Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to media questions on the sidelines of the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, New York

September 23, 2016

Question: You spent four or five days of intensive discussions with Mr Kerry and ISSG. Can you tell us about any progress you have achieved? Is this the end of diplomacy regarding the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities? What do you have to say to the Syrian people today?

Sergey Lavrov: Everything which we said is already in the resolutions of the Security Council, in the decisions of the International Syria Support Group, and in the Russian-American documents which have eventually been made public, because our American friends were shying away from doing so for reasons I don’t understand. Basically, this approach - as consolidated in the Resolutions of the Security Council - provides for movement on several tracks: fighting terrorism, making sure that there is a ceasefire between the government and the moderate opposition, except Nusra and ISIS, ensuring humanitarian access, and launching immediately the political process, which must be inclusive, involving all Syrian parties without any preconditions. The Security Council and the Russian-American Agreement also provided for a separation of those opposition groups who would like to be part of the cessation of hostilities from Nusra, and this was demanded, I think in January for the first time, or in December. And this goal has been reiterated repeatedly. Unfortunately, the coalition, led by the United States, which committed itself to make sure that this separation happens, has not been able to do this, though my good friend and colleague John Kerry every time we meet reaffirms that this is the commitment of the United States. We understand that this is a difficult task but everything is difficult in Syria, and to say that you can close your eyes on the fact that Nusra is covering its positions with some moderate groups and therefore you should not touch Nusra is not what we agreed.

The second topic which is very important and crucial is the political process. We cannot just close our eyes when one group of the Syrian representatives sabotages the decisions of the Security Council, which clearly stated the process should be launched without any preconditions. I don’t envy Staffan de Mistura and his team, we sympathise with them, but I believe they should be more guided by the Security Council resolutions rather than by caprices of some of the participants of negotiations, especially since this very group says that they would not participate in the negotiations if there is no pre-decision on the fate of President Assad. This is again a flagrant violation of the Security Council’s resolutions. So we are all in favour of the ceasefire, but without separating the opposition from Nusra, the ceasefire is meaningless. During the period since September 12, when the Russian-American document was formally enforced, there were almost 350 attacks of the opposition in Aleppo alone against the government and some residential quarters. Many people were killed, including Syrian military and civilians, and this is not the way the cessation of hostilities should be maintained. But when the Syrian government responded to these attacks, we were told that this is undermining the credibility of the entire exercise and therefore, they must not respond and sit idle for seven days, and then maybe the opposition would be kind enough to agree that the cessation of hostilities should be maintained by the opposition as well.

The second issue is humanitarian deliveries. I alluded already in my speech to the problems for the entire process created by the incidents in Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo, and I can only say that the Russian-American deal provided for Castello Road to be made safe for humanitarian deliveries. There was a mechanism and procedures agreed in very great detail, in particular it was provided for the government and the opposition to move by equal distances from Castello Road. The government started doing this several days ago. The opposition did not reciprocate; more than that, the opposition started firing at the government forces as they were withdrawing in accordance with the Russian-American agreement. And then again, the agreement provided for the government to create one checkpoint and for the opposition to create another one. The government did what it was supposed to do, and the opposition didn’t lift a finger.

So we have to understand one very simple thing: all the components of the package approved by the Security Council must be addressed with the same vigour. And we cannot tolerate a situation when the humanitarian aspects are being abused and speculated upon. I want to be mistaken but it seems that some people want to spare Nusra and to keep it for a later stage when the notorious Plan B might be announced.

Question: Mr Foreign Minister, at the ISSG meeting yesterday, there was a demand for a seven days truce and we understand you offered three days, and today you had a meeting with John Kerry, the Secretary of State. Was there a compromise found out between the two of you, and what good is seven days or three days if you stated that the humanitarian conditions cannot be improved without rooting out the terrorist group first?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, if you want to go into these details, I have to say a couple of words which I normally would prefer not to say. Originally, our American colleagues said, I think on Wednesday, why can we not consider at least a three-day period, at least a three-day period. We checked with the military who know the situation on the ground and we accepted it the next morning. They said, ‘Thank you very much but we now need seven.’ I don’t think this is the appropriate way to conduct negotiations. I am convinced that these kinds of things – how long you can announce a pilot truce period for and what would be the guarantee that it won't be violated – all these things must be discussed by professional military people. And we did create a Geneva centre with the United States – and the people there, at least the Russian military representatives, are ready to sit down and develop a common map of this location of Nusra, so that there is no ambiguity and there is no outcry every time Nusra is hit and people start complaining that you hit somebody else. This is the key to the problem. Otherwise, as I said, as soon as we separate we can have a truce forever - for those who are not part of Nusra.

Question: The possibility of the US establishing control over Syria’s airspace was discussed this week. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that for the US to control all of the airspace in Syria would require [it] to go to war against Syria and Russia. What do you think about this?

Is the US unable or unwilling to dissociate the moderate opposition from the terrorists? If the US is unwilling to do so, this is a sabotage of all the previous arrangements.

Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the initiatives discussed in the US Congress, frankly, I have a restrained attitude toward them. I do not follow them too closely, in part because many steps taken on Capitol Hill are designed, in particular due to internal political pressure, to create an immediate propaganda effect and have no chance for realisation. Anyway, I am happy that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not want to go to war against Russia and Syria, as you said. This is the responsible stance of a military professional.

As for dissociating the moderates from the terrorists, I said in my remarks at the General Assembly today that we are getting the impression that someone either does not want to or is unable to do this. With respect to inability, members of the US-led coalition have a decisive effect on the groups that are fighting in Syria. We know more or less precisely which coalition member can influence this or that group. This is clear. The task is simply to issue an order and stop supporting them until they move away from the positions held by the terrorists. This has not been done. If, as they tell us, the Syrian government should stop making flights to convince these groups that it is safe for them to move away from Jabhat al-Nusra and that nobody will bomb them, we are not convinced. We see this connection as artificial. We tend to see this not as inability but as the unwillingness of the coalition as a whole, because such decisions are taken in the coalition on the basis of consensus. Orders are not given there. This is the reality of the modern world, which is no longer unipolar. The times when orders were issued from one world capital are gone. Russia works with all political opposition groups and all members of the US-led coalition, but more closely with the regional countries. We have been talking about the need to draw a line between the healthy patriotic opposition and the terrorists, because history has shown that flirting with terrorists and using them to achieve one’s time-serving geopolitical goals leads to a situation where the terrorists that have been used start using the users. They will redirect their dirty plans towards you, as happened with the mujahedin in Afghanistan who developed into al-Qaeda or the creation of the Islamic State following the events in Iraq. This is walking into the same trap twice.

As I said, our contacts with regional countries indicate that they are aware of this problem, and so we probably need to continue to build confidence between the external players. This can help us achieve the desired result. But if this is not inability but unwillingness – I hope it’s not so; I don’t want to think that this may be so – then the only conclusion is that all denials of the existence of a “Plan B” for Syria are untrue.

Question: You’ve been telling us how you’ve come here searching for peace, trying to revive the ceasefire, yet since you’ve been in New York for the last 48 hours, there’s been a major escalation in the bombardment of Aleppo. How do you explain that? Are Russian aircraft involved? And if it’s just the Syrian air force, do you condemn it?

Sergey Lavrov: I condemn anyone who violates international humanitarian law. I explained it already; I hope you were listening to my answer to the first question: what this entire situation is about. You cannot speculate on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis and on the humanitarian suffering of the civilians. And by insisting on humanitarian deliveries first, you know, have a pretext not to move on the political process, not to move on the separation of the opposition of the terrorists. It’s a very dirty game if this is done intentionally."

As far as the attacks are concerned, if you listen to the Security Council debate, what I said was, we insist on an investigation into what happened to the humanitarian convoy in Eastern Aleppo. Unfortunately, John Kerry said: we know who did it. Fine, but we have been through this two year ago when the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down over Ukraine. We insisted that the Security Council launch an investigation. The Americans said: okay, an investigation my happen, but we know who did it. That’s the difference. Either you have the right for the final wisdom and use it as you please, or you are member of the international community and you want some collective action and some truth to be established. By the way, I spoke of Deir ez-Zor, and the Americans told us: yeah, that was a mistake, but we apologise so forget about it.

I brought a quote from Voice of America, September 20. Central Command spokesman Colonel John Thomas, direct quote: “For roughly two full days, we were observing this target and believed we had pretty good intelligence on what we were looking at. It was a dynamic target so it was not a planned deliberate strike, but we did take a couple of days to develop the target and a decision was made by the decision authority that it was a good target, after looking at all the intelligence and considering it. So the decision was not made on the spur of the moment.” How about that?

In Deir ez-Zor, the situation has been static for more than two years. Government troops surround by ISIS, and that’s it. And if this is a mistake after two full days of intelligence and targeting, then we also want an investigation, frankly speaking.

And by the way, regarding the humanitarian convoy, it’s not very difficult to find what was used to hit it. Artillery shell, rocket, aerial bomb - there must be leftovers, debris of this ordinance, so we ask the Americans who might have access there, to start an honest investigation. I hope they will do this. John Kerry said they also want to know the truth.

Question: Your colleague John Kerry has spoken today on the progress on possible saving the deal. Can you tell us what that progress might be? Is Russia considering a seven-day truce? And if this happens to fall apart, what is your plan B?

Sergey Lavrov: We have no Plan B because we are convinced that there is no military solution to this crisis. John Kerry is also convinced that there is no military solution. He said so yesterday. Unfortunately, when we created the Syrian support group, the first declaration was not able to reflect this simple phrase: there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Some members of the group prevented all of us from saying this. As regards the situation between us and the Americans, as co-chairs of the ISSG, I said already a couple of times today that any special measures that go beyond the document of September 9, are senseless if we don’t start separation. Our military sit in Geneva; the Americans also have their team there, but they’re not very open to do daily serious work. We are convinced that it is not going to take long if the intelligence is put on the table and the map is agreed with the locations of al-Nusra. And then there would be no misunderstanding – I mean nothing that would be preventing us from moving on humanitarian issues, on ceasefire and cessation of hostilities. And of course, there must be immediate relaunch of the political process, which the Security Council demanded to start without any preconditions.

But for this, you have to deliver on what you committed to in December. Separate the opposition from Nusra. We were told one month, then we were told two weeks, then we were told a couple of months, then we were told it’s very difficult, but we will still be trying to do this. But to separate, as I said, you need to sit down, have a map and agree on locations of Nusra, and compare intelligence. The Russian military has intelligence of course and the Americans have the same. But the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, who was already quoted today, yesterday said that sharing intelligence with Russia is a bad idea. And that’s on the day when the Russian-American documents were made public. And they clearly and explicitly required an exchange of intelligence. So who takes the decisions? It’s very difficult to understand. It doesn’t help in this situation. And it increases the suspicion that something is fishy. We never mentioned Plan B. Plan B was mentioned by our partners and then denied. But I trust John Kerry when he said he is convinced there is no military solution. This is absolutely our position.

Question: And is Russia considering a seven-day truce?

Sergey Lavrov: I said that any truce - seven days, three days - would be senseless. I gave you examples of what was going on after September 12 when the document was enforced: 350 attacks by the opposition close to Nusra, against government troops and living quarters. People were killed from the Syrian army and the civilian population due to the absolute inability of the American-led coalition to deliver on the pulling back from Castello Road, which the government starting doing actually. And they just refused. So we want to see any sign which will prove that the coalition has influence on those who are on the ground. I don’t think it’s asking too much.

Question: Minister, on the question of chemical weapons, the US joint investigative mechanism recently confirmed that Syria and the Islamic State have used chemical weapons in Syria more than once. I wanted to know if Russia favours any kind of penalties, any disciplinary action, sanctions, or resolution in the council, any way to push for accountability on this issue and whether you’ve had discussions with Secretary Kerry or with the Americans in general on this issue.

Sergey Lavrov: No, we didn’t discuss it. Our delegation has discussed it in the Security Council. It’s a good report, good quality. Unfortunately, you quoted it a bit differently. It does not say that they “confirm” that the government and ISIS used the chemical weapons. They present evidence which was not conclusive, and they recognise this. It was very professionally formulated, and we want the truth to be established. There is the mechanism, which I think was extended a little time-wise, exactly for this purpose, and we will be ready to cooperate with it.

Question: The regional powers, especially Turkey and Israel both were involved almost simultaneously against the Syrian army in some instances and against other opposition groups. How are your contacts with these regional groups, especially when it comes to the area close or in proximity to Aleppo and those which are close to the Golan? How can they play a role, a different role in this conflict?

Sergey Lavrov: Anyone who is present on the ground in Syria without invitation, without consent of the government, is there in violation of the international law. Anyone who flies Syrian airspace without consent, without acquiescence at least of the Syrian government is violating international law as well. Yes, we are, as I said, in touch with all the regional countries, we understand their concerns, the real challenges to their security – be it Turkey, be it Israel, be it other countries, and we have a dialogue with them trying to make sure that whatever they are concerned by being to be resolved in the framework of international law. It is not difficult, it is not impossible. The basic problem in this regard is unwillingness of some of regional players to recognize that whatever you say, whatever you send to your friends in the armed opposition, the single biggest, most efficient force fighting ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria is the Syrian army. And just to stick to the notion that five years ago President Bashar Assad became illegitimate and therefore we are not going to fight terror collectively till he is there. I think it’s absolutely irresponsible. But little by little life, I think, will make everyone understand that it’s only together that you fight terrorism and you must have your priorities right. The Americans, the responsible American officials, recognized at least in our discussions that ISIL is a much bigger threat than Assad. So have your priorities right.

Question: Thank you. Good to see you again. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien has given constant press conferences and speeches on Syria denying a lot of convoys to different parts of the country which could be a war crime if you are trying to starve people, just like throwing barrel bombs at civilians is one. Have you any influence in trying to get the humanitarian convoys moving, and I’m not speaking about the mess in Aleppo.

Sergey Lavrov: You know, it is not exactly accurate what Mr. Stephen O’Brien has said as presented by you. There is statistics, which somehow UN and Geneva are not circulating – statistics about quite a number of towns and cities where humanitarian assistance has been moving during this week after the document was endorsed. But UN somehow circulates information only on denial, not information on receiving and allowing. Next time you talk to him or he talks to you ask him for the full information. I believe this would be a better picture.

By the way, still on Aleppo, There was another meeting on August 26 between me and Mr.John Kerry in Geneva, and Mr. Staffan de Mistura was there. He said: “It’s a very lucky coincidence, very symbolic. We are meeting in Geneva, and today the first humanitarian convoy will move from Turkey to eastern Aleppo.” And we were even preparing some statement for the press and some celebration. And then the UN people received a message from the so-called local council in eastern Aleppo who said: “If you use “Castello Road”, we would hit this convoy, we would fire at it.” And I asked Mr.John Kerry whether they would just swallow this threat or they have some influence to use some of their friends in the coalition and in the region to discipline these people to let the humanitarian goodies into eastern Aleppo. They could not react. Mr. Staffan de Mistura said: “Well, let’s wait for a couple of days. Maybe on August 28 they will change their mind.” Then he hoped they would do this in early September and so on and so forth. I believe this is unacceptable.

Speaking of this, I read, I think, in the Wall Street Journal the next day after Aleppo incident that the day before this unlucky convoy moved the same local council in the same part of Aleppo said: “Please don’t send the convoy because the government plans to hit it.” And apparently the UN people from Mr. Stephen O’Brien department said: “The risk of shelling is not the reason not to send the convoy.” I’m not, you know, in support of conspiracy theories, but if the same group one month ago says: we will fire at this convoy, and then one month later they say: the government will do this – even more reason to have a very thorough and very objective investigation.

Question: To take you to a somewhat different part of the Middle East. I had an exchange just a couple of hours ago with your French colleague Jean-Marc Ayrault about the peace conference that they would like to hold, they say, in December. What I’d like to know is: is your government in any way involved? Do you support the holding of this peace conference? Are you going to be participating in some way and what realistically in December do you hope to accomplish?

Sergey Lavrov: We were not consulted on this initiative; we were just told that there would be a meeting to discuss it in Paris on June 3. I could not make it – I had something which prevented me from going. My deputy went there. He participated in it, he listened to what was said by the French hosts who explained their vision of this conference. But that preparatory meeting on June 3 was attended by quite a number of countries whom the French invited but no, we were not consulted. Now we understand their concept better – they want to address social situation in Palestine, economic situation, infrastructure and of course also other measures of confidence building.

We support anything which brings us closer to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. For this to happen, any initiative must be acceptable to both sides. And when it is acceptable to both parties, then the parties must agree on what will be the added value.

Some ten years ago, by the way, we wanted to convene a conference. We didn’t announce it just out of the blue – we went to the UN Security Council, the UN Security Council endorsed a Moscow conference initiative, but we made it very clear that we would only move when we are convinced that the parties are ready to do something positive together. If this is going to be the case with the French initiative, I would be only glad. But so far it doesn’t seem like the parties are equally eager to consider it.

But we are working with both Israel and Palestine; we have to resume negotiations anyway and there are some ideas that, you know, there might be some meetings between the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and the President of the State of Palestine President Mahmud Abbas and that we might be helpful. If this is the case, if they both want it, we certainly wouldn’t be found wanting.

Question: I’d like to follow up on what’s next in Syria. From just listening to you it appeared that you are saying that a three-day truce or a seven-day ceasefire aren’t going to work unless there’s real serious action on separating the opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra. Does that mean that we are going to have to wait, the world is going to have to wait for that to happen before there’s any serious chance of a new cessation of hostilities? Are you and the US Secretary of State John Kerry planning to hold more talks either today or in the near future?

Sergey Lavrov: No, that means that I need to repeat what I said but I hope you can listen to your recorder after the press conference.

But, you know, just one example – Yemen. There was a coup, a rebellion, the President ran away a couple of years ago but unlike Ukraine where next morning after the president left Kiev people said: “OK, fine, we recognize this government.” In Yemen, for the second consecutive year we say: “No, he must be brought back.” That’s just in brackets about double standards to the situations which are very similar especially taken into account that in case of Ukraine the coup took place next morning after the coup leaders signed a deal with the president of Ukraine witnessed by Germany, France and Poland. And all of them just washed their hands and said: “Well, he left Kiev.” By the way, he didn’t run abroad – he went to another city.

But Yemen – for the second consecutive year we are trying to find some mysterious solution which would resolve this disaster, humanitarian disaster by the way. Talk to Mr. Stephen O’Brien, he knows, he told me how bad things are in Yemen. We all want the participants of this conflict – both Yemeni parties and the coalition – with the help of the international community to find a way out. The latest plan designed after so many failed plans was produced, I think, by the USA, the UK, Saudi Arabia and supported by the UN envoy. The first step of this plan is creation of the government of national unity. Just like it was in the case of Ukraine which was violated by the opposition who signed it. But in Yemen the first item is government of national unity and then surrender of weapons, then pulling back from the territories.

And I ask the Americans and all those who raise questions in the same vein as you just did: why in Yemen we all agreed that unless there’s some political framework satisfying all participants of the crisis, of the conflict, and why in Syria we say: no political process until total quiet for one month or one week or three days? I hope you can take this as an answer.

Question: Just a quick follow up. Are you planning to meet the US Secretary of State John Kerry again today?

Sergey Lavrov: We met already.

Question: Details of the recent ceasefire agreement remain secret. Were the Kurdish YPG forces included in that ceasefire? Do you think that future ceasefire agreement should emphasize that attacking YPG forces by opposition or the government forces is a breach of that future ceasefire agreement?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, but I don’t think that the cessation of hostilities details are secret. As I said, they were made public first by the Associated Press, I think, and then the US State Department published them without telling us in spite of the fact that from the very beginning we insisted on making them public. But we thought it would be normal and appropriate to do it together as two sponsors, co-chairs and two authors of this document. But it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that they are available and the entire mass of these decisions – ISSG’s, the UN Security Council’s, Russian-American cessation of hostilities– it proceeds from a very clear principle that ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra are considered as terrorist organizations and listed as such by the UN Security Council. Anyone else is not considered as terrorist, is not considered as fair game, provided they join the cessation of hostilities or provided they don’t attack any one of the participants of this cessation of hostilities. That’s my answer.

Question: The YPG declared that they accept the ceasefire. But given the sensitivity as you are well aware of between YPG and Turkish-backed opposition groups, do you think there should be an emphasis that attacking YPG forces is a violation of a ceasefire?

Sergey Lavrov: It’s already very much explicit from the documents which are made officially public. I told you: it’s only Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL which are not covered by the cessation of hostilities. Those except Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL who want to be part of the cessation of hostilities have protection of the cessation of hostilities and of the UN Security Council.

Question: What about next UN Secretary General? Do you have any thoughts on next UN Secretary General?

Sergey Lavrov: A lot.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia