Question: I would like to ask about the meeting on Syria that took place on Tuesday morning (September 20). Prior to the meeting, you held a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry. It was a meeting behind closed doors, but if I may ask, what did you tell him? Was it anything like, ‘John, what have you done? We agreed on everything and then you bombed government troops?’
Sergey Lavrov: They brought it up themselves and said it was a mistake. They asked us to apologise on their behalf to the Syrian party.
Question: Did they apologise to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? The New York Times wrote they did.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes. The situation is a bit strange though. I told Mr Kerry and the participants in the subsequent meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that the situation in Deir ez-Zor, unlike the situation in Aleppo where the line of contact keeps changing, has not changed for over two years. Syrian troops are surrounded by ISIS there.
On a regular basis, we provide them with humanitarian aid and other essential things via airdrops. The UN has conducted similar aid drops. Everyone knows that. It is very hard to believe that intelligence forces of the US-led coalition that counteracts ISIS all around Syria (it was ISIS that surrounded the government troops in Deir ez-Zor), could forget that. But I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything.
As our colleagues from the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf told us, they believe that we should not jump to conclusions regarding what caused the accident with the humanitarian aid convoy, which left Turkey on September 19, and then was attacked. Some accuse the Russian or Syrian air forces. We touched on this issue with Secretary of State John Kerry. I said that our military has made statements saying that there were no Russian air forces there. The Syrian air force could not have done that either, because the attack happened in the night and they do not fly in the dark.
The attack happened when the humanitarian aid was already being unloaded in eastern Aleppo. Our military experts also said that we monitored the convoy route with a drone. We saw that the convoy was accompanied by a small truck with a mortar in its body. But how is it possible to protect the convoy with it? However, our experts said that. We delivered this evidence to the UN so everyone can receive firsthand information and not rely on some observatory in London whose conclusions everyone is referring to as the absolute truth.
We reminded our colleagues that when the issue of the real use of Castello Road for humanitarian aid deliveries came up for the first time (it was on August 26 at our before last Geneva meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry), the same day, the UN announced that sealed trucks in a humanitarian aid convoy were waiting on the Turkish border and the UN was ready to bring them to Aleppo.
The Syrian government confirmed their willingness to cooperate. But on the same day, those who control Eastern Aleppo and call themselves the ‘local council’ said that they would attack the convoy if it used Castello Road. After this, the UN tried to convince them for a couple of days, but that did not happen, not at the end of August, or in early September. I’m not implying anything. I’m just saying that humanitarian aid convoys that were supposed to use Castello Road were threatened openly and explicitly. An investigation should be conducted now.
Probably, the most simple and the very first necessary step would be to display the shells that hit the convoy. Initially it was claimed that it was an artillery attack, but then this information quickly disappeared. Then helicopters were mentioned. I think everything will be clear when we see the shells. It is what should be done in all similar situations; it’s simple and should be the first step in an investigation. By the way, those who investigated the crash of the Malaysian Airliner in Donbass did not do that. So, I have not heard anything that supports local media speculation that we or the Syrian air force are to blame for the attack.
We put a lot of work into save the ceasefire. We distributed a detailed interview by Sergey Rudskoy, Chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate. It is now an official UN Security Council document that describes the steps we took and how we worked with the Syrian government to make it comply with the reconfirmed ceasefire regime. It is also clear from the document who is not complying with the ceasefire. Many opposition units said that they would commit to it, but several dozen militant groups have refused to cooperate.
I have given this example many times. We insisted that the Ahrar al-Sham group be included on the list of terrorist organisations. By the way, one year ago the Americans supported this too. Some countries in the region said that they had no evidence that the group was terrorists. As a result, in order to move on with the settlement, the group was not included on the list which has only Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS kept on it.
When the Russian-American arrangement was announced, the leaders of Ahrar al-Sham said that it would not support it, because it said that Jabhat al-Nusra was listed as a terrorist group while, they say, it is “a regular opposition organisation” with which they cooperate. At a meeting of the International Syria Support Group today I reminded the participants of what we suggested a year ago and said that the current statements by the leaders of this group require thinking again about placing them on the terrorist list.
Question: One of the first people who spoke out against your agreement with US State Secretary John Kerry was none other than Secretary of Defence Ash Carter.
Sergey Lavrov: You know that we don’t interfere with other countries’ domestic affairs.
Question: But even The New York Times, a liberal and not at all pro-Russian newspaper, today mentioned this. And other observers consider the possibility that the Americans attacked the Syrian government troops not by accident, that it is a “war party faction.”
Sergey Lavrov: Well, probably there are people who would think of a conspiracy theory here.
Question: So John Kerry is a dove, and the Pentagon is a hawk.
Sergey Lavrov: I know that there is not much congruence between them. We do not meddle in their domestic matters, but we know this: what was done on September 9 in Geneva and what we agreed upon with Mr Kerry, with the participation of our military and representatives of our intelligence services, was implemented in strict compliance with what presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama agreed on three days before in China. They had a two-hour meeting with us and other aides to coordinate principles which will lead to agreements. In Geneva we only needed to document them, though it was not easy. It took us more than 16 hours. Nevertheless, it was done upon direct instructions from the two presidents, one of them being Barack Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces. I assume that everyone who deals with US military issues is required to obey the commander-in-chief’s instructions.
Question: Two last questions about the Syrian situation. Is there a danger that after Barack Obama leaves office (and this will happen soon), all the agreements will be annulled?
Sergey Lavrov: No, we did not speak of that. We do concrete work and are not engaged in predicting things. Two current presidents made an agreement, and it should be implemented.
Questions: The ceasefire has been upset. Should we start the countdown again?
Sergey Lavrov: As I said, we distributed a document from the Russian Defence Ministry General Staff which describes in detail why the current situation makes these agreements generally pointless.
But we don’t want a full-scale civil war to happen there. It is hard enough to curb it in some areas, to push the terrorists back. It would be wrong to lose everything.
I must emphasise what I said today at the International Syria Support Group meeting. If again the Russian and Syrian air forces are asked for unilateral steps, like, “give us another three or four days, and we will convince all the opposition groups that they have to separate from Jabhat al-Nusra,” these talks will not be taken seriously.
In the past months, we have several times made concessions and announced 48-hour and 72-hour breaks around Aleppo as was agreed with the Americans. Every time we saw that these breaks were used to provide militants, including those from Jabhat al-Nusra, with people, food and weapons.
Therefore, we can speak about reviving the ceasefire only on a multilateral basis, when we don’t have to prove anything to anyone unilaterally, but when we see an honest effort to separate the opposition that cooperates with the American coalition from Jabhat al-Nusra. And then the terrorist group must be finished off, and the opposition made part of the political process.
If we don’t see that, then we will have more reason to suspect that all this was done just to let Jabhat al-Nusra off the hook.
In recent days, instead of separating the opposition groups from this structure we see a merger of opposition groups, the statement of the Russian Defence Ministry General Staff says. I already mentioned Ahrar al-Sham, and many others also think that they are close to a terrorist group.
The solution lies in honest joint work, when everyone complies with the ceasefire and does not make unilateral demands for a gesture of good will in the hope that it will eventually pay off.