We finished talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry. We paid primary attention to the Syrian crisis and the implementation of the Minsk Agreements on the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine.
Our main achievement on the Syrian issue has been the unanimous conclusion that Resolution 2254 adopted by the UN Security Council in December remains the main foundation for our progress. In connection with this resolution we discussed a number of specific moves that must be made to ensure the conditions for announcing a ceasefire. Needless to say, this does not apply to terrorist organisations, such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, which cannot be covered by truce agreements. They remain our enemies and all of us will continue fighting against them – this is a war of annihilation.
Second, we reaffirmed the need to resolve humanitarian problems in Syria. We described how in planning their operations the Russian Aerospace Forces consider the programmes conducted in Syria by UN humanitarian agencies, the ICRC and other NGOs. We expressed our readiness to coordinate more closely our actions in this area with the US coalition. But the main point that we discussed is the coordination of anti-terrorist actions. The American side had a number of proposals, some of which were made during telephone conversations of President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, my contacts with John Kerry and contacts between the Russian Defence Ministry and the Pentagon. In principle, these proposals are in the right direction but we believe that the practical implementation of joint actions, the “division of labour,” if you will, still remains our task and we can find much better agreements than simply a memorandum on avoiding unforeseen incidents. Thus, anti-terrorist struggle remains a major task on the Syrian front.
It is no less important to launch the political process as soon as possible. We agreed that when it starts, it will be possible to talk about the afore-mentioned ceasefire (but not as regards terrorist organisations). We hope that the political process will start very soon – in January. Different dates are mentioned but the final decision will be made by the UN secretary-general on the recommendations of his Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura who is holding active contacts with the Syrian sides: the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and various opposition groups in the country and beyond. The UN Security Council has charged Mr Mistura with a mission to issue invitations to the Syrian participants in these talks. We hope he will do this in the near future and the negotiating process will start this month. Let me emphasise that this is just the beginning. It will take much time: the sides will have to resolve many highly complicated tasks that are formulated in the UN Security Council resolution and decisions of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that met in Vienna and New York. Naturally, Russia, the United States and other ISSG members will not take part in the talks between the Syrian Government and the opposition but we’ll accompany these talks in a way that will help Syrians in reaching agreement on how to resolve jointly the tasks of the transitional period, what constitution to adopt, how to prepare for early elections and deal with many other issues. We discussed the Ukraine issue and reaffirmed the central role of the Contact Group and its working groups. Our American partners confirmed the positive assessment of the Normandy Four’s performance. Our dialogue partners – Mr Kerry and member of his delegation Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, confirmed their readiness to help reach an agreement in the Contact Group and the Normandy format rather than replace these mechanisms that proved to be useful in Ukraine.
We exchanged opinions about the outcome of a recent meeting in the Kaliningrad Region between [US Assistant Secretary of State] Victoria Nuland and Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov. We agreed that these contacts and the Russian-US channel of communication are highly important at this time. I’d like to remind you that this channel was launched under an agreement between President Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama when they discussed the Ukrainian crisis in a telephone conversation in June 2015.
Our top priority is the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements of February 12, 2015. We are in agreement with our US partners on this issue. The priorities at this stage include: putting an end to the remaining ceasefire violations and ensuring that the Ukrainian sides to the conflict withdraw weapons and gradually disengage so as to reduce the points of direct contact between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Donbass self-defence forces as much as possible. We have agreed that humanitarian issues must be addressed and the [Ukrainian] economic blockade lifted as agreed in the Package of Measures that was coordinated in Minsk on February 12, 2015. The main strategic goal, on which the outcome of settlement depends, is the political process. We agree with our American colleagues that the issues of local elections based on a Ukrainian law that should be coordinated with Donbass, an amnesty for all participants in the developments in southeastern Ukraine, a permanent special status for Donbass (i.e., the territories that are currently controlled by the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics), and amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution will comprise a package of interrelated elements that must be considered in their entirety. I believe that this conclusion is very important. I hope these understandings will be further strengthened during the upcoming meetings of the Contact Group and in the Normandy format.
We also discussed several other issues, in particular the situation on the Korean Peninsula in light of a recent nuclear test explosion in North Korea.
We talked about Iraq and Libya. Our shared opinion about all these conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa is that Russia and the United States must firmly stand for the preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries in the region. This above all concerns Syria and Iraq, because it is sometimes said that it would be a good idea to create several states in their place. Russia and the US are categorically against this idea. In practical terms, we’ll do everything necessary in cooperation with our other partners, including in the region, to preclude the implementation of this scenario.
We also discussed bilateral relations and the schedule of upcoming contacts. It was our first meeting this year, but I’m sure that it was not the last one.
Question: Is it true that Russia and the United States have not reached an agreement on the participation of Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) and Ahrar ash-Sham in the intra-Syrian talks?
Sergey Lavrov: There is no such agreement because it was not intended. The relevant UN Security Council resolution has instructed the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to convene representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition on behalf of the Secretary-General. Under this resolution, Mr de Mistura is to prepare the list of participants based on the results of meetings held by the Syrian opposition in Moscow, Cairo and Riyadh, as well as other initiatives.
We have forwarded our preferences for the make-up of the opposition delegation at the talks with the Syrian government to Mr Staffan de Mistura. The United States and the other members of the International Syria Support Group have done the same. The Special Envoy for Syria is analysing and assessing these ideas. I’m confident that he will form a delegation [of the Syrian opposition] in keeping with the resolution and that this delegation will represent the broadest possible range of Syrian society.
Question: January will end in several days, but the list of opposition Syrian parties for the talks [with the Syrian government] has not been coordinated yet. Are you considering postponing the talks to February or later, if they are not held in late January?
Sergey Lavrov: First, there is enough time until the end of January. Eleven days is not several days. We are not considering the possibility of postponing the talks to February. This stand is shared by both Russia and the United States. I’m confident that the talks will begin in January.
Question: Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab has said that the opposition delegation will not attend the January 25 peace negotiations with the government if any third parties take part. At the same time, he said that the list of opposition delegates includes a representative of the Jaysh al-Islam group. Can you comment on this? Will Moscow insist that this representative be removed from the delegation?
Sergey Lavrov: I can only repeat what I’ve said before. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 requests that the UN Secretary-General, acting through the efforts of his Special Envoy for Syria, convene the broadest possible groups of representatives for the peace talks, including the Syrian government and the opposition and the individual Syrians and the opposition groups that attended the talks in Moscow and Cairo over the past year and the latest talks in Riyadh. This is the UN’s mandate, and there can be no unilateral deliberations about first, second or third parties. This is not for anyone outside the UN but for the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura to decide.
Question: Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov said about his meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland that they brainstormed to find compromises on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Have they found a compromise?
Sergey Lavrov: When diplomats meet, they always use their brains, which is a natural way for any negotiator.
The Minsk Agreements cannot be essentially interpreted. They outline all the necessary actions that must be taken primarily by the Ukrainian government, but also by the self-defence forces, and should result in the settlement of this situation through a direct dialogue between Kiev and Donbass. As I said, the sequence of actions and the essence of each step have been defined in no uncertain terms. But tactically there can be several ways for the actual implementation of the reforms that are stipulated in the Minsk Agreements. I won’t go into details, for obvious reasons, but I can assure you that we do need to look for compromise regarding the implementation of the Minsk Agreements but not for rewriting them. Our American partners share this view.
Question: Does the fact that the ceasefire will not concern Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS mean that Moscow no longer insists that Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham should be put on the list of terrorist organisations?
Sergey Lavrov: No, this doesn’t mean that we have backed off from our stance regarding the terrorist essence of Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham. Jaysh al-Islam is known to have shelled residential districts in Damascus, including the Russian Embassy, and Ahrar ash-Sham is an offspring of al-Qaeda.
We have submitted the information we have collected, which include facts that substantiate our stance. Work is underway within the International Syria Support Group to identify terrorist organisations. We hope our colleagues will take due regard for our arguments.
Zurich, January 20, 2016