Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry following their talks, Moscow

July 15, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for your patience. We appreciate your interest in foreign policy and Russian-US relations.

We had very intensive talks yesterday and today as part of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit. Yesterday, Mr Kerry had a long and topical meeting with President of Russia Vladimir Putin, during which they discussed many international issues and also relations between Moscow and Washington. But they mainly focused on Syria.

In the morning and afternoon today, we had a more detailed discussion of all aspects of our cooperation on Syria, Ukraine, Libya, the Middle East settlement (I am referring to Palestinian-Israeli relations), and other issues on the international agenda.

Regarding Syria, following a very intensive meeting with President Putin yesterday evening, we held a detailed discussion of the joint measures that Russia and the United States could take in order to boost the efforts to implement UN Security Council resolutions and decisions of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). We agree on the practical steps, which Russia and the US as ISSG co-chairs could take to enhance the effectiveness of our joint efforts.

We reaffirmed that our goals are to repel the threat coming from the so-called Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organisations and to cut short external assistance to terrorism.

We highlighted the need to strengthen the ceasefire, which has been launched by the UN Security Council upon Russian and US proposals, and to encourage all parties without exception to comply with the ceasefire principles, excluding terrorists not covered by this agreement.

We have agreed on the practical measures that need to be taken, with the participation of the concerned experts and in compliance with international humanitarian law, in order to move forward in this area and create conditions in which the political process, the intra-Syrian dialogue will be launched in full measure and produce positive results. Our common goal is to maintain a lasting ceasefire throughout Syria, as I said, excluding ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, for whom we will show no mercy, and to build upon positive achievements we have made in the delivery of humanitarian aid. This year, humanitarian access has been ensured to all the 18 besieged regions of Syria. Our common goal is also to step up the efforts to facilitate political reform in Syria in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

We have agreed that the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, should work more energetically and submit concrete proposals on the political transition and political reforms for all Syrian parties, who should sit down at the negotiating table and start a comprehensive and multilateral intra-Syrian dialogue aimed at implementing the provisions of UN Security Council resolutions, or more precisely, at achieving agreement on all aspects of the political transition.

Russia will be working to convince the Syrian Government to support this approach. Both the United States and Russia are interested in convincing all ISSG members, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Egypt and Turkey, to support the political process in Syria.

As I said, we discussed not only Syria but also the situation in North Africa, including Libya, Yemen and the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mr Kerry recently visited Israel. We in Russia also maintain regular contacts with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders. We have recently coordinated a large and very informative report that was prepared by the special representatives of the Madrid Quartet of intermediaries in the Middle East settlement. We hope that its discussion at the UN Security Council will help bring together practical steps that would be effective for overcoming the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock.

We also discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Russia, the United States and France are co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. In May this year, US Secretary of State John Kerry held a meeting of the Group’s co-chairs with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Vienna. In June, President Putin met in St Petersburg with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan. Some time ago, I visited Yerevan and Baku upon President Putin’s instructions.

Today we exchanged opinions on ways to use the accumulated potential for taking the process to a more practical stage, and focus on reaching agreements that would be acceptable to all parties and would help restore peace in this important region.

We also talked about Ukraine. Efforts to bring about a settlement in Ukraine are being taken in several formats. One is the Contact Group and its subgroups. We consider this format to be very important because it includes representatives of the Ukrainian authorities and of Donbass. Another format is the so-called Normandy Four that includes Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. And there is also the direct format of bilateral Russia-US dialogue. We agree that all these formats should synchronise their efforts.

Several very useful meetings with experts have been held during Mr Kerry’s visit to Russia. We hope that this will bolster the implementation of the Minsk Agreements on the settlement in Ukraine by encouraging direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.

We also exchanged opinions on the results of the recent Russia-NATO Council meeting. We talked about those aspects of strategic stability that need to be discussed more intensively, primarily between Russia and the United States. I hope this discussion will continue.

We discussed bilateral issues. Unlike during our previous meetings, when we talked about problems that exist in both countries, we have agreed to stop exchanging our lists of problems and concerns and to start developing a roadmap, even if it consists of small practical steps towards improving the unhealthy situation in bilateral relations.

Overall, I believe that it was a very useful meeting and visit. The talks with President Vladimir Putin yesterday and the talks that went on the whole day today have shown that both parties know that they need each other and the international community for settling acute international issues, primarily the threat of international terrorism.

Even though terrorist attacks have almost become regular, yesterday’s terrorist attack in Nice, France, was nevertheless shocking. Today, Mr Kerry and I visited the French Embassy in Moscow to lay flowers and sign the condolence book. I believe that this tragedy should encourage us to more closely address burning problems at the level of states and foreign policy departments, and to abandon the rather artificial and ideologically and politically laden disputes that are sometimes fanned by the media and are presented as well-nigh the main element of our relations.

The talks we have held in Moscow allow me to say that this is not so, and that responsible politicians in the United States, as we could see from a recent telephone conversation between President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama, are acting according to their national interests and the interests of the international community, taking into consideration the importance of Russian-US relations for global stability and cooperation.

I am grateful to US Secretary of State John Kerry for coming to Moscow. We meet and talk regularly. I hope that our relations and the results of our meetings help settle international issues and prevent any deformation of Russian-US relations.

Question (addressed to John Kerry): Can you give us an update on the situation in Turkey at the moment? I’m sorry to ask something so off-topic, but it’s certainly of interest.

Sergey Lavrov (speaking after John Kerry): We receive our news in real time. I believe that your fellow journalists now know more than diplomats do. We believe that it is necessary to avoid any bloody clashes and to address national developments and situations solely in line with the constitution.

Question (addressed to John Kerry): This deal is a huge boon to the Assad regime by concentrating American firepower against the most effective anti-Assad forces and that you’re basically selling out the rebels. Can you respond to that criticism, and what happens to this deal if, like every other one, the Syrian and Russian forces violate its terms? Mr. Lavrov, are you doing anything concrete to plan for or encourage a post-Assad future, and if so, what? And independent news organizations have reported that Russian forces have repeatedly violated previous ceasefire agreements in Syria. Are those reports accurate?

Sergey Lavrov (speaking after John Kerry): I would like to say a few words about Syria and problems we faced during the implementation of agreements reached by members of the International Syria Support Group and the UN Security Council. As Mr Kerry has said, we have coordinated rather specific moves today, but these moves have not yet lead to a specific result. We need to make them, and we have agreed as to how and when this should be done. This is a very specific result of today’s marathon negotiations. I hope very much that our experts on both sides will accomplish everything on time and quickly, while fully comprehending the responsibility of our countries as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group for implementing the Group’s decisions that were approved by the UN Security Council.

You have asked a very interesting question, and you have inquired whether the focus of US efforts on combating Jabhat al-Nusra would weaken the most effective anti-Assad force. I realise that journalists have special rights and can provoke a discussion, but the answer to this question is very simple. Mr Kerry has also touched upon this issue. Members of the UN Security Council have repeatedly noted that nothing can justify terrorist attacks, and that nothing can be used to justify efforts to pander to and connive with the actions of terrorists. As Mr Kerry has said, the UN Security Council lists Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS as terrorist organisations, and as such must be destroyed. All countries, members of the ISSG, have agreed on this. This, too, is the united stance of the UN as has been expressed in the resolutions of the UN Security Council.

History knows situations when certain countries tried to “woo” extremists and terrorists in the hope of using them for achieving their own geopolitical goals and for overthrowing undesirable regimes. The very same logic was manifested in Soviet times when some of our colleagues supported the Mujahedin in Afghanistan in the hope that the Mujahedin would help inflict maximum possible damage on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and that it would eventually become possible to “tame” them. But they were never “tamed.” The Mujahedin evolved into Al-Qaeda which staged the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. All of us condemned those attacks. As you remember, those attacks served as a pretext for rallying the international community, including the Russian Federation and the United States, for collectively retaliating against the terrorist threat.

We are also familiar with the recent Libyan example, when those obsessed with overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi did not shy away from cooperating with openly terrorist extremist groups. We also know what came of this: Libya has now become a breeding-ground for terrorism. Militants and weapons supplied to Gaddafi’s opponents, in violation of the arms embargo, have spread far beyond Libyan borders. Today, all of us (we have also discussed this today) are trying hard to “patch together” that state, so that it will not disintegrate and become an area of confrontation between forces siding with the extremists and those who sincerely want the people of Libya to decide their own destiny.

Speaking about Syria, we can talk a lot about who is to blame. There is a roadmap that is contained in numerous documents, starting with the June 2012 Geneva Communique, UN Security Council resolutions and decisions of the ISSG. They state absolutely clearly that only the people of Syria can decide their own destiny and the future of Syria. This means that it is, at long last, necessary to implement available agreements and seat all Syrian parties, including the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and all opposition groups without exception, at the negotiating table. To my deep regret and with all my respect for our UN friends, no one has tried to do this so far. Talks involving UN mediators walking from room to room and trying to provide “shuttle diplomacy” between various Syrian groups yield nothing and will produce no results because the will of the international community, expressed in the decisions of the UN Security Council, calls for direct talks, just like in any other conflict, including Yemen, Ukraine or any other country. Only direct talks between the parties can provide a chance that we will move in the right direction. The international community, including Russia and the United States as co-chairs of the ISSG, cannot substitute this process. But we will not conceal the fact that we can and must use our influence on various Syrian parties to persuade them to fulfil the biggest demand: to sit down at the negotiating table and agree on political reforms on the basis of mutual accord. This is the key to success. We hope very much that this process will be launched, and that the solution of the Syrian problem, just like that of any other problem in our restless world, will hinge on democratic principles, on the principles of the UN Charter, which proclaims the sovereignty of nations, no matter what. Nations themselves should decide their destiny, primarily, of course, through free elections in which politicians compete with one another, and citizens-voters exercise their right to vote.

Question: We just received information that the foreign ministries of France and Belgium have recommended their citizens to stay indoors if they are in Turkey. Has the Russian Foreign Ministry issued any recommendations for the Russian nationals in Turkey?

Could you please clarify the question of dividing lines between the moderate opposition and the Jabhat al-Nusra front? Did you discuss any steps to punish groups that do not respect the decision taken and collaborate with terrorists?

Sergey Lavrov
: On the subject of Turkey, we realise the need for utmost caution until the whole situation becomes clear. We urge our citizens in Turkey to stay indoors and wait until the situation settles and becomes clear. This can be taken as an official declaration.

Regarding the second point you raised, we have long said that Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are terrorist organisations. They are not covered by any of the agreements concluded and must be eliminated. These groups are our common enemies. Since January this year, the International Syria Support Group has said clearly that opposition groups that do not wish to be associated with terrorism and are ready to join the ceasefire and want to be registered as parties to the ceasefire regime must distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, including by territorial delimitation, so that no one has cause to assert that in any particular area, terrorists and normal opposition forces share the same location. Since January 2016, when the relevant UN Security Council resolution was passed, the normal opposition forces have had plenty of opportunities, even more than needed, to join the ranks of those respecting the ceasefire.

It is my conviction that those who have not done this yet probably cannot be counted as belonging to the constructive opposition. These people are trying to gain advantages for themselves out of collaboration with terrorists. We spoke a lot about this today. We understand that there are some difficulties, including those our American partners face, concerning practical steps on the ground to delineate the normal and reasonable opposition forces ready to take part in the political process from the terrorists, above all Jabhat al-Nusra.

We here in the Russian Federation also believe that it could have been possible to overcome these difficulties over these last months. We also discussed this at length today. I hope that the measures we have agreed on, which Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned and which we will begin implementing in the near future, will enable us to resolve this problem.

You asked if there will be punishment for those who remain in positions held by the terrorists. Our view is that those who remain in these positions, despite the many months of appeals to leave, are probably little different to the terrorists.