dialogue must be resumed, but first, of course, it is important to reduce military activity in the region.

Answers to media questions:

Question: The US Senate approved a bill that would oblige the US President to obtain permission to cooperate with Russia in the sphere of cybersecurity. What do you think about it? How will it affect Russia-US relations?

Maria Zakharova: I cannot comment on this bill in detail. I can ask our experts about it and prepare a detailed commentary on this matter in the near future.

There are trends in Russia-US relations. They are there for everyone to see, I mentioned them today, and, unfortunately, they are disappointing. But when it comes to a specific document, I stick to the principle that requires me to take into account the opinions of experts. I think we will give a detailed commentary on this matter in the near future.

Question: The other day, the US State Department issued a statement that US State Department Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker met with Russian officials in Lithuania, whereas in fact their meeting took place in Minsk. Could you please clarify that? My second question concerns the incident in San Francisco with a nine-year-old boy. Can you provide more details on what happened?

Maria Zakharova: With regard to your second question, we are receiving information from the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco. Currently, Russian diplomats are establishing the details of the incident. They sent requests to the US State Department and the Los Angeles Police Department regarding the whereabouts of the child, as well as his confinement conditions. The circumstances of this tragedy are being investigated.

The diplomats are also trying to find out the details about his murdered parents. The Consulate General is now looking for his relatives. Requests have been sent to the Interior Ministry at the place of official residence of his parents, Konstantin Morozov and Natalya Sergeyeva, in order to find the boy’s next of kin.

According to the Consulate General (they made this information public), the boy’s parents had both Russian and US citizenship, which is why the US authorities failed to notify the Russian mission about this tragic incident. Without any doubt, Russian diplomats and our foreign ministry are monitoring the situation, and will provide the boy with all the necessary consular assistance. Once again, practical steps to this end have already been taken.

With regard to the meeting between Russian Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov and US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, it was, of course, held in Minsk. We have noticed a strange pattern: our American colleagues constantly run into topographic issues when it comes to Belarus. What really amazes me is that the State Department press service, for example, knows that Russia supplies the Taliban with weapons, but cannot provide evidence, but isn’t aware of where their special representative Volker goes to meet with Mr Surkov. Amazing!

Question: Could you please comment on Russia-US relations, in particular, relations between the Department of State and the Foreign Ministry in connection with the reduction in the number of US diplomats and difficulties in the issue of US visas? Will this confrontation be aggravated by new measures?

Maria Zakharova: The Foreign Ministry website has released so many comments and statements on this score that repeating them would take a long time.

As for counter measures in response to more complicated visa procedures, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov clearly replied to this question during the news conference – the text and video are on the Foreign Ministry’s website.

We react to this decision with confusion and regret. After many extremely tough and unjustified (I’m referring to the absence of facts) sanctions, including the expropriation of Russian property in violation of all norms of international law, after all the votes of US legislators, the Russian side merely imposed restrictions on the use of diplomatic property in Russia and asked the US to reduce the total number of employees of US foreign offices in Russia to the number of our diplomats and technical personnel in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston. In response we got yet another strange reaction that has been commented on by Russian representatives actively and in detail.

As we see it, the main reason for this decision is not technical complications faced by the well-equipped US consular service with its vast resources but political considerations. Probably, this is also linked with how professionally material and human resources are used. We have mentioned this as well. The Foreign Ministry website exemplified how the embassies and consular offices of other Western countries that are popular with Russian citizens issue several times more visas while having a lot fewer employees for their procession.

Judging by everything, one of the goals of our US colleagues is to make Russian citizens unhappy about Moscow’s actions and Russia’s foreign policy.

However, our American colleagues would only be able to exploit this subject if journalists, including you as a media representative, had no access to credible information on this score. You are well aware of what is going on and receive information from different sources. You may compare and calculate the number of technical personnel that worked in Moscow. You may also look at the number of joint events they recently held in Russia – it was shrinking to zero. This suggests the question of what these people are doing here.

I would like to recall that visa procedures were made substantially more difficult several months ago not only for Russians but also for citizens of other countries. The time period for a visa application and its review were also increased out of all proportion, ostensibly due to internal difficulties. The hastily invented story that this was a result of Russia’s actions is totally unfounded. Apparently, this is an attempt to quickly compile facts and explain invented difficulties. As to why they were invented, we expressed our view on this and gave our assessment of these actions.

As for some future actions on Washington’s behalf, they are completely unpredictable because its logic is difficult to understand. We called for cooperation all the time but got a new round of aggravation in bilateral relations in response. Even in the most complicated times when Washington made decisions aimed squarely at Russia, we kept saying that it is better to cooperate and discuss problems rather than create new or multiply old ones. Our permanent position is and will be invariable. This is what we proceed from: We will never take it out on US citizens, by deliberately creating unbearable conditions for receiving Russian visas and taking revenge on God knows whom and for what. This is not our way. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this outright. We stand for interaction and cooperation, realising that the main recipients of the results of this cooperation are people who live on the other side of the ocean. Creating deliberate difficulties for them because of some political ambitions is simply not our way. This is true. Russian foreign consulates will continue working normally, fulfilling all of their functions.

I would like to repeat that we received a huge number of questions on this subject from our compatriots – US citizens who live in the US or stay elsewhere. Will they be affected by counter measures? I will say it again. This is not our way. This is not Moscow’s way.

Question: You have already noted that the intensity of bellicose rhetoric has decreased in the Northeast Asia region. Do you believe it is possible to resolve this conflict through talks and a dialogue between the United States and the DPRK, or is this solution still not likely at the moment?

Maria Zakharova: With regard to resolving the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula by way of talks between the United States and the DPRK, we not only do not rule them out, but rather we welcome them as a viable option and a possibility for resolving this issue in a peaceful manner. We are saying that military exercises and missile launches should be replaced by talks and dialogue, as well as establishing direct and indirect contacts in any format that the parties can agree on.

We have always been in favour of stepping up the six-party process as a model in which the interests of various parties are expected to be safeguarded. The main thing is to achieve the main goal, which is the peaceful resolution of this situation.

From us, you can hear only calls to establish a dialogue and re-invigorate the political process. The forms can vary. If this requires mediation efforts on the part of Russia, we are willing to do so. We did our best to step up the political process. Every complication and aggravation of the situation made us issue a specific statement clarifying that this is a dead-end path. We do so on an almost daily basis.