Interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, September 26, 2016

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s television interview for the Pozdnyakov programme on NTV, September 26, 2016
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Question: Speaking at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council convened by the United States and some European countries, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power accused Russia of “barbarism” in Syria. Are we again being accused of all sins?

Sergey Lavrov: I think that’s the case, to a certain extent, all the more so since this meeting and the Western initiative to convene it as an emergency meeting on Sunday of all days, raises several questions. We dealt with this issue for the entire past week during high level debates at the UN General Assembly. As a rule, these debates concern various issues that are most urgent for UN member countries. Naturally, Syria prevailed at these debates.

Syria was discussed at a fully-fledged ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council, and two sessions of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, and I organised as the group’s co-chairs and which turned into an hours-long discussion. Naturally, delegations devoted the lion’s share of their attention to the Syrian crisis in their speeches and general debates.

Our Western partners did not hold back. They did not accuse us of “barbarism” as Samantha Power did with the support of UK Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft. However, some accusations were fairly tough: the Syrian Government and we were accused of all mortal sins.

Answers to these accusations were given long ago. It is anyone’s guess why they decided to convene an emergency meeting on a day off, although it is not so difficult to guess why. The US-led Western coalition that is fighting ISIS and, as it says, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria is not living up to its obligations. This is obvious.

Question: So, can this be interpreted as an attempt to forego the adopted agreements?

Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think so. Now they are simply trying to divert attention from what happened in Deir ez-Zor on September 17 of this year when the US bombed positions of the Syrian army and announced there and then that it was a mistake. First, the bombing lasted for an hour and second, US Central Command Spokesman Colonel John Thomas said they had “had been observing the target for roughly two full days” (I even quoted him at the news conference in New York).

The frontline in Deir ez-Zor took shape about two years ago and is not moving at all. We airdropped food and other necessities for the besieged residents of the city that is being defended by the Syrian army. Well, I don’t know how good they are at what they do if they had to have a target under surveillance for two full days in this static situation after looking at the intelligence, as Mr Thomas reported.

Question: We are accused of “barbarism” but what is the evidence? There is no evidence, is there?

Sergey Lavrov: They cite civilian deaths. They show video footage of destroyed buildings and running civilians, claiming, as a rule, that this footage comes from eyewitnesses. Another source they consider unquestionable and indisputable is a one-room flat in London where a certain UK subject of Syrian descent lives and single-handedly runs an organisation called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Let me reiterate, he is based in London but is cited most frequently of all.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the Americans and their Western allies want to divert attention not only and not so much from what happened in Deir ez-Zor. I am not at all trying to deliver any final verdicts. This is a harmful habit of our Western partners. They brag about their states based on the rule of law, that only a court can decide whether a person is guilty or not and that their courts are independent. However, this was also the case two years ago, when the Malaysian Boeing was shot down over Ukraine. We demanded that an investigation be conducted, that the UN Security Council monitor how it was conducted. The Americans passed the UN Security Council resolution, did not block it, but said it was clear to them who had done it all the same. It is the same here. On September 19, an aid convoy came under attack, we demanded an investigation while my good friend John Kerry (somewhat unexpectedly) stated that an investigation could probably be conducted but they knew who had done it – the Syrian army or Russia, and in any case, Russia is to blame. Evidently he had come under tremendous pressure because he is under fierce criticism from the US military machine. Despite the fact that, as always, [they] made assurances that the US Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, supported him in his contacts with Russia (he confirmed that during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin), apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief.

Question: Could the US election race be a factor here?

Sergey Lavrov: It certainly could, which makes this all the more unacceptable. I will say a couple of words about it later, but first, the case of that aid convoy.

Our immediate response was that the tragedy must be investigated. The Americans responded by saying that they knew everything and there was no need to investigate anything. They show smashed trucks and say it was done by Russian or Syrian aviation. Syrian aviation does not fly when it is dark (and this is precisely when it happened) while our aviation does. But if it was aviation, where are the craters then?

The well-known website Bellingcat posted a report alleging that traces of a Russian-made bomb were discovered. However, half an hour before that, another website, Conflicts Forum, a US political think tank, posted a somewhat different report. Within the first few seconds of the footage aired on ABC, traces of aluminum dust, characteristic of ammunition used by Predator UAVs, were noticeable. The Americans did not deny that this kind of a UAV was over the part of Aleppo where the aid convoy was attacked at the time when it happened. Subsequently, these first seconds of the video showing the presence of aluminum dust were deleted. What [TV] channels, including the BBC, showed later did not contain that footage. But again, I don’t want to accuse anybody. Simply, we know very well how the world’s leading channels – CNN and the BBC – can tamper with facts (remember they showed something from Iraq several years ago but claimed it was happening in Syria today) and so, of course, we will demand a thorough investigation. We said this openly.

As for the election campaign. This is rather amusing.

Question: Yes, but parallels аre being drawn there.

Sergey Lavrov: That’s right. Obviously, there is an eagerness to demonise us and hold us responsible for all the bad things happening in the world. We have scored unquestionable achievements with the Americans on direct instructions from our presidents, who, at their meeting in New York a year ago, agreed that it is necessary to work together on Syria and then reaffirmed their agreement on September 6 in Beijing. During this time John Kerry and I have worked nonstop, holding back-to-back meetings and phone conversations, to build a political coalition and have formed the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Everyone praised that step because for the first time all outside parties without exception, who have any influence on the situation in Syria, including antagonists like Saudi Arabia and Iran, sat down at the same table.

Question: The agreement was even characterised as “fateful.”

Sergey Lavrov: Fateful, yes. Since then we have been instructed and worked hard to put in place specific mechanisms to collaborate in four areas, which were approved at the end of last year at the ISSG and the UN Security Council: ceasefire, humanitarian aid supplies, the fight against terrorism and starting the political process. It’s amusing now to discuss why this political process is going nowhere and why the US-led antiterrorist coalition attacks only ISIS but not Jabhat al-Nusra. Even though US Secretary of State John Kerry assures me every time that Jabhat al-Nusra poses the same terrorist threat as ISIS, they do not touch it.

Question: Paradoxically, they have apparently designated it a terrorist organisation but continue to protect it.

Sergey Lavrov: It’s vicious circle. They think – or rather, they don’t think, because now I no longer know what they think and I don’t know who to trust, but I definitely cannot trust them 100 per cent. Every time we and Syrian aviation strike Jabhat al-Nusra’s positions – and it now controls Aleppo, a key city in the Syrian drama – they make a big fuss, alleging that we again attacked the patriotic opposition and thus pushed it even more into the arms of Jabhat al-Nusra. However, I’d like to remind you – I’ve mentioned this repeatedly – that John Kerry has publicly stated that the United States assumes the leading role in separating the patriotic opposition from terrorists, including Jabhat al-Nusra. I remember him stating in public at ISSG and UN Security Council sessions at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year that if they are not terrorists and if they want to be part of a political settlement in Syria they should vacate the territories held by Jabhat al-Nusra. Nothing has happened since.

Here is an interesting point. Now we are being told that if the ceasefire holds, if it’s long-term and covers the whole country, and if all impediments to humanitarian aid supplies are removed only then will the political process get under way. On this pretext, the folks who have formed the so-called Riyadh Group and called it nothing less than High Negotiations Committee, have been sabotaging the resumption of negotiations since May. It is sad of course that the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is serving their interests and pointing the finger at us and the Americans. As soon as Moscow and Washington come to terms, then he will immediately do everything that has to be done and everything will quickly work out. This is an irresponsible way of dodging responsibility.

Question: As I understand, the terrorists are the ones who are mostly taking advantage of the ceasefire.

Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely. We had breaks which Jabhat al-Nusra immediately used to supply reinforcement, militants, money and arms from across the border. But almost a year ago in November or December, when the ISSG had only started negotiations on its first final document, a declaration that established the group and its principles, there was a very heated debate between those who wanted unambiguous wording stating that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria (Russia, the US and Iran) and those who were completely against this statement, that is, those who considered it possible and even more important to resolve the Syrian conflict through military means. I will not be pointing fingers but that was quite a serious debate.

The second reason why we, the US and Iran (plus Egypt was supporting us) ended up divided from those who would not renounce the idea of a military solution was the statement that it is necessary to immediately declare a total ceasefire across all Syria. That did not happen either. Although, once again, Russia, the US, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and many others were for it. However, a small contingency of the group for Syria’s support, would not agree to that approach and we could not reach a consensus. This resulted in a statement that a ceasefire must be introduced in conjunction with a political process. Now, the same people who insisted on this linkage are starting to say that first there must be a complete ceasefire and humanitarian aid access and then they will consider whether to begin the political process. The British have an expression, “shifting the goalposts.” You are playing football or handball or ice hockey and you seem like you’re about to score but the goal is moved all the time. Remember the Soviet animated film “Extraordinary Match”? This is how some of our partners are trying to play right now. Unfortunately, the US has caught the virus too and lately, as much as I am sad to see and talk about it, it has stopped being an impartial co-chair of the ISSG. It is obviously playing a one-sided game and is constantly shifting its goalposts.

Question: But that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on our agreements with the US on Syria, does it?

Sergey Lavrov: No. I think they would agree. We, at least, are committed to the agreements reached in the past few months and which were finalised after President Putin and President Obama met on September 6 in Beijing and settled the key issues. On September 9, at a meeting in Geneva, John Kerry and I finished formulating the two presidents’ agreements on paper. Unfortunately, subsequent actions by the US suggest that it would like to add even more conditions to the existing deal than it already has. Thank God the agreements are now public and available to everybody. Now anyone can see what our obligations are.

Question: But will they read them?

Sergey Lavrov: They will, if they want to know the truth. But if they only want to add fuel into the fire lighted by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who is talking about “barbarism”, then they are hopeless. However, everyone probably knows that the first issue addressed in this document and the most important one in essence is the separation of the opposition from terrorists. The document describes it as a top priority. Everything else stems from the ability to honour this commitment, which the United States assumed as the leading country of its antiterrorist coalition. I assume that it made this commitment on behalf of all members of this coalition.

Question: Do the recent developments mean that Russia’s relationship with the West may drop below zero? I am talking about a relative zero mark.

Sergey Lavrov: They went from insults to invectives. I do not have a milder name for what happened at the UN Security Council last week, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and I co-chaired two ISSG meetings and there was also a ministerial meeting at the Security Council. They tried to remain civil, but ultimately something provoked their rage.

It cannot be ruled out that they simply want to deflect attention away from the need to honestly investigate the bombing of a humanitarian convoy in Aleppo and the strikes at the Syrian army in Deir ez-Zor. We are waiting for both cases to be investigated. Investigation into the humanitarian convoy bombing is the responsibility of the coalition, as well as the forces that are controlling the area where the convoy was bombed. I am sure that professionals will easily determine which weapons were used to deliver the strikes, after they analyse the fragments of the bombs: artillery guns, helicopters, multiple launch rocket systems, aircraft or something else. There is a rumour that some individuals seen in Eastern Aleppo could have been instructors from regional countries or special operations instructors from the US and the UK. If this is so, then the question is who they trained there, because the leading force confronting the Syrian army in Aleppo, as well as in many other areas, is Jabhat al-Nusra.

There are too many issues that need clarifying. Here is one of them: when the ill-fated humanitarian convoy headed from Turkey to Aleppo, for some reason it was not accompanied by UN officials, contrary to the standard procedure. The opposition groups in Eastern Aleppo also expressed fears, as if inviting disaster, that the Syrian army could bomb the convoy. The opposition groups that attempted to send a humanitarian convoy to Aleppo a month ago (on August 26), before the latest Russian-US arrangements (the UN said it was ready for the convoy, and the Syrians approved it, too), this time said they feared the convoy would be bombed and even threatened to bomb it because they wanted it to move by a different route. The UN officials panicked and tried to talk the opposition out of their plans, unsuccessfully. There are too many issues in this case that need clarifying.

It is amusing to hear these people talk about barbarism and military crimes. Our UK colleagues, unlike the Americans, established a commission to investigate what happened in Iraq in 2003. The commission concluded that it was a reckless plan and that there was no legal justification for the military invasion and bombing of Iraq. Thirteen years after the military aggression, they have decided to pose as justice seekers. They haven’t got to Libya yet, but I believe that an investigation into the Libyan operation will be eventually launched in the countries that led it, primarily the UK, France and several regional countries. As for the Americans, they cannot report any major progress in investigating their regular mistakes. I have mentioned the mistake they made in Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Yesterday they made another mistake in Afghanistan, where they bombed their allies, the Afghan army, instead of the Taliban, which they have tried to hush up.

Question: They are making us provide explanations, asking to show proof that we are committed to the peace process.

Sergey Lavrov: These demands become especially vehement after they hit a wedding, a school or a hospital somewhere in Afghanistan or in Yemen again. Immediately after, we can expect some sort of incident that gives reason for more hysterical claims aimed at the Russian Federation. I don’t think our Western partners are so unsophisticated, but apparently they feel real pressure when they run out of arguments in the most important Syrian issue of the day – how to separate the opposition from the terrorists, who should be fought uncompromisingly and relentlessly.

They all declare that terrorism in Syria poses the main threat, a much more serious one than the Assad regime. This concept is specifically formulated, but nevertheless, there is no denying that terrorism is the number one common enemy. But in reality, they are trying their best not to hit Jabhat al-Nusra at all. We can see that the US-led coalition is fighting ISIS, even though they only started really hitting ISIS from the moment Russian Aerospace Forces came to Syria at the request of the legitimate government of a UN member state. But they don’t even target Jabhat al-Nusra. I asked US Secretary of State John Kerry bluntly if that meant someone in the United States or the US-led coalition – not necessarily he – wanted to protect Jabhat al-Nusra, to keep it alive and strong, so that when they are finished with ISIS, they could send all the opposition together with the Jabhat al-Nusra to Damascus to seize power. John Kerry vowed and swore that was not the case. Again, he said a lot of things, which did not fit with the actions of the US military and intelligence.

Here is one example. Everybody knows that a key agreement between Russia and the United States called for creating a joint executive centre not just to exchange information on how to avoid dangerous collisions and air incidents, but to coordinate the military units so as to harmonise their actions and improve the effectiveness of strikes against terrorists. That was agreed on, and the centre was going to be established on Day D, which is September 12. Within seven days, as the ceasefire strengthened, the parties were to exchange intelligence information, so that by the end of the seven-day period after Day D, strikes against terrorists were to begin in accordance with the maps drawn on the basis of the intelligence provided.

Question: It’s been a week already.

Sergey Lavrov: It’s been more than a week. First, they claimed that the ceasefire was not observed and there were violations. Then US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said at the Congress hearings that exchanging intelligence with Russia was not a good idea. In fact, that means that they would not share anything. That, after the agreements concluded on direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama stipulated that they would share intelligence. There seem to be serious impediments in the way of this particular arrangement. I think they are simply making excuses not to cooperate with us, claiming it is impossible due to the current humanitarian situation. And why is the humanitarian situation so complicated? Well, that’s Russia’s fault, naturally, so there is no point in investigating further. It is difficult to work with such partners, but these are the only ones we have in Syria. This is just another reason to rely only on our own Armed Forces.