Russia’s Lavrov on Solving Syria through Diplomacy (Text of Interview)

The USG Open Source Center translates an interview by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov from Russian, treating Syria and Palestine.

Russian Foreign Minister Discusses Syria, Palestinian Question in Interview to Lebanese TV
Transcript of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview to Lebanese Television: “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Interview to Lebanese TV Channel Al-Mayadin, Moscow, 13 May 2013″
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
Monday, May 20, 2013
Document Type: OSC Translated Text

(Interviewer) I would like to start our conversation with your recent international contacts and, in the first instance, with your meeting with the American secretary of state on 7 May this year in Moscow. The day after he left Moscow, John Kerry made the statement in Rome that there was no place for President Bashar al-Assad in the transitional government. There were also statements that the White House had not yet taken a final decision on the subject of arming the opposition and was waiting for the results of an investigation into the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic to take the final decision. We are familiar with the accords reached in Moscow between Russia and America but we would still like to understand why, as soon as the American secretary of state had left Moscow, completely different statements were made, which fundamentally do not fall within the framework of the accords agreed the day before?

(Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) I will start with the fact that very good talks took place during the course of John Kerry’s stay in Moscow. He had a lengthy conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during the course of which, in addition to detailed discussion of a whole series of bilateral matters, the subject of Syria and a series of other international problems were touched upon. With regard to Syria, Mr Kerry presented an analysis very close to what we talk about, seeing threats resulting from maintaining the status quo and encouraging the irreconcilable opposition to seize power, and solving problems by military means. We talk (and Mr Kerry also supported this) about the need to stop the bloodshed, and to start political talks in line with the logic laid down in the Geneva communique of 30 June 2012, which virtually all the key external players who have any influence on the Syrian situation signed. Mr Kerry spoke in favor of convoking the next international meeting with the participation of the parties in order to encourage them to move in the political direction of forming a transitional governing body, on the basis of the general agreement of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and all the opposition groups, so that it can prepare firm accords guaranteeing the security and rights of all the ethnic, religious, and other groups in Syria, without exception.

We have been speaking out in favor of holding such a forum for quite a long time. Back in August of last year we suggested convoking a Geneva-2. At that time, our Western partners, Arab participants in the Geneva process, and Turkey said that they were not yet ready for this. Our American, French, and British colleagues, and the Europeans as a whole, called for work in favor of uniting the opposition on a constructive platform of preparing for talks. The National Coalition was created, but, unfortunately, it was formed on a platform that was absolutely the opposite – overthrowing the regime and dismantling all the institutions. The decision of the League of Arab States to the effect that the National Coalition was the only representative of the Syrian people and should take the place of Syria in the Arab League did not help either. A question arises in connection with this:A What about the other opposition groups because the National Coalition is far from being the only one of them? An external opposition exists, which is not represented in the coalition, there is also an internal opposition, which has never left Syria and is in favor of reform from inside the country.

Against such a backdrop, we welcome the agreement of the Americans, represented by John Kerry, to our blueprint for holding a conference without preconditions (no preconditions were formulated in what we agreed with our American colleague). Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the idea outlined by the American secretary of state, and instructed me to formulate ideas on paper together with my American colleague, which we did and we then announced them at a joint news conference. John Kerry and I had an agreement that we would secure the consent of our governments to the proposals that were formulated. President Putin is also working with a number of the countries, which it is important to bring into such a conference, and the American side will continue its efforts to ensure that the opposition unites on a platform of support for such an approach.

These efforts are continuing. I have heard about the statements, which Mr Kerry made in Rome, and about the statements of our other colleagues. I am proceeding from the fact that it is hard to persuade the opposition. It, in contrast to the government of Syria, which has made quite a positive statement in response to the Russo-American initiative, has not done this but has spoken quite vaguely, saying that in principle it would welcome any initiatives, which could put a stop to the violence but first Assad must “disappear” — that is, approaches have once again been set out, which have for many months now been the reason for the continuing deadlock in the Syrian crisis. So we are continuing our efforts and our contact with many partners. A meeting recently took place in Sochi between President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron, at which support for the Russo-American initiative was also expressed. I know that the next meeting of the opposition forces, which are drawn towards the National Coalition, is planned in Istanbul in the next few days, on around 19-20 May. And immediately after this, in Madrid, I think, the National Coordination Committee will hold a meeting of the internal constructive patriotic opposition. Let us see what approaches will be set out following these events.

We think that preconditions need to be abandoned, not because we like or do not like someone, but because it is necessary to be realistic. And realism and concern for the interests of the Syrian people demand a speedy end to the violence without any preconditions. Any preconditions will only prolong this vicious circle of bloodshed.

(Interviewer) Sergey Viktorovich, you mentioned the talks between Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and David Cameron in Sochi. After this meeting, statements followed, in particular by Ushakov, about the fact that there were differences concerning the Geneva-2 agenda, its structure, and powers. This may lead to the conference not taking place at the end of the month. Could you not clarify what differences this concerns and what is meant by the “legitimacy” of the representatives of the opposition, so that they are later able to fulfil the commitments made as a result of the talks?

(Lavrov) There are several problems here because the Russo-American initiative was not able to encompass all the details. This was not our aim. Our task was to encourage a process of abandoning the current unacceptable situation and moving towards the preparation of talks. Much still lies ahead for this to be done. For example (and I have already spoken about this when answering your first question), it is crucial to have a single opinion and position of those who are coming out against the regime, and a negotiating team, which would represent all opposition figures.

It is also important, of course, to have a negotiating team from the Syrian government. A day before John Kerry’s visit, I phoned my colleague, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and once again asked him whether the committee created to promote dialog and reforms, headed by the Syrian prime minister, had the authority to conduct negotiations with the opposition. I was told that it did. We will now wait and see how quickly and effectively the other side (those who the opposition listen to more) is able to achieve the same reaction from the opposition:A Here is our negotiating team and it represents all the opposition forces, it has all the appropriate powers. That is the first task, which is not yet accomplished.

The second problem is, as you rightly said, reaching agreement with the other conference participants. We are proceeding from the fact that all the participants in the meeting in Geneva on 30 June last year should be invited to it, plus the two key players who were not in Geneva last year — Iran and Saudi Arabia. We will also be delighted to see Jordan, Lebanon, and all the neighbors of Syria. A country such as Iran cannot be excluded from this process because of geopolitical preferences. It is nevertheless a very important external player. But there is not yet any accord on this subject.

Some of our Western colleagues (this also emerged during the talks with David Cameron in Sochi) wish to narrow the circle of external participants and start the process with a very small group of countries, within the framework of which the negotiations teams and the agenda would essentially be decided beforehand, and perhaps even the outcome of the talks as well. And then, if the logic of our Western colleagues is followed, the proposals would be handed to the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the opposition, and everyone would start to put pressure on both in order to push through the implementation of this plan, conceived without the involvement of the Syrians.

We still prefer another approach. Firstly, we do not want such things to be done privately but with the participation of the regional countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed our position at the meeting in Sochi. External players should not take decisions for the Syrians but encourage the government and all the opposition groups to start trying to reach agreement among themselves. This is where the difference lies. We do not consider it to be right that external players should engage in “socio-political engineering” and outline plans of some sort for the Syrians. The Syrians must reach agreement themselves. This will be a difficult business and a lengthy process but it is only in this event that it is possible to count on a firm accord.

(Interviewer) Sergey Viktorovich, yesterday (12 May) representatives of the National Coordinating Committee, who often visit Moscow and meet you, confirmed that they had received an invitation from the Russian Federation ambassador in Paris. Could you define, approximately, the circle of participants in this meeting? Who would you exclude?

(Lavrov) I would not exclude anyone, apart from those who are not opposition figures but terrorists. For example, the Jabhat al-Nusra movement, a well-known structure, which the Americans included on the terrorist list, and its leaders openly state that they receive orders from al-Qaida. There are several terrorist groups in it. Of course, there is no place for them at such meetings. We are talking about a political, even an armed opposition, but on the understanding that there should not be any place for terrorists at the negotiating table.

(Interviewer) You mentioned Iran as an important and key regional player. As I understand it, our Western partners do not at the moment very much wish to see Teheran as a participant in the conference. What role could this country, in your view, play in setting the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, and how do you view the role of the quite strong and important organization Hezbollah?

(Lavrov) Iran may play the same role as the other external players who directly cooperate and support one or another of the Syrian parties politically or in another way. There are obvious things:A Iran has repeatedly stressed its solidarity with the Syrian government, and representatives of the Iranian leadership regularly visit Damascus. There should not be any doubts here. I will stress once again that geopolitical biases should not be an obstacle to Iran’s participation in the process of preparing and holding conferences from the very start.

As for Hezbollah, everyone knows very well that this is not an “imported product” but the result of the development of Lebanese political life and the emergence of Lebanese Shiism. As I understand it, they do not have any aims that exceed the boundaries of Lebanese territory. Hezbollah now openly says that they have sent their combat detachments to Syria with one — they stress — aim: to protect Shiite shrines. Everyone knows very well that religious shrines in Syria are being subjected to vandalism. Literally yesterday, I was reading about the destruction of an Orthodox Church, including the image of a saint, who is equally revered by Orthodox Christians and Muslims. So the people who are doing this should be stopped and excluded from any political processes dedicated to Syria’s future.

(Interviewer) A powerful explosion resounded near the town of Reyhanli in the Turkish province of Hatay recently. The Turkish authorities immediately rushed to blame the Syrian secret services and appealed to NATO. It is clear what this conversation will lead to. They evidently want to accuse the Syrian authorities like this and pave the way for an intervention and a sharp reaction on the part of the West or NATO. What do you think about this?

(Lavrov) We have expressed our deepest condolences to the Turkish government and people, and the nearest and dearest of the several dozen dead and wounded. Any act of terrorism merits sharp condemnation, that is why Russia drew up a single standard in the UN Security Council a long time ago now, which concludes that the Security Council reacts unanimously and routinely to any terrorist phenomena. It is regrettable that acts of terrorism occurring inside Syria have not been condemned by a number of our Western colleagues for about a year. I think that any terrorist activity deserves condemnation and there should not be any double standards here. The united front in the fight against terrorism needs to be strengthened. President Putin spoke about this in great detail with President Obama during a telephone conversation after the notorious terrorist act during the Boston marathon. A

As far as the situation that developed specifically after the act of terrorism near the town of Reyhanli on the Syrian-Turkish border is concerned, I think we need to wait for the investigation, especially since the Turkish authorities have already announced the detention of several suspects. So, I would not want to make any unambiguous accusations against anyone, especially at the stage when the investigation is just beginning.

(Interviewer) Sergey Viktorovich, you again confirmed in Warsaw on 10 May this year that Russia intended to complete the delivery of air defense systems to Syria in line with previously concluded accords, signed several years ago. In connection with this, Israel, which recently made an airstrike on Syria, started to get worried and talk about the fact that this related to S-300 systems. Is this the case?

(Lavrov) I will say once again that we have concluded no new contracts but are honouring (we have already partially fulfilled them and are completing their fulfilment) all the old contracts that relate to air defense. Those who are not planning aggressive actions against a sovereign state should not worry because the air defense system is an exclusively defensive (even in name) system, which is required to repel attacks from the air. We are not breaking any laws here and we do not want to lose our reputation as a reliable supplier.

(Interviewer) At the beginning of May, the Israeli air force struck facilities on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement, in which it indicated that this incident was being analysed and investigated so that the appropriate conclusions could be drawn. Some people perceived your statement in Warsaw as a response to the events linked to the air raid. Can the statements by the Russian side be regarded as help to Syria in strengthening its air defense system to avoid such air raids?

(Lavrov) Initially, air defense systems are supplied to protect the purchasing country from air raids. But these contracts were concluded a long time before the air strikes were made on Syria last year and now. When we said that we wanted to look into all the circumstances in this affair, we had already clarified many things for ourselves. We wanted to understand which specific targets had been subjected to strikes. According to our assessment, these targets still relate to the functioning of the Syrian state’s military defense system. I do not want to go into details.

(Interviewer) There is the opinion among analysts and observers that Russia supports the Syrian regime and will strengthen its support, especially after the Syrian army started recently to achieve some success on the battlefield. What is your view of such an opinion?

(Lavrov) We have already repeatedly said that we take an open and honest stance, which is well-known to everyone, not for the sake of retaining a regime or any individual at the head of or inside this regime, but so that the Syrian people stop suffering, so that no-one breaks international law, or challenges the basic principles of the United Nations Charter, such as respect of national sovereignty and the territorial integrity and independence of the state, and non-interference in internal matters. We are convinced that no other measures aimed at changes in this or another region will bring a lasting settlement. Look at what is occurring in other countries, which were involved in the “Arab spring” . The situation there is very far from stabilization although we are doing everything politically, morally, and by means of humanitarian aid, to support the processes of reform. But these are very painful processes, to a large extent because of how they were implemented.

(Interviewer) You said that Russia is guided by the supremacy of the law, international law, etc. But Russia probably also has its own geopolitical and economic interests. Could you not define the scope of Russia’s interests in Syria in particular, and in the region as a whole?

(Lavrov) Our interests in Syria do not differ from our interests in the region as a whole. We want this region to be stable so that it is possible to trade with it in a mutually advantageous fashion, so that it is possible to invest in it favourably in conditions of a stable political and socio-economic situation, and to help develop the economy of the countries of the region and at the same time help the operations of Russian companies. We have an interest in assisting, together with the countries of this region, in solving the most pressing problems, which have a global dimension, first and foremost, the Palestine-Israeli conflict, and the Iranian nuclear conflict. I will also mention the task of creating a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. We attempted to reach agreement on this quite a long time ago and it was decided three years ago to convene the relevant international conference in 2012. Unfortunately, this was not done, and it was not our fault. We remain convinced that all the countries of the region should take part in such a conference. Our efforts as one of its three (together with the Americans and British) co-founders are aimed at this. The UN secretary general is also involved in this process.

Thus we are interested both in the economy and in settling the conflicts, and in political dialog, which we value and which is developing well for us. At the beginning of the year, the first ministerial meeting between Russia and the Arab League of States took place, the foreign ministers of Iraq, Egypt, and Iran visited us. To this I would add the very deep traditions of our humanitarian and religious links. We are very concerned about the fate of the Christians living in the region, first and foremost Orthodox Christians. They have lived in Syria for centuries “side by side” with the main population group — Sunni Muslims — and other religious minorities — Shiites, Alawites, Druze, and Kurds. So stability is important from this point of view as well. We do not want the countries of the region to turn into mono-ethnic and mono-religious states. This sounds simply ludicrous in the 21 st century.

It is this that we are guided by when we defend the principles of international law in the context of the processes that are occurring in the region.

(Interviewer) Sergey Viktorovich, you spoke in an interview approximately a year ago about the danger of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts. At that time you were criticized in certain countries of the Persian Gulf. Do you think that this danger still exists today? Do you feel that the explosive situation in the region will be successfully overcome?

(Lavrov) I hope that it will be successfully overcome and prevented. But the severity of the inter-religious conflicts remains. I have not concealed this and I do not agree with the criticism made in response to my statements. If the criticism was meant to “suppress” the concern of those who made it, then that is understandable. But they will not succeed in artificially sweeping this problem “under the carpet” . It exists and everyone sees this. I have already spoken about examples where religious shrines (in this case Christian ones) are suffering, but the conflicts within Islam are very serious. This concerns us because we have a vested interest in the Islamic world developing harmoniously, as set out in the Amman declaration (adopted by theologians of all the Islamic movements in Jordan in 2005). Unfortunately, the principles enshrined in it are now being subjected to a very difficult test.

(Interviewer) The impression being created is that no-one is able to fully realize that Russia, a strong and great power, is really firm in its position, and is defending its own interests and the interests of international law as a whole. People are constantly trying to find some “dirty trick” in this, thinking that certain “behind-the-scenes” agreements exist, under which Russia will give way, for example, in Syria, Iran, or somewhere else, and in response the Western countries and America will make concessions on air defense or other matters that are relevant for the post-Soviet space. What do you think about such statements?

(Lavrov) They are not serious. I think that those who try to make such suggestions are engaging in wishful thinking. Everyone knows very well that Russia’s position on a whole series of fundamental issues is not subject to opportunistic vacillations. This does not mean that it is formulated as an ultimatum. We are defending only what lies at the heart of the modern world system — the principles of the UN Charter and other international legal documents — and we insist on their implementation. We do not want to tolerate and we will not tolerate attempts to distort the content of accords that have been reached, especially those that are enshrined in law. But within the framework of what I have just said, we are prepared to seek constructively and flexibly compromises that are acceptable, first and foremost, to the parties to the relevant conflict themselves.

(Interviewer) It is impossible not to touch upon the Middle East settlement, in which the Palestinian issue occupies a central place. It will be difficult to resolve the remaining issues without this problem being solved. Is there, in your view, a prospect of seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” on this track in the decades to come?

(Lavrov) I absolutely agree with you regarding the importance of the Palestinian question. I said many years ago and I am still convinced that the failure to settle this problem is the single most important factor enabling extremists to be recruited into the ranks of the various radical structures. Unfortunately, this is continuing because the deadlock, which has continued for many years, is being used to educate young people in intransigence towards those who seek a political solution. This is presented as politicians having entered into dialog, it came to a dead-end, but they are continuing to try to persuade the neighboring country to resume negotiations. They say, let us act differently, like men, let us use force etc. This is a dangerous trend. The process has not yet stopped. The fact that we are seeing the spread of extremism and terrorist activities far beyond the region (Sahara and the Sahel zone has been stricken by threats of this type), is largely a consequence of the unresolved Palestinian problem.

We have for a long time and persistently been drawing the attention of our partners to the fact that the Middle East “quartet” is unacceptably passive. It is to all intents and purposes not working, its activity is paralyzed. Several times, members of the “quartet” could have met at the level of foreign ministers of Russia, America, the European Union high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and the UN general secretary and were even in one spot, for example, during the UN General Assembly in September 2012, but they were not actually able to do so since their American colleagues were not ready. First they cited the forthcoming elections, and after these took place, the Americans started to cite the elections in Israel. We wanted to organize a meeting of the “quartet” in London just now, “in the margins” of the sitting of G8 foreign ministers, but this did not happen either. This worries us because criticism of the “quartet” is absolutely fair, but we do not want to be undeservedly criticized because Russia is actually striving to resume the negotiating process. The conditions are needed for this.

We are also convinced that it is not sufficient at this stage simply to assemble the “quartet” and debate the terms that will later be presented to the Israelis and Palestinians. We are convinced of the need to be actively involved in the operations of the Arab League of States. Especially since the Arab League itself has, in my opinion, got too carried away with Syrian matters and the Palestinian problem has been placed on the backburner for some time. The situation seems to have started to change recently. Representatives of the Arab League visited Washington where they presented to the Americans their approaches, as we were told, to the “flexible” implementation of the Arab peace initiative.A We have not yet been familiarized with these ideas but we are counting on the Arab peace initiative not being subjected to revision since this is a very important document opening up the way towards a sustainable peace between Arabs and Israelis, and stable development in the Middle East. Let us not forget that in addition to the Arab countries, this initiative was supported by all the Muslim states within the framework of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation). I would treat this document carefully. It is the foundation, together with the UN Security Council resolutions on the Palestinian issue. Incidentally, the Arab peace initiative, together with the UN platform, is the base for the unification of Fatah and Hamas. I hope that the efforts made by Egypt in this area, which we actively support, will be crowned with success, and the heated events of the “Arab Spring” will not severely damage the path towards Palestinian unity, in line with the accords in principle that have been reached.

(Description of Source: Moscow Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in Russian — Official website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; URL: http://www.mid.ru)

6 Responses

  1. “We are not breaking any laws here and we do not want to lose our reputation as a reliable supplier.”–Lavrov

    He says this with a straight face, given Russia’s reneging on its S-300 contract with Iran, as well as all the delays in starting up Bushehr. The man is quite the two-faced liar.

  2. “lip service”
    Verbal expression of agreement or allegiance, unsupported by real conviction or action; hypocritical respect: “Lip service continues to be paid to resolving regional conflicts, but there is no sense of urgency” (Henry A. Kissinger).

  3. Lavrov is correct in that the Palestinian question is central to a Middle East peace.

    The proliferation of extremism among Jews and Palestinians has been fueled by the failure to settle this question.

    On the other hand, the moderate Fatah organization in Gaza as well as moderate and leftist political parties within Israel have gained popularity in recent months following the November 2012 conflict betweeen Gaza and Israel and the 11/29/12 U.N. General Assembly resolution granting Palestine observer state status in the United Nations.

    However, Hamas’ assent is the key to any future peace agreement. Also, Likud will have to soften its position on the West Bank and give realistic independence to the Palestinians to achieve a true peace – not a state modeled after Bophutswana.

  4. That interviewer reminds me of Fox News interviews with Dick Cheney circa 2002.

    The Turkish authorities immediately rushed to blame the Syrian secret services and appealed to NATO. It is clear what this conversation will lead to. They evidently want to accuse the Syrian authorities like this and pave the way for an intervention and a sharp reaction on the part of the West or NATO. What do you think about this?

    This was pretty rich, coming from the Russian Foreign Minister:

    We do not consider it to be right that external players should engage in “socio-political engineering” and outline plans of some sort for the Syrians.

  5. Comforting confirmation that their guys are as mealy-mouthed and disingenuous as ours. Nothing new, nothing useful, just assurances of more of the same. Since there’s the nice “diplomatic” buzz up front, but all the creepy, sneaky, greedy, good old Great Game stuff going on where most people can’t see.

    How does any of this elephant-dance lead to decent, secure, sustainable lives for most people? Why do the most of us have to keep supporting, with our blood and the wealth we create, just going along for the ride, with the whole nation-state conflict-generating wealth-gobbling planet-killing corporate-driven kleptocracy?

    Silly questions, right? Shows how little I and other people who ask such questions know. Not “serious.”

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