Tension persists around the Idlib de-escalation zone. Militants from the al-Nusra alliance known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) shell the neighbouring towns and villages on a daily basis and are also building up forces on the line of contact with the Syrian government troops.
We are alarmed by the reports that the terrorists continue to stage sham chemical weapons attacks against civilians. According to the information available to us, active members of the pseudo-humanitarian White Helmets group have accumulated equipment for shooting footage of such provocations in several Idlib hospitals.
We have taken note of the odious item published by The New York Times on January 26, according to which the HTS is allegedly running the province almost liberally. A leading American newspaper is presenting the terrorists as a constructive force allegedly capable of restoring order and reducing the level of violence in Idlib. It is notable, though, that the author of the article does not mention the regular shelling of the Syrian government positions. We provided the relevant figures at last week’s briefing, but I am willing to repeat them. Over the past five months, the terrorists in the Idlib de-escalation zones have violated the ceasefire over 1,000 times. I would like to remind American journalists and their audiences that the HTS is on the UN Security Council’s list of terrorist organisations and that it has been also recognised as such in the United States.
The UN Security Council resolutions encourage all members of the international community to work together to eradicate terrorists. Unfortunately, there are no coordinated efforts in this area or a broad counterterrorism front, which Russia has been advocating. Meanwhile, the jihadists continue to kill innocent civilians in Syria. Between December 21, 2018 and January 21, 2019, at least 10 people have died, including two children, and dozens have been wounded in terrorist attacks around Syria.
I would like to say a few things about the humanitarian situation in Syria.
First, UN data point out a positive trend on the humanitarian track. According to this worldwide organisation, humanitarian access in Syria has greatly improved over the past year. As of January 2019, about one million Syrians were living in difficult to access regions. This represents a decrease of nearly two thirds compared with the figures reported by the UN in late 2017 (nearly 3 million).
Second, we would like to remind the world about the plight of the people in the Rukban camp for the internally displaced persons that is located within the 55-km security area around Al-Tanf. Responsibility for the deplorable situation at the camp rests squarely with the United States, which has illegally taken over that area for a military base and has organised regular logistic support to it. At the same time, the Americans are not doing anything to facilitate the delivery of food and medicine to those in the Rukban camp. Emergency measures must be taken to relocate these people. Until this is done, we will continue to believe that the US is responsible for creating normal living conditions at the camp. We urge Washington to withdraw its troops from the Al-Tanf area without delay and to hand over control over it to the Syrian government, which will take care of the Syrian citizens.
The UN is preparing to send a second humanitarian convoy to Rukban. The parameters of this operation are being coordinated with the Syrian government. We hope that the UN’s humanitarian aid agencies will preclude a repetition of the mistakes made when they sent the first convoy in November 2018. More precisely, we hope that they will ensure a safe route and transparent delivery and distribution of aid. It should be said in this context that Russia has not changed its principled position on dealing with the humanitarian problems of the Rukban camp.
In light of a rapid normalisation around Syria, the number of Syrian refugees willing to return back home has increased considerably. The largest groups of returning Syrians are moving from Lebanon and Jordan. Since July 2018, when Russia launched the initiative to help Syrians’ repatriation, some 120,000 people have returned home.
Question: You spoke about the growing tension in Idlib. Turkey, one of the three guarantor countries in the Astana process, took on the responsibility for the stability of that province and was expected to establish stability back in October. But, as you noted, tension there has become even more threatening. Is a military operation being prepared that had been planned prior to the agreement on the de-escalation zone? Will Russia support such an operation launched by the Syrian Government?
Having failed to ensure stability in Idlib, Turkey is preparing for another operation to create a de-escalation zone in northern Syria. Will Russia support this initiative?
Today a delegation of the Turkish Ministry of Defence is arriving in Moscow. Will these issues be discussed during the talks?
Maria Zakharova: The entire series of your questions should be addressed to our military specialists. Political evaluations were made after President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The heads of state discussed this issue in detail. The Russian side has publicly presented its views. They are also reflected in the numerous comments by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. I have nothing to add here.
As for aspects of military operations, they are the competence of the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Maria Zakharova: At all stages of the events in Syria we spoke about the need to involve representatives of Kurdish groups in all settlement processes. We conducted this work not only with Damascus but also with other world powers.