Sergey Lavrov: Ladies and gentlemen,
We have held talks with Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of the Lebanese Republic Gebran Bassil. The talks took place in a traditionally friendly atmosphere, were highly informative, and included bilateral relations and regional issues.
Given the nature of multi-faith Lebanese society, Russia has always regarded stability there as a crucial element of regional architecture. We consistently express support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. We proceed from the assumption that the Lebanese should address any issues on the national agenda independently, through dialogue, and while displaying mutual respect and willingness to compromise.
We welcomed the results of the May 6 parliamentary elections, which had been postponed for a long time and only became possible owing to the parties finding an internal political balance that enabled all political forces to work as a team. We hope that this internal Lebanese balance will be preserved and consolidated in the course of efforts to form a new government.
During our discussion of bilateral relations, both parties have confirmed their intention to continue intensifying interaction in different areas, including the political dialogue, trade, economic, military and military-technical cooperation, as well as humanitarian ties. In all these areas, a contractual legal framework has been formed or is in the process of being formed and concrete mutually beneficial bilateral and often multilateral projects are being coordinated and implemented. We have agreed to work to consolidate the positive dynamism of Russian-Lebanese ties and to consider new promising projects, including in the regional context.
Russia and Lebanon hold coinciding or very close positions on regional and global problems. We share the view that Lebanon should not be a target of outside interference, a “small change” in geopolitical games or hostage to the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic and its negative consequences, such as the issue of Syrian refugees.
We have discussed in detail the prospects for strengthening our cooperation on issues related to the safe and dignified return of Syrian citizens home, those who have found temporary refuge on Lebanese soil. Conditions for this have been created and will continue to improve. I am referring to actions taken following the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which gave an impetus to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees that Russia has established in Syria has been distributing information, practically on the daily basis, on the populated localities that are ready to receive people willing to come back to their homes. Nearly 7,000 refugees have returned from Lebanon to Syria during the last month alone. We will continue to build cooperation in this area.
We have coordinated further approaches to cooperation at the UN and in other formats on other aspects of issues that persist in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraqi and Palestinian-Israeli settlement and, of course, the need to fully maintain the UN’s role in Lebanon.
On all these issues, we will remain in close and trusting contact.
Question: What do you think about Lebanon’s role in the efforts on the return Syrian refugees?
Sergey Lavrov: I’d like to say that Lebanon has been consistently and actively working to resolve the refugee problem and has been doing this since the start of the Syrian conflict. Lebanon has emphasised this issue at all stages of the talks that started in 2012 when the Geneva communiqué was agreed upon. This subject was also a priority for Lebanon when the International Syria Support Group was established at Russian-US initiative. The subject was promoted by two targeted sub-groups on the ceasefire and on the resolution of humanitarian issues.
Lebanon is a small country. As my friend Georges Bassil said, the presence of over a million refugees is a very heavy burden for this country’s economy and infrastructure. By way of example, of half a million school students that attended Lebanese schools last year, Syrians were in the majority and Lebanese in the minority. It is very important that Lebanon does not just call for a resolution of this problem. As my colleague has just said, it is ready to take part in creating the conditions for a resolution, in part, as we discussed at the talks, by encouraging Lebanese businesses to participate in projects to restore the infrastructure so as to increase the number of areas and cities where refugees can return. We agree with Lebanon on this. Conditions for the return of refugees are already being created. This process has already started. To put it mildly, it is counterproductive to make artificial demands that complicate the return of the refugees and the restoration of the country’s potential.
Question: The US says it is still too early to talk about the restoration of Syria before a political settlement is reached there. Some analysts believe that these statements merely reflect the West’s attempts to prevent Syria from returning to a peaceful life. Is Russia taking any steps to reach a common European or UN Security Council decision on involving the international community in the restoration of Syria and the return of refugees?
Sergey Lavrov: This just emphasises what we have been talking about, notably, artificial attempts to stop the return of refugees by refusing to participate in the efforts to restore the infrastructure in Syria. Several days ago Mr Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, visited Washington and met with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Following their talks, the US Department of State said it was premature to even discuss Syria’s restoration. It was said that first it was necessary to reach a political settlement, the so-called “political transition.” Indicatively, the US sets these preconditions only for the territories that are controlled by the Syrian Government and have been liberated from ISIS, al-Nusra and other terrorists.
Such requirements are not set for the areas controlled by the opposition forces that are cooperating with the US and enjoying its support, primarily on the Eastern bank of the Euphrates. On the contrary, restoration is in full swing and the US is involving many allies in the payment for these efforts. Recently, US officials and senators openly promoted their efforts on removing mines on the Eastern bank of the Euphrates and restoring roads, schools, hospitals, residential and commercial buildings, thereby emphasising that the US is making a contribution to Syria’s restoration. However, it is limited to the areas occupied by the opposition that are not always constructive. On the territories under its control and that of the opposition, the US has established a unilateral security area in At-Tanf that includes the Rukban camp. UN officials are not allowed to visit this camp, and humanitarian relief is being impeded. However, militants including al-Nusra fighters periodically conduct raids in the part of Syria freed by Damascus, in part, to prevent refugees from Jordan from returning. You can come to your own conclusions.
Of course, we are drawing the attention of the UN Security Council to this situation that does not meet any requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Considering this absolutely destructive US position, the UN Security Council will hardly be able make any positive decisions on this issue at this time. We will continue working with the countries that understand the urgency of the measures on returning the refugees and the creation of conditions for this. These are countries that have accepted refugees from Syria (mostly, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey) and the European states that are also coming to realise the need for specific steps to this end. This was confirmed by the recent joint Russian-French humanitarian act on the delivery of cargo to Eastern Ghouta by a Russian aircraft from France and the talks between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Mesenberg the day before yesterday. They discussed Syria and, in particular, the refugee issue.
Question: Recently, meetings with Turkey have become more frequent. In particular, you recently visited Ankara, and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar visited Moscow the other day. President Putin and President Erdogan have talks over the telephone all the time. Is there any progress and understanding with Turkey on unblocking the situation in Idlib and the return of Syrian refugees?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia and Turkey, as well as Iran as guarantors of the Astana process are working on this every day by telephone and in person. In the next few days, we will hold talks with our Turkish colleagues to discuss Syrian settlement in general and all of its aspects. Of course, especially with regard to the military, we are focusing, at this stage, primarily on implementing the tasks agreed upon during the creation of the de-escalation zone in Idlib. The key goal now is to separate the opposition groups that are willing to participate in the political process from the al-Nusra militants who abound in the Idlib area and are trying to govern it and provide for day-to-day life in that region. The armed opposition groups that are trying to establish cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra should think twice and do so as soon as possible.
When our Turkish colleagues deployed 12 observation posts in this zone awhile back, the situation calmed down a bit, but then al-Nusra and their branches began to fire at the Syrian army’s positions from this de-escalation zone; they launched drones, and tried to attack our air base in Khmeimim. This must stop. The other day in Ankara, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey and I agreed that a separation of the armed groups that are willing to cooperate in resolving the crisis from Jabhat al-Nusra is a priority. I hope that in the coming days we will not only continue this conversation but also reach an agreement.
Question (to Acting Foreign Minister of Lebanon Gebran Bassil): What do you think about the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi who spoke against facilitating the return of Syrian refugees, calling the situation in Syria too dangerous?
Sergey Lavrov: I will add a few words to that, because this is an important matter. We also noted these statements by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and contacted the headquarters of his department. We were told that the media did not interpret his words correctly. They said that in fact, the commissioner had in mind the following: until there is a so-called process of political transition, the main donors, primarily the West, will not send any funding to restore Syria’s infrastructure and economy in general. We stated our view that there are other donors besides Western ones, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees should not look like a "branch" of a group of Western countries.
Concurrently and irrespective of the refugee issue, we asked UNESCO how they plan to implement long-standing agreements on how to make that organisation’s potential useful for restoring Palmyra. From their explanations as to why UNESCO cannot yet engage in this, we realised that they have instructions from UN headquarters in New York. It turns out that the Political Department of the UN Secretariat issued and circulated throughout the UN system in October 2017 a secret directive prohibiting organisations that are part of this system to participate in any projects to restore the Syrian economy limiting their involvement to humanitarian aid and nothing more. Again, a condition was put forward that only after progress had been made on a so-called "political transition" will it be possible to deal with the restoration of Syria. I asked Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres why such matters are the subject of some in-house secret Secretariat’s directives and why the UN Security Council which deals directly with the Syrian settlement is not aware of them, and why such decisions are made without an open and objective analysis of the situation on the ground. Mr Guterres promised to sort it out. I hope he will.
I am convinced that everyone will agree that no group of countries should be allowed to manipulate in their self-serving geopolitical interests or the secretariats of international organisations whose employees must be impartial and independent. We see our partners in all international organisations. The UN system was created under UN Charter principles based on respect and equality of all states. I call on our Western partners to return to these principles and not to try to take advantage of unwitting, as they say, international organisations. We have disagreements over Syria and a host of other issues, but let’s discuss them candidly and openly, rather than try to address matters behind the backs of our partners in a particular international structure by influencing, I’m not sure by what methods, the secretariat staff in the corresponding international organisations.