Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova Moscow, September 29, 2016

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Developments in Syria

The situation in Syria remains tense, especially in its north, primarily in and around Aleppo, where government forces continue fighting the militants of Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated groups.

Dozens of cases of shelling residential areas by the terrorists are recorded in Aleppo every day. In general, the tactics of the extremists remain the same. Attacks are mounted using civilians as human shields. Snipers are actively involved in the fighting. They fire not only at Syrian army servicemen but also at civilians in government-controlled areas. “Infernal machines” – improvised explosive devices – have been used more than once. The militants lay mines in the areas they abandon. They have shelled cities and villages in the Aleppo and Latakia provinces and the Damascus region using improvised artillery rocket systems, tube artillery and mortars.

Terrorists are going all-out to prevent civilians from leaving eastern Aleppo via established corridors by subjecting them to intimidation and physical abuse.

According to the latest reports, the militants in eastern Aleppo stopped supplying water to the residents of government-controlled western Aleppo, which may sharply aggravate the humanitarian situation in this part of the city.

Moscow noted the interview given to the German publication Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger by a field commander of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham – this is how Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists now identify themselves. He bluntly told the journalist that his group is supported from the outside and requires even more advanced arms to fight the war in Syria till final victory. In this context we would like to emphasise once again the need to separate units of the so-called “moderate” opposition from terrorists. We are primarily urging the United States and all those who have influence in the region to ensure such separation in accordance with the decisions of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), UN Security Council resolutions and the Moscow-Washington agreements on Syria.

Report by an Italian NGO on air strikes on medical facilities in Syria

We would also like to draw your attention to a report of the Italian NGO “No war network” that refutes the accusations that the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force have carried out strikes on Syrian medical facilities. It notes that the bulk of reports of attacks on Syrian hospitals come from districts controlled by militants and for the most part these facilities are covered field hospitals that are deployed in residential buildings and have nothing to do with the healthcare system. The report also notes that such medical facilities have no universally accepted logos, which makes it impossible to identify them as medical either from the air or on the ground.

We join the authors of the report in expressing doubts about how the information on air strikes on medical facilities is collected. It is difficult to accept the notion that the militants that are controlling different regions of Syria are the main source of such information and that their information is credible because they have a direct interest in discrediting the Syrian Government, the Russian Federation, its Aerospace Forces and those Russian citizens who are helping Syrians to fight terrorism in their country.

The NGO’s representatives note that in some cases the agencies that are collecting such statistics poll local people and then quote a source from a “field medical facility.” They cite as an example the work of the NGO Physicians for Human Rights that interviews so-called witnesses in Turkey.

Regrettably, the methods described in this report are already producing what is perceived as credible information that is used to reach very serious conclusions. This information is used in drafting international documents. This is a very dangerous trend.

Latest statements by US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest

I would like to say a few words about the latest statements from Washington, which were made late at night on Wednesday Moscow time. As we started receiving them, we hoped they would be disavowed by morning, because these outrageous statements are completely at variance with any diplomatic norms and even normal human standards. Unfortunately, we waited in vain. On the contrary, these inappropriate statements have been reinforced with even more unacceptable statements.

US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby yesterday warned Russia about the possible turn of events in the Middle East and North Africa if Russia persevered with its approach to the Syrian crisis. He said, in part, that the consequences of this would be that “extremists and extremists groups will continue to exploit the vacuums that are there in Syria to expand their operations, which will include, no question, attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities, and Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags, and they will continue to lose resources – even, perhaps, more aircraft.”

This was said by a diplomat and spokesperson of the US Department of State. I do not want to get personal, because we are colleagues, but I would like you to note that this statement has been made by a person who had a long military career in the past. When people resort to such cynicism and use such a tone when they talk about their colleagues, one wonders what will come next.

I would like to draw your attention to the phrase about the vacuums, probably the vacuums of power, in the above statement by Mr Kirby. It is Washington and its regional allies who demand that the legitimately elected Syrian President step down. If Washington thinks the current vacuum is dangerous, what would happen if the legitimately elected president and government ceded their positions? After all, there should be logic in one’s actions.

Actually, Mr Kirby blames Russia for the growing activity of extremists in Syria, although it is the United States who has been consistently presenting these extremists as moderate armed opposition. Who did Mr Kirby have in mind when he said that extremist activity would become increasingly more violent? Was he talking about the self-same opposition, which Washington is patronising?

I would like to remind you that the United States has publicly pledged to bring to reason these opposition forces, with which Washington has maintained direct or indirect interaction all along, as we can see now.

In fact, the above statement by the US State Department spokesperson is nothing other than a call to action issued to the radicals. We cannot consider it in any other way because this statement has not been disavowed.

Just one example. Following the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, Russia immediately expressed condolences and sympathy and offered help. But many media outlets, including those sponsored by the US, wrote that the condolences by Russian representatives and officials were insufficiently sympathetic. They claim that we are insufficiently compassionate, yet they seem undisturbed by words about Russia sending more troops home in body bags?

Imagine the press secretary of the Russian President or the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry making statements such as the US State Department spokesperson made today after the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, which the White House interpreted as an attack on the country and not a local attack or an attack by international terrorism? Can you imagine what would have happened if a Russian official said there would be more of such terrorist attacks unless Washington changed its policies in the Middle East or any other countries? No, this is impossible to imagine, not even in theory. It is impossible to imagine this in Moscow, but it was also impossible to imagine in Washington in 2001. Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, said the following about those events and the actions of the Russian political leadership: “America could have had no better ally on September 11th than Russia and Putin.” This was said by an American official who knows and remembers history. I know that the current American politicians are no longer of the same calibre, but I never thought they would sink so low.

What I can say is that in our opinion, Washington’s current actions and the public stance in the media environment adopted by the US government target not so mush state-to-state relations as they do the relations between the peoples of our two countries. The US Department of State should be aware of the fact that Russians hear and understand statements coming from it. How do you expect Russians to view the US when John Kirby says that “Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags, and there will be more terrorist attacks?” Just think about it! Even Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will probably stop quoting US representatives.

There is another thing I would like to highlight. Statements coming out of the US Department of State, the White House and especially law-enforcement agencies show that Washington’s position is inconsistent and that it is on the verge of hysteria regarding the Syrian issue, and in general regarding the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. It is clear that this nervous response is caused by the White House’s misguided strategy in the Middle East, as well as its inability to deliver on the commitments that it had publicly declared. I am referring to the obligation to separate the opposition and al-Nusra fighters. We cannot rule out that the misguided strategy that led the US into an impasse in the region is attributable to the fact that the US Administration simply followed some of its so-called regional allies who wanted the US to take specific action in order to bring about regime change in certain countries. Of course, one of the reasons is that Washington lacks solid expertise in this area. Acknowledging errors is not shameful; what is shameful is continuing a policy while understanding that it is erroneous and leads into an impasse, ripping through all reasonable, logical options and the right solutions.

This was not the only statement we heard today. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that it is hard to see how Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis “benefits Russia’s national security.” What I can say to Mr Earnest in this regard is that Russia’s national security should not be a matter of concern for the White House, which instead had better focus on US national security. It would be great, for example, if the White House lets EU countries take care of their national security. It would make things easier in many ways. Russia will take care of its own national security, the EU will try to develop its own independent national security framework, and Washington will only have to deal with its domestic national security issues.

In addition, there was also a statement by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner, who surprised us with his statement whereby the self-identification principle should be used to separate moderate opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra. This is something new in the Syrian settlement. We haven’t heard anything like it before. Maybe Mr Toner simply didn’t care to look through the documents that were adopted and agreed by Russian and US experts (they are available in both Russian and English), clearly setting out the obligations undertaken by the US with respect to the so-called moderate opposition. It is hard to grasp how Mr Toner expects the opposition to separate itself from Jabhat al-Nusa on its own.

I would like to remind the US Department of State that a certain period of time was set aside for this process six months ago. During the period designated by the ISSG, all groups were offered to accept the cessation of hostilities regime and engage in a political settlement by joining the UN-led indirect dialogue with Damascus. The problem is that while many groups accepted these terms, some of them, having joined Jabhat al-Nusra and become an integral part of this group, refused to do so. It feels really strange having to explain this to the Department of State. In fact, the real problem is that during these six months they have been refusing to dissociate themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, while initially Washington said that they will able to do it in a matter of one or two weeks.

These are simple facts, but unfortunately we have to keep repeating them. I would like to conclude this unpleasant part of today’s briefing by calling on Washington to immediately provide Russia with all available information, if they know anything about the planned terrorist attacks or possible attacks on Russian cities, as mentioned by John Kirby yesterday, or about provocations or terrorist attacks against Russian citizens. Otherwise, we will have no option but to believe that they are concealing information.

Mistaken US air strikes in Afghanistan

We are increasingly alarmed by the growing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan due to regular mistaken US air strikes. Thirteen civilians were killed in yesterday’s anti-terror operation in the Nangarhar province.

Of particular concern is the September 19 incident in the Afghan province of Uruzgan, when US drones carried out two strikes at a unit of the Afghan national security forces, killing 8 and wounding over 20 Afghan policemen. In this context we cannot but recall the recent case of US air strikes on the Syrian army in Deir ez-Zor. Considering that they hit military and law enforcement in this or that country, there is always the urge to ask our Washington colleagues who they are working for.

It is noteworthy that the air strike was conducted in violation of the plan –  previously agreed on by Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry and commanders of the US contingent in that country – for an anti-terror operation against militants belonging to the Taliban Movement (TM), which, judging by the available information, never implied  any air support from the USA. As a result, the operation failed and the Taliban unit managed to escape.

In Syria, people fighting ISIS were killed by mistake, and in Afghanistan people hunting down Taliban militants were killed by mistake. Seems like everything happens by mistake.

The US reaction to the accident is also very telling. Washington once again fell back on well-worn methods of distorting reality and claimed the killed police were rebel field commanders.

For our part, we strongly condemn the US Air Force strikes in Uruzgan and Nangarhar provinces. Of course, a thorough investigation should result in the punishment of those responsible. We convey our condolences to the victims’ families and wish a speedy recovery to the wounded.