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Press meeting by Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry

| Moscow (Russia)
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FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Today, we had a big negotiating day with John Kerry and his delegation finalizing their working visit to Moscow. We started with negotiations at Russian foreign ministry and we continued here in the Kremlin during the meeting with President Putin. Negotiations in the morning and in the evening were concrete, specific. We were focusing on issues of Syrian settlement with the link on intensifying our efforts to counterterrorism. ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and other terrorist groups are a common threat to every one of us, and today, we reiterated our determination to uproot this evil. We reiterated the arrangements reached between the military of the Russian Federation and the U.S., arrangements that are applied to the U.S.-led coalition is working against ISIL.

In practical terms, we have agreed some future steps that will help make our parallel work more efficient and more coordinated. We have dwelled on the Syrian settlement. Arrangements of the Vienna meetings were reiterated. They are based on the Geneva communique of June 2012. We agreed to continue the work that is at some final stage on listing terrorist organizations and on providing assistance to the UN in forming the opposition delegation that should be representative and that should be ready for negotiations with the Syrian Government. At the constructive basis in the spirit of those principles adopted by the International Syria Support Group, we agreed to keep up with our efforts on the anti-terror track, on arranging negotiations between the government and the opposition, but at the same time we deem it reasonable to reaffirm the arrangements reached in Vienna on October the 30th and November the 14th.

As the United Nations Security Council resolution, with this aim, we support the idea to convene this Friday on December the 18th a meeting of the ISSG at the level of ministers. And we expect that following this meeting, with the consent of all its members, we can submit draft resolution to the Security Council that would reaffirm all the principles enshrined in the Vienna documents – the Vienna document of October the 30th and of November the 14th. That’s what we discussed in terms of Syria.

Second, we exchanged our views on tasks in Ukrainian settlement, both the U.S. and the Russian Federation, in furtherance of agreements that were reached in principle between Presidents Putin and Obama – confirmed their commitment to the Minsk agreements, to the Normandy format, and will use their opportunities to reach full implementation of the Minsk arrangements. There is a specific idea on how this can be promoted in the most efficient way, and we would like to keep in touch with our U.S. colleagues.

With this, I would like to give the floor to my colleague, John Kerry. Please, you have the floor.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Sergey, thank you very much. I want to thank Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin for their welcome here today and for the amount of time both of them afforded to this very important series of discussions that we had today. I talk with Sergey very frequently in addition to the meetings that we see each other at, but it is always better to be able to sit down in person and spend the significant amount of time that we’re able to do today to really hash out details and not feel the pressure of another meeting at a multilateral event. So I’m grateful for President Putin. Particularly, I think we spent more than three and a half hours discussing a number of different topics as well as some critical issues that President Obama wanted me to raise with him.

There is absolutely no question that when the United States and Russia work together effectively, our two countries benefit, and we think also so does the global community. In July – I just remind everybody – we were able with the P5+1 partners to remove a potential danger to peace and security in the Middle East by negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and we remain together now committed to the full implementation of this agreement, which was designed to make certain that Iran does not secure a nuclear weapon. I’m pleased to report that just today, this afternoon, the Board of Governors of the IAEA passed on a resolution regarding the PMD activities, which was a critical component of the implementation process.

So, despite our countries’ differences, we’ve demonstrated that when the United States and Russia pull together in the same direction, progress can be made. And as Sergey said today, our meetings focus principally on Syria, on counterterrorism, and on Ukraine.

I reaffirmed to President Putin that the United States stands ready to work with Russia to defeat Daesh, but provided, obviously, that Moscow chooses to direct its fire on the real threat, which is Daesh. And I made clear about our concern that some of Russia’s strikes have hit the moderate opposition rather than focusing on Daesh. And I’m pleased to say President Putin took that under advisement. And we talked about the areas of our operations and theirs, and he was very much accommodating in his notion that we need to make certain that our militaries are talking in order to make sure there is a complete de-confliction.

We obviously agree that Daesh poses a threat to all of us. It’s a threat to the region and beyond it. And we talked at great length about the threat of Daesh and the potential of extremism in the region. Russia and the United States agree that you can’t defeat Daesh without also de-escalating the fight in Syria because Syria is the magnet, is the center, if you will, of the Daesh operations.

We also absolutely agree that dealing with both Daesh and Syria is going to require a political process – not a political process for Daesh, but a political process for Syria so that we can better focus our efforts against Daesh. And so in accordance with the Geneva communique of 2012 and under the UN auspices, we discussed today in great detail the need to accelerate the effort in order to proceed under the UN to that political process.

I agree with Sergey, which he announced in Russian, that we will meet this Friday on the 18th in New York with the International Syria Support Group, and then for the purposes of affirming under the UN auspices what we are doing within that group, and if promoted, that we would pass a UN resolution regarding the Vienna communiques and the next steps with respect to negotiations and hopefully a ceasefire.

As I emphasized today, the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called “regime change,” as it is known in Syria. What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria, but we didn’t – we focused today not on our differences about what can or can’t be done immediately about Assad; we focused on a process – on the political process whereby Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria. But we do believe that nobody should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists. Our challenge remains creating the conditions on which an alternative can emerge.

So while we don’t see eye to eye on every single aspect of Syria, we certainly agreed today – and President Putin agreed – that we see Syria fundamentally very similarly. We want the same outcomes. We see the same dangers. We understand the same challenges. And we all believe that a united, nonsectarian Syria represents the future, and we also agreed that it is a future without Daesh and we’re committed to try to continue to destroy Daesh.

So last week, at a conference hosted by the Saudi Arabians, they began to bring together the opposition that is part of our discussion when we go to New York. We’re also laying the groundwork for a nationwide ceasefire as soon as possible, and we hope that we can achieve that soon. I want to also say that I very much appreciate Sergey’s efforts and his cooperation as a co-convener to help move all of these tasks forward.

I also underscored today the need to take steps with respect to the implementation of the Minsk agreements and our efforts mutually to try to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine. We had a good discussion about Ukraine and we agreed on the spot that we will continue to grow out the bilateral process that the presidents agreed on and established recently – some months ago, as a matter of fact. And it’s our hope that the sooner the Minsk agreements are implemented and implemented in full, the better, and U.S. and EU sanctions can be rolled back. So we’re prepared to use all of the tools at our disposal and we all understand what has to happen: The OSCE needs access. President Putin has agreed on steps that need to be taken. The government in Kyiv also has steps that we agree need to be taken, and we intend to work hard in order to see that both sides’ obligations under this agreement are met.

So this was a productive day. Our discussions were constructive. We both know there’s a lot of work to be done. I think it’s fair to say that we both believe that our countries are better off, our people are better off, and the global community benefits when we can find common ground. We came here today – it was an effort – in an effort to try to expand that space. And even as we are honest with our differences, we are also trying to be extremely constructive about how we can find ways to improve both our day-to-day working relationship as well as augment the leadership that we think we can offer on critical crises facing the global community.

With that, we’re happy to take some questions.

MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Russia Today news channel, please.

QUESTION: RT International. I got two questions for both Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov, if I may. Let me start with Mr. Kerry.

So just about a year ago, your President said, and I’m quoting, that: It is America that currently stands strong and united with the allies, but Russia is the one that’s isolated. And I’m just wondering, when international leaders are talking intensively with Russia and you are here on Russian soil talking with the Russian president, where is that isolation? And was it premature to proclaim that isolation back then?

(Via interpreter) And Mr. Lavrov, I have a question to you. How do you view the coalition announced by Saudi Arabia, and what progress was made on the terrorist list and the opposition list? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me answer the question by saying this – that when the President spoke, he was speaking at a time where, in reaction to the events that took place in Ukraine – the annexation of Crimea, which we opposed and continue to, and the situation in Ukraine itself – the United States, rather than choosing to go to war or choosing to enter into a series of more dangerous or other kinds of confrontational efforts, took steps to register our disapproval of what had happened and those were the sanctions.

Now, we don’t seek to isolate Russia as a matter of policy, no. At that particular moment of time, there was an effort to try to make a statement about what had happened. But we have consistently said that the world is better off when Russia and the United States find common ground and an ability to be able to work together. And I think it’s a sign of the maturity of both leaders and their understanding of the importance of the role they play, that despite the differences over Ukraine, we were able to work effectively to remove chemical weapons from Syria during the conflict. That has never before happened in time of war. And the decision that was made by our presidents and that Sergey and I worked on as an approach to solving a problem wound up with the OPCW winning the Nobel Prize for Peace as a result. So we cooperated.

We also cooperated on the joint efforts on Iran. And we believe the world is better because of that cooperation. We are cooperating now on Syria because Daesh is a threat to all of us and it is vital to the world that nations don’t just hunker down in opposition but that they engage and find a way through communication to try to not be isolated and try not to go down predetermined roads but find a way to be able to solve the problems.

Today, we met here as a matter of good diplomacy to try to solve problems, and I believe we will continue that effort in New York on Friday. And there is no policy of the United States per se to isolate Russia. There is a policy of the United States to stand up for our principles and our values, but to try to work with Russia to join together in as constructive a way as possible to, as I said a moment ago, find the common ground.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) As for the coalition that was announced today that is formed by Saudi Arabia, as far as I understand, we all learned about it from media reports just like you. We expect that we’ll get some detailed information from the sponsors of this process but also want to learn more about the discussions in Paris. John talked to this. This was a meeting of some countries that gathered in French capital to exchange views on the developments in Syria and on the tasks ahead of those who intend to settle the situation.

In principle, we assume that everybody should make their own contribution on the anti-terror track and on political track, but we want these efforts to be collective in the format that was formed in Vienna that comprises all the key stakeholders that can influence various parties to the Syrian conflict in the format that was endorsed by the UN Security Council in its recent resolution. This process applies to the terrorist list that is coordinated by Jordan, and our colleagues from Jordan have already gathered the information and asked for this information from all the ISSG members. They got information on the view of terrorist structures by various members. And currently, Jordan is circulating this information to all the members. That is the work that is underway.

It is clear that ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusrah are considered terrorist organizations. They should not be part of negotiations. They should not be part of ceasefire. As soon as the conditions are ripe, there are some other organizations that were recognized as terrorists by the majority of the ISSG members but we are to agree on this list on Friday, I hope – on Friday in New York. And we will also continue our efforts to facilitate the UN work in its efforts to form the opposition delegation for negotiations with the government. The Vienna documents stipulate that all the ISSG members are invited to help the UN to form this delegation. And the meeting we had several days ago in Riyadh contributed to this work.

Not all the opposition groups were represented during this meeting, but let me highlight this was one of the stages of the work coordinated by the UN. The UN take account of the results of all the meetings in Moscow, in Cairo, in Astana, and recent meeting in Damascus where internal opposition met in Hasakah. So all this information will be generalized, will be analyzed by the UN, and the Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will make its – his ideas on the makeup of the delegation that should be representative and that will cover the whole range of opponents to the regime that stand ready for the dialogue with the government based on the Geneva document.

Let me highlight that the key principle here is that it is up to the Syrians to shape the future of their country. This principle is enshrined in the Geneva communique of 2012 and it is endorsed in the Vienna documents adopted in Fall 2015.

And another aspect, talking about the need to build our efforts in a collective spirit, in an inclusive spirit. Today we met not like Russia and the U.S., excluding all other ISSG members, but we met as co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group that didn’t do anything secretly from other members of this group that was established after the Vienna process. We came up with an initiative to pass the UNSC resolution that will enshrine everything that was arranged in Vienna with the support of all the ISSG members. And I think that it is the approach that should be based on a collective effort, and this can lead us to success.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Kerry, you both talked about working together to find common ground. Did you feel today that there was any specific progress on narrowing the gaps on some of the most contentious issues, such as the terrorist blacklist, the composition of the opposition? And I know you decided to defer differences over Mr. Assad for now, but can you just respond to the decision by the opposition last week, which was that he should go right at the start of a political transition process? Is that something you think that can allow negotiations to even begin on that basis?

And Mr. Lavrov, the UN Humanitarian Coordinating Committee has said that the humanitarian crisis in northern Syria is growing because of increased Russian bombing, which is hitting civilians and disrupting aid flows and causing a humanitarian crisis. Can you respond to that, please?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, we did reach some common ground today and agreement with respect to the complexity of this issue of terrorist groups. But it’s not appropriate for me to announce anything that we may have agreed to together on a bilateral basis. Because as Sergey just said, we really need to have the whole group take part in that discussion. And so it’s appropriate for everybody to contribute to whatever decisions and outcomes there are. But we certainly narrowed down our own thinking about the complexity of it and how one can manage that. We obviously agree that ISIL and – ISIL/Daesh and al-Nusrah are absolutely outside of this process no matter what. Everybody has agreed to that; that’s unanimous. And beyond that, we look forward to the discussion in New York on Friday.

With respect to the announcement or proclamations of the people who came together in Riyadh, that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group. It is not the basis of the Geneva communique; it is not the basis of the UN resolution. And we are assured by the members of the International Syria Support Group who were attending that meeting and helping with that meeting and hosting that meeting that that is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously. So for those people who are going to participate, they understand we are participating under the Geneva communique, and the transition process is geared to try to be taking effect within about a six-month period. That’s the current target that has been approved by the International Syria Support Group.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Let me adhere to what John has just mentioned. The mandate to form the opposition delegations to provide assistance to those delegation in order to shape out the platform for negotiation with the government was given to the UNSC Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. And the meeting that took place in Saudi Arabia is one of many contributions into the work of the United Nations. The frameworks for this work are the Geneva communique and two Vienna documents, which, as I mentioned, have clearly stipulated for the Syrian people to be able to define the future of their country by themselves as a result of negotiations between the government and the whole range of opposition based on mutual consent.

As regards the UN reports on the humanitarian situation in Syria, I believe you are referring to one of the latest reports, which stated that Russia’s operation in Syria allegedly (inaudible) to create a suffering for the civilian population. In these statements, there were no references to concrete facts. We have asked for these facts and they weren’t able to provide for such facts. And we asked the UN secretariat to be more precise in their assessments so that it could provide assessments behind which there are concrete facts and sources. Since then we haven’t heard any accusations of us.

Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Spasibo. Thank you.

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