Amid an inabiltiy or (and) unwillingness of the US and its allies to fulfill their part of the southern Syria de-escalation deal and to eliminate terrorist groups – ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and their affilates – in the area, Syria and its allies have taken the situation into their hands.
Currently, Syrian forces, assisted by Russian advisers and military police, are developing their operation against militants in the southern province of Daraa. This caused a stiff reaction of the US State Department and a hysteria in the mainstream media. In this light, it’s intersting to check how Russia employs its diplomatic capabilities creating conditions for a total defeat of the terrorists.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Ayman Al Safadi, Moscow, July 4, 2018 (source):
We had detailed talks on the situation in the region and the state of our bilateral relations.
We focused particularly on a Syria settlement based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of that country.
We expressed satisfaction with very close and meaningful interaction between our countries on the Syrian settlement as part of the tripartite – with the participation of the United States – monitoring centre in Amman and the Astana format, in which Jordan participates as an observer.
We appreciate our Jordanian friends’ efforts to promote the agreement on reconciliation between the Syrian government and the opposition forces near the Syrian-Jordanian border. We discussed an issue that remains a major concern for Jordan. I’m referring to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees residing in the Kingdom (according to some estimates, 1.2 million) and the accumulation of refugees on the Syrian side of the border. We share the belief that these people are in need of humanitarian aid. We reviewed a number of specific measures designed to facilitate and expand the delivery of this aid.
We also noted the need to fulfil the southern de-escalation zone agreement between Russia, Jordan and the United States in all its aspects, including continuation of the relentless fight against the terrorists from the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, which control about 40 per cent of the southern de-escalation zone. This goal remains a priority, including, based on the assumption that the elimination of the terrorist groups will create favourable conditions for the refugees (including those in Jordan) returning to their homeland.
To create favourable conditions in the liberated areas for the refugees to return home, massive international assistance is required aimed at restoring the socioeconomic infrastructure and creating new jobs. We are convinced that all international players who have such capabilities should assist in addressing these tasks in Syria without attempting to make the provision of such assistance dependent on some politicised conditions.
Russia has repeatedly mentioned the need to lift the unilateral sanctions imposed by the Western countries on Syria which are in the way of creating the proper economic and infrastructure environment for returning refugees.
Russia and Jordan express deep concern over the state of affairs in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. The increase in unilateral approaches which hinder the implementation of the agreements reached earlier within the international organisations, primarily the UN, is a source of concern. We are convinced that a direct dialogue between the parties to the conflict is the only viable way to reduce tensions in the Palestinian territories and move towards a settlement. Russia is willing to provide every assistance to have it resumed. We are willing to do so both in the context of our bilateral relations with Israel and Palestine, and in cooperation with other international players, including the Middle East Quartet platform.
In addition to these and several other regional matters, we discussed prospects for bilateral relations, which are developing progressively in accordance with the agreements reached by President Vladimir Putin and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
We are committed to continue to cooperate in the sphere of peaceful use of nuclear energy and to diversify business ties in other areas. We look forward to the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, which plans to meet before the end of the year, contributing to these efforts.
We have reiterated our willingness to continue the dialogue on all these and other matters of mutual interest. We will cooperate constructively in promoting bilateral cooperation and addressing important regional and international issues.
Question: Addressing the UN Security Council meeting on June 27, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura expressed concerns about the potential escalation of violence in the Syrian province of Deraa and urged the Council members to act in order to prevent Deraa from following the Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo scenarios. You have not commented on this statement by Staffan de Mistura. Can you do it now? Are such statements justified in light of the fact that Russia has participated in organising humanitarian corridors for civilians? Will the practice of humanitarian corridors be used in Deraa?
Sergey Lavrov: As my colleague and I have already mentioned, an agreement is in place between Russia, Jordan and the United States on the southern de-escalation zone in Syria, which presupposes the cessation of hostilities and does not limit, but, in fact, provides for increasing efforts to fight ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists. Of course, our US colleagues undertook to negotiate with the opposition groups controlled by Washington, so that they disassociate from terrorists. They don’t always succeed in doing so.
Moreover, a number of groups that cooperated with the Americans participate in joint combat operations with Jabhat al-Nusra. As I mentioned, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS control about 40 per cent of the territory in the southern de-escalation zone and are trying to expand their presence there. To this end, last month they began shelling the Syrian army positions, killing civilians in the process. Of course, this must be stopped, which is what the Syrian army is now doing with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
We are also helping the Syrian army to persuade the armed groups to conclude an agreement on reconciliation, lay down their arms and return to peaceful life. Jordan has made a sizable contribution to these efforts. A number of such groups have already signed corresponding reconciliation agreements. Accordingly, peace came to towns formerly controlled by these groups. As this process continues to expand, civilians who were forced to leave this area will return to their homes.
With regard to Eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, we remember that, during the anti-terrorist operation, there were lots of lamentations in the Western media and political circles to the effect that international humanitarian law was being violated and ethnic cleansing was taking place. All this turned out to be a lie. Unlike a number of other places where the so-called “antiterrorist coalition” was trying to establish order, tens and hundreds of thousands of civilians have already returned to Eastern Ghouta and Eastern Aleppo and keep coming back.
I wouldn’t be concerned about seeing this situation follow the Eastern Aleppo or Eastern Ghouta scenario. However, I would be concerned to see it follow the Raqqa scenario, where civilians are still unable to return to their homes, and those who are trying to do so are putting their lives on the line because of the dangerous mine fields. All our proposals, including to our American counterparts, to organise a joint mine-clearing operation and thus allow the civilians to return to their homes have not yet received a positive response. I reiterate that as we continue to oust terrorists in Deraa and across southern Syria, we will provide humanitarian aid to the civilian population and do our best to make sure that people can return to their homes as soon as possible.
Question: What do you think is the likelihood of reaching agreement on southern Syria before the Helsinki summit?
The other day, US National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an interview with the CBS that Iran’s withdrawal from Syria will also be discussed in Helsinki. I think all reasonable people understand that this demand is unrealistic. Nonetheless, we know that Israel has its own concerns over the presence of pro-Iranian non-governmental armed forces in the proximity of its borders. Is it possible to find a solution to this very complicated issue that would be supported by all parties, including Iran?
Sergey Lavrov: Let us first agree on some basic things. There are many non-Syrian forces in Syria. Some of them stay there with the agreement of the legitimate Syrian government, a UN member-country, while others stay there illegally, in violation of the principles of international law.
As for southern Syria, all matters related to Syria are bound to be discussed in Helsinki. The agreement on this area has already been reached and was fixed in the documents and decisions adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in Hamburg in July 2017 and in Danang in November 2017. Jordan supported these decisions.
These decisions provide for a certain sequence of actions, as a result of which no non-Syrian forces will be left in this region. The Syrian army will control the border with Israel. At the same time, there will be a zero tolerance policy with regard to Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS units stationed in this area. The part of the agreements that depended on Russia to a certain extent has been largely fulfilled.
Now we are trying to persuade our partners to do what they pledged to do under the two agreements reached last year. This primarily concerns the need to avoid any pretexts for not combatting terrorists and ousting them from this region.
We see how the Western media discusses the subject of Iran in a very simplified context that is designed for a not very sophisticated audience: “Iran must leave and everything will click into place.” This is applied not only to Syria but also to the entire region. It is alleged that Iran should leave, stay within its borders, and everything will be wonderful. This is absolutely unrealistic.
It is impossible to seek solution to the region’s problems without the participation of its key countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, to name a few. All of the region’s countries have their own concerns and many have grievances against each other. As in any other area of the world, they should sit down at the negotiating table, state their concerns and start talking on how they can remove them on a mutually acceptable basis. There is no other way. It is necessary to act in the same vein as regards the settlement in Syria or any other problem in this volatile region.
Question: Do you see the need to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ahead of the Helsinki summit, or could you settle all issues by telephone? Will you attend tomorrow’s ministerial meeting on the Iranian nuclear programme in Vienna?
Sergey Lavrov: Summits are being prepared in various formats. One of the preparatory stages for the July 16 Helsinki summit was the visit by Assistant to the US President for National Security Affairs John Bolton. During his visit, it was the American side that proposed holding a meeting of foreign ministers ahead of the summit. We agreed, of course, but yesterday in a telephone conversation Mike Pompeo said that his timetable was extremely busy and he would not be able to meet before the summit. We agreed to find a suitable place and dates after the meeting of our presidents in Helsinki to consider ways to attain the goals that we hope will be set at this summit. I can assure you that the preparation at the expert level is continuing. I do not want to get so far ahead, but we are looking forward to a frank discussion on all the issues that mar our relationship with the United States.
On Friday, July 6, in Vienna, the foreign ministers of the parties to the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme will meet, except the US, which withdrew from this programme. Yes, I will attend.