Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, Moscow

March 14, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have held very constructive, trustful and substantive talks with my Tunisian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia Khemaies Jhinaoui.

This year, we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. We agreed to mark this anniversary with a host of events, timed to coincide with this date, including humanitarian and cultural events in Moscow and Tunis.

Today we reaffirmed that Russia welcomes the successful progress of reforms in Tunisia and supports the Tunisian Government in its fight against the threat of terrorism. We were unanimous in our opinions that cooperation along the anti-terrorist track should develop on the basis of international law and the central coordinating role of the United Nations, without double standards or interference in the internal affairs of states.

We appreciate our Tunisian friends’ endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to create a broad anti-terrorist front. Our common rejection of international terrorism and our mutual aspiration to team up to promote a decisive response to this global evil is reflected in our joint statement, which was adopted at the end of our talks and will be released.

Regrettably, the mounting terrorist threat has affected one of the key areas of practical cooperation between Russia and Tunisia – tourism. The number of Russians travelling to Tunisia sharply decreased last year. In this connection, we expressed our gratitude to our Tunisian partners for putting the necessary additional measures in place to ensure security in resort areas.

Bilateral trade is developing fairly well, although last year’s negative trends in the global economy brought about a certain setback in our trade turnover. But we are confident that it’s a temporary occurrence. We agreed to take steps to remedy the situation within the framework of the Russian-Tunisian Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation, which will hold its sixth session in Moscow on March 29-April 1.

The sides exchanged opinions on key international and regional issues where we share or have very close positions. Both Russia and Tunisia advocate political and diplomatic solutions to crises and conflicts with due respect for fundamental principles of international law, national identity and cultural and civilizational diversities of modern world.

We carefully considered the situation in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Sahel and other hot spots. We also discussed the Middle East settlement in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts.

On Syria, we stood together on the need to implement UN Security Council Resolutions 2254 and 2258 that approve decisions of the International Syria Support Group worked out by the Group’s co-chairs – Russia and the United States. The intra-Syria dialogue is to begin in Geneva today. We are watching how dialogue participants are being formed to represent the Government and opposition. Clearly, the dialogue should include the entire spectrum of Syrian political forces to become a fully representative forum that will discuss key issues in the Syrian Arab Republic’s future. We agreed that we are both satisfied with how the ceasefire is observed despite minor violations. However, we are continuing the uncompromising struggle against the so-called Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups on the list approved by the UN Security Council.

As for Libya, we highly appreciate Tunisia’s position as its neighbouring state, which is experiencing the consequences of the neighbour’s crisis, including in the form of terrorism. We support Tunisia’s mission in mobilising neighbouring nations to promote political settlement that should, like in Syria, involve all political forces of the country; otherwise it would be difficult to preserve Libya’s integrity.

We also have common approaches to all the conflicts I mentioned, including Libyan. We are aware of the openly and secretly discussed plans of military interference, including in the situation in Libya.

We agreed that it can only be done with the UN Security Council’s permission. Given how events developed in 2011 when the UN Security Council was also considering this issue, a possible mandate for an anti-terrorist operation in Libya should be clearly formulated to prevent any twisted meanings and misinterpretations.

I have mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. We are very upset by the fact that the so-called “Arab Spring” resulted in Palestinian issues being pushed away from the first-line priorities of countries both inside the region and far beyond its borders. We consider this wrong. We believe it’s necessary to step up efforts to bring this issue back into the centre of the international agenda. It influences the general situation in the region in many respects. Our consistent approach here is to mobilise the Quartet of international mediators, countries in the region and member-states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to implement the decisions earlier adopted by the UN and during the previous direct negotiations between the parties.

I am very satisfied with the results of our meeting. I want to thank my counterpart, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, for inviting me to visit Tunisia. I am confident that today’s talk will enable us to advance all aspects of our relations on their 60th anniversary.

Question: Can the federalisation scenario in Syria become an option for a post-war settlement, if this initiative comes from Syrian representatives? What model for a post-war Syria (if federalisation is not the case) seems optimal to you?

Sergey Lavrov: There have been similar speculations before and they gave a distorted picture of the situation. You yourself made a proviso in your question by saying “if the initiative comes from Syrian representatives.” We will support the agreement on Syria’s future, which is reached between the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the entire spectrum of the opposition. This stems directly from the International Syria Support Group’s decisions, which were approved by the UN Security Council and rule that only the Syrian people will decide Syria’s future. This means that any model, no matter what it is called – federalisation, decentralisation or unitary state – must have the consent of all Syrians. The UN Security Council resolutions, the documents that were adopted by the international community and accepted by all Syrian parties, read that it is necessary to take the interests of the entire spectrum of Syrian society into account. This means that there must be a search for ways to balance the interests of all ethnic and religious groups without exception and that it is necessary to work out such models and reach such agreements as will respect and, not unimportantly, protect the ethnic, cultural, religious and other peculiarities of each of those groups.

We never attempted to decide anything for the Syrian people. Some of our other colleagues did, but not us.

Question (to Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui): You declared support for the idea of creating an international coalition against terrorism. Could you please comment on the recent terrorist acts against your country in this context? Do you plan to use Russian experience in countering terrorism?

Sergey Lavrov (adds after Khemaies Jhinaoui): I’d like to support what my colleague has just said. We value our bilateral cooperation in countering terrorism. Thus, Tunisian experts regularly take part in the annual meetings that the Russian FSB conducts for high representatives taking part in the struggle against terrorism. In addition, the relevant agencies of both countries discuss opportunities for supplying anti-terrorist units in Tunisia with Russian equipment.

Today we also reviewed our cooperation in international agencies, primarily, the United Nations – the main, central coordinator of international anti-terrorist cooperation. We reaffirmed our commitment to a very important provision to the effect that it is states that should lead anti-terrorist cooperation and attempts to obviate them and their agencies will not produce anything good. Regrettably, such attempts have been made recently. We are convinced (and our Tunisian friends understand and share our position) that actions behind the back of states may contain serious risks that – far from helping – will harm common anti-terrorist efforts.

Question: The delegation of the Syrian opposition formed in Riyadh said in Geneva that it is going to establish a transitional administrative body without Bashar al-Assad’s participation. How will this impact the talks?

Sergey Lavrov: Different participants in the inter-Syria talks make certain statements. These talks are scheduled to start in Geneva today. I wouldn’t wish to overly dramatise the approaches of different parties. Apparently, on the eve of a major event – the start of the inter-Syrian dialogue – many participants will probably wish to make extreme requirements with a view to gaining more advantages during the talks. We consider it necessary to adopt a philosophical attitude towards such a statement, although naturally any radical approaches, ultimatums and attempts to predetermine the outcome of the inter-Syria dialogue do not help create an atmosphere conducive to reaching an agreement.

Meanwhile, such an atmosphere is a must for implementing the requirements of the UN Security Council resolution which reads that a political settlement should be carried out with due account of the interests of the entire range of Syrian political forces and that the final results in this process should rest on the mutual concord of the Syrian Government and all members of the opposition. This is the main criterion.

I’ve already quoted one more idea sealed in the decisions of the UN Security Council, notably that only the Syrian people have the right to determine Syria’s destiny. Obviously, statements to the effect that someone will be excluded from this process contradict this position of the UN Security Council. The group that gathered in Riyadh is far from the only representative in this process. Naturally, there is also the delegation of the Syrian Government and delegations of other opposition blocs. We urge all parties to avoid an escalation of tensions and confrontation in the media and to sit down at the negotiating table and seek agreements as is required by the UN Security Council decisions that all participants in the talks from various Syrian parties accepted verbally and pledged to fulfil everything that they require.