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updated 6:26 AM UTC, Jul 24, 2017

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah

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Sergey Lavrov: Mr Minister, dear friend,

First of all, on behalf of our delegation, I would like to sincerely thank the leaders of Qatar for their hospitality. Today, we have held highly constructive meetings. We were received by His Highness Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and held talks with Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah. As Mr Al Attiyah noted, we discussed the state of Russia-Qatar relations and a wide range of regional and international issues.

The results of the talks have confirmed both sides’ desire to expand cooperation in various areas. We are ready to intensify our ties in such areas as security, cooperation between law enforcement agencies, energy and finance. We have confirmed our mutual determination to strengthen and coordinate activity on the global gas market, both in the bilateral format and within the framework of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF). We welcomed our partners’ interest in invigorating the work of Qatar’s investment funds in Russia. The further expansion of this ongoing cooperation meets our mutual interests. We have also agreed to coordinate our positions and to exchange experience while preparing to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

While discussing the political agenda of the talks, we focused on such issues as Syria, Yemen, Libya and the unresolved Palestine issue. Our shared opinion is that tensions in the Middle East are increasing all the time and the situation in many countries is deteriorating dramatically. Such deterioration does not meet anyone’s interests, with the exception of such terrorist groups as the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and others.

We exchanged opinions on the situation with the Iranian nuclear programme since the signing of Vienna agreements. While discussing this issue, we also advocated measures to strengthen security and stability in the Persian Gulf region. Earlier, we discussed Russia’s approaches to this issue with our partners at the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.

Moreover, I would like to note that, while staying here in Doha, I met with Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Head of   HAMAS Politburo Khaled Meshaal and Ahmed Moaz Al-Khatib, former Chairman of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Just recently, Doha hosted a trilateral meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. During the meeting, we reviewed ways of supporting the efforts of Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, aiming to create favourable conditions to implement agreements contained in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012. We believe that this is a contribution to the efforts of Mr de Mistura, and that we will eventually be able to make headway on the settlement of the crisis in Syria, while simultaneously working to achieve progress in launching a political process that would be accepted by all Syrian parties and to establish a powerful front to combat the terrorist threat in the Middle East.

I’m sincerely grateful to my colleague, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, for this opportunity to hold such constructive and timely talks. I hope that he will be able to accept my invitation to visit Russia at a time convenient to him to continue our dialogue.

Question: Did you discuss with your US and Saudi counterparts the recent media reports to the effect that the United States allowed the possibility of delivering air strikes at the Syrian government forces to protect the squads of the so-called “moderate Syrian opposition?” In your view, can these plans undermine the already shaky settlement prospects?

Sergey Lavrov: We discussed this issue and I put this question to Secretary of State John Kerry. When a year ago, the United States announced that it was creating a coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (as you may remember, Washington at that time obtained the agreement of the Iraqi government but didn’t ask for that of the Syrian government), we stressed already then that this approach was illegitimate and counterproductive. It reflects a violation of international law in principle, while in practical terms it creates, in effect, an obstacle to the formation of a united front in the struggle against the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and related terrorist groups. Everyone admits that air strikes alone are not enough and that a like-minded coalition should be formed to include those who are opposing the terrorist threat on the ground with arms in hand. I am referring to the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and the Kurds. This is the gist of the initiative which Russian President Vladimir Putin presented during his meeting with Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in St. Petersburg in June of this year. The initiative is about forming a unified anti-terrorist front that would unite the efforts of all forces fighting the terrorists on the ground and those of countries capable of rendering support in this struggle.

As you may remember, President Putin has suggested in parallel that efforts to promote the political process in Syria in keeping with the understandings enshrined in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012, should be stepped up.

We asked Secretary of State Kerry about the latest developments linked to the moves of the US-led coalition, noting that we thought it counterproductive to declare in public that certain US-trained armed units, which are heading, as I understand, for the Syrian territory contrary to and without any coordination with the Syrian government, will be protected by the coalition aircraft and that, to protect these units, the air force in question will be authorised to deliver strikes at any forces that could be regarded as an obstacle to operations of these armed groups.

Apart from the above-mentioned fundamental considerations related to international law, there are a lot of issues that may complicate the anti-terrorist fight primarily because it’s sometimes difficult to find out who fights whom or who obstructs whom. The main thing, of which we have also informed our American colleagues, is that up until now all cases of US instructors training militants from the so-called “moderate opposition” in the territory of neighbouring countries led to a situation where the overwhelming majority of those militants turned up in the camp of the extremists.

So, we have clearly outlined our position on this score. I don’t think that I’ve managed to shake the US position. We clearly differ on this issue.

Question: Does the fact that you have met with Ahmed Moaz Al-Khatib, former head of the Syrian National Coalition, mean that Russia is moving away from its unconditional support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime? If not, does Russia intend to continue providing unreserved support to the regime which, as statistics show, has caused the most casualties among children and innocent civilians in the world, a regime which destroyed almost a quarter of a million people and left a quarter of a million without a roof over their heads?

Sergey Lavrov: I appreciate your ability to ask questions as if you were a prosecutor.

Russia has always advocated stopping the bloodshed in Syria. In this conflict no one benefits from our unconditional or any other support, except for the Syrian people. Today, the biggest threat for this country, Iraq and the Middle East in general is the so-called Islamic State. We are providing military-technical support to the Syrian government so that it can counter this threat. The same goes for providing military-technical assistance to the Iraqi government for fighting the same Islamic State. We have every reason to believe that without this kind of support these terrorist groups could have seized much larger territories, counting in the hundreds and thousands of square kilometres.

As for the conversation I have had with former head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz Al-Khatib, as I’ve already said, the meeting does not attest to any changes in Russia’s approach. We have known each other for more than two years, and have met on a number of occasions in Moscow and other cities. This meeting reflects our commitment to working with all the representatives of the Syrian people with no exception, including the government and all opposition groups, without pinpointing or favouring anyone. The Geneva Communique, which is recognised by everyone as a framework for settlement, clearly states that political settlement and the resolution of the Syrian crisis in general should be based on an inclusive dialogue spanning the entire Syrian political spectre, and all issues should be decided by common consent. Many countries have made and persist in their efforts to promote a broad dialogue bringing together the government and opposition forces from across the spectrum. These efforts are an acknowledgement that inviting the National Coalition to the Geneva Conference in 2013 as the only representative of the opposition was a mistake. It soon became clear that the opposition forces cover a much wider spectrum, so resuming the political process implied bringing opposition forces together so that they can engage in constructive dialogue with the regime, as envisaged in the Geneva Communique.

As you know, Moscow has hosted two meetings. All opposition activists were invited, including representatives of all Syrian opposition groups inside Syria and those operating from abroad. At the final stage of the two meetings, representatives of the Syrian government joined in, which led to the approval of the so-called Moscow Platform. It sets forth principles that fully reflect the Geneva Communique’s aim of preserving Syria as a unified country, ensuring its territorial integrity, sovereignty and secularity, so that the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities and groups without exception are protected by law. During today’s talks we said that efforts to this effect should continue.

We also raised this issue during the talks with our Qatari friends that we just had. We discussed it with Egypt, where efforts are being made in this direction, too. We also talked about it during the meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Just like everyone else, we share the concern over the continuing crisis in Syria and the humanitarian disaster in this country. Russia calls for an immediate cessation of foreign interference into the Syrian crisis in strict keeping with the Geneva Communique and the principles set forth by the UN Security Council. The parties to the Syrian conflict should begin negotiations and reach an agreement only through a peaceful political process based on mutual consent.

Question: President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia is ready to make certain concessions regarding its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To what extent is Russia ready to change its position on this issue?

Sergey Lavrov: When you say that someone has pledged to support someone until the end, we must bear in mind that this "end" was predicted four years ago, and yet it still has not come. Instead there has been an enormous number of casualties, including among civilians – women, children and elderly people. And all this is happening while we are being told, as soon as President Bashar al-Assad goes, all problems will go away. However, the Geneva Communique signed by the international community including the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Turkey, the EU, and the Arab countries, including Qatar, was not about a regime change but about a political transition period with certain parameters to be agreed by mutual consent between the Syrian government and the opposition. That is what we are working on.

When you ask whether Russia is ready to make concessions regarding its support for Bashar al-Assad, you are asking a question that has nothing to do with what we are discussing and what we have agreed to be guided by – the need to establish a dialogue between all the opposition groups and the government. As I said, this matter was discussed by the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States today. Each of these countries is making efforts to see the opposition groups work out a common approach for the negotiations with the regime, the upcoming negotiations to be led by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Of course, there is more to this work than consulting with the United States and Saudi Arabia. There are other countries capable of influencing various parties in Syria, and we will consult them as well. I am referring to Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Iran. Without reaching an understanding among external players, each of whom has some influence on one or another party in Syria, it is very difficult to expect the political process to begin in earnest and remain stable and successful.

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