Remarks from Maria Zakharova’s media briefing:
The situation in Syria
The military-political situation in Syria is showing generally positive dynamics.
The implementation of the May 4 memorandum on the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria and the further consolidation of the ceasefire regime allow the Syrian government forces to concentrate on fighting ISIS, Nusra and other terrorist groups.
The focus on forging local ceasefires continues to yield results. Civilians are returning to the towns of Khan al-Shih, Deir Habia and Drusha southwest of Damascus. The Damascus regional authorities are determined to restore the water and power supply system and social infrastructure as soon as possible. Local authorities recently announced their decision to allow residents of the town of Sbeineh to return to their homes. So far, however, that is prevented by ISIS activity in the neighbouring district of Al-Hajar al–Aswad, the only southern suburb of Damascus where terrorists still retain their presence.
Over 100 Syrian families have returned from a refugee camp in Lebanon to their homes in the towns of al-Tufail and Arsal al-Ward in West Qalamoun.
The Syrian Armed Forces have completed the first stage of a wide-ranging operation in the Syrian Desert. According to Syrian military sources, the Syrian government forces have approached the Iraqi border northeast of the Al-Tanaf border crossing point. New realities are expected to provide the necessary conditions for the final rout of ISIS and al-Nusra in coordination and cooperation with their Iraqi partners. Perhaps, Syrian government forces could have achieved more impressive results in this area but that was hindered by USAF military operations. During the past month, the Americans launched three attacks on Syrian troops, which were advancing in the south of the country, under the pretext of self-defence, purportedly to ensure the security of a coalition base near al-Tanaf.
Syrian government forces are still locked in fierce fighting with ISIS in the Homs province east of Palmyra. The Syrian Armed Forces have driven terrorists out of the Arak oil field and regained control of the T-3 airfield. The jihadists retreated from their strongholds near the al-Mustadira strategic height.
The Syrian military fought back an attack by the al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya group, an al-Nusra affiliate, west of the city of Salamiyah. At the same time, the Syrian Air Force dealt a serious blow to ISIS positions, destroying the terrorists’ field headquarters in the town of al-Ukairibat east of Salamiyah, thus thwarting ISIS and al-Nusra coordinated attempts to sever the road to Aleppo.
Syrian government forces continued their successful advance from the north to the southeast along the right-hand bank of the Euphrates River. Forward subunits reached western districts of Raqqa province and took control of a section of an important highway between Itria and Resafa.
Subunits of the Syrian Democratic Forces are continuing to storm the ISIS capital of Raqqa and advancing to the city from the east and the west. They have gained control of industrial areas, al-Sabahiya and parts of Hattin and al-Romania. Fighting is reportedly going on in the old part of the city. The southern suburbs of Raqqa, where the most ISIS forces are amassed, have not been sealed off yet. Taking advantage of that, the jihadists are actively trying to evacuate in the direction of Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra. Thousands of civilians are continuing to leave Raqqa at the risk of their lives as the city comes under airstrikes by the coalition air force. According to the independent aUN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, since March, at least 300 people have been killed in the Raqqa area as a result of airstrikes by the US-led coalition.
Several dozen militants from the Liwa Ahrar Mambij illegally formed armed group in the north of Aleppo province have laid down their arms and surrendered to the Syrian authorities. A bloody clash took place in the town of al-Bab between the Sultan Murad Division, Ahrar al-Sham, Feilak al-Sham, First Regiment and al-Hamza Division groups, as a result of which over 30 jihadists were killed. We believe such clashes between militants result from their fierce fighting for the re-division of spheres of influence in Syria and access to outside financial sources.
The audio record of a conversation between M. Alloush, a representative of Jaysh al-Islam, and Jamal al Ward, a member of the Politburo of the National Coalition, which has been posted on a number of online resources, is hardly surprising. Alloush demanded $1 million a month as a condition for that militant group to join the National Coalition’s military wing. The leader of the group stressed that such a partnership agreement would not be too onerous for the National Coalition, which is generously financed by other countries. I believe this is a telling example.
The guarantor countries of the Astana process – Russia, Iran and Turkey – are working on a new timeframe for the next round of the international meeting on Syria in Astana. Active consultations are under way to coordinate a package of documents related to the implementation of the May 4 memorandum.
Question: The Astana talks on Syria have been postponed three times this month. Is it because of Ramadan or for some other reason?
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani has recently visited Moscow. Has Qatar changed its position on the Syrian settlement?
Maria Zakharova: I would not say that the Astana talks on Syria have been postponed or that their timeframe has changed. The fact is that the date has not been coordinated yet. You can only postpone an event that has been coordinated or announced. We did not confirm the dates mentioned by the media. We are trying to coordinate them based on a large number of factors, notably their convenience and acceptability for our partners and the Syrian sides, including the Syrian opposition. We are coordinating the timeframe for a meeting. Considering the large number of factors, it is a complicated process.
As for the talks with Qatari officials in Moscow, their agenda also included the Syrian settlement. We are aware of Qatar’s position and do not agree with some of its elements, but there is certainly an opportunity to search for common ground and areas of cooperation. Overall, we talked more about the situation in the regions, the crisis in relations between the countries involved, Qatar’s problem and international mediation aimed at resolving it. I don’t think it can be said that Qatar has changed its position on Syria. Anyway, we keep trying to find common ground because this is part of diplomatic routine.
Has Russia developed cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces to liberate Raqqa?
Maria Zakharova: Regarding your second question, comments on everything that happens “on the ground” in terms of military strategy and liberation are provided by the Defence Ministry. If your question also implies political contact, I will need to request additional information.
Question: Did you receive any response from CNN, in particular Christiane Amanpour, to your suggestion to go to Aleppo and make a report about the Syrian boy named Omran Daqneesh?
Maria Zakharova: No, I didn’t. Frankly, I would like to talk to them via the CNN office in Moscow. We regularly receive inquiries from CNN reporters working in Russia and CNN reporters in the United States asking us to provide comments on a variety of issues, such as Russian hackers, new sanctions, meddling in domestic affairs, or other topics related to Russia. I receive requests for comments on a daily basis. Perhaps, CNN reporters will, collectively or individually, talk to their leading correspondent, a person who claims to be an expert in international relations, I mean Christiane Amanpour. Perhaps, they will let her know that since she came to Moscow, showed us a photo of that boy at our Foreign Ministry, and recounted his story, which she used to come up with corresponding conclusions regarding the situation in Syria, then maybe she will muster enough courage to make another report to refute her own stories, especially now that CNN is trying to stick to the truth and fight fake news.
To reiterate, it was not just another run-of-the-mill story, but an interview with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In addition, the interview was recorded shortly before the US election. If CNN believes that Russia had interfered in it in any way – without even providing any facts of evidence thereof – then she could look at her own story and her own materials in terms of manipulating public opinion in the run-up to the elections. This is a concrete case of actual manipulation of public opinion right before the elections in the United States.
They took a story that could leave no one indifferent, because it was about a boy – CNN said the boy was killed in Syria – a young child, in fact. Russia was accused of this crime. Directly or indirectly, the story created a sense that the actions by the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria, which led to such casualties, were absolutely illegitimate. However, thanks to the efforts of responsible journalists who do their job properly, the truth has surfaced. Now, we are all aware of what happened. To reiterate, perhaps in the heat of its anti-Russian controversy, CNN could set aside some time to refute its own story, which, indeed, was part of the campaign to manipulate public opinion in the run-up to the elections in the United States.