By Akmaral Batalova:
Sergey Lavrov Russian Foreign minister was attending a high-level meeting with the foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan about the Syrian crisis. He gave an exclusive interview to TV and Radio Complex of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Here are some questions and answers.
Question: What is your view of today’s meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey? What can you say about the outcome of the Astana process over the past twelve months and Kazakhstan’s role in it?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia has a very positive view of the Astana format meeting. My colleagues from Iran and Turkey are of the same opinion. We have actually summed up the results for a period of over a year, since the first Astana format meeting at the level of senior officials was held in January 2017. Since then, eight rounds of meetings were held, and our hosts from Kazakhstan obviously participated in them. Even more importantly, these meetings brought together the representatives of the Syrian Government and opposition, as well as observers from the US and Jordan. We have accomplished quite a few things during that time.
The main achievement was the creation of the de-escalation zones where a ceasefire was declared, which helped scale back the violence. However, it is also a fact that the ceasefire is not always respected. Specifically, particular emphasis has been placed lately on Eastern Ghouta. Unfortunately, this de-escalation zone is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. It is also unfortunate that Jabhat al-Nusra overwhelmed the armed groups that were to be part of the negotiating process. They created a joint command, which meant that three groups, namely Failak al-Rahman, Jayish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, joined forces with Jabhat al-Nusra, a group listed by the UN Security Council as a terrorist organisation. The Russian military was proactive in helping the Syrian representatives in their contacts with these three groups, in order to persuade them not to work with terrorists, so that counter-terrorism efforts can proceed without any ambiguity. This process was very slow to get off the ground. There is now some hope that these armed groups will distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra. Most importantly, in order for the de-escalation zone to function properly, the shelling of residential neighbourhoods in Damascus should stop. In several incidents, the neighbourhoods where the Russian Embassy and trade mission are located came under artillery fire. Of course, in this situation it would not be enough for us to ask that the shelling stop. We need guarantees that there will be no ceasefire violations coming from Eastern Ghouta. But all this applies only to Eastern Ghouta.
Let me reiterate that violence has generally subsided. The de-escalation zone in the south was established alongside the Astana process with input from our colleagues from Jordan and the US, and is successfully operating. In the Idlib zone, I think that everything is moving in the right direction. Our Turkish colleagues will soon have created the required number of observation points that would enable them to control the military situation. The Homs de-escalation zone is functioning properly, more or less.
The second achievement of the Astana process was its substantial contribution to the overall efforts to facilitate humanitarian access. There are some shortcomings in this area as well, including the fact that some of our colleagues adopted a somewhat biased stance. While calling on the Syrian government to work with international organisations on humanitarian deliveries, which is a legitimate claim, they did not show the same insistence when it came to delivering humanitarian aid to territories besieged by the opposition fighters. I think that we need to remove this imbalance. Today, we confirmed that humanitarian aid was among our priorities.
My third point is that of course we need to build confidence and promote confidence building measures. In this respect, one of the specific and new results that we have been able to achieve at the ministerial meeting was to establish a working group on the exchange of detainees, hostages, the sick and the wounded. Yesterday our experts agreed on the working group rules of procedure, and we approved this document today. It sets forth all the criteria underpinning this very important humanitarian activity that is poised to enhance trust.
My forth point is that the Astana process brought renewed attention to political settlement talks. Before Russia, Turkey and Iran convened the first Astana meeting in January 2017, our UN colleagues, to be honest, were passive and merely stood by observing the Government and the opposition, waiting for someone to do something. They did not show any initiative. But when the Astana process came into being, the UN resumed its efforts, just for the sake of being present and showing that it cares for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2254. We welcome these efforts, as well as the fact that the UN was represented at all Astana format meetings, and today’s meeting was not an exception. The Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, Staffan de Mistura, was unable to attend for medical reasons, since he had to undergo a planned operation, but his deputy was here. We made it clear to him that Russia, Iran and Turkey as the three guarantor states of the Astana process and the three countries that initiated the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which brought together all the main groups of the Syrian society, will be proactive in supporting the efforts made by Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura in developing a mechanisms for undertaking a constitutional reform. Today we confirmed that this mechanism should be based on the principle whereby only Syrians themselves can determine the fate of their country without any outside interference or imposed recipes. All agreements as part of the political settlement should be approved by the Government and the opposition, as stated in UN Security Council resolutions to this effect. This is a guarantee that the decisions that are about to be developed actually work. Perhaps, this would require more time than just drafting the Syrian constitution somewhere in Europe or overseas and bringing it to Damascus. It is possible to make the opposing sides in Syria work within this framework for several weeks or months, but this will not last very long. In any case, geopolitical engineering of this kind is doomed to failure.
In conclusion, I would like to say how much we appreciate Kazakhstan’s role, as was said during today’s meeting. Someone could say that this is just a matter of being a hospitable host. This is not the way things are. Hospitality and creating the right sort of working environment is important in itself, since it removes distractions and enables participants to focus on their work. Secondly, Kazakhstan not only provides for all the arrangements and comfort, but also sets the political climate. Kazakhstan invariably stands for a unifying agenda, offering compromises on the main regional and international matters. It currently promotes these views within the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member. President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has met with the participants in the Astana process on numerous occasions and his personal involvement serves as a political impulse. My colleague and friend Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan Kairat Abdrakhmanov also accompanies this process. This is a very important contribution. Let me highlight that everything is done with much consideration and sensitivity, and with a sense that the three guarantor countries are the main drivers of the process, and are taking into account all the circumstances. All the conditions are created for our troika to function properly. For this, we are grateful to our friends in Kazakhstan.
Question: Thank you for this assessment. You have said that the people of Syria should independently determine their own future. These events have been called a proxy war since the beginning of the conflict. A number of developments have taken place since February 2018. After all this, one can probably say that the countries supporting certain parties to this conflict are in open confrontation with each other. Why did this happen? Can we say that Syria will be divided, as many analysts, including Western ones, believe? Many experts are inciting the situation as if World War III is about to begin.
Sergey Lavrov: Mikhail Bulgakov wrote that one should not read Soviet newspapers in the morning. Today, we live in a world where one should not read Western newspapers. All stories are unprecedentedly simplistic, crude and propagandistic. The public is being brainwashed. We are watching this time and again and in various situations, including Eastern Ghouta or some absolutely unimaginable incident in connection with the poisoning of yet another character and his daughter in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, Western propaganda is, on the one hand, becoming more primitive. On the other hand, it is becoming more brazen. Ordinary people have to read unsophisticated stories without any comments.
Speaking of a proxy war, this, in principle, denotes a situation when outside players send their “clients” to the battlefield, while keeping a low profile. This has nothing to do with us. The legitimate Government of Syria, a UN member country, officially and openly invited us to support their counter-terrorism efforts and those aiming to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Russian Aerospace Forces have been actively doing this since October 2015. This was a decisive contribution to eliminating the main base of the so-called ISIS. Russian military advisors and numerous military police officers are operating on the ground at the invitation of the Syrian Government. Russian military police units were deployed there after the liberation of Eastern Aleppo. It may be interesting, but about 200,000 civilians who had fled that city from terrorists have returned back home to date. However, Western media outlets, including newspapers, television channels and online publications, were yelling that the liberation of Eastern Aleppo amounted to a humanitarian disaster. There was no “yelling” (please excuse me for using this word) and no such hysterics during the US-led coalition’s efforts to liberate Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. In retrospect, if we compare these operations in Eastern Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul, there were no humanitarian corridors in Raqqa and Mosul. There were no opportunities allowing civilians to flee the war zone. Service personnel stationed there did not care much about humanitarian aid deliveries.
Raqqa has been devastated, as confirmed by various sources, and dead bodies have not yet been removed. Our representatives at the UN Security Council insist that a humanitarian mission be sent there at once. UN members are so far in no hurry to do this, and this also raises some questions. One would also like to ask why humanitarian organisations are unable to visit the huge territory of the US-controlled Al-Tanf community in southern Syria and the local Rukban refugee camp. The US side has unilaterally established control over that area. We saw to it that the Government of Syria support this approach, and now humanitarian organisations have to go there.
Speaking of the current situation, it appears that the opposition is waging a proxy war because US, British and French special forces, as well as those from some other countries, are operating on the ground. The US does not even deny this fact. So, this amounts to direct military involvement, rather than just a proxy war.
Certainly, we denounce the illegitimate presence of foreign armed forces in Syria. The US-led coalition is illegitimate, from the standpoint of international law and the UN Charter. But we are realists, and we understand that it would be pointless to fight them. Therefore we coordinate our actions so as to be able to prevent unintentional clashes, to say the least. Our service personnel maintain permanent contacts with US commanders in charge of operations in Syria. In addition to this, we have established more or less regular dialogue between chiefs of general staffs, liaison officers and everyone directly supervising the operation on the ground.
I would not over-exaggerate the situation with the attack of US-controlled forces on Syrian or pro-Syrian forces. In reality, this deserves to be denounced because we have been repeatedly assured that the United States and its coalition aim to fight terrorists alone. They have attacked Syrian government forces, as well as Shayrat Air Base a year ago under an absolutely far-fetched pretext of allegedly deployed chemical weapons. I don’t know who authorised US Ambassador at the UN Nikki Haley to say that the United States will be ready to bomb Damascus and President Bashar Al-Assad’s Palace, and that it didn’t matter that Russian representatives are staying there. We have responded very strongly to this absolutely irresponsible US statement, via both military and diplomatic channels, in Washington and Moscow. I don’t think that we should even discuss Syria’s possible division, but it is our duty to demand that these plans being hatched by someone be thwarted at once.
Aided by the Kurds, the Americans have expelled terrorists from large territories on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. But, after liberating these territories, they are imposing local authorities who are deliberately distancing themselves from Damascus and stating that they will be supported without any interaction with the Syrian authorities. And here is one more aspect. Proxy war or not, but the Americans who are relying on the Kurds in their counter-terrorist operations have already entered the political dimension of the Kurdish issue that goes beyond the territory of Syria. This is a major political mistake and a political blunder. Of course, those who have at least some idea of the Kurdish matter, as well as the positions of Turkey, Syria and Iran could not have made this statement. We have what we have. However, it is precisely the Astana troika who are demanding that the concerned parties comprehend the need for a pragmatic and an absolutely consistent approach towards all Syrian issues in the context of the Syrian state’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity. Therefore the Astana process is highly promising and principled.
Question: Since you mentioned violations of international law, can we talk about moral degradation in foreign policy? Is it possible to change things or reformat international relations in general? Is it possible to change the activities, the work and the structure of the UN? There is the sense that there is a need for a new approach and new solutions on a global scale.
Sergey Lavrov: There is a saying that everything new is well-forgotten old. This is an age-old adage. In this particular case, the old is the UN Charter which is as relevant as ever. In order to overcome the current chaos, disorder and disregard for international law, it is necessary to return to the sources – the principles of the UN Charter – which requires ensuring, in practical matters on the international arena, the sovereign equality of states and unity among the UNSC permanent members. Hence, the right of veto, which is not a privilege, but a huge responsibility. The right of veto was created by the very countries that are now trying to blame Russia for abusing it. The veto is a tool to ensure that the decisions, which are at odds with the interests of one of the great powers, will not be adopted. Not because someone wants to retain this privilege, but because the decisions do not work in life otherwise, and are non-starters. A principle like non-use of force is now discarded and trampled upon, except by the decision of the UN Security Council or in self-defence. For example, when our US colleagues submit a resolution to the UN Security Council, and we propose holding talks on it, because there are alternative points of view, we are accused of blocking the work, and they decide to do it alone. Immediately, they come up with ultimatums, sanctions and so on, which is absolutely unacceptable from the standpoint of the UN Charter. Or, they try to reform the UN in a way that is not in keeping with the Charter. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is a good case in point. Now, the US administration is beginning to say that this council is adopting unnecessary decisions, or does not adopt the decisions that they need, and proposes reforming the very process of its formation and membership, and agreeing upon a list of countries that have no place in this council (so that only “democratic regimes” are represented and are entitled to delegate their representatives there). I believe this is all very clear, and it is not even worth explaining how arrogant and unacceptable it all sounds. There will be a list of Category One, Category Two, and so on.
I believe there’s no need to try to pursue grand schemes. In Soviet times, high-profile initiatives were adopted every year at every session of the UN General Assembly. Some of them worked, but most of them were sheer propaganda. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is worth mentioning in this context. I’m aware that Kazakhstan signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We discussed this matter in detail with our friends from Kazakhstan. We will not sign it because we believe that banning nuclear weapons in such a directive manner is unrealistic. Five official nuclear powers, as well as unofficial nuclear powers, will not do it because the already agreed upon principle of moving towards a nuclear-free world is included in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and this principle is tied in with ensuring universal security and stability. New factors that affect the global environment, such as non-nuclear strategic weapons, the US plans to take weapons into space, the notorious global missile defence system, and the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), primarily because of the United States being reluctant to do so affect strategic stability no less than nuclear weapons. So, we are for moving towards a nuclear-free world based on the universal agreements that are part of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). We are conducting such discussions with the countries which, out of good intentions – there’s no doubt about it – advocate introducing a rapid ban on this deadly weapon. These discussions are very useful in order for us to be able to better understand each other.
In closing, I would like once again to point out that we should approach every reform with great care and try to understand the consequences. Before advancing any initiatives, one must try to find a common language to make sure that the initiatives are viable. However, the UN Charter cannot be touched.
(Akmaral Batalova is a Kazakh journalist, film producer, writer. She studied in Diplomatic school of Madrid, Spain and Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan and Kazakh State University. She has a Master Diploma of Complutense University (Spain) in International Affairs. She has worked in the department of foreign affairs in the Administration of the President of Kazakhstan. She is writing a book on Syria at the moment.)
Edited by Dr Shahid Qureshi – Chief Editor
Disclaimer: Views Expressed are not of the SRG