Idlib Province remains the main hotbed of tensions and violence. The tune there is set by terrorist groups. Militants of Al-Nusra’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance have not discontinued their armed raids against the Syrian armed forces. For example, on the night of February 4-5, the terrorists conducted a number of offensive operations against government troops in the area of Aleppo. Radicals are also staging regular provocations in the north of Hama Province. So, there are no grounds to speak about the reduction of ceasefire violations by these criminal groups. During the past week alone, Russia recorded 35 similar cases. Indicatively, the extremists are not only shelling neighboring districts but are also planning full-scale offensive operations. According to incoming reports, in late January Al-Nusra urged its so-called allies operating in Idlib, notably, Hurras al-Deen and the Turkestan Islamic Party, to begin joint preparations for a potential start of a large-scale military operation.
Obviously, the ultimate goal of the terrorists is to establish control over the entire Idlib de-escalation zone. According to recent reports, they are planning to establish a joint operations headquarters with centralised command. Field commanders of all illegal armed units operating in the zone are supposed to join the headquarters.
Moreover, jihadists continue stockpiling toxic chemicals along the entire line of contact with the Syrian armed forces. We noted media reports that militants of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham recently delivered several tanks with chlorine from Jisr ash-Shugur to Khan Shaykhun in the south of Idlib Province. It is reported that in transporting toxic chemicals the terrorists again relied on the help of the notorious White Helmets, whose activists kindly provided their ambulances this time. We would like to emphasise again that provocations involving chemical weapons are unacceptable. They are aimed at giving the green light to the enemies of Damascus from among Western countries to carry out yet another act of aggression against the legitimate Syrian authorities. We appeal to the patrons and sponsors of the White Helmets to give up such dangerous and destructive plans.
Considering the very complicated situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone, we hope that our Turkish partners will step up their efforts so as to eventually change the situation and fully implement their commitments under the Sochi agreements on Idlib of September 17, 2018, including the formation of a demilitarised zone.
Russia has continued its vigorous political and diplomatic efforts to launch a sustainable political settlement process. Our high-level representatives visited Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Iran as part of an interdepartmental delegation. During consultations they focused on the need to maintain the ceasefire, prepare for the work of the Constitutional Committee and provide humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians.
On February 14, Sochi will host the fourth regular summit in the Astana format. The Russian delegation will include Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. We do not rule out contacts between the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey on the sidelines of this event, during which they may discuss in more detail the full range of issues related to the Syrian settlement process as a follow-up to the agreements reached by the leaders of the Astana format countries.
As for Syrians returning to their places of permanent residence, their number is growing with every day. I would like to quote statistics again because figures graphically illustrate the positive dynamics. Over 125,000 people have returned home since July 2018. We are sure that this number will continue to increase because tentatively over 1,700,000 people expressed their desire to come home. We are going to continue taking coordinated measures with the Syrian authorities and other interested parties to provide aid for the returning Syrians.
Our stand on the dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus
Moscow has always considered and continues to consider Kurds as an integral part of the Syrian nation. Therefore, we firmly support the start of dialogue between the Kurds and the Syrian government in Damascus. We are confident that this process will serve the interests of ensuring the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. We also see Washington’s declared intention to withdraw US troops from the country through this prism.
Once again, I would like to emphasise that Moscow believes that a long-term political settlement of the crisis in Syria requires consideration of the interests of all ethnic and religious groups of Syrian society, including the Kurds. We are confident that the Syrians themselves must find solution to all the challenges they face without pressure and outside interference. In this regard, we strongly reject any attempts to split Syrian society and the country on ethnic or religious grounds.
New revelations regarding the Netherlands’ support of Syrian terrorist groups
In September 2018, we already addressed the issue of the Dutch government rendering Syrian terrorist groups so-called non-lethal aid which appeared to have been used by the militants in purposes which were anything but peaceful.
The topic was reopened in Netherlands as Dutch journalists came out with new revelations which indicate that at least five Islamic organisations registered in the Netherlands as NGOs, with the connivance of the Dutch government, rendered alleged “humanitarian aid” to Syrian groups which are listed nationally and internationally as terrorist organisations (including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham). These so-called “charity organisations” not only delivered “humanitarian cargoes” to Syria (apparently designed for military use) but also collected “donations for charitable needs”, meaning support for terrorists. As an evidence, the journalists showed footage from an Al-Nusra camp where one of the terrorists is seen giving an interview as he calls for the killing of Syrian army soldiers against the background of an ambulance with a Dutch license plate, which had been allegedly delivered by the Netherlands for a hospital in Aleppo.
The damning evidence collected by the journalists was submitted to the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, and the Syria-related activity of the aforementioned five NGOs was suspended. However, none of them has been banned as of yet, and they all are set to resume their activity in Syria at the earliest possibility. Experienced lawyers came to their defence.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, who was called to account by parliament deputies, had to explain again the Hague’s aid to Syrian terrorists. According to him, the aid was meant exclusively for “moderate” groups but it fell into the “wrong hands” “by mistake.” Meanwhile, uncomfortable questions remain unanswered, which could have revealed the unsavoury role of the Dutch authorities in supporting terrorists, by referring to the article in the country’s constitution which allows executive authorities not to disclose information about participation in armed conflicts if it runs contrary to national security interests.
The new evidence revealed by the journalists is further confirmation that the Netherlands renders aid to Syrian terrorist groups, albeit via national NGOs. Of particular importance is the response of the government officials who prefer to cite “mistakes” and hide behind some sort of confidentiality rather than conduct a proper investigation of the exposed facts and take effective steps to guarantee that it doesn’t happen again.
Western powers’ delay in resettling White Helmets activists from Jordan
We have to again address the situation around the activists of the pseudo humanitarian White Helmets organisation, who were urgently evacuated from Syria in the summer of 2018 and were temporarily settled in Jordan. The Jordanian authorities offered their land to those people exclusively out of humanitarian concerns. We all remember perfectly well how their Western patrons adamantly claimed that they would send them to European countries and Canada within several months. Meanwhile, around 40 such pseudo humanitarian workers including their family members still remain in Jordan which accepted over 420 White Helmets activists. It is interesting to note that Europeans are in no rush to deal with their resettlement from Jordan and are dragging it out any way they can. It looks more like passing the buck or trying to get some compensation for agreeing to accommodate them in the country. Why is this being done?
The answer is obvious, in our view. The West has quite justifiable concerns that these pseudo humanitarian workers present a potential terrorist threat and are unlikely to sever their former ties with terrorist organisations. There is irrefutable evidence that there are regular Al-Nusra militants among them in addition to terrorist accomplices. Numerous examples of that were given in an investigation by the Russian NGO Foundation for the Study of Democracy presented at the UN headquarters in New York on December 20, 2018.
We regret to state that some countries persist in attempting to keep afloat the White Helmets’ activities in Syria. Quite recently (on February 4) the Qatar Fund for Development allocated $2 million for that purpose. And on the following day the media carried reports the White Helmets are planning yet another provocation against Syrian civilians involving the use of chemical weapons in the area of Khan-Shaykhun.
All this is, of course, a cause of grave concern with us.
Report released by the Foundation for the Study of Democracy “The White Helmets: Terrorists Accomplices and Sources of Misinformation”
This investigation was done to reveal the true nature of the White Helmets’ activities in Syria. Let me stress again that Russia has an official position on this, which is communicated via official channels, and then there is work by independent journalists, experts and public activists who are trying to dig up the truth and report the real facts about the White Helmets, their collaboration with terrorists, and the crimes they have committed.
Recently the Russian Foundation for the Study of Democracy completed the full text of the report “The White Helmets: Terrorists Accomplices and Sources of Misinformation.”
The results of the investigation were presented by the Foundation’s director Maxim Grigoryev at an event organised by Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York in conjunction with Syrian representatives on December 20, 2018.
I would like to reiterate that it is neither a collection of hypotheses nor does it represent Russia’s official position. These are materials which the Foundation’s representatives managed to find and present to the public.
The report is based on materials collected by the Foundation’s staff during their visit to Syria in October-November 2018. They include numerous interviews with formers White Helmets activists, former terrorists and eye-witnesses of the crimes committed by the White Helmets.
The evidence presented by the Foundation for the Study of Democracy testifies to this pseudo humanitarian organisation’s solid ties to terrorist organisations, pillaging and marauding by members of the White Helmets, takeovers of schools, kindergartens and out-patient clinics terminating their activities, as well as fire stations, shops and private residences. There are confirmed cases of the White Helmets’ personal participation in fake chemical attacks, artillery and air strikes, killings of civilians, including children, for organ harvesting. The most horrendous details emerge of the crimes committed by the White Helmets. It appears to have been a side business for those affiliated with that organisation.
I would to like to emphasise that it is an organisation which is openly funded by a number of countries, in particular, as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN recently confessed, by the nation she represents.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is intent on using the evidence presented in the investigation. This report is far from being the final word in the investigation, but rather opens up a whole series of investigations and analyses of what the White Helmets really were and the result of their crimes.
We can offer a copy of the report to those interested.
Let me reiterate that we are not saying the report is perfect. We stress that it does not represent the official position of the Russian Foreign Ministry but rather is the work of independent experts.
Question: Is it true that Russia will not hold additional talks with the Kurds or invite them to the negotiating table during the upcoming Sochi summit?
Maria Zakharova: I have already formulated the Russian position very clearly. We proceed from the fact that the Kurdish people are an integral part of the people of Syria; we have been actively advocating the establishment of a dialogue between the country’s official authorities and this population group, which is part of their own people.
Question: If Russia’s priority is the security of Israel in the region, while Israel’s goal is to force Iran out of Syria, does this mean that Russia will try to convince Iran to pull out of Syria? Can you comment on this possibility?
Maria Zakharova: Russian officials have commented on this more than once. The presence of foreign troops in Syria is being addressed by the Syrian government. Other countries may have widely different views and opinions on this matter. It can be discussed in multilateral, bilateral or many other formats. But the Syrian government alone is authorised to decide whose troops can or cannot be deployed in the sovereign territory of Syria, and in which capacity. This is the fundamental premise. This is exactly how we acted [in Syria], and we have explained our position to the general public more than once.
To be continued…