Excerpts from the briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Sochi

May 19, 2016

The situation in Syria

Moving over to regional issues, I’d like to address the situation in Syria. A recent ISSG meeting was devoted to this. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about its outcome.

The situation in Syria remains tense. The ceasefire is generally holding although there are occasional violations. This situation, the way it is developing, is not to the liking of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, who are continuing their bloody provocations, including violence against civilians. At the same time, Jabhat al-Nusra is actively involving militants from other groups, whose leadership has announced compliance with the ceasefire regime, in its activity.

Here are the facts. On May 12, terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra and allied groups attacked the Alawite village of al-Zara in the Hama province. You may know that they perpetrated a massacre, sparing neither children nor women nor elderly people. According to different reports, between 70 and 100 civilians were killed or tortured to death in al-Zara. Many women and girls were abducted into slavery. There is no and there can be no justification for such crimes.

We are seriously concerned by the attempts, which are being made not without the involvement of external forces, to “rebrand” certain radical groups operating on Syrian soil. Mr Lavrov discussed this in depth with his colleagues in Vienna and also referred to it at his news conference. It became known, among other things, that an “umbrella” formation, called the Northern Front or Northern Army, is being created in northern Syria, which is supposed to unite all anti-government forces active in the Aleppo province.

What is the purpose? Officially, outside “sponsors” are setting their “clients” the goal of fighting ISIS along the Marea-Jarabulus line. Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq ash-Sham, Jaysh al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which were promised support by the USAF and artillery cover by Turkey, have been spotted among the participants in the “project.” In reality, the idea may be to create a vast “security zone” along the Turkish border that external forces hope to control with assistance from the aforementioned Syrian illegal armed formations, keeping both the government army and Kurdish militias out of the zone.

On May 14, the massive redeployment of Northern Army militants and weapons, including tanks, from Turkish territory via the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing point began under the pretext of ejecting Jabhat al-Nusra from Idlib. It is difficult to say what is really going on. It cannot be ruled out that Jabhat al-Nusra will be able to integrate its “comrades in arms” from the Northern Army into its ranks and redouble the pressure on the government forces near Aleppo.

Against this backdrop, we are compelled to note Ankara’s statements to the effect that Turkey is purportedly fighting terrorism like no other country in the world, as well as media reports citing Saudi Arabian officials as suggesting that the so-called Plan B for Syria will soon be launched.

In this context, we’d like to stress that the fifth ISSG ministerial meeting, which took place in Vienna on May 17 and issued a joint statement (it is available on the Foreign Ministry’s official website), made no reference to any “Plan B.” There were no agreements or serious discussions or decisions regarding any “Plan B” and the parties did not really talk about this. In reality, the ISSG participants reaffirmed their commitment to observe the ceasefire regime, provide humanitarian aid to all Syrians in need, above all in besieged and hard-to-access areas, and promote a peace settlement in Syria on the political track in keeping with UN Security Council resolutions (Resolution 2254).

Humanitarian issues are of paramount importance for the development of the situation in Syria. It was given considerable prominence during the Vienna talks, and not only within the framework of the meeting but also on a bilateral basis. Significant progress was made regarding humanitarian aid to blockaded areas. Access to al-Darayya, al-Ma'adamiya and al-Hamma in the Damascus province and the town of al-Rastan in the Homs province remains limited (but not closed). The Syrian authorities have sanctioned the provision of medical aid, school textbooks and food for children (milk) there. In addition, they have authorised the delivery of the same supplies to the town of Douma. Delays in the movement of UN convoys were mostly caused by shelling attacks carried out by illegal armed formations and the associated concern for the safety of UN personnel. Unfortunately, there are instances of arbitrary actions by individual commanders on the ground, but they are extremely rare and we are not inclined to dramatise them.

Overall, Damascus is committed to constructive interaction with the relevant international humanitarian agencies (this is our view). The procedure of approving humanitarian operations has been considerably simplified (applications from humanitarian agencies are granted within five to seven days). The Syrian authorities have allowed the delivery of mobile hospitals to all blocked areas, except for al-Darayya. This suburb of Damascus, which has been literally wiped off the face of the earth, is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra militants, who carry out continuous hit-and-run attacks against government checkpoints. The Syrian government is ready to ensure the provision of free qualified medical aid to the residents of all these districts at nearby state hospitals; for example, al-Madaya residents have already taken advantage of this opportunity.

The provision of humanitarian supplies to Kurdish areas in the Al-Hasakah province is still an unresolved issue. Ankara is still blocking the reopening of the Nusaybin-Kamışlı border-crossing point, which runs counter to UN Security Council Resolution 2258 regarding humanitarian access via border checkpoints.

We note the Syrian government’s proactive efforts to ensure the successful implementation of the national reconciliation programme that it has initiated, as an important trend. There have been several rounds of amnesty for members of illegal armed formations and army deserters. This is being done within two formats: on a state level, based on corresponding presidential orders, and within the framework of local ceasefire agreements, when local militants are invited to “legalise their status” and return to civilian life.

The situation in Afghanistan

Another region no less problematic is Afghanistan. Of late, the military and political situation in that country remains strained. We regularly provide you with the latest updates on what is happening there. The Taliban movement continues to fight in some regions of the country. The most complicated situation is in the southern province of Helmand, where extremists have already seized four districts and in three other districts there are ongoing armed clashes with government forces.

There is still much concern about the situation in the north of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan where Taliban militants have established control of a number of regions and continue attempts to seize provincial centres. The ISIS-controlled branch in Afghanistan is as active as ever as it is seeking to spread its influence to the bordering states of Central Asia and the north of Afghanistan.

Remember that earlier efforts by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of the representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China to convince the Taliban to make peace have, regretfully, proved fruitless. (This is our opinion based on the facts showing how the situation is actually unfolding on the ground.) We are in favour of current negotiations between the representatives of Kabul and the opposition Islamic Party of Afghanistan. However, it is common knowledge that this group is not the pacesetter in working out the anti-government forces’ common position on the issue of national reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Russia is ready to help facilitate the negotiating process and take, among other things, a flexible approach toward the possible easing of sanctions against the Taliban unless this will be in conflict with the national interests of Afghanistan.

From answers to media questions:

Question: Can you comment on the NATO foreign ministers signing an accession protocol with Montenegro on the sidelines of the NATO Council meeting in Brussels?

Maria Zakharova
: Our negative attitude to this “open door” policy does not depend on current conditions but is based on the unfavourable political and military consequences of the past phases of the alliance’s expansion. Suffice it to recall how attempts were made over several years to convince us that the accession of the Eastern European and Baltic countries to NATO would improve our bilateral relations, cure their phobias of a “negative heritage” and create a belt of NATO countries that are friendly towards Russia. In fact, the bloc’s expansion has only aggravated the “frontline country syndrome,” and today not only these countries’ foreign policies but also their domestic policies are largely based on the assumption that they need “special” protection.

As for the signing of the accession protocol on Montenegro joining the Washington Treaty, it is fresh evidence of Brussels’ desire to accelerate the accession process and make it irreversible. The continued efforts to draw Podgorica into the alliance is based on secret agreements that have been signed with the Montenegrin leadership with disregard for the peoples’ opinion and in violation of democratic principles and procedures, the commitment to which NATO claimed to honour so strictly. Is there any other explanation for the Montenegrin authorities’ refusal to put up this issue for a national referendum? The only possible explanations are that the friendly Montenegrin people have not forgotten the barbarous NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, and that the results of a free expression of people’s will could not be predetermined. It appears that it was decided to disregard the Montenegrins’ opinion on an issue that concerns NATO’s geopolitical ambitions.

This latest NATO move undertaken to change the military and political landscape in Europe, especially in light of the bloc’s declared policy of containing Russia, will definitely affect Russia’s interests and force us to react.