Voltaire Network

Press Conference by Sergey Lavrov dealing with Syria

| Moscow (Russia)
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Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We decided to invite you today beyond our scheduled meetings, because you certainly have many questions regarding the events in Syria and around it. To that end, I would like to say some introductory words.

We are seriously concerned with the current situation. Hysteria is growing; the confrontation is heated up in connection with the statements that the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic used chemical weapons on the 21 August in Ghouta. On this pretext, we observe massive build-up of armaments in the region; we hear appeals and even threats of using military force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Washington, London, Paris announced at the official level that they have conclusive information and evidences of the guilt of Syrian authorities. They cannot present them now, but talk even more loudly that the “red line” has been crossed and they cannot hold back any more. These actions are directly opposite to the agreements fixed by G8 leaders at the summit in Lough Erne in June. The Declaration of the summit clearly states in black and white that any message about the use of chemical weapons in Syria should be thoroughly and professionally investigated. But the results of such investigation should be presented to the UN Security Council. The members of the G8 summit, who refuse from this agreement, are in fact trying to assume the role of investigators and the UNSC.

We always insist on the investigation of any messages about the use or alleged use of chemical weapons or chemical poisonous substances. When investigating the current situation, we need to fully analyse the information, which is circulating on the Internet, which questions the version of use of chemical weapons by government authorities. The (global) network contains many professional and expert assessments, including from the United Kingdom, the United States, and other foreign countries, which point out to the lack of evidence in the videos, which can be found on the Internet. There are reports that many of these videos were posted on the websites concerned many hours before the known Arab TV channels announced about a chemical attack against the opposition on the 21 August.

Those, who intend to enforce a forceful scenario by any means, are not comfortable even with the yesterday’s agreement reached between the Syrian government and UN experts about the organisation of a visit to regions, where, as statements demonstrate, poisonous weapons were used on the 21 August. They practically reject these agreements and say that it is too late; all the clues might have been eliminated in these five days. We have a naturally arising question: why our western partners, who are now so worried about the risk of disappearance of the clues, were not at all worried about the preservation of material evidence, when they blocked the sending of UN experts to investigate the cases of use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Asal on the 19 March. That time nobody expressed any worries that delays will contribute to the disappearance of clues.

As you know, having faced such obstruction, Russian experts have conducted their own investigation of the incident of the 19 March. By the way, they did it fully complying with the compliance criteria of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and presented a full and extended report to the UN and members of the Security Council. This is an extremely specific document, unlike the affirmations we hear about the so-called “conclusive evidences” of guilt of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad of the events of 21 August.

We also have questions regarding the fact that the statements about the chemical attack appeared on the 21 August, when experts headed by a Swedish professional Ake Sellstrom have already come to Damascus and coordinated the plan and modalities of their work with Syrians. Many serious analysts and Internet users ask a question: what is the use for Syrian authorities to use chemical weapons in such conditions? I will draw your attention to the fact that the information about a chemical attack in the region of Ghouta was planted the very moment, when Russian-American experts were preparing for another meeting to prepare Geneva conference. There is no doubt that this hysteria will work against the convention of this forum. Probably this is one of the goals pursued by the authors of these “news”.

It is evident that the opposition does not want any negotiations and announces that it agrees only to an unconditional capitulation of the regime. Such approaches will only strengthen as a result of the strong information campaign, which is currently being deployed in favour of a military solution of the Syrian crisis.

In general, the course of events confirms that as soon as there is a small chance to initiate a political process, the attempts of replacing the regime are being undertaken to disrupt these chances. The same thing happened with LAS observers, and the peaceful initiative of Kofi Annan, and the UN observer mission in Syria. I think that now the same attempt is being undertaken to disrupt the Russian-American initiative of the 7 May to convene an international conference for full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012.

Unlike the representatives of the Syrian government, who agreed to send their delegation to the conference without preconditions, the opposition has not done this although almost five months have passed. We would like to understand, what signals opposition members get from their sponsors in respect of the preparation for the conference.

I wish to quote the statement of the representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Khaled Saleh published on The Daily Beast website, where it is stated what Americans say to the opposition: “You sit down at the table and you say you need Assad to go and they say no, and then the negotiations fail and we move on to the stage”. I repeat, this quote is posted on The Daily Beast website.

I hope that the opposition indulges in wishful thinking, when it makes such statements. In my yesterday’s conversation with John Kerry, the US Secretary of State conformed the commitment of Washington to holding the international conference and convinced me that he continues his work with the opposition to ensure its participation in this forum. As to me, I appealed to my colleague so that we send coordinated and uniform signals to all the Syrian parties – to the Government and all the opposition groups – that there is no alternative for a political settlement through a direct dialogue, through convening “Geneva-2”. This is what we do in our contacts with Damascus and all the Syrian opposition forces. We are also committed to the vital provision of the mentioned G8 summit Declaration, where its leaders announced the need to combine efforts of the government and the opposition in their combat against terrorists to expel them from the Syrian Arab Republic.

I am convinced that efforts of G8 members and the entire global community should be aimed at this rather than at building up confrontation and shock troops in the region. We have already seen this, including, on the examples of Iraq and Libya. No case of forceful intervention from the outside has led to security building or improvement of life in the country concerned, or stabilisation in the entire region. On the contrary, the region is currently destabilised almost unprecedentedly.

Therefore, we appeal to everybody to act responsibly, not to repeat mistakes of the past, to work honestly, together, as it was agreed by G8 summit leaders in Lough Erne in June.

I am ready to your questions.

Question: We hear many talks about the convention of “Geneva-2”. You have said that it is vital to conduct it in the nearest time. Are there any specific or at least approximate deadlines for its convention?

Sergey Lavrov: As you understand, to hold this conference, we first need to determine the composition of its participants. Soon after the announcement of the Russian-American initiative, which we made together with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow on the 7 May, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic stated that it is ready to send a delegation (to this conference) without preconditions for the only purpose, set by Russia and the United States – to attain agreements about full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 through negotiations.

The opposition has not done this yet, announcing that it needs some additional guarantees. Then, somewhere at the beginning of this year, that time leader of the National Coalition (NC) Moaz al-Khatib stated that he is ready for negotiations without preconditions. After that he was, as we say, quickly “removed from his job”, but the current heads state that they need to restore military balance “on the ground” to participate in this conference, as well as to receive guarantees that the delegation of President Bashar al-Assad will come with a declaration of capitulation and will hand over all their powers to the opposition. This is radically different from the concept of the Geneva Communiqué of the last year, on which the Russian-American initiative is based, because according to this Communiqué, there must be a joint consent of the Syrian Government and all opposition groups about parameters of the transition period, the creation of a transitional governing body, which will prepare a text for the new constitution, elections, etc.

Therefore, the main question now is not to determine the date and try to adapt to it all those who hesitate or object. The position of regime’s opponents is too deeply negative to deal with organisation issues before it changes and becomes constructive. In accordance with the agreements we reached with Americans, our US partners are dealing with it. As I was yesterday convinced by John Kerry during our phone conversation, he assumes obligations to make the opposition come to the Geneva conference with a constructive approach and without any unrealistic preconditions.

As soon as we get such consent, we can start discussing less complicated issues, including the participation of other opposition groups not included in the coalition. Kurds, for instance, are very interested that their interests are not forgotten. They wish to stay in a single Syria, discuss the limits of their autonomy within the framework of the Syrian Arab Republic’s territorial integrity at the negotiations.

Of course, we will need to finally agree on the range of external participants, beside the Syrian parties. The candidacy of Iran poses some problem. We think that this country plays the most significant role in the events taking place in Syria. In all these conditions, all those who have influence on the processes, must be present at the negotiation table – we cannot isolate them. However, some countries also expecting to participate in “Geneva-2” take subjectivist positions saying that Iran has not deserved such right. Well, we are not talking about any “awards” to be given at this conference. It is not about a gift, but about the group of countries, which must be representative at its maximum, so that everybody, who has influence on this or that Syrian party, are represented at the conference.

As to its deadlines, I do not think that it is realistic to hold the conference in September, as we told some time ago. We will try to resolve all the issues of content preparation for the conference as soon as possible. Then, I think, it will not take a long time to set a date for it.

Question: If UN inspectors find evidences of use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, will Russia agree to reconsider its position, i.e. to vote for military intervention in the UNSC? Or will Russia abstain in this vote, as it was in the case of Libya?

Does Russia have a “Plan B” for the case, if the West initiates a unilateral intervention to Syria? Is Russia ready to start using means other than diplomatic statements, including military to assert its position?

Sergey Lavrov: The “what if” questions are usually not answered at press-conferences. I will specify one thing: UN experts, who currently are in Syria, received a mandate to determine whether chemical poisonous weapons were used, which are prohibited by international conventions, and what substances these were. There authorizations do not include making any verdicts regarding, who used these chemical weapons – the Syrian Arab Republic’s Government and one of numerous opposition groups, be that the Free Syrian Army or terrorists from Djebhat an-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or anybody else.

Therefore the logics of this process was consolidated at the Lough Erne summit in the G8 Declaration of leaders in such a way that an objective professional investigation is required first and its results should be presented to the UNSC. Of course, the Security Council will take into account all the totality of information, including analytical and factual materials from the Internet and different mass media, when determining the source of alleged use of chemical weapons.

Question: In a situation, when the West does not consider common sense and Russian argumentation, but is ready to make a crazy step, what will be the position of Russia? Are diplomatic measures sufficient to prevent manoeuvres of the West and the countries “around its orbit”?

Sergey Lavrov: It is hard for us to understand the true motivation of our western colleagues, when, having conducted destructive interventions in Iraq and then in Libya, and having not solved other problems during the Arab spring to assist respective countries to become stable, establish interreligious and interethnic peace, they start to make statements at the summit level that strike us with the uncertainty of the course they propose to take.

In my yesterday’s conversation, I asked John Kerry about their strategy of actions, what they plan to do for the announced (tough not yet authorised) action of the United States against Syria to help solving problems of the region rather than multiplying them and bring the region to a true catastrophe. I asked him what their plan was. The answer was much narrower than my question. He appealed to Russia and China to combine efforts to eradicate chemical weapons and prevent it from getting into wrong hands.

When we talk about the strategy of our western partners, please pay attention that a couple of years ago one of the most popular appeals addressed to us and China was, to a known extent, to make Russia “take the correct side of the history”. I have no memories of the topic of “the correct side of the history” being heard in the last half a year or a year. Actually, only few people understand how the process named Arab spring will end. If somebody designed this process as a controlled chaos, now only the last word has left from this phrase.

I am not an advocate of the conspiracy theory, I do not think that somebody has modelled it. It is just natural aspiration of peoples for better life, which we always supported, which took such shapes, when the international community had to establish a dialogue inside these countries, help them with national settlement. Instead of that, many key players started to take one part, probably acting according to the principle – “the winner is always correct”. They forgot about old alliances, staking at those, whom they considered the winning party. After that, the winning party become a loser again.

This is ad-hoc policy. While we need comprehensive and logic policy. We cannot fight a regime only because we personally do not like the dictator, and not to fight the other regime, because we like its autocratic governor. As I have said to my friend Laurent Fabius (Minister of Foreign Affairs of France), the French in Mali helped to fight terrorists, groupings, whom the same French armed and supported in Libya.

Here we need to step away from personal subjective preferences and to determine main threats for the region. In my opinion, they are clear – it is terrorism, extremism, illegal turnover of weapons and everything related to this. We create tremendous threats, when we pump illegal armed formations with weapons. This is what we need to agree on rather than acting in a way: “let us forget about everything – Syria faces problem, so lets us take care of it”. We have taken care of Libya in the same way just recently, and before that – of Iraq, absolutely disregarding the consequences it causes in the Islamic world.

We should not disregard that forceful involvement of external players into this or that conflict in the Middle East and North Africa leads to a drastic aggravation of confrontations inside the Islamic world. In our activity – in the development of relations with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), promotion of the initiative to support the “Dialogue of civilisations”, creation of the “Alliance of civilisations” – we always appeal to our Muslim friends to adhere to the principles of the Amman Declaration, which was adopted at the conference held by Jordan King Abdullah II in 2005, where it was announced that all Muslims are brothers, and there can be no wars between Islamic countries.

All these events bring dark thoughts. As to your specific question, like with the question about “Plan B”, the use of force with UNSC sanctions is a gross violation of international law. I will highlight again – even if we leave aside legal, moral and ethical aspects (of the case) – specific consequences of external intervention, unauthorized by the international community, only drastically aggravate the situation in the country, which they were allegedly saving from dictatorship and wished to establish democracy there.

I was listening with worries to the statements from Paris and London that NATO may interfere to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria also without sanctions from the UN Security Council. This is very dangerous and volatile path. Our western partners already stepped on it several times. I hope that common sense will prevail in the end.

We all need to think jointly not how to resolve problems for some country, not how to support one group of countries there instead of the other, but rather jointly create conditions to establish peace everywhere and each country was a comfortable place, where we see tolerance to ethnic and religious minorities and rights of all these groups of people are ensured. The efforts of the international community should be aimed at this – helping countries of the region to find national peace and consent rather than “driving wedges” in the hope to resolve own egoistic and geopolitical tasks.

Question: According to today’s messages of the western mass media, the United States and the United Kingdom are preparing for the military operation in Syria presuming that chemical weapons were indeed used in the Syrian Arab Republic on the 21 August. Based on your latest contacts with US Secretary of State John Kerry, in your opinion, what is the probability of the West starting a military operation in the Syrian Arab Republic?

Sergey Lavrov: At the end of our long phone conversation in the evening of the 25 August John Kerry promised me again to attentively study our argumentation. He said that he would call me back in the next days to continue discussing the topic.

As to forecasts, forecasts are a lowly employment and, I repeat, the threatening action has already started. The events unfolded in the same way in Iraq 10 years ago and just recently in Libya. I have already mentioned that as soon as we see a small light at the end of this “desperate” tunnel, we immediately face those who wish to disrupt any chances to transfer the situation into a political track. When LAS observers started their work in Syria in autumn 2011 and reported more or less objective picture, they were immediately withdrawn. Based on the Kofi Annan’s plan, UN observers were deployed and worked for three months. Their first steps allowed to slightly reducing the level of violence in the country. Somebody did not like this and regular provocations started against these UN observers. An intolerable situation was created around them, and western colleagues in the UN Security Council refused to extend their mandate for the next three months. Another chance was missed.

A meeting was held in Geneva on 30 June 2012, where a communique was adopted by consensus of almost all leading “players” – permanent members of the UN Security Council, LAS members, Turkey, the European Union, the UN leaders. Russia offered to approve this document in the Security Council, but they refused us referring that a threat in the form of sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be added to this document, which was approved by consensus. The agreements were disrupted again.

Later, as I have already mentioned, the leader of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib spoke in favour of a dialogue with Damascus – he was removed and new leaders were appointed who did not allow for such lack of determination. And after that our initiative with US Secretary of State John Kerry emerged to convene a conference to finally implement the Geneva Communiqué, which was rejected by our partners in the UN Security Council a year ago.

The current situation around chemical weapons is willingly or unwillingly (I do not know whose plan it is or it is just happening) working in favour of disrupting this initiative. As we all have already heard, a strong military and marine group is assembled under the pretext of punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the events of the 21 August (though nobody has proven anything yet, but they already affirm that the regime is guilty – without trial and record, without an opinion by the UN Security Council). The United States, the United Kingdom and other countries prepare their ships and aircraft for this operation.

Of course, in these conditions – if we were the opposition, which does not want any compromises with Bashar al-Assad, but others try to persuade you to go to the conference, we would not agree to go to this forum, when the military infrastructure of the regime in on the brink of being bombed, and then the opposition will enter Damascus and will govern there without any conferences. This is not a simple illusion – it is a terrible mistake, which will not lead to peace and quiet, but will just proclaim a new, even bloodier stage of the civil war in the Syrian Arab Republic.

I have another fact I have just learned, which supports the suspicions that somebody wishes to disrupt any efforts to normalize the situation. UN chemical experts have started their first assignment to visit the specific region (in the East suburbs of Damascus), where they were subjected to sniper firing in the area, which is under control of militants. I have no doubts that it will be announced that snipers shot from the other side. In general, the line goes in one direction and does not provide for any optimism.

Question: Do Russian intelligence agencies have information, supporting that the attack of the 21 August could be a provocation on behalf of the opposition?

Sergey Lavrov: You do not need to ask this question to Russian intelligence agencies. It will suffice to view websites with pictures of the missile, which was blown up, they contain an approximate description of the substance. According to some characterises, it resembles a lot the missile, which was blown up near Aleppo on the 19 March. Professional experts, including those experienced in the work in OPCW, pay attention that such video pictures arouse many questions. Terrible, heart-breaking scenes, when dozens of children are lying. Then the question is: how and why they were all in one place and in one time. Nobody explains it. Why the symptoms we see on these videos do not resemble the symptoms, when people get poisoned with sarin gas or any other substances. Why the people who provide assistance to those who were exposed to this substance do not have any chemical protection. The internet also provides some intercepted e-mail communications, from which a conclusion may be drawn that these substances were brought for the rebels from foreign countries. An arms dump containing canisters with a chemical substance has been found recently (you definitely follow the news).

I cannot affirm anything, but, as to military and political aspect, the Syrian Government absolutely does not need to use chemical weapons, when UN experts are working there, when the military position is favourable to the Government, when a Russian-American meeting to prepare for the Geneva conference is expected in a few days. Is it beneficial for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons in such situation, in the midst of the work of inspectors?

While, according to all considerations I have already mentioned, it would be interesting for the other party to organise such provocation, if they wish to provoke strikes on the regime from foreign countries. I cannot affirm anything unlike those, who have already stated that it was done by the Government, and therefore the “gunboat diplomacy” is already working. We must wait for objective examination by the UN expert group, of course, if they are not prevented from doing this, as it happened today, when they were subjected to a sniper fire.

Question: You warned many times against a military interference into the Syrian conflict and told about hard consequences for the Syrian Arab Republic and the entire region. Could you be more specific about these hard consequences?

Sergey Lavrov: I think we see hard consequences of previous actions of interference in the conflict in this region. Look what is happening in Libya: central authorities, with whom we maintain our dialogue, do not control large territories of their country, but militants, who participated in the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi made it through to Mali, where they were fought back. People are afraid of them in other countries as well, in particular, in Niger, Chad.

Take a look at Iraq, where dozens of people die every day and hundreds get injured as a result of bloody terrorist acts.

We see a real civil war in Syria. The Government is fighting the so-called Free Syrian Army, as well as the increasing number of terrorists from Djebhat an-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, other terrorist groups. The Free Syrian Army periodically confronts terrorist formations. If somebody thinks that by bombing the Syrian military infrastructure and leaving the battlefield for the opponents of the regime to win, they will end it – it is an illusion. Even if they win in such a way, the civil war will continue. Just those, who represented the Government will become the opposition. The region has examples, when things happen in this particular way.

Question: As to the mechanism of work of UN experts. As you have said, they have no mandate for determining, who committed the attack. Let us assume that they find that some certain substance was used and this information gets into the UN Security Council. If they have different opinions and are not able to come to a single point of view, is it not possible that UNSC will be rebuked for being inactive?

How many times does this mission have to establish facts, because, according to messages of the western mass media, the decision about possible intervention may be made in a few days?

Sergey Lavrov: As I have already said, the western leader make statements, from which it follows that they are not going to wait for the results of this mission’s work – they have decided everything themselves. By the way, they did not make any comments on the detailed report, which was drawn up as a result of our investigation of the incident of the 19 March. This is absolutely professional, detailed and specific document with results of all analyses, which were made in laboratories certified by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. By the way, this is also a part of the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission. The visit to the regions of Ghouta, where the incident of the 21 August took place, was agreed in addition, when the mission has already come to Damascus.

The OPCW – and its experts participate in this UN mission – have their own rules, according to which they do not make any accusational judgements, they just present facts: certain substances were found in a certain place in a certain time, the missile is factory-made or home-made, sarin or any other substance meets factory standards, or does not meet them, or it was home-made. Then it is up to the UNSC to decide.

The Security Council faces different situations, when they do not come to a single conclusion. I may assume that pragmatism, and, I would say, irrecoverable assurance that they are right, currently demonstrated by our western partners, when they announce loudly that they do not need any investigations, they know everything, their intelligence agencies have received conclusive data, make us think that they will take the same position in the Security Council, if they go there at all. I will highlight again – unlike us, who transferred their investigation results to the UN and made them available to everybody, nobody shows these “conclusive data” that the regime is guilty in the events of the 21 August.

In the UN Security Council, we will use all the scope of information, including that found on the Internet and insinuating serious doubts in the information other are trying us to believe on TV.

Question: As you have already said, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom and France stated that they are ready for a forceful action without a resolution from the UN Security Council. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey said the same. How will Russia react, if missile firing to military site of Syria will start without a sanction from the UN Security Council?

Sergey Lavrov: I think there is no need to guess about such reaction. First of all, we never answer “if” questions. You may make conclusions presuming from our position in the last years, when international law was grossly violated in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. This is bad. But we are not going to fight anybody.

As before, we expect that our western partners will determine their policy strategically rather than reactively. We understand the limits for strategic thinking related to the very frequent electoral cycle, when emotions of voters, aggravated by the governing circles need to be satisfied, and later it becomes a vice circle.

This is life. However, it is sad that principles of international law become less significant for our western partners, at least for the leading Western countries, who at the same time are our leading partners. All those, who think that they will be able to establish laws from the epoch of lawlessness, probably act short-sightedly. It will definitely catch them up later.

What happens with the freedom of the Internet? We were told many times, that there can be no limits by definition. As it seems, this position, which was translated at international forums, was not at all a guide for actions of those, who promoted it on public. In practice, the freedom of the Internet was abused and, probably, continue to abuse, as we say, very deeply. For the time being, this is probably causing a mess, at least in terms of morals and ethics.

You can pick any sphere, and it is always better to follow the rules, to respect peoples and help them agree between themselves, rather than thinking in categories of “gunboat diplomacy”, stop to be sick for the colonial past, the epoch, when they needed just to whisper for everybody to show servile obedience. The world is changing today. It is impolite and short-sighted to perceive other civilisations as second class groups of the population. It will catch you up sometime in the future. We need to avoid the war of civilisations in all possible ways. We are for the dialogue, for the alliance of civilisations. But in this case we need to respect each other’s traditions, the history of those communities, which become more and more significant on our planet, to respect the values, which have been created, established for centuries in these societies and were transferred from one generation to another. It is so simple – if you wish to get on well within your neighbours in your village, the same principles apply. A disregard to such principles at the international arena costs much more for taxpayers as well, and, the worst – for peoples’ lives, who then become the “collateral damage”. This terrible term (collateral damage) was invented to justify the gross violations of international humanitarian law and has rooted deeply in those, who promote concepts like “responsibility to protect”, “humanitarian intervention” – when the motto of human right is used to disrupt the most crucial right – the right to live. We are certainly not going to fight anybody.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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