Syria’s chemical arsenal has become a central point of international concern since the country’s civil conflict flared up in March 2011. Syria is reportedly in possession of nerve agents including mustard gas, while NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has already accused the country’s government of deploying the Scud missiles needed to deliver it.
The worst-case scenario, as acknowledged by many governments including the US, would be for the weapons to fall into the hands of Syria’s various opposition groups – some of whom are affiliated with al-Qaeda. But to date Syria’s chemical arsenal is secure, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told RT in an exclusive interview.
“Every time we hear rumors, or pieces of information come to the surface that the Syrians are doing something with the chemical weapons, we double-check, we triple-check,” says Lavrov, adding that the latest move concerning the chemical weapons was related to the Syrian government’s intent to gather and consolidate the dispersed arsenal in order to make sure that it is “absolutely” protected.
However, Lavrov says it shows a “strange logic” when the Western powers involved in solving the Syrian crisis pin the full responsibility for the arsenal on the sitting Syrian government – “even if the rebels take hold of it” – and at the same time, continue to encourage the conflict by supplying the rebels with arms and money.
Meanwhile, Western governments have begun distinguishing between “bad terrorists and acceptable terrorists” on the ground in Syria, refusing to condemn acts of terror there, saying the overall context should be taken into account to explain why people choose terror – an “absolutely unacceptable,” route, the FM continues.
No war can last forever, and all wars finish in the same way: parties sit down to talks. This is what will happen in Syria – and it should happen as soon as possible, Lavrov concluded.
But RT had more questions for him. What to make of NATO sending Patriot missile systems to protect Turkey from a spill-over of the Syrian violence? Why did US President Barack Obama sign the Magnitsky Act amid the so-called “relations reset” with Russia? And should the UN Security Council be reformed? For more on all these issues, read RT’s firsthand interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov:
RT: You're ending your year with a visit to India. Russia has been clear in its support for India in its aspiration to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. How do you think the much-criticized UN Security Council will benefit from India's participation?
SL: First of all, I would say that criticism is not always warranted. The latest wave of criticism was related to the fact that the Security Council allegedly cannot act on Syria. By the desire to see some action on the part of the Security Council the critics wanted to pass a resolution under Chapter 7 which provides for the use of sanctions and the use of force eventually. And Russia and China are convinced 100 percent that this would be a disaster and that this would be the beginning of a very slippery slope and would bring us to the Libyan scenario which we cannot afford anymore, and the region cannot afford. So those who say that the Council is ineffective should recall that this Charter of the United Nations provided for the veto right not just for the sake of being nice to the permanent members but because the founding fathers of the United Nations, having digested the unhappy experience of the League of Nations decided in their wisdom that unless five great powers see eye to eye on some world issue decisions would not be efficient. That's why the right of veto was included in the UN Charter on the very strong insistence of the United States.
Now of course the time passed since 1945, the Security Council was once expanded only in the category of non-permanent members, and now after several decades of the Council functioning in the unchanged composition, there is a very strong movement towards expanding its membership to better reflect pluralism of the world community. We're strongly in favor of this, we're convinced that the developing countries and first of all the new economic and financial leaders in the third world countries, like India and Brazil, for example, must be represented in the Security Council. And we would be in favor of making them new permanent members, provided of course a decision is taken to create new permanent seats, because this is the biggest split in the United Nations. One group of countries absolutely believes that there must be new permanent members; another group of countries which are also quite respectful members of the United Nations, categorically believes that there must be no new permanent seat and only non-permanent seats could be added.
Russia is convinced this type of division cannot be resolved by an arithmetic vote, that there must be consensus searching, especially since it was decided some time ago that the reform of the Security Council should be subject to broad agreement of member states. So any format of the reform which would be commanding general agreement of the member states would be supported by Russia. It would be very unfortunate if the reform of the Security Council is voted through because this would split the membership. And those who would vote against an imposed reform, in their eyes the expanded Security Council would lose legitimacy, not gain legitimacy. And more legitimacy is what we all want, and that's why the Council should be more representative. But in any case, while we are working very thoroughly to reach this general agreement on a reform we believe that India certainly deserves to be a permanent member of the Security Council.
RT: Like you said, Russia is permanently blocking attempts of some of UN Security Council members to pass a resolution that would allow a foreign intervention to Syria. But do you think a military action could still take place going around the UN like it happened in case of Iraq?
SL: Well not only in case of Iraq but also in case of the former Yugoslavia – yes, it is possible, and you just cited one example, there are some others. But I also feel that those who would like to interfere in the Syrian crisis don't want to do this without some kind of legitimacy, or at least without some kind of an action in the United Nations which could be used to justify this as being legitimate. And we can only stick to the interpretation of the Charter which is absolutely without any alternative and which says the Security Council is engaged in matters related to international peace and security, not to supporting one party in an internal conflict. And that's what is going on in Syria. Some people would like very much to internationalize this situation and to expand violence beyond the Syrian borders, attempts are being made, especially in cases when the refugees have to flee Syria because of the disproportionate actions by the government forces.
But on the other side, several armed groups of the opposition which are not united under a single command also resort to unacceptable methods absolutely contrary to international humanitarian law: taking hostages, staging terrorist attacks. And it is very disheartening that our Western colleagues in the Security Council started to refuse condemning terrorist attacks in Syria saying that yes, terrorism is bad but you must take into account the overall context of what is going on in Syria and why people resort to terrorist attacks. It's absolutely unacceptable, and if we follow this logic it might lead us to a very dangerous situation not only in the Middle East but in other parts of the world, if our partners in the West would begin to qualify terrorists as bad terroristsand acceptable terrorists.
RT: One more reason that arises time to time that could actually okay the foreign intervention is Syria's possession of chemical weapons. Do you believe that Syrian will use chemical weapons, or is this another pretext for an invasion?
SL: I don’t believe Syria would use chemical weapons. It would be a political suicide for the government if it does. Every time we hear rumors, or pieces of information come to surface that the Syrians are doing something with the chemical weapons we double-check, we triple-check, we go directly to the government and all the time we get very firm assurances that this is not going to be used under any circumstances. Our information is, which correlates with the information the Americans have, as I understand, that the latest reports about some movement of the chemical weapons were related to the steps undertaken by the government to concentrate the chemical stuff which has been dispersed in various locations into two sites, to make sure that it is absolutely protected. And it is also accepted by everyone including our Western colleagues (the Europeans and the Americans) that the biggest threat in this situation is the probability that the rebels might take hold of chemical weapons. And therefore, while recognizing this – when our Western friends say, ‘But still the responsibility is entirely with the Syrian government, even if the rebels take hold of it’ – it’s a very strange logic, because at the same time those very people encourage rebels not to negotiate with the government but to continue fighting and giving them arms, money, and moral and political support.
So, it’s a very controversial position. In general, the logic of those who say, ‘No negotiations with Assad’ is really very controversial and very dangerous. We are not justifying what the government is doing, they have been making a lot of mistakes, have been using force disproportionately; the security forces clearly were, and are, unprepared to face the public protests and armed protests in the cities and in the villages. They’ve been trained to counter a foreign aggression, not to keep law and order in a civilised manner.
But the opposition is provoking the government, as I said – resorting to terrorist attacks, taking hostages, and also introducing into this conflict the sectarian dimension which is very dangerous. It is already reverberating in the Muslim world – Sunni, Shia, Arabs, Kurds and ethnic and confessional sectarian composition of Syria is so complex that if chaos is established there, it would reverberate all over the region. But coming back to the present situation – if people who say "no negotiations with Assad", if they believe that his departure in whatever form is number one priority, then they must understand that for this geopolitical goal of theirs they would have to pay the price, but the price in the lives of the Syrians, of the Syrian civilians.
Our priority number one is not somebody's head. It's the cessation of violence and of the bloodshed. If they say that they want to save Syria and to save Syrians, then they should join us and should lean on all those who are fighting inside Syria to stop doing this and sit down to negotiate without any preconditions. And the fate of Assad must be decided by the Syrian people, not by the outsiders and by part of the Syrian opposition.
RT: But different fractions of Syrian people are at war with each other, which started as an uprising and has turned into a full-fledged civil war at this point. The chances of these different fractions sitting down at the same negotiations table are equal to zero.
SL: Well, the history teaches us that every war ends with peace and this is done through negotiations. It's inevitable. I don't think it is conceivable that the Sunnis, who are the backbone of the Free Syrian Army and many other opposition groups who are fighting on the same side as the Free Syrian Army, would be realistically thinking of taking hold of entire Syria and throwing away all other confession groups – Alawites, other Shia, Druzes, Christians, Curds. In any case, even if somebody in his emotional dreams thinks of such an eventuality, this would not materialize. It would not last, would not be sustainable.
RT: Do you know how from the very beginning of this conflict Russia has been heavily criticized in the West for blocking the attempts of the United States and its allies to get things right in Syria. Do you think that if Russia has handled it differently from the very beginning, let's say, a year ago convinced Assad to step down, then things would be different in Syria?
SL: We are not in the business of regime change. Some of the regional players were suggesting to us: "Why don't you tell president Assad to leave? We will arrange for some safe haven for him." My answer is very simple – if indeed those who suggested this to us have this in mind, they should take it directly to president Assad. Why shall they use us as a postman? If president Assad is interested – this must be discussed directly with him.
He went public for many times, including on the Arab version of your channel, saying that he is not going to leave Syria, that he was born there and he would die there with his people, that he is caring about his country and so forth. Under no circumstances we would be entering the business of suggesting something to him, because, as I said, this is up to Syrian people to decide.
Number two – our policy on Syria is not determined by what and who is saying about it, critical or otherwise. We hear not only criticism but a lot of encouragement from countries who understand the importance of this issue not only for the region, but also for the world politics, for the way in which the world politics is being made and followed.
When the crisis started in 2011 in August – a few months after the crisis started – it was Russia who suggested that the Security Council react. And there was a statement adopted by consensus which contained all the right things: that everyone must stop fighting and that the dialogue must begin.
Then in September 2011 Russia and China proposed a draft resolution which would solidify the elements, the components of the settlement, spelled out in that statement. Western countries said that it was not to their liking because the opposition was asked to stop as well as the government was asked to stop. So it didn't work.
Then we supported the Arab League plan. We persuaded the Syrian government, and that was not very easy, to accept the Arab League plan. We endorsed the Arab League observers to be sent to Syria and worked very thoroughly with Damascus to accept them. Unfortunately, their mission was aborted for no good reason. It was aborted exactly at the time when in December 2011 they submitted their first report to the Security Council which was rather on the objective side and which was not putting all the blame on the government only, but also describing the atrocities and wrongdoings by the opposition groups. Then the Arab League aborted their mission.
Then Kofi Annan's plan appeared, and again we spent some time explaining to the government that it was in their interest to accept this plan, which was done. Then the UN observers were deployed. And as the relative calm started to be seen, not sustainable, but still some signs of stabilization were brought with the UN observers, then there was an upsurge of provocations in the areas where the UN observers were working and the purpose was very obvious to us. The purpose was to create situation which would be unbearable for them to continue, and that was achieved. So they left as well.
But I want to highlight that when Kofi Annan's plan was endorsed, when UN observers were deployed, the Security Council adopted, by consensus, two resolutions: 2042 and 2043, which spelled out the common position of the Security Council. Which was nothing new compared to what I told you: violence must stop, dialogue must start. So the Security Council was not paralyzed. The Security Council did have a position, which was embraced by these two resolutions.
And then, of course, in June this year in Geneva, there was an Action Group initiated by Kofi Annan with our very strong support, because we had been suggesting for quite some time that the key outside players meet and try to see whether they can reach a common approach to creating the conditions in which the Syrian parties could negotiate their own future, without outside interference.
But the external players can play an important role in creating the necessary conditions for this. First of all, from the point of view of encouraging, of sending synchronized signals in the same direction: to the government and to all opposition groups, saying, for example, "You must, on Day X, hour Z, stop fighting, delegate your negotiators", and start negotiating the composition of what we call a 'transitional governing organ,' to enjoy full authority during the transitional period, and make sure that government institutions do not disappear, like it happened in Iraq – and we still feel the consequences now. And then prepare for elections, a new constitution, and so on, and so forth.
And we managed, in Geneva: all the P5, (all the permanent members of the Security Council), plus the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey, the United Nations – we managed to agree on this sequence.
We managed to agree on this sequence: stop the fighting, appoint interlocutors, let them negotiate the composition of a transitional governing organ. This organ, while keeping state institutions, should prepare for elections, and draft a new constitution.
And we say, “Fine. This is a consensus, let’s stick to it. Let’s send this message, very strongly, in synch and to all of those who are fighting.”
Our Western friends, who had just signed this document, said, “No, this is not enough. We need to have a Security Council Chapter 7 resolution, and we need to have an addition to the scheme saying that Assad must be gone”. But this is not what we had agreed on.
In our tradition, when we negotiate something and when we agree on something, we respect the agreement. Unfortunately, those of our partners who negotiated with us in Geneva probably have different habits. And we still feel the negative effect of this.
So, the Geneva scheme is absolutely actual today.
L.Brahimi, who was appointed to replace Kofi Annan, reiterated that it is the basis of his activities. He attempted an initiative inviting the Russians and the Americans to discuss how the Geneva Agreement could be implemented. We have been satisfied to hear an American representative say that they want a ‘peaceful solution.’
But we still cannot get any answer to a very important question. The West and several regional countries – Turkey, the Persian Gulf states – have supported and recognized the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed at a meeting in Doha, and was praised as a very important step to unify the opposition. We are in favour of unifying the opposition, and since the Geneva meeting we have been insisting that all those who have influence over opposition groups should help unify the opposition on the platform of the Geneva Communiqué. And that is the message that we are sending not only to the government but to all opposition groups. And we meet with all of them: just last week, there was one visiting us, and before the end of the year there might be some others coming from the opposition.
So, we have been sending the same message to the government and to the opposition: “Guys, this is the basis. Do what the Geneva Communiqué suggests, it’s in your interests. Sit down and negotiate.”
But the Doha meeting, which endorsed the Syrian National Coalition, and which was supported by the West and by important regional players, also adopted a declaration that says the main goal of the opposition is to dismantle, or rather, to topple the regime and dismantle its institutions – a direct opposite to what the Geneva Communiqué says.
And then they also said in that declaration, “No negotiations with the regime.” Which is also against the Geneva principles.
When we asked our American colleagues (I talked to Hillary CLINTON on the margins of an OSCE meeting in Dublin) how they can explain their support of something that is absolutely against the principles of Geneva, she said, “Well, at this stage it is important to unite them. And the substance of what they want to achieve we can correct.”
One month passed. Almost every week we have been enquiring what efforts are being undertaken to modify the substance: the absolute rejection of any negotiation, and absolute emphasis on the use of force. And there is no answer. I understand that no one is talking to the opposition regarding the need to be a bit more realistic, and regarding the need to avoid positions which are basically ruining the country.
RT: NATO's deployment of Patriot missiles on Turkish-Syrian border – is it a part of solution? And who are they really targeted at?
SL: First, we understand of course the concern of Turkey and of all other countries that are continuing to receive Syrian refugees; it's a burden under any circumstances. And of course, the situation is quite tense. The opposition in the region, in the Syrian regions bordering Turkey is quite active, probably trying to trigger some cross-border activities and then having the international community revolt against the border violations. Incidents happen, and the cross-border fire which took place several times – we immediately were raising this issue with the Syrians, and we believe that what they explained to us is credible. This was not intentional, they were chasing the opposition groups who were attacking them and then fleeing. And we immediately suggested to the Turks and the Syrians that we might help to create a direct communication line so that in real time they can check whenever an incident takes place. The Syrians were ready, the Turks said that they do have their own channels of communication. And then this issue of Patriots was raised.
We recognize the right for Turkey to think about its own security and the right of Turkey to use, for this purpose, the international arrangements which Turkey has in that particular case, NATO membership, and we accepted this as a given. On the other hand, the more military hardware you accumulate in one place the more risk you have that this hardware one day would be used. As for the purpose of this deployment, yes, I read and hear that some experts believe that if it is intended to prevent any Syrian crossfire then it could be positioned a bit differently. And as it is envisaged to be positioned, some people say it is quite useful to protect the American radar which is part of the American missile defense system they are building quoting, ‘the threat from Iran’. If this is the case then it is even more risky, I would say, because this multiple purpose deployment could create additional temptations.
RT: It's more about Iran rather than Syria, right?
SL: Well, that's what some people say. And the configuration as it is being presented in the media really looks like it could be used against Iran.
RT: Syria is not the only issue between America and Russia. The first thing Obama did when he got re-elected was sign the so-called Magnitsky Act, that would sanction Russian citizens and some Russian officials. What does it tell you about the state of Russia-US relations with Putin and Obama at the helm?
SL: I don't think this was the first thing Obama did when he was re-elected. This was inevitable. When the senators – Senator Cardin and some others – introduced this idea, it was clearly done to create a Catch 22 for the administration. Because the administration was promoting a repeal of the Jackson-Vanick amendment with the support of quite a number of people on the Hill. And it was absolutely obvious that the Americans want it, because with Russia having acceded to the WTO, keeping Jackson-Vanick would mean depriving American companies of the benefits of the Russian Federation's membership in the WTO. So they had to do it anyway. And then, I think, the Republicans decided to have this trick and hinge the removal of Jackson-Vanick to the Magnitsky Act. Which, at that moment, was most likely done against President Obama. As for the Russian citizens who have been included in that list (I haven't seen it, it still hasn't been published), if they wanted to prevent Russian citizens they don't like from entering the United States, they could do it without a adopting a law, and without making a show.
If they wanted to freeze anyone's assets, they could do it simply by going to court and presenting evidence – again, without any show or any public relations campaigns. But they believed that one of the achievements that the administration had prided itself upon for the last four years was the 'reset' with the Russian Federation. And they wanted to hit Obama exactly on this 'reset' thing. It's unfortunate, because it lets domestic politics dominate the international agenda, and in the minds of many, also dominate almost everything that's happening between Russia and the United States. And that is much, much more comprehensive and complex than human rights as interpreted by American senators.
RT: We all remember the off-record conversation that Obama and Medvedev had, and Obama promised to be more flexible right after the elections. But from what you are saying, how much flexible can he really be or allow himself to be with this Republican opposition in Congress?
SL: Well, I think that’s the peculiarities of the American system. And any congressman can freeze consideration of very important issues – just because the beef from his particular state is not being admitted to one country or another for phytosanitary reasons. And the issues of global importance could be just frozen because of the interest of one single state in the US, and the interest having nothing to do with the substance of the issue in question.
You know that Jackson-Vanik itself was extended repeatedly after all the emigration problems had been resolved in the former Soviet Union and of course in the Russian Federation, but the Jackson-Vanik amendment was extended repeatedly under numerous pretexts, including the lack of enthusiasm on the part of our country to import those chicken legs and all sorts of thing. Natan Sharansky, a famous former Soviet dissident, who has been in the Israeli government, said when he learned about that thing: It is not for the chicken legs that I spent seven years in the Soviet camp, a labor camp. But this shows how the Hill can really be out of synch with logic and with realistic interpretation of the American national interests.
So sometimes the issues of huge importance, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to settle it, are being kept hostage for years and years because of the peculiarity of the American electoral cycles. Domestic considerations, the need to be reelected prevent the American administration from doing some things which the rest of the world believes must be done. Every two years they have elections. And this certainly influences the international agenda, but it’s very unfortunate. We would prefer to approach international issues on the basis of their merit and on the basis of the crying need to do something together without looking back at your domestic politicking interests.
RT: As an answer to the Magnitsky law, Russian parliament is right now discussing the law that would ban Russian children adoption for the US citizens. Many have criticized this law and said that it is somewhat inadequate and disproportional, and were saying that bringing orphan children into politics is not exactly correct. You have also spoken against this draft law. Why?
SL: It is a complex issue. For many years we have been appalled by the way some of the Russian kids were treated in the families who adopted them in the United States. True, the number of cases which have been made public of maltreatment of the Russian kids is not so arithmetically huge – it's nineteen. And those who criticize our position say that dozens of thousands of kids have been adopted and absolute majority of them are happy, and I agree with this.
But I can't accept when people say "why do you raise hell about nineteen cases only". Any situation in which a Russian kid was humiliated, maltreated, not to mention murdered or raped – and those were the cases with some of these nineteen children – this must be approached very firmly, I would even say aggressively, to establish the channels which would allow us to influence the situation.
That’s why some time ago we suggested to the Americans to negotiate an agreement on cooperation in the field of adoption. And they were not very enthusiastic about it from the very beginning. And it is then that we – and also the ombudsman for kids, Pavel Astakhov, were seriously thinking about approaching the Russian courts through the appropriate channels and suggesting a freeze on the adoption of the Russian kids by Americans, until and unless we get this agreement.
Eventually the agreement was signed. It entered into force in September this year and it for the first time provides for very important things. First, until this agreement was negotiated, the federal authorities in Washington were saying that each state has its own legislation as regards the adoption, so we cannot influence them. And so that’s it. This agreement obliges the federal authorities to take measures to ensure that the states, first, earmark a focal point, which must be addressed, and second, allow for the consular access for the Russian kids – which was not allowed before. And third, they consider them until the age of sixteen Russian citizens, which was also not the practice.
This agreement is now in force, and only for two months or three months. And we want to make sure that it is functioning properly. Unfortunately, the first pilot case, so to say, in Florida, when a boy called Maxim Babayev was part of the issue when his parents were maltreating him – and they were deprived of the adoption rights by the American court, and the boy was given temporarily to some foster family …. And we are still trying to get access. The court ruled against it, but the State Department is now working with the Florida authorities, with the court, explaining that this is an international obligation. And this is something that gives us a legal right to insist on getting to the heart of the problem, to the kids themselves.
So while understanding the position in favor of prohibiting the adoption of the Russian kids by the American families, I still believe that we have to try to keep the agreement itself. Because to get out of this agreement would not allow us to attend to those boys and girls who have already been adopted and who live in their adopted families in the United States. In other words, the future adoptions might be frozen. This is the decision of the parliament, as far as I understand. But I would really ask the lawmakers before they adopt the law in the third reading to keep the agreement. Because this would allow us to attend to kids who have already been adopted and who live in their American families. Otherwise we would lose this access.
[RT’s note: After the interview with Sergey Lavrov was recorded, the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, approved the act banning US adoption of Russian kids, with 420 votes in favor and only seven against.]