Question: It has been announced recently that the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group may be held in New York. US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, mentioned this possibility. Will the meeting take place this year or early next year?
Sergey Lavrov: There are different forms of diplomacy. Our way is that an event is announced only after it has been fully coordinated. During our meeting in Belgrade, US Secretary of State John Kerry and I discussed further cooperation at the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). We’ve reaffirmed that the first two meetings in Vienna produced two very important documents, which set out the principles that the external parties are prepared to support and offer to the Syrians so they can use them to look for solutions to the crisis in their country. These principles are public knowledge. The current task is to launch talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. This calls for doing two interrelated things, as we agreed in Vienna on November 14. First, the Syrian opposition should form a delegation for talks with the Syrian government, which must be representative and include all opposition groups, including external and, by all means, internal opposition. The delegates must represent Sunnis, Shia, Kurds and Christians, that is, all those who want to live in a secular, multi-faith and multi-ethnic Syria. The second thing concerns the armed people who are fighting in Syria but don’t care about its future, or rather, who only care about seizing power and establishing Islamist, extremist and terrorist rule in Syria.
We’ve agreed to compile two lists: a list of terrorist organisations and a list of those who will send representatives to the opposition delegation. Mr Kerry has reaffirmed several times – the last time he did this was at our meeting in Belgrade on December 3 – that this will be the sole purpose of the next ISSG meeting. We are working to compile the list of terrorist organisations. This work is being coordinated by our Jordanian colleague. We’ve also agreed that UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will form the final list of opposition representatives for talks with the Syrian government. All ISSG members are assisting with this. We also highlighted Saudi Arabia’s role, because this year Egypt and Russia have held several meetings with the Syrian opposition groups that have formulated their views. Saudi Arabia, which has been contributing to this process, will hold a conference of the opposition forces in the next few days to promote our common idea of forming a united opposition delegation for talks with the Syrian government.
Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed that the next ISSG meeting be held in New York at the end of next week, on December 18 and 19. I replied: “We will meet any time and any place, provided it is in keeping with the obligatory conditions. First, we must have an issue for discussion, which is possible only after we are convinced that the previous meeting’s decision on the approval of the lists (the list of terrorist organisations and the Syrian delegation) will be implemented. Second, the meeting’s venue and the timeframe must suit absolutely all members of the Vienna process because this is the only format in which we can meet.”
The Vienna group, in the format that developed during the first two meetings on October 30 and November 14, is a balanced and effective group of external parties who are capable of working out balanced and fair conditions for an intra-Syrian dialogue.
This is all I said. I didn’t say “No,” but I clearly indicated that discussing the time and place for the next ISSG meeting will be possible only when all group members without exception are ready for it and after they put forth their stances. As far as I know, they haven’t done this yet, because after the meeting was announced in Washington and New York, as you mentioned, many of our partners asked us whether we knew anything about it.
I gave this long answer because, as I said before, our form of diplomacy provides for coordinating the time and place of diplomatic events before they are announced and the manner in which this is done.
Question: US President Barack Obama said in his address to the nation that he would be willing to cooperate with Russia in the fight against terrorism, but only after a ceasefire is achieved in Syria, thus shifting the emphases. He also said that the United States is already negotiating with Turkey on shutting off the Syrian border. Would you please comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: Involving another participant in any global task should be the job of the UN Security Council. Any country, no matter how great it is, and no matter how exceptional it considers itself, should follow the principles of international law. In the very beginning, a couple of years ago, we urged the United States and all our other partners to respect international law and the role of the UN Security Council in working out approaches to fighting terrorism. It is wrong to go around this organisation and its central body responsible for the maintenance of peace and security. Life has repeatedly shown us that no matter who started a unilateral action somewhere in the world, this country will eventually face the need to go to the Security Council and request its approval for further action. This is what is happening now. The Security Council is actively working on a draft resolution – importantly, a Russian-American initiative – which is going to summarise, in a most comprehensive manner, all the anti-terrorist tasks that have already been discussed at the United Nations, that are binding for all states and for the UN Secretary-General. In this document, special emphasis will be placed on the fact that we do not simply proclaim principles or make demands, but that we are determined to ensure that these requirements are met. The same holds true, in particular, for the ban on trading in oil and other things such as artifacts or cultural property stolen from the areas captured by ISIS and other terrorists. I hope that this resolution will end the many months of resistance to our proposal (the US, by the way, have not shown much enthusiasm in this matter) to put ISIS on the UN Security Council's list of terrorist organisations bluntly and without any reservations, as was the case with Al-Qaeda. Again, it's all there in the draft resolution right now, the document distributed among the members of the UN Security Council and generally agreed on with our American partners. We expect it to be adopted as soon as all the others support the proposed approaches.
As for shutting down the border, as you know, a lot of things that are only happening now should have taken place a long time ago, in the early stages of the Syrian crisis. It has long been common knowledge what the Turkish-Syrian and the Turkish-Iraqi borders are like, and what helps the Islamic State to live and grow. I mean the oil fields and other illicit business. We welcome the attention to the need to thwart these criminal phenomena shown by many countries, including the US and the US-led coalition.
We have noticed that, perhaps coincidentally, this interest became apparent after the Russian warplanes, in response to the legitimate Syrian government’s appeal, began supporting the Syrian army’s fight against terrorist groups in their country. Perhaps it would be better if our partners’ interest in the suppression of various manifestations of terrorism in Syria emerged earlier, but even so, if it was something we did that spurred that interest, it does give me some satisfaction.
Question: Can you comment on the recent statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has as good as promised to take harsh measures against Russia and Iran and claimed that Russia plans to derail the political settlement in Syria? As I see it, they are threatening us with sanctions over Syria.
Sergey Lavrov: I haven’t seen the text of Mr Kerry’s statement, but if he really said so, this is absurd. In fact, the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia over the Crimea referendum, where people freely expressed their will, are absurd and I would even say amoral. When we talk about free choice, let’s ask the people. The independence of Kosovo was proclaimed unilaterally. There was no referendum. Justifying their actions, the US authorities claim that everything was done properly in Kosovo and that a referendum was very well organised there. I don’t know who prepares historical reference notes for US President Barack Obama.
A fresh example is Montenegro, where tensions are running high. Montenegro, where people are Orthodox believers who have been tied to the Orthodox world for ages, was part of a country which NATO bombed. And now it wants to join NATO. People there have taken to the streets and asked for a referendum on this issue. They have been denied this right categorically, under the pretext that no referendum is necessary and that these protests have been staged by Russia. We should remember this when talking about the issue which you’ve raised.
But I’m surprised, because Secretary of State Kerry has never spoken about the possibility of such measures. But then again, there’s the issue of diplomatic ethics. When you plan to say something about your partner in public, you should first notify him about your intention. I have had no warning about this. If developments take this turn, this will complicate things.
On the issue of Syria, we insist that Syrians express their will and that Bashar al-Assad’s future is decided through voting. The West says there won’t be any voting until al-Assad steps down.
Actually, we protested against the deposing of Muammar Gaddafi without the expression of people’s will, and we protested against what has happened in Iraq without any public voting. Maybe our American partners should not wait for any other pretext but impose sanctions against Russia for protesting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which has been presented as a major achievement of US diplomacy?
As I said, I haven’t seen the transcript of Mr Kerry’s statement. According to the Russian media, he also said in that statement that Russia has come to see, and he hopes that Iran will follow suit, that there’s no place for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
As for diplomatic tradition, I can tell you that Mr Kerry and I haven’t talked about this, or rather that we did talk about al-Assad, but neither the Russian President nor I have said this and we couldn’t say this, although Mr Kerry refers to his conversations both with me and with President Putin when drawing this improbable conclusion.
Question: Mr Lavrov, can you comment on the planned reform of the lending framework of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?
Sergey Lavrov: In my opinion, the reform they are trying to implement has been designed to help Ukraine and could turn out to be a time bomb for the other IMF programmes. The essence of this reform is that Ukraine is politically important to them, but only because Ukraine is acting against Russia, which is why they are willing to do everything for Ukraine that they haven’t done for any other country before. They want to regard the situation [in Ukraine], which should have meant unconditional default from any other viewpoint, as a situation in which they can continue to finance Ukraine. In other words, this is the goal of the reform.
As President Vladimir Putin said more than once to the media and our Western partners, we were willing to restructure Ukraine’s $3 billion debt on much better conditions than those on which the IMF insisted. Under these conditions, which extend the repayment of the debt in equal amounts during three rather than one year, the repayment was to be guaranteed by the EU, the US, the IMF or a top-tier international bank. Our offer has been rejected. By rejecting the proposed plan, the United States has confirmed that it doesn’t believe that Ukraine can restore its solvency.
Moscow, December 7, 2015