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Sergey Lavrov

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Chairman of Board of Trustees of RIAC

Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia S.Lavrov for the documentary film on Syria by Hubert Seipel for the German channel ARD, on the air on February 13

Question: Russia sent a couple of planes to Beirut for evacuation of Russians from Syria. Is this the “beginning of the end” game?

Lavrov: No. We made a statement today. The Ministry has explained: the planes delivered another dispatch of humanitarian assistance. We have been regularly supplying humanitarian assistance to all Syrians. We just informed the Russian citizens who reside in Syria – mostly women married to Syrian citizens – that there would be an opportunity to take them out, because some of them expressed their desire to wait out this tough period in Syrian history. About one hundred of them decided to use those planes to go to Russia to spend time with their relatives.

Question: So, compared to the numbers in Syria there are about 8000 registered Russians and about 24000 …

Lavrov: I think there are less Russians who are registered. But most of them are not registered. Three or five thousand, I don’t remember exactly, of them have been registered with the consulate authorities of the Russian Embassy in Syria. But many more did not. Among those who expressed their interest to get out for the time being only about one hundred expressed the willingness to use these two planes to go to Russia. It is not an evacuation in any sense of the word.

Question: Throughout the history Russia has been blocking a number of UN resolutions. Why?

Lavrov: Well, the vote which Russia and China undertook vetoing three resolutions in a very short period of time was a reflection of our responsibility vis-à-vis the United Nations Charter. Veto is not a privilege and it is not something of a caprice. Veto is an inherent right of the permanent members under the United Nations Charter. It was agreed when the UN was formed by the founding fathers that they should not repeat the unhappy experience of the League of Nations which was based on the principle “one country – one vote”, a democratic principle on the surface but this particular principle did not allow the League of Nations to act properly. As you know the Americans were not happy, they dropped out. So, it was the American insistence in 1943-1945 when the new world organization was discussed in the midst of the World War-II. It was the American insistence that there must be special rights for the key powers. Therefore, the veto right reflects the conviction of the founding fathers that unless the key powers agree, any decision would not be working, would not be productive and would not deliver basically. Therefore, the principle of the veto is enshrined in the Charter and every single UN member who signed the Charter and ratified the Charter accepted this. So, we exercised our responsibility not to allow the Security Council to pass resolutions, which under Chapter VII contained threats of sanctions and which contained a very realistic risk of outside interference. Our conviction was that we should be based on the decisions which the Security Council adopted already before those vetoes have been used, namely the statement of the Chairman of August 2011, which was initiated by Russia and then the resolutions 2042 and 2043, which developed further the principles embodied in the original document – namely that the Syrians themselves must resolve the crisis, that the violence must stop in all its forms by all parties, that the all-inclusive Syrian dialogue must be encouraged by the international community and that there should be no way for outside interference. As I said, this was further developed in the two resolutions which were adopted on the basis of the six-point plan of Kofi Annan. On the basis of this plan UN observers have been deployed in Syria and on the basis of this plan an Action Group meeting took place in Geneva in June 2012 which produced the consensual document containing all the necessary components to stop the fighting and to start the political process. It is not our fault that this document has been frozen since. Because the people who signed up to this document, when it came to the practical implementation of the Geneva communiqué, were saying “well, it’s O’K but before anything Assad must go”. This is not a part of the Geneva consensus and not because we are protecting Assad from his people. Not at all. We frankly do not care about the personalities. What we care about is the fate of the Syrian people, the fate of Syria as a united sovereign, independent state which is multi-confessional, multiethnic and which has been home for so many religions, for so many ethnic groups. They have been living there in peace and relative prosperity, frankly speaking. Of course, the political problems which motivated the opposition to protest have been there. We are not denying them. The authorities made many mistakes. They did not respond to the legitimate requests from the opposition for too long. Then the protests degenerated into violence on both sides. Now we have been unfortunately witnessing further militarization of the conflict with the opposition gaining more and more ground, getting support from outside. The government is of course responding to the violence of the opposition which was in its turn motivated by the government mistakes. So, it’s a vicious circle. We have to be absolutely clear: any threats from the Security Council would be immediately used by those who would like to provoke outside interference. When you threaten, you have to have some monitoring mechanism to see how all sides behave. There are more than two sides in Syria. The opposition is not united, it is acting against the government parallel with quite a number of terrorist groups. One of these groups has been designated as the terrorist group by the United States which caused protests from the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition. So, it’s a very bad and very complicated mix. So, whatever we do, our priority number one must be to put aside all the claims, all the pretexts, all the preconditions. If our priority is to save lives, then we have to tell them now: “Without any preconditions stop fighting”. All of those who participated in Geneva provide a combination of outside actors having influence on one or another Syrian party. We all in a synchronized manner have to tell them to stop fighting and designate their delegations to negotiate and intervene transitional governing body and then to empower this body with the preparation of the new Constitution, preparation of the new election. This is the only way. If we are all sincere when we say that we want to save lives and not to allow the violence to continue. All this is embodied in the Geneva communiqué which we still believe can be implemented and must be implemented without any preconditions. If, on the other hand, the priority of some of our partners is not to save lives but to depose Assad, to remove him one way or another. And Assad is not going to move. He said this publicly and he would not listen to us, to the Chinese, to the Iranians, to no one. He said: “I am Syrian, I was born here, I am protecting my people and I will die in Syria”. So, if people believe under these circumstances, having heard his position, that before anything political can happen he must be removed, then of course this is a position which we have. But those who promote this position must understand that the price of this geopolitical goal, to remove Assad, the price is more and more lives of civilians in Syria. So, we have to make a choice: either we want to save lives and then we have to forget about who is responsible for the time being and to bring all of them to negotiating table, or if don’t care about lives and care about Assad’s fate then of course no one can really help.

Question: You were there in February to speak with Assad. What was your impression of the time being?

Lavrov: Well, our impression was that he is not really getting in line with the events. He was a bit more in the thinking that history is on his side. He was responding to our appeals to speed up the reforms and he said that “this would be done, this is on my plan, this is on my schedule”. But unfortunately he announced those reforms only few months later. Well, February was already late for the reforms. Had the reforms been announced in the summer of 2011, things might have gone differently. The substance of the reforms went in the right direction. It was the multiparty system for the first time in so many decades. It was a new Constitution allowing for this multiparty system, the law on mass media, the law on local government, and something else. They held the referendum on the new Constitution as you know, they held the elections. The government is now, technically speaking, composed of the governing party and the opposition parties. But it was a bit late. Now president Assad in January introduced a new plan inviting all patriotic opposition who is against outside interference to sit down, to have a national dialogue, to develop further the legislative reform and to prepare for new elections and to draft a road map for new Syria, which was rejected by the opposition. I think that this is a mistake. Yes, these ideas of his were not probably satisfactory to all. If you ask me, I would also believe that we might suggest some, you know, improvements in what was proposed. But it is something which is moved forward by the acting president of Syria and which is about dialogue and national reconciliation, saving the country from total destruction, from falling into pieces and it’s a proposal which is, with all its inefficiencies, potential inefficiencies I would say, formulated in the context of a political dialogue. When the opposition says: “this is rubbish and we do not accept this”, maybe they do not like a lot in this proposal, maybe they don’t like it at all. But the opposition is not offering any political alternative. The only thing which is uniting the opposition is toppling the regime. This could also be understood. They don’t like this regime. They are tired of this regime. But the opposition during all these almost two years never produced any constructive platform. When this National Coalition was formed in Doha at the meeting of various opposition groups with some Western countries, the Gulf countries, Turkey, helping them, they declared the creation of this Coalition as a unifying mechanism. They adopted a statement saying that the main goal of this Coalition is to topple the regime and to dismantle its structure, which is absolutely against what the Geneva communiqué says. In Geneva everyone agreed that we have to have a transitional period but the structures of the country must remain untouched, not to repeat the mistakes which were made in Iraq, for example, when the entire government system was destroyed by the American occupation force. We met with the opposition groups in Syria, with all of them, and we challenged them: “Guys, we want you to be part of the solution. Therefore, O’K, you hate the regime but you must have some agenda for your country, not for the regime, for your people, which would spell out your political vision of how you get to a new Syria”. And so far, for the two years, they have failed to produce one.

Question: What actually in geopolitical terms is the issue in Syria in that context? Why do they have so many players in Syria?

Lavrov: In our attitude towards what is going on in Syria we are not basing ourselves on any geopolitical considerations, we don’t have any considerable vested interest, egoistic vested interest – economically, militarily or otherwise.

Question: You have a marine base.

Lavrov: Well, marine bases could be used, could be changed as far as location is concerned. But geopolitical context is being introduced not by us. The people who say that the regime must be changed are driven, willingly or unwillingly, by the well-known notion of the Greater Middle East and North Africa introduced many years ago by George Bush Jr. who said that democratizing the Middle East is “our utmost goal”. I think any interested observer who follows what is going on in the region can make his or her own conclusion as far as the results of this democratization move are concerned. We have more and more problems in the countries which have been declared at some point by the Americans, for example, as beacons of democracy. The problems are still far from being resolved in Afghanistan, in Iraq. We have quite a troubling situation in Egypt, where they still have to find some solutions which would be uniting the nation. We still have a lot of problems in Libya. We talk to the new Libyan authorities. They are interested in continuing our cooperation but they really face huge problems as far as the central government exercising its authority all over the territory of Libya is concerned. If you look down south the people who were part of the coalition toppling the Qaddafi regime, probably they only want to fight. And they could not stay in a peaceful condition. So, many of them are now fighting in Mali. They are using the arms, by the way, some sophisticated arms among others, which had been supplied to them by the Western powers and by some of the regional countries when they were fighting Qaddafi. So, history hits back. This spiral of violence is really very dangerous.

So, since you started your question asking about geopolitical context of this, unfortunately, we have been witness to piecemeal approach. Well, there was a revolution in Tunis. Everyone was thinking how to support this revolution. Then there was a revolution in Egypt, then Libya, then Yemen, then Mali, now Syria. It is not a geopolitical vision. Geopolitical desire to have democracy all over the place as a general avenue of the development of the humankind is absolutely logical. But it is not constructive and is absolutely counterproductive to say that it’s only Western type of democracy which must prevail. You cannot have Western type of democracy in Afghanistan where they have centuries-old traditions. Same in Iraq, in Iran and in Egypt. There must be an understanding that the key principles of free elections for example and market economy are underlying factors of any more or less successful development of any nation. More and more countries come to this conclusion. But to impress upon the countries with long history, ancient civilization, the nitty-gritty which are understandable by the West, but are very foreign to those countries, which relates to how exactly to organize this democratic and market economy process, is really self-defeating. It could only create a situation, where this impressive and imposing attitude would fire back.

Question: We have countries like Saudi Arabia. We have Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Israel in the region. So, a number of these countries are not very well known for democratic progress in the past anyway, because they are kingdoms, they have no agenda.

Lavrov: If we speak about Israel and Iran, they do have democratic traditions but, again, different. Israel is a democracy and no one can challenge this from any point of view. Iran... yes, they have some filters in the electoral system for example. But when these filters are overcome by the candidates, then there is a real fight, real electoral fight. You cannot deny this. But again it reflects the specific features of the society. You cannot really demand that here and now everyone must satisfy the criteria which for example the OSCE establishes. The OSCE was helping to organize elections in Afghanistan. We all know that the OSCE was wise enough not to apply the same criteria as it applies to some European countries. The OSCE normally applies different criteria to the countries of the former Soviet Union and to the old democracies, which is a double standard in any case.

Question: Let me come back to serious attempts in Syria to create a kind of settlement in between the opposition and Assad. Kofi Annan started his job in February last year. Who elected Kofi Annan at the time and why did he fail at the very end?

Lavrov: The first part of your question is very easy. The Secretary General of the United Nations and the Secretary General of the Arab League asked Kofi Annan whether he would be interested in getting the job, being the joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League. He agreed. This was brought to the Security Council and the Security Council welcomed the appointment. We supported this strongly. But before I go further into the theme which you touched upon, I would like to say a few words about what preceded the Kofi Annan’s appointment. Kofi Annan’s appointment was preceded by the Arab League initiative in November 2011 which we strongly supported. The initiative was about the need for the government and the opposition to stop fighting and to deploy the Arab League monitors to check whether this cease-fire is being observed. We took some efforts to persuade the regime in Syria to support the initiative, because they didn’t want to originally, and the opposition also pledged to cooperate. Then the Arab League observers were deployed in Syria. They started working late November and after one month or so of their presence in Syria, they submitted their first report to the Security Council, which was not just one-sided, which was saying that there were violations on both sides. They gave examples of the cease-fire violations, as they saw it, by the government, but also by the opposition groups. This apparently was not liked by some people who wanted the change of the regime in Syria. So before even the Security Council could consider this report, the Mission was aborted by the decision not of the Arab League, but rather by that of the Gulf Cooperation Council members. And the observers had to withdraw. So, just to make a point, the moment the Mission tried to present some objective picture, blaming not only the government, but also the opposition, it was withdrawn. Then came Kofi Annan, who presented his well-known six-point plan: no violence; no outside interference; the government is responsible, but the opposition must also take its own responsibilities; cessation of violence; international monitoring; beginning of the dialogue. We supported this plan and also the dispatch of the UN observers. And again, we explained to Damascus, that it is important for them not to object, and they agreed. So, the UN observers were deployed. They were reporting also in an objective manner, registering the violations on both sides, the government and the opposition, and there were examples, quite numerous, including violations of international humanitarian law. These observers were there under very strenuous conditions. They have been part of the continued pressure and sometimes even armed provocations. I talked to the chief observers, including those who were present in Geneva on the 30th of June, 2012, at this Action Group meeting. I don't want to mention names, but they admitted that they had much more trouble from the opposition than from the government's side. This observer mission apparently was also moving in the direction of trying to present a more objective picture of what was going on. Then, as they were reporting in an objective manner, they came under more and more pressure, including some violent pressure, some provocations, and they had to withdraw. My point is that these two examples indicate that there are some people who are not interested in international monitoring of the situation, who are not interested in international observers, be it Arab or UN observers, to be on the ground as a stabilizing factor, exactly because this is a stabilizing factor, and these people want to destabilize the situation and to provoke the outside interference on the basis of igniting tension, using the government's disproportionate actions as a pretext.

Question: Who are they?

Lavrov: Well, I think those of your viewers who follow the situation would have to make their own choice. I think they know the facts.

Question: Could I just come into? Kofi Annan went to Assad. He came back and visited you in Moscow. On the 16th of March he had been to Damascus and later on the 24th he came to Moscow. What was his first report as far as the flexibility of the Assad regime was concerned?

Lavrov: Well, his first report was that if we managed to stabilize, even relatively, the situation with these international observers, then he would be really counting on those countries, who have more influence on the opposition, to push the opposition into a dialogue with the regime. As I said, in Geneva we never agreed on any pre-conditions. It was just stated that the government and the opposition must stop fighting, must appoint negotiators and these negotiators must agree on the composition and the powers of the transitional governing body, which would exercise the full executive authority, the authority of the law enforcement forces and the security forces of Syria. So when this Geneva communiqué was adopted Damascus had its doubts. Again, we engaged our resource, if you wish, and persuaded Damascus to say that they were prepared to work on this basis, although it was not easy for them, because they were saying: "No regime change, we don't want to discuss any transition because we have elections in 2014". But then they said that they would be ready to work on the basis of the Geneva communiqué. All those who assembled in Geneva, committed themselves to making sure that all Syrian parties would do the same. But unfortunately, the opposition rejected Geneva communiqué, Geneva principles the next morning. Those who have influence on the opposition, be it the countries of the region, be it Europeans, be it Americans, never managed to persuade the opposition to change its mind, to change its confrontational mood. I mentioned about the creation of this Syrian National Coalition of the Revolutionary Forces and the Opposition.

Question: In November in Doha?

Lavrov: Yes, and then they adopted, as I said, a two-page statement saying: "Our main goal is not a constructive position but toppling the regime, dismantling its institutions, and no dialogue with the government." Then I called our American friends, my colleague – the Secretary of State – and said: "You keep saying that Geneva is the best hope for us, that this is the basis. But you welcomed the creation of the coalition which said no Geneva basically, no dialogue, dismantling the institutions. What is the reason for you welcoming this development? Could you not influence them? ". And they told us: "Well, it was most important for us to unify the opposition. As far as there is a platform on which they are unified, we can influence them later.

A couple of weeks later there was a meeting of the Friends of Syria with the opposition in Marrakech, Morocco. We expected some change in this absolutely destructive approach by the coalition. But there was none. Then we asked our friends in the US and Europe: "You said that you would be able to influence the opposition in the direction of readiness for the dialogue accepting the Geneva principles?" There was no answer. We asked the same question from the opposition groups in this very room we have been meeting with most of them. We also have been meeting with them in Istanbul, Paris, London, in the United States and in Cairo. We keep telling them that we encourage them to respond to what was agreed by consensus in Geneva, by the group, which was composed by five permanent members of the Security Council, the Arab League, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, the European Union and the United Nations. We tell them: "Look, this is what we all want from you". They say: "Nothing before Assad disappears". We cannot influence this wish, we cannot deliver this, I don't think anyone can. Some people say: "Let's offer President Assad some deal". O’K, if somebody is ready to offer a deal, do it directly to President Assad. If people say that without removal of the president of Syria it is impossible to have a dialogue as I said at the beginning of our discussion, they must understand that he is not going to go, not because we don’t tell him to, but because he has made his decision. All those who met with him, including Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, confirm that the impression is that he is not going to go. So those who say that he must go before anything can happen, must accept the responsibility for more and more Syrian lives, because the war would go on.

Question: There was when one historical situation obviously in April last year when cease-fire was more or less suggested.

Lavrov: That was Kofi Annan's six-point plan started.

Question: Yeah, why didn't it work? What happened actually? Because at the beginning of April it worked more or less O’K, but then things developed...

Lavrov: I tried to refer to this situation in my previous remarks. I believe there were some people who did not like the cease-fire to succeed, because they had and still have their own agenda, which is the regime change in Syria. And basically this implies and involves the plan to ruin the multiethnic, multiconfessional and secular nature of the Syrian state, which would have a disastrous effect all over the region. Because in Syria you have Sunnis, Shia, part of Shia philosophy – Alavites, Druzes, Christians and Kurds. And the Kurdish issue is the one which I am sure not only Turkey, but many other countries must keep in mind, because if Syria disintegrates I don't know what the Kurdish issue would give to all of us.

Question: Most of the arguments about Syria is a kind of massacre marketing to a certain extent in the public. There was this famous massacre of Hula.

Lavrov: Infamous.

Question: Infamous massacre of Hula, you are correct, as far as language is concerned in this context. It was on the eve of Annan's more or less last attempt to go to Assad at the end of May. And at the very moment it appeared on the Internet: horrible pictures, and it was always connected with the name of Bashar al-Assad. What is your information about this massacre?

Lavrov: Well, it is not my information, it is the information which was proved by NGOs, by independent observers. The village of Hula witnessed a disgusting massacre of many members of several Sunni families, but Sunnis, who were loyal to the regime. And the attempts to present it as the Alavites making massacre of Sunnis, they were immediately shown on the TV screens and in the Internet. This was not true. Independent observers investigated this matter, they looked into the video images, they saw the ribbons of the colors of the Syrian flag on the arms of these murdered people and they analyzed other information. It was a provocation intended to make the regime responsible, just like the recent terrorist attacks on the Aleppo University, where 82 people died and almost 200 were wounded. It was alluded to as a possible act by the regime, including on such respectful and respected channel as CNN. This was never repeated again, but there was an attempt to drop this thought into the public domain. We have been cooperating with the mass media as you might imagine, as the Foreign Ministry, for many years, and in a very intensive and open way, and we respect greatly the professionalism and the objective character of the coverage of the events by most of our colleagues. But we also know that sometimes people in the media, willingly or unwillingly, play into the hands of those who want to provoke events or to move the public opinion one way or another artificially to mislead it. There were instances when during the immediate phase of the Syrian tragedy there were images on quite respected channels of massacre, and they were saying :"This is the regime killing the civilians" only to find out later by independent observers that the images were some eight years old and they related to the Iraqi war. And we had our own experience in August 2008, when Saakashvili started war against his own people - because he said: "South Ossetians are my citizens" - so he attacked his own citizens, and the western channels were showing images of tanks moving into a city and saying:" That's the Soviet troops, the Russian troops of course, but they almost said so :"The Russian troops entering the Georgian city of Gori", while the expert research of these images showed that these were the Georgian troops entering a South-Ossetian city of Tshinval. So, things like that happened.

Question: We are in a psychological world

Lavrov: Well, very much so, and those who see in this Syrian drama and in this Arab spring drama in general, those who see in these events not the fates of the people, not the fates of the countries, but those who see their geopolitical chance, they from time to time resort to these dirty tricks. But I want to say once again that this is absolute minority of cases and absolute majority of journalists with whom I met (I have met a lot and I have many friends among journalists). I respect and appreciate highly their professionalism and their desire to present an objective picture without making any value judgment.

Question: The result of the Hula massacre was seen a couple of days just later on. Most of the European countries did throw out the Syrian ambassadors and sent them back to Damascus. Did this kill Annan's peace efforts?

Lavrov: I don't know. But the fact that the reaction of the European countries was instinctive, if you wish, and they immediately acted, as you said, is one thing. Maybe in two days, as you said, many of them threw out Syrian ambassadors. But three days after the Hula massacre no one remembered about it, it was really dropped from the screens. Because by that time, the truth was already understood and everyone understood who did it. I'll give you another example when people would be prompted to act on the basis of some immediate media news: 1999, January, Kosovo, the village of Racak, Ambassador of the United States Walker, who was the Chief of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, arrived to the village of Racak after receiving the information that there was some massacre. He arrived there and discovered some three or four dozen bodies in civilian clothes, all killed. And he, without reporting to the OSCE headquarters, without having any authority to do this, assembled the journalists and said that this was an act of the genocide by the Serbs against Kosovo Albanians. Then most European capitals said: "This is the last drop". That was used as a trigger to prepare and then to exercise the bombing of Serbia. Then the European Union, you might know this, ordered an investigation of this Racak situation. They hired Finnish forensic experts. The forensic experts of Finland studied the situ ation. They discovered that this was not a massacre of civilians, that all these men in their better age were killed not at the short distance, but the nature of the wounds leading to death was like the wounds acquired in a combat, the wounds on the body did not coincide with the clothes. So apparently they were in combat, and then after they were killed, people just changed their military uniforms to the civilian dress and this was quite highly discussed.

I was serving then in New York in the Security Council. We asked the Security Council to ask for this report to be submitted to the Council because Racak incident was really the trigger for the war against Serbia without any Security Council's permission. Then we were told that it was not the property of the United Nations, it was the property of the European Union. Then we came to the European Union and said: "Friends, it's an important thing, it's about the future of Europe, it's about Helsinki Final Act, it's about how you handle conflicts in Europe on the basis of the Helsinki principles. Can you share this report with the Security Council?" They said: "Look, we already sent it to the international Tribunal on former Yugoslavia, so it's the property of the Tribunal". Then Carla Del Ponte was the chief prosecutor of the Tribunal, she visited New York from time to time, and I met with her and I said: "Carla, why don't you give it to the Security Council?" "Well, it's quite a confidential report". I don’t' know why. I said: "O’K, maybe we can reach a compromise that you would deposit the report with the Secretariat, in a secret room, and only ambassadors, members of the Security Council, would come and read the report without making any notes. This was also denied. Then there was some leak that the actual story was as I told you, a clear-cut provocation, but this gave rise to a development, which changed the map of the Balkans. So yes, things happen.

Question: The envoy Brakhimi came back just recently from Damascus, what did he tell you about the situation?

Lavrov: Well, he is not optimistic. He says that he is trying to send a message about the need to start working on the basis of Geneva, that he wants to see the regime showing flexibility. The regime does not say "No", but basically does not say "Yes". The message which the regime gives to Brakhimi, as Brakhimi told me, is "You first deliver on the opposition, because the opposition does not even want to accept the notion of a dialogue. We, the regime, we are ready for the dialogue with those who are not in favor of outside interference, who are patriotic opposition, who think about their own country and so on and so forth." Then Brahimi as you might have heard offered to have a meeting between Russians, Americans and himself and we met with Hillary Clinton in Dublin in the margins of the OSCE Ministerial Meeting. It was a brief meeting but the suggestion from Brahimi was for us to try in this format to find some way to implement the Geneva communiqué. No one denies the Geneva communiqué, everyone accepts it but some people say it is subject to interpretation. What kind of interpretation I don’t know. It is a very blunt statement: “stop violence, designate negotiators, compose on the basis of mutual agreement this transitional governing body, prepare for the elections period”. People who say that this requires interpretation again raise the issue of President Assad must go, Security Council must adopt sanctions against the regime and so on and so forth, which is non-starter. The Geneva paper is absolutely unambiguous and it requires only political will of all those who can influence all Syrian parties in combination. The Action Group assembled in Geneva is the right group of people to tell the people who are fighting the same thing and with the same vigour, and it will work. After that, there were two more meetings between Russian and American diplomats together with Brahimi. We presented this vision but we had an impression that some people believe that in this format the main goal is to persuade Russia to change its position. And when we ask: “What kind of change do you want?” “Well, you must tell Assad that he must go”. We answer that Assad's fate must be in the hands of the Syrian people. That it is not our tradition, not our manner to engage in the regime change. This is political principle. But apart from this, in purely pragmatic terms, he is not going to listen to anyone. This is a fact which is recognised by all those who have any contacts, direct or indirect, with Damascus. So, therefore, the longer people insist on having his departure as a precondition for any dialogue, the more lives will be lost.

Question: Is the opposition to be controlled at all? What kind of aim does the opposition have? Is this a united opposition? That’s one thing. Or is it more and more different crews with different agendas, and neither the United States nor the Gulf States can control them in the meantime?

Lavrov: Well, I already alluded to this theme, when I said that the opposition has failed so far to produce any political platform, how they perceive the future of Syria. The only thing which they say is Assad must be removed and that in the absence of any other statement is considered by me as the only unifying factor for the various groups. The Western countries, the Gulf countries, Turkey and others invested a lot of effort to unify the opposition. This coalition was created and they described the political credo of the opposition which is not really constructive at all.

Unless the opposition presents its political vision of the transition, the political vision for Syria, we won’t really know whether they are united or not. For example, one part of those who fight Assad is a very tough group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designated as a terrorist group by the United States only to see the immediate rejection of this American position by the coalition of the Syrians, of the Syrian opposition. In other words, I believe that for the sake of sticking together they have to be very eclectic in whom they get under one umbrella.

So we have to see how this evolves, but the key issue is to understand what their political views are. Before any discussion of any change in the personalities, in structures, probably, there must be an agreement, an underlying agreement of principle, which would clearly spell out guaranties to all Syrian groups: ethnic, confessional, otherwise, that each minority would feel comfortable and safe in new Syria. I believe this would be the most important first step in any national dialogue. The opposition must show that it is really interested in keeping Syria pluralistic in ethnic and religious ways. It’s only after such proposals of guaranties to all minorities, guaranties of security, of the dignified place in the society, guaranties, which would make everyone comfortable in Syria, have been put on the table and endorsed by all main players, we can practically start discussing persons, personalities and structures and so on and so forth.

Question: Are we marching towards a direction to kind of rather strange new cold war? Obama issued a note that the CIA should support the opposition, the Turkish President or the Prime minister supports the opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar sending weapons and fighters to Syria, Russia and Iran are accused of sending advisers and weapons. Are we getting in the bigger confrontation in the meantime?

Lavrov: Look, Russia does not send any advisers. I can not speak for Iran, it is another country. Russia doesn’t have any advisers on the ground. Countries of Europe and some countries of the region, they have... and probably... well, the United States openly stated that on the border with Syria in Turkey they have their special forces instructors to work with the opposition. They don’t make any secret out of this. Some European countries and some countries of the region, they do have their special forces in what they call “liberated areas of Syria”. We know about this. We don’t have any military personnel inside Syria except a few dozen people in Tartus where the Russian naval point of...

Question:A marine base.

Lavrov: It’s not a base it’s actually a point, where logistical service of the ships is being made. It is too modest to be called a base. No more military it’s a legitimate, legally sent naval personnel to service the ships who call on the port of Tartus. Others do have special forces instructors, advisers, what have you. On the supply of weapons, yes, the external supporters of the opposition undertake quite a lot to arm it, including with rather sophisticated weapons. We only finalise the implementation of the contracts which have been signed and which have been paid for, and which are about supplying the Syrian government with air defense systems. The military hardware which we have been sending to Syria is to defend Syria from outside aggression. This weaponry, the air defense systems, cannot be used in the civil war. But the weapons which are being supplied to the opposition, I hope the suppliers follow the trace, the fate of these weapons. Because now all our European friends admit basically that in Mali the extremists are fighting with the weapons which were given to them when they were fighting against Qaddafi in Libya. We touched upon this in the beginning of our discussion, this reflects a piecemeal concentration. Well, we have Libya, we don’t like Qaddafi, let’s send the weapons to topple Qaddafi. And we don’t think what might happen to these weapons after Qaddafi has been toppled.

Now the same is taking place in another country. O’K, we have this problem on our hands. There is no serious attempt to take a geopolitical look and how this map of this crucial region is evolving, or revolving, because it is not an evolution, it’s a revolution. I know that the Western and Russian political scientists are really trying to give this analysis and probably some secret discussions are taking place inside US, Germany, European countries of what are the real consequences and dangers of these developments. But on the surface, we still hear that "Assad must go, we must support the opposition, we must create the government in exile”. In other words, my feeling is that people who decide on foreign policy in the West understand much better what is going on compared to what they say publicly. If we speak about partnership, strategic partnership between Russia and European Union, Russia and NATO, we would like to have strategic partnership with NATO. Well, forget about organizations, just the Europeans, which include Russia and the United States, by the way, – we are three branches of the same civilization. I think if we seriously want to help stabilize the situation, to cooperate with other civilizations, we have to sit down quietly and have this honest analysis of what is going on, put aside geopolitical ambitions and think about the fate of this regime or the fate of the people who live there. Then develop some constructive approach which will be based on the need to help create external conditions for the people of the region to be able to resolve their problems peacefully on the basis of inclusive national dialogue, on the basis of respect of all those groups, ethnic and religious, including Christians, who had been living in this region for centuries in peace with each other. And this peace is being undermined in front of our eyes. This is very unfortunate.

Question: Last question. Did Kofi Annan, before he resigned, call you and say I’m going to resign? And what was your reaction if he did?

Lavrov: Yes, he said that his mandate would be expiring at the end of August, I think, last year and that he would ask the Secretary General to find some replacement.

Question: And what was your reaction?

Lavrov: Well, I said, Kofi, it’s your decision.

Question: Thank you very much indeed.

Lavrov: Thank you.

Source: MFA of Russia

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