Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, October 17, 2018
Developments in Syria
The situation in Syria remains complicated. There are continuing efforts to implement the memorandum on stabilising the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone, signed after the September 17 talks between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi. All radical groups should have left the demilitarised zone by Monday, October 15. After an earlier withdrawal of heavy weapons, some militants did leave the zone, but terrorists from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group, formerly called al-Nusra, refused to go. Members of al-Nusra managed to unite a number of other Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, including Hurras al-Din and the Turkistan Islamic Party. In this way, the terrorists established a joint command centre with the aim of continuing their provocations. We hope that our Turkish partners will carry out their obligations under the memorandum and ensure its full implementation.
We remain concerned about the situation in northeastern Syria where the United States and their Kurdish allies are trying to establish quasi-state governance agencies to replace the Syrian government’s legitimate authority. The work of these agencies can hardly be called effective, and their arbitrary rule triggers protests among the local population. There are a growing number of armed and terrorist attacks by ISIS militants and members of new illegal paramilitary units, emerging as a result of discontent with self-appointed “rulers.”
The other day, at Al-Bahra refugee camp for internally displaced persons, ISIS militants captured several hundred civilians who had been abandoned by Kurdish forces. Most of the hostages originally came from towns on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. They had managed to escape those communities in the hope of evading arbitrary terrorist violence, ruthless air strikes and artillery attacks by the US-led coalition that supports the Kurds.
US forces support Kurdish units in a rather strange, unprofessional and clumsy manner. Quite often, the indiscriminate and violent US actions do not yield the desired results. Last Saturday, the Syrian media reported the use of phosphorus munitions by the coalition’s aircraft near the city of Hajin where women and children were killed as a result. It should be noted, for the sake of objectivity, that the United States did not sign an additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1980 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons that list phosphorus shells as weapons of mass destruction and ban their use. However, the US military could not but comprehend the dreadful consequences of using such weapons in residential areas.
We would like to note the following positive aspects. Efforts to restore normal life continue in areas controlled by the Syrian government.
On October 15, the Nasib checkpoint opened on the Syrian-Jordanian border, thereby restoring passenger and freight traffic along an international motorway linking Beirut, Damascus and Amman. It is hard to overestimate the significance of this event in the context of resuming economic activity in Syria, as well as its ties with neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have received temporary shelter in Jordan can now return home. We would like to make a separate statement underscoring the substantial and diverse contribution of Russian service personnel to reactivating this checkpoint, as well as the Quneitra checkpoint on the Israeli-Syrian demarcation line, established by the UN under the relevant agreement of May 31, 1974.
According to media reports, after protracted delays, the United States has finally agreed to provide security guarantees for a humanitarian convoy, organised by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, in the 55-kilometre zone around America’s illegal Al-Tanf military base. It should be recalled that our Western colleagues made hysterical demands for humanitarian convoys and consignments to be allowed into other Syrian regions. And now, when it comes to a territory being illegally controlled by the US, the entry of UN humanitarian convoys becomes very problematic. The convoy, which was organised a while back, is to deliver long-awaited medical, food and other aid to residents of the Rukban camp for internally displaced persons. We hope that this humanitarian project will be implemented in the near future.
At the same time, official Syrian authorities are not allowed to enter the US-controlled zone around Al-Tanf, and this seriously complicates the situation in southern Syrian regions. This territory, which is virtually occupied by the United States, becomes a safe haven for terrorists and radicals and hampers the voluntary and safe return of tens of thousands of people who have been holed up at Rukban camp for many months to the places of their permanent residence.
Situation around the White Helmets
As more Syrian regions return back to a normal way of life, people are not worried anymore about the safety of their relatives as well as their friends and are starting to reveal what they have gone through.
Shocking details are being brought up about the activities of the White Helmets, which many in the West consider heroes and even saviours, but who in fact are humanitarian aid pseudo-providers. It is frightening to consider what people had to go through in these territories.
It is obvious not only to us that the White Helmets have completely discredited themselves as an authoritative data source; they were promoted as such by the West, together with what has been advertised in London as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It is gratifying to know that both the political establishment as well as the general public of the sponsoring countries of these NGOs have an increasing number of those who doubt the viability of the further funding of the White Helmets.
It is only too obvious that the White Helmets activists will continue doing their criminal jobs so long as it is required by their creators and sponsors. An example is the developments in the Idlib de-escalation zone, where there might be another staged chemical attack by Syrian troops. Independent journalists, doctors, bloggers such as Vanessa Beeley and Richard Labeviere, members of the organisation, Swedish Doctors for Human Rights, not only exposed the White Helmets, but also published shocking facts that prove that they deliberately harmed the health of civilians in Syria just for the sake of getting an interesting piece of footage to later be used as propaganda material.
Locals say that, for instance, in Aleppo, where things are getting back to normal, those who want to join the White Helmets do not need to be able to provide first aid, but should have recommendations from the local office of Jabhat al-Nusra. The information about the White Helmets’ admirable altruism turned out to be exaggerated. Most of its members were not volunteers, but received a monthly pay package. Even after joining the organisation, they did not bother learning basic medical skills, for they were not paid for doing this. However, military training, including shooting and mine and blast training were obligatory.
It is interesting how those who praised this organisation and raised initiatives to award it with international prizes, those who made them equal to the great human rights defenders, people who gave their lives in the fight for peace, are feeling now. I remember that the entire world presented the organisation as an example of humanism and kindness. It would be fascinating to know what their supporters feel now when they hear the stories of people from liberated districts about members of the White Helmets who using weapons prohibited the real doctors from treating the wounded until the propaganda photos had been taken. We have repeatedly spoken of another inhumane activity of the White Helmets: the illegal black transplantation market, which bloomed for many years under their protection.
This activity is to be investigated. I believe that the facts which will be discovered and presented to the court and the public will shock everyone.
Several months ago now, nobody in the West even gave the working methods of the White Helmets a second thought. We remember it all too well how this summer during the liberation of the Syrian territory, members of the White Helmets with the active support of their sponsor’s diplomatic and financial aid hurried to evacuate themselves from the combat zone in southern Syria and went to Jordan.
It has been three months since these events, but the White Helmets still favour Jordan as a place to hang out. Naturally, they can move to the Netherlands, Germany or Great Britain, but for some reason their western patrons and creators, who initially promised their charges the chance to eventually land up in Europe in three weeks, as they said, have not yet fulfilled their promises . What is stopping them? No funding for tickets? Maybe it is hard to receive visas? Or is there something else?
Hundreds of activists and their families are living in a camp near Zarqa, isolated from the entire world. Their legal status has not been defined yet. All this makes you think that they are not needed in the West, in trouble-free countries. Maybe because their patrons saw the personal records of their charges that they have nourished and financed for so many years, and they have no desire to accept them in their countries. It makes sense as it is one thing to commit crimes in Syria but it is something completely different to go to Europe after what has happened. In addition to this, being interviewed, the White Helmets might talk just a bit too much about their activities and spill the beans about their sponsors. They will need to survive and many (probably, from the point of view of those who are unwilling to give them shelter in Europe), not fully aware of the situation, can reveal what they did and whose money they used.
We will continue to monitor the situation and share with you new facts about the “humanitarian” activities of the White Helmets and other such groups together with all those remaining in Syria who keep getting in the way of the peaceful process of bringing back to normal the life of the civilians.
Question: Representatives of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany have been talking about preparing a summit on Syria since September. Why is it stalled? Is this due to the problems in Idlib and difficulties with removing terrorists from the region? Or is this due to the reluctance of your European partners? In your opinion, what are the prospects of building this quartet?
Maria Zakharova: Usually we do not comment on summits. It is the responsibility of the Presidential Executive Office spokespersons. The Executive Office has already commented on the four-party meeting in the format you described. There is a statement by Aide to the President on Foreign Policy Yury Ushakov. I would like to refer you to his comments.
Summits, especially on the matters unrelated to earlier scheduled protocol and agreed visits, multilateral agendas regarding international organisations and forums, formats handling current global matters are held not for the sake of protocol and, with all due respect, not for the attention of the media but for achieving specific results as well as for working out decisions to be adapted and approved at the level of heads of state.
Holding a summit on this matter requires thorough preparations and certain developments on the ground. I do not think that it has anything to do with reluctance, impossibility or lack of agreement. On the contrary, it should be assumed that there are many nuances to consider. If this meeting is to happen all the details must be discussed.
As concerns the level of foreign ministers and special representatives of the above states who are responsible for the Syrian settlement, they are maintaining a continuous dialogue. They have telephone conversations and exchange delegations to address many practical matters.
Question: Is it possible to create a quartet similar to the Astana format but with European participation?
Maria Zakharova: Some of the existing formats are efficient while the others, unfortunately, could be more helpful – for example, Geneva. There must be a realistic foundation for discussing and developing a new format. It is important that the existing formats bring results.
Question: Staffan de Mistura has said that he will resign as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Syria in late November for personal reasons. Does the Foreign Ministry have any comment on that?
Maria Zakharova: We definitely appreciate his contribution as a professional, a specialist and a diplomat to the Syrian settlement. This is a person to whom the warring parties and the international mediators were lending an ear. Of course, he met with different assessments, but that is understandable. It is impossible to win everyone’s approval in such a complicated matter. The Russian side, diplomats at all levels worked with Staffan de Mistura more than closely. As regards his further activity and matters regarding his functioning in that capacity, these are matters of the future. So far, it is premature to discuss them.
Question: My question is on northeastern Syria, specifically so-called Syrian Kurdistan. You and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the situation was threatening Syria’s integrity, considering that since 2012 and after Damascus lost control over the territory, there have been different governing bodies there. It was also repeatedly stated, even here in this building, that the Kurds had the right to self-determination. What is the source of threat today – the Kurdish authorities or the US military bases?
You also mentioned the role of the Geneva format. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is now in Damascus to participate in the forming of the Constitutional Committee. In your opinion, will he be able to launch the committee before the end of his term?
Maria Zakharova: I cannot answer the second question. It is not a matter of guessing but that of practical efforts.
Now, what is Russia concerned about, the US military bases in the region or the establishment of Kurdish governing bodies? We are open about this matter and constantly talk about it. The fact is that the authority of official Damascus is being abolished in those territories. The legitimate authorities are being prevented from carrying out reforms and exercising their powers there. This is the problem. Of course, the American presence is illegitimate in the region; it adds to the instability and is part of a strategy that is not aimed at reuniting and restoring the country or solving its problems. This is a destabilising factor. Give me at least one example of how the presence of US troops on the ground helped to stabilise the situation politically. They helped in no way. To stabilise the situation politically, you have to engage in and encourage an inclusive dialogue. It is necessary, not to divide the ethnic groups in Syria into different categories, but on the contrary work towards reunification [of the country] and development of a new constitution based on different views, create political parties and various associations, and start building a new country in political terms. I don’t think you can give me a single example of how the US military are contributing to this process. This is not because you do not know something, but because there are no such examples. Even more so, all of this is happening against the backdrop of efforts to prevent Damascus from controlling its own territory. Nobody is against or denies the existence of local self-government authorities. We are talking about an integral state, and this is as an integral state that the global community sees Syria in the future. An integral state means that the national capital can exercise its power throughout its territory and in all regions.
Question: How proactive is Russia in helping to maintain dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus? In his recent statement, Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem said that they would regain control over the region by force and did not envisage any dialogues for the time being.
To what degree is Russia interested in the continuation of this dialogue considering that the Kurds have never said they want to secede from Syria?
Maria Zakharova: That would be strange. We all talk about (and this is the position of Russia and all the main players, at least the position stated publicly) Syria being seen as an integral, secular and free state where people of different faiths, ethnicities, political views etc. can exercise their rights. But the focal idea is always the same: Syria must be an integral state.
As for the dialogue, Russia will, of course, facilitate it and encourage it in every way. This is our original stance.
Speaking about Mr Muallem and his statements, I cannot comment on this particular quote because I have not seen it. But I saw other statements coming from Damacus, including those made by Mr Muallem, who said that the war against terrorism would continue. I think that he was most likely referring to the use of force against militants and terrorists. We cannot deny the legitimate government the right to implement their strategy and policies throughout the country. Moreover, right now we can see that Damascus has regained control over most of the national territory (more than 90 percent). We can see that the rebuilding effort is in full swing. A dialogue is the way to remove e numerous problems which, as you rightly noted, are still in existence. The question is whether the US military is helping this dialogue or encouraging the Kurds to do something else in their areas? This is still an open question.