The situation in Syria has been changing rapidly.
As a result of successful actions by Syrian government forces, with a decisive role by the Russian military, terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical groups have been confined to Idlib and some areas east of the Euphrates River.
We reaffirm our commitment to the implementation of the Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding on Stabilisation of the Situation in Idlib’s De-escalation Zone of September 17, 2018. At the same time, an increase in the number of ceasefire violations is of major concern – there have been more than 1,000 such cases since September 2018. The ceasefire must not be disrupted and all radical groups and heavy weapons must be fully withdrawn from the demilitarised zone. At the same time, this should not serve as a pretext for the Idlib de-escalation zone becoming a refuge for thousands of Nusra terrorists. We presume that the establishment of the demilitarised zone, as well as the de-escalation zone itself, is temporary.
As you know, at the end of December 2018, US President Donald Trump announced the US forces’ pullout from Syria. We believe that the fulfillment of the plans announced by Washington would be a step in the right direction. We proceed under the premise that the US and other foreign military units now deployed illegally in Syria must eventually leave the country. We believe it important that the territories vacated by the Americans should come under the control of the Government of Syria. In this regard, the establishment of a dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus is of particular importance. The Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society. The return of official authorities’ control over the territories populated by the Kurds should also neutralise the security risks for Syria’s neighbours.
Also as part of a political settlement, we continue working to launch the Constitutional Committee in Geneva based on the progress made by the Astana format guarantors. The efforts of Russia, Iran and Turkey to set up this committee will help launch a sustainable and long-term political process. The Syrian parties – both the Government and the opposition – have approved the membership of the committee, thereby confirming their intention to participate in this work. Any other enforced decisions could lead to a breakdown of the negotiations. In this regard, we reaffirm our focus on constructive work with the new special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, Geir Pedersen.
Providing humanitarian assistance to all those in need and creating conditions for the refugees and IDPs’ voluntary and safe return home are equally important issues on the Syrian agenda. In the context of efforts to rectify the humanitarian situation in Syria, we are providing the appropriate assistance to the country’s civilian population directly, as well as through various international mechanisms, including the UN system. Since September 2015, the Russian military has implemented over 2,000 humanitarian projects (delivering a total of more than 3000 tonnes of products).
With regard to the Syrian refugees’ problems, we are making efforts to facilitate the process of Syrians returning to their homes. We are carrying out consistent work to provide them with the necessary assistance in coordination with the Government of Syria, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other interested parties. Thanks to the measures taken, the repatriation of the Syrians is gaining momentum. Since September 30, 2015, more than 320,000 refugees (over 90,000 of them after mid-July 2018) and about 1.3 million IDPs have returned to their homes from abroad. We believe that this process should not be complicated by any artificial conditions or politicised. Russia’s principled position is that all refugees have the right to return to their homeland. This is the fundamental right of the citizens of Syria.
Investigation into the chemical incident in Aleppo
It is with satisfaction that we can state, following repeated requests by the Syrian and Russian sides to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that experts of the Fact-Finding Mission to establish facts regarding chemical weapons use, finally arrived in Syria on January 6 to investigate the incident with the use of chlorine, which took place in Aleppo in November 2018.
The OPCW specialists are reportedly planning to visit the hospitals and medical centres where the injured were given aid and to question witnesses and eye-witnesses of that chemical attack. We hope that the OPCW experts will also visit the scene of the incident in the very near future.
Aware of how much time has passed since that chemical incident, we urge the OPCW Technical Secretariat to speed up the investigation and submit a corresponding report to the organisation’s Executive Council.
The White Helmets pseudo-humanitarian organisation
According to our information, a group of so-called activists of the White Helmets pseudo-humanitarian organisation are still located in Jordan. The White Helmets are actively involved in provocative actions on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) and in collaboration with terrorists.
In the middle of the summer of 2018, the While Helmets, through the active support of their Western masters, hastily fled the areas that were being liberated by the Syrian Government in the south of the country. It is well known that the patrons of those pseudo-humanitarian workers promised to provide them with shelter in European countries within a short time. You saw reports how, for example in the European Union, the possibility of granting them asylum, temporary residence, citizenship, protection and infrastructure was discussed. But months later, the matter still remains unsolved.
Evidently, the West is reluctant to accept those who were involved in the most serious crimes or, at a minimum, closely cooperated with the most notorious terrorists. The promises given to the Jordanians are simply not being fulfilled. It is one thing to patronise the provocateurs in another country, using geopolitical motivation, and quite another thing to host them in one’s own country, creating threats to one’s own citizens by giving all those people all the rights as guests or in some cases, probably, as citizens of those countries. Besides, it is quite likely that some White Helmets, once they find themselves outside the Middle East, might, for various reasons, be ready to talk about what they were really up to in Syria. Of course, their sponsors are not interested in that.
Question: Statements have been made in the US Congress about US plans to impose sanctions against countries that would in any way support the Government of Syria. What do you think about this?
Maria Zakharova: You know our position on the sanctions policy: we insist that sanctions are the competence of the UN Security Council and its agencies. Only their decisions are legitimate. In our understanding, if we are talking about building peace on legitimate grounds, no unilateral sanctions should be involved.
Question: According to CNN the United States has started the first shipments of its materiel from Syria. What are Russia’s and Turkey’s plans in Syria, given that the United States is withdrawing from that region?
Maria Zakharova: It’s good that they started taking out their materiel. Sometimes they take someone else’s. Do you know how much of someone else’s property was taken from Iraq? It is being auctioned still.
As for your question, you are speaking about US plans with such confidence as if you know them. We are judging, first, by tweets, then by the comments that appear in Twitter right after the publication of new portions of such Twitter messages.
To date, we have a feeling that the Americans are leaving the region, as the favorite film goes, to stay.
We said on many occasions that we would like to learn more about their strategy. It seems to me that the world community is in the position to know what the United States is going to do in Syria and on its borders and within what time frame. I can remind you that we also made similar statements regarding Afghanistan. We asked questions all the time, including in this room, as to what is the strategy and time limit of the US troop presence in Iraq, then in Afghanistan and now in Syria. Many times we heard from the US political establishment that they are pulling out from somewhere but sometime later the numbers and quality of their forces were even higher.
I cannot share your assurance that the United States is withdrawing from Syria because we have yet to see their official strategy. What we see is a patchwork of statements, messages in social media, adjustments, remarks, repudiations and reconfirmations – all this stuff over the past two weeks.
This is about the world’s biggest and mightiest state in military terms being illegally present on the territory of another sovereign state for many years. The presence of US forces in Syria does not help to remedy the situation but only aggravates it. At least this is the trend that was demonstrated by the presence of the US force in Syria over the recent years. It was engaged in fairly selective warfare against terrorist groups. We have not got from them any assistance in arranging the political process. We only heard a regularly repeated message about the need to change the political regime in the country.
Given the totality of the above facts and factors, it seems to me that the world community has the right to know what the United States is going to do in Syria and in the region: go in, pull out, increase or reduce its forces? The question remains open. This is why I cannot confirm the assertion contained in your question.
If US intentions are confirmed, we think that the withdrawal of troops from Syria is a step in the right direction because their presence in the country was illegal. Indeed, there is always the possibility of dialogue with the official authorities, in particular with respect to counterterrorist activities. It is common practice. If the United States has such intentions, why not enter into dialogue with official Damascus?
Question: Can you elaborate on how talks are proceeding between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds? Is Russia playing any role in these talks?
Maria Zakharova: I already commented on Syria today, and a large part of my comments was devoted to the Kurdish issue. Certainly, we are paying close attention to the situation with the Kurdish population in Syria because we consider it an inalienable part of the political settlement “on the ground.” The current internal talks are the sphere of responsibility of Damascus; nevertheless we express our position, bring it to Damascus officials and regularly share it with you publicly.
Question: Why is the Russian military police patrolling Manbij in cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces rather than the Syrian Army?
Maria Zakharova: I think it is better to address this question to Russian military experts.
Question: I would like to clarify the situation in the de-escalation zone in Idlib. What is the strategy with this? How can terrorist groups be eliminated without conducting military operations and compelling Turkey to fulfil its promises?
Maria Zakharova: I have already talked about this in great detail today. In theory, there are many methods of countering the terrorists in non-active, non-combat ways: the disarmament of the militants, the voluntary surrender of weapons in exchange for amnesty, and negotiations on achieving disarmament.
This regularly takes place in Syria and we regularly report on it. The methods may be different, but of course this is a subject for military experts, and I have already described today the specific situation on the ground.