17 October 2017
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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the State of Qatar Mohammed Al-Thani, Moscow, April 15, 2017

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have had meaningful and constructive talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar, H.E. Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani.

Russia values the level of dialogue our countries have reached. We discussed the state and prospects for bilateral relations taking into account the agreements that were reached by our respective leaders in January 2016 in Moscow and follow-up discussions in August 2016, when Qatar’s Foreign Minister Al-Thani visited Sochi and met with President of Russia Vladimir Putin.

We have noted positive trends in trade. In fact, bilateral trade doubled last year, although absolute volumes leave room for improvement. We have agreed to review steps aimed at consolidating positive trends and further expanding bilateral economic ties at the upcoming meeting in Doha of the Joint Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic and Technical Cooperation in April.

Plans spearheaded by our respective investment agencies are not limited to the agreement on the purchase of a stake in Rosneft by the Qatar Investment Authority. There are other plans as well, including by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is also a very positive development.

We have also built a track record of success in energy cooperation in both bilateral and multilateral contexts by working with OPEC members and other oil exporting countries, and also within the Gas Exporting Countries Forum.

We are proactive in promoting cultural and humanitarian ties, as well as cooperation with a view to preparing the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

Russia maintains regular dialogue with Qatar on the key issues affecting the Middle East and North Africa, including the Syrian crisis, the situation in Libya and Yemen, the Middle East peace process, including the Palestinian issue. Of course, Russia stands for settling all these crises by peaceful means.

As for Syria, our common view is that we need to ensure that a comprehensive ceasefire arrangement is reached between the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the armed opposition, while the fight against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra continues, and also accelerate efforts to find a political solution to this crisis based on UN Security Council resolutions.

In recent days progress along all these tracks has been threatened by the incident involving chemical weapons in Idlib, and the illegal strike by the US against the Syrian armed forces airbase.

We have shared Russia’s perspective on this situation with our Qatari colleagues, including the discussions held as part of visits to Moscow by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Russia believes in the urgency of a thorough, unbiased, impartial and professional investigation. We will work through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN to insist on dispatching inspectors to the attack site as soon as possible, as well as to the airbase, where bombs were reportedly loaded with toxic substances, as our Western colleagues allege.

We also appreciate efforts by our Qatari friends to promote normalisation in Libya and resolving humanitarian issues in Syria, as well as facilitating efforts to restore Palestinian unity. This is a major prerequisite for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We also discussed further cooperation between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), agreeing that the prospects of cooperation in this area are quite positive.

We agreed to maintain contact on all these matters.

Question (to both ministers): Russia and Qatar have supported the idea of forming a commission to investigate the chemical weapons incident in Syria. Do you think this commission can be fully independent in areas controlled by the opposition, or by government troops, for that matter?

Sergey Lavrov: It is true that Russia is insisting on creating an international group of experts. With the OPCW Executive Secretariat forming the core of the group, it should also include other experts representing the permanent members of the UN Security Council, European and regional countries. We believe that the creation of an expanded mission would help provide a more comprehensive analysis of what happened, while also making the process transparent, which is also essential. Until now, OPCW experts have been acting covertly. In fact, they announced post factum that several days ago samples had been obtained from the site and delivered to a laboratory. It is my understanding that the laboratory in question is not an OPCW-certified facility. The rationale behind these dubious actions is unclear.

We believe that the group of experts should enjoy full access to the airbase controlled by the Government, as well as the site of the incident, which is controlled by the opposition. The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic has already sent an official invitation to OPCW headquarters. As for areas controlled by the opposition, the head of the High Negotiations Committee, Riyad Farid Hijab, has publicly stated that he was ready to provide any assistance in the investigation. I assume that this includes guaranteeing safe access to that part of Idlib province that’s in question.

Taking into account all these circumstances, there is no reason to investigate this incident from afar, as the OPCW intends to proceed. Russia corrected the OPCW and insisted that it deliver on its mandate in good faith.

We strongly believe that the outcome of inspections at the airbase and in Idlib province will not be impartial unless the group of experts is independent and professional. As my colleague has said, those who are identified as the perpetrators of this chemical weapons attack should be held accountable.

Question: Will Russia agree to the creation of an international tribunal on Syria if all the interested countries agree on the creation of an international commission to investigate the chemical weapons attack in Syria and either the regime or the opposition are identified as perpetrators?

Sergey Lavrov: I am not going to discuss whether a special tribunal should be established. We have already had quite a few of them. Unfortunately, they enjoy a poor reputation in the international community. That said, there should be a way to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Question (to both ministers): In what terms was the Astana process discussed? Was the participation of armed opposition groups in the talks scheduled for early May discussed? Last time, this part of the opposition did not attend. What role could Qatar and other Persian Gulf states play in strengthening the ceasefire in Syria? What could Qatar’s role be in completing the separation of terrorist groups, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra, and moderate opposition groups in Idlib? Jabhat al-Nusra has rebranded itself, but many groups are still affiliated with it.

Sergey Lavrov (answers first): The Astana format remains viable. Next week, Tehran will host a meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian experts, representing the three guarantor states. They will discuss preparations for the next round of Astana talks to take place on May 3 and 4. The signs from the armed opposition indicate that they are preparing for this round of talks. Attendance has also been confirmed by our Turkish colleagues who have direct contact with these groups.

During today’s talks we touched on this issue, and Mohammed Al-Thani supported the initiatives undertaken in the Astana format, saying that Qatar would back this format in every possible way, including by using its contacts on the ground. We see this approach as quite constructive, and we also believe that it would be ideal to coordinate efforts, including between the Astana format, Qatar and other Persian Gulf states. What seems to be the best option would be for the external players that influence various armed groups in Syria to send clear, coordinated and agreed-upon signals on the need to respect the ceasefire as per the agreements reached as part of the Astana process.

The ceasefire agreement does not cover organisations listed as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council. Essentially, by joining the ceasefire, armed groups that are not affiliated with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, fulfil the separation criteria with respect to the terrorist groups.

Question: Western newspapers, including the UK’s The Telegraph, recently published reports allegedly obtained from a general, who defected from the Syrian army unit related to chemical weapons. According to the article, the Syrian regime still has several tonnes of chemical weapons that were concealed from the OPCW. Don’t you think that the publication of materials of this kind sets the stage for undermining an independent, fair investigation into this incident, making everything that was discussed today and yesterday, including the discussions with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, irrelevant?

Sergey Lavrov: I have read about the statements by a fugitive Syrian general. He said that he defected in 2013. The agreement between Russia and the US on ridding Syria of chemical weapons and its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention was reached the same year. This agreement was supported in The Hague and in New York. Under this agreement, the Syrian government submitted data on its stockpiles of chemical weapons to the OPCW in 2014. The same year, the OPCW verified these data. The toxic agents to be destroyed totalled 1,300 tonnes, while this general was talking about 2,000 tonnes. Since the figure of 1,300 tonnes was disclosed, why did the general remain silent for three years, knowing that there were actually 2,000 tonnes? In fact, 700 tonnes is an important quantity that cannot be concealed in a white-powder tube. I think that any reasonable person understands that this general was motivated to say what he said either by stick or carrot.

By the way, regarding the difference in numbers, it is a fact, not fiction, that the OPCW, sometime back, reported on 200 tonnes of missing toxic agents in Libya. They just vanished, which is a serious thing. Terrorists, arms dealers and other dubious characters can operate freely in Libya. We cannot treat this issue lightly. All of our calls to the OPCW and our Western partners end with the conclusion that these 200 tonnes just literally vanished. This problem is real and we’d better start doing something about it, rather than recalling what happened three years ago and contesting the facts put forward back then.

Question: Ukraine National Security Council Secretary Alexander Turchinov said that Ukraine’s armed forces have no alternative but to move further east. Some articles went so far as to say that the main thing was to not cross the border (into Russia, that is). What is Moscow’s perspective on these statements? Does this imply that another Normandy format meeting is necessary to assess compliance with the Minsk Agreement, including by Ukraine?

Sergey Lavrov: We have long suspected Ukrainian politicians of being inadequate. This is hardly the first statement of this kind. Before Alexander Turchinov, the president of Ukraine, Petr Poroshenko, adopted the same menacing and combative position, and so did the Speaker of Verkhovna Rada Andrey Parubiy and other politicians. What this means is that Ukraine’s leaders do not want to abide by the Minsk Agreements even on security issues. Let me remind you that Petr Poroshenko said that security issues were at the core of the Minsk Agreements. He refuses to discuss political processes until the security issues are resolved. Turchinov’s statements mean that Kiev refuses to fulfil the part of the Minsk Agreements regarding security issues that it views as a priority and indispensable for advancing along other tracks. I think that everyone has long understood that Ukraine’s leaders are acting this way intentionally. This also means that Kiev has no respect whatsoever for its European backers.

The Kremlin’s press service has already said that Normandy format meetings are expected to take place in the near future. I think that this will be one of the key issues on the agenda.


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