On August 3, 2019, Russian newspaper Kommersant published a long interview with the Russian President's Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev about the situation in Syria. The interview was published a day after the end of the 13th round of inter-Syrian negotiations, which were held in the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, on 1-2 August.
During the round of negotiations, guarantor countries - Russia, Turkey and Iran - as well as delegations of the Syrian government and the opposition discussed the aggravation of the situation in Idlib and whether the formation of the Constitutional Committee would be announced soon.
Concerning the Constitutional Committee, the Turkish Foreign Ministry stated: "In the meeting, the parties expressed satisfaction on the progress towards the establishment of the Constitutional Committee. They reiterated their commitment to conclude the formation of the Committee at the earliest and to convene it in Geneva."
In the interview, Lavrentiev discussed several topics, including the cooperation with the other two 'Astana guarantors' Turkey and Iran. Concerning, Turkey, Lavrentiev emphasized that the Syrian-Turkish border, which is in the region of the Idlib de-escalation zone, is poorly controlled. Talking about Russia-Iran cooperation, Lavrentiev said that the coordination of the two countries' actions in the fight against the remnants of terrorist groups in Syria continues, stressing that Moscow and Teheran have no differences in approaches.
Below are excerpts from the interview:
Alexander Lavrentiev (Source: Kommersant.ru)
'Procedural Aspects Are Agreed Between Pedersen And Damascus'
Q: "What issues related to the formation of the Constitutional Committee remain to be settled?"
Lavrentiev: "We did everything we could, for our part, to assist the UN Secretary-General's Syria envoy, Geir Pedersen. On the question of the formation of the committee, there were really strong contacts with Damascus, [and] with the office of Mr. Pedersen. We traveled to the regional capitals, it was amazing, we did our best. The last thing that we heard from the special envoy was that he was satisfied with the results of the work, and that he managed to coordinate almost all issues with our mediation, including with Damascus."
Q: "So now the ball is in the opposition's court?"
Lavrentiev: "Not the opposition's, the decision on the remaining candidates to the committee list rests with Mr. Pedersen."
Q: "According to you, the Syrian government has given its consent, provided that the UN accepts its wishes regarding procedural issues related to the work of the committee, and the decision will be made in a 'package'. Is the opposition ready to accept this 'package deal'?"
Lavrentiev: "Only the 'package deal.' Only in this case will Pedersen decide to convene the Constitutional Committee."
Q: "Do I understand correctly that nothing depends on the opposition's opinion?"
Lavrentiev: "No, why, we have always said that the opposition also has and should have a word in the matter, but not to the extent that will block the creation of the Constitutional Committee. And right now we are seeing this. For example, procedural aspects are agreed between Mr. Pedersen and Damascus, and the opposition has some issues. But this is Pedersen's responsibility, let him coordinate with the opposition."
Q: "And what is so magical that Moscow proposed to Damascus that it finally agreed to the '4 + 2' formula. When four candidates are from the Syrian government and two - from the United Nations?"
Lavrentiev: "Nothing magical. Damascus initially considered this possibility. This is the decision of Damascus, they agreed to this formula."
Q: "So, it's not true that Damascus prolonged negotiations over the committee for half a year?"
Lavrentiev: "This is not true. As you remember, last December we - Russia, Iran and Turkey - as guarantors of the Astana process, presented our list of the committee to the previous special envoy of the UN Secretary General, Staffan de Mistura, but, unfortunately, he was not ready to accept that option. And that is why it took so long. If he had made a decision then, would have found the strength to agree with the proposed candidates, everything could have been different. The six names that did not suit the UN were from Damascus's list. And Damascus had the right to be wary, right? There could be no accusations against the government in this case, including the issue of stretching out the negotiations."
Q: "Is it necessary to approve the committee by a resolution of the UN Security Council?"
Lavrentiev: "I think not. But if the UN Security Council involves itself, this option is not excluded in order to stimulate the process, giving it more weight. It's quite possible."
'The Syrian-Turkish Border Is Poorly Controlled, Since The Weapons Are Still Being Smuggled There'; A Buffer Zone May Be Somehow Established, But With The Deployment Of Syrian Government Troops Not Turkish Troops
Q: "UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres created a department to conduct an internal investigation into incidents involving the destruction of infrastructure in northwestern Syria. How does Russia feel about this and will the work of this department be able to resolve the issue of the destruction of civilian facilities in Idlib, which Moscow is accused of?"
Lavrentiev: "The question immediately arises here: why did Guterres come up with this initiative now, when all this is linked to the situation that develops around Idlib, why didn't he come up with such an initiative when the international coalition led by the US freed Raqqa or other cities that were actually wiped off the face of the earth. Nobody said anything then. Let's, if the Secretary General is so impartial, devote most of the work to those incidents that involved the destruction of infrastructure in cities in northeastern Syria."
Q: "What is happening in recent months in Idlib - the offensive operation of the Syrian government or an attempt to implement the Sochi memorandum on the creation of a demilitarized zone there?"
Lavrentiev: "… the operations are carried out solely in response to provocative actions by radical militants, which, believe me, according to our military, there have happened recently. Provocations continue up to this day. From 100 to 500 people, on a weekly basis, make attempts to seize one or another territory controlled by Damascus, and attack government troops. Accordingly, the Syrian government is forced to respond. And in the course of counter-terrorism operations, of course, certain territories are being liberated, and, of course, are not transferred back to opposition control."
Q: "After Damascus announced the ceasefire, you expressed doubt that the radical groups will abide by the agreement ..."
Lavrentiev: "One can simply assume that the radical groups are not interested in a ceasefire, because then they will have to leave the Idlib de-escalation zone. Where do they go? They are going to fight with government forces, it does not matter why and where - in Syria, Libya, Somalia, and so on, they have no other ideas in their heads; they cannot do otherwise."
Q: "So, they can only be finished off?"
Lavrentiev: "All of them should be disposed of. Let's not shy away from these words."
Q: "And with the armed moderate opposition, as you call it, is there a chance for negotiation in Idlib?"
Lavrentiev: "There is a chance, we are counting on it. But unfortunately, at the moment, the so-called moderate opposition has control maybe only over 5-6% of the territory in this region, if not less. The rest is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, the former Jabhat Al-Nusra). The situation was different before the conclusion of the Sochi memorandum on September 17, 2018. Back then the so-called moderate opposition controlled around 40–45% of the territory in the region of, later they lost it."
Q: "Is Turkey really helping the armed opposition with weapons, money, and how is this consistent with its partnership with Russia?"
Lavrentiev: "I wouldn't say that it helps. But apparently the Syrian-Turkish border, which is in the region of the Idlib de-escalation zone, is poorly controlled, since the weapons are still being smuggled there, so to speak. But we are far removed from the idea that our Turkish friends are supplying weapons to the HTS. Probably, some part of the armament, indeed, goes to moderate opposition groups, but for the sake of fighting the HTS. But then the terrorists, unfortunately, capture these weapons and use them against the Syrian government forces."
Q: "Is it still possible to distinguish between terrorists and the armed opposition, which, according to the Memorandum in Sochi, Turkey should have done?"
Lavrentiev: "The question here is not about making a distinction but urging the moderate opposition to liberate these territories and take them under control. It is better to put the question like this. It is better to exclude the question of differentiation altogether, because otherwise we will establish a certain security zone where radical groups can freely be in charge."
Q: "Turkey returned again to the issue of creating a buffer zone on the border with Syria and just the other day discussed this issue with the United States. Is Ankara talking about this with Moscow?"
Lavrentiev: "They discuss this issue with the Americans. We are also being asked, but our position is clear: only government troops should be deployed there, to one degree or another."
Q: "And if Turkey agrees with the United States or starts to establish this zone by itself, how will Russia react to this?"
Lavrentiev: "We believe that this will cause only harm, because we stand for a single, undivided, territorially integral Syria, and for the absence of foreign troops there. A buffer zone, a security zone may be somehow established, but with the deployment of Syrian government troops there, and not Turkish troops."
It Is Not True That Pro-Iranian forces Attacked The Khmeimim Airbase And The Russian Patrol In The Derya Region
Q: "Another partner of Russia in the Astana format is Iran. Where do Russian-Iranian interests cross paths and where do they merge? There are a lot of recent reports of a clash between pro-Iranian and pro-Russian forces in Syria ..."
Lavrentiev: "This is an exaggeration, the coordination of our actions in the fight against the remnants of terrorist groups in Syria continues, we have really full cooperation here and we don't yet have any differences in approaches."
Q: "And in matters of political settlement, too? They say that Iran influences Damascus and makes it less accommodating in matters of political settlement. Is this true?"
Lavrentiev: "No, you need to know the Syrians, they will never allow someone to dictate them what to do. Compulsion? Never. Syrians, if they themselves do not make a decision, convincing them of something, putting pressure is almost impossible."
Q: "And what is Moscow's attitude towards Israel's declaration that Iran is hiding behind Russian military bases in Khmeimim and Tartus in order to secure its arms smuggling into Syria and Lebanon?"
Lavrentiev: "No, this is not true. Loads of stuff that is written in Israeli press ..."
Q: "It's not only the press ..."
Lavrentiev: "Israel, of course, is interested in the complete withdrawal of Iranian forces, and does not hide this. Despite Russian objections, Israel continues to attacks various targets where they believe Iranian military personnel to be located ..."
Q: "And why is Russia turning a blind eye to these attacks?"
Lavrentiev: "We are not supporters of the confrontational development of the situation, we believe that any problem can be resolved precisely by peaceful means, therefore, we urge Israel itself not to strike at any object, but to transmit information to us, and we will verify it."
Q: "About a year ago you said that the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from southern Syria near Israel was completed, and three months ago Israel discovered secret bases of the Shiite Hezbollah movement in the Golan Heights. And, as the Israeli press writes, Israel asked Russia to deal with this issue ..."
Lavrentiev: "Yes, about a year ago, we turned to our Iranian colleagues. There were small contingents of pro-Iranian units in the south of Syria, but taking into account the work that needs to be done to remove the southern de-escalation zone in the Daraa and Es-Subayda regions, we put in a lot of effort. We proposed to withdraw these units, on the understanding that the Americans will take measures to withdraw their units from the Al-Tanf area and their transfer would be under the complete control of the Syrian government forces. The Iranians, for their part, went along with this, followed our advice, our recommendations - took their units away, but there was no response from the Americans."
Q: "So, the fact that the Americans did not leave gives the Iranians the right to return their forces?"
Lavrentiev: "The point here is that they may have such a right, but what is the usefulness of pro-Iranian units there? We do not register them, and if they are there, it's a drop in the bucket, in comparison to all the others."
Q: "Recently, there have been statements by the Syrian opposition that the pro-Iranian forces, and not the terrorists, attacked the Khmeimim airbase in northern Syria and the Russian patrol in the south of the Daraa region. Is this untrue?"
Lavrentiev: "This is not true. Nothing like that ever happened."
The 5th Army Corps Are Syrian Corps Under No Russian Influence
Q: "The Syrian opposition also claims that Damascus does not fulfill the ceasefire agreements, which were concluded under guarantees and with the participation of Russia in zones returned to Damascus's control. There is information about the arrests of the opposition and other violations. Can Russia influence the situation on the ground and have the guarantees that Russia gave really been violated?"
Lavrentiev: "Firstly, we have no information that such incidents really had taken place. Take, for example, East Al-Ghouta areas that have been liberated, because there are so many associated facts that unfortunately, are not taken into account. If, let's say, the population is not allowed into a certain region, this is not arbitrariness on the part of the authorities, sometimes this is done for the benefit of the same rural civilians, given the fact that this district can be heavily mined and it must first be cleared and only after that people can be allowed to enter."
Q: "And what about the arrests and even killings of opposition members who are returning to Damascus-controlled territory? Just the other day there was a very loud story..."
Lavrentiev: "Well, there are a lot of different stories. But you must understand that the country went through 6-7 years of active hostilities, the crisis itself lasts 8 years, and therefore, of course, when it comes to the return of the Syrians from somewhere, irrespective of from which territory (from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey etc.) a security question arises: 'What intentions does this returnee have?' Is he simply a refugee, a civilian, or maybe he is a former militant, who has a clear mission to penetrate into Damascus, settle down, create a sleeper cell and wait for a command? This is the work of special services. And every country does that. But to focus on this, I think, is not worth the effort."
Q: "How successful was the Russian project to create a so called pro-Russian 5th corps, and why was this project needed?"
Lavrentiev: "It was not really a project, this is work in order to restore the combat capability of the Syrian army. The 5th Army Corps includes, among others, representatives of the former opposition, who, of course, have been taken in service in light of their good combat experience, which can be used in the fight against the terrorist underground and with terrorist groups."
Q: "Can you call the 5th corps pro-Russian?"
Lavrentiev: "No. This is a Syrian corps."
Q: "That is, these are not Russia- influenced forces in Syria?"
Q: "Given the fact that the United States decided not to leave Syria, is it still possible to seat the Kurds and Damascus at the negotiating table?"
Lavrentiev: "The dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds is being pursued."
Q: "With Russia's participation?"
Lavrentiev: We, too, in principle, urge everyone to conduct this dialogue. How effective it will be is another matter. This is a question of the independence of the Kurds in decision-making and a question of the degree of influence of the Americans, which still remains very high.
At Various Levels, Dialogue With The US Is Naturally Present
Q: "Is there a chance for Russia to attract the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf to rebuild Syria and under what conditions are they prepared to agree to this measure?"
Lavrentiev: "When it comes to rebuilding Syria, many countries are ready to provide assistance, including the Gulf countries, but they are afraid of US sanctions. Because both Americans and a number of European countries believe that not a single cent should be allocated until a visible political process takes place in Syria, i.e. according to their logic, until a change in Damascus' legal government will take place."
Q: "Does the US still adhere to the position that the regime in Syria should be changed?"
Lavrentiev: "In fact, yes. Let's call a spade a spade. Although they say that they 'do not have any allergies to the regime', and they can admit its presence in power for some time."
Q: "It turns out that it all comes down to the US. Are we conducting a dialogue with the United States on this matter? As well on the Al-Tanf issue, and on the political process in Syria?"
Lavrentiev: "At various levels, dialogue is maintained, naturally. As you remember, there were meetings of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Donald Trump. The work, of course, is underway. We can't stand still, we must use every opportunity to push our position forward."
Q: "One of the most pressing issues in relations with the US is the Rukban refugee camp near their base at Al-Tanf. At a press conference, you said that Rukban would be liquidated by the end of August ..."
Lavrentiev: "I wouldn't say 'liquidated', we just hope to ensure the withdrawal of peaceful civilians from there by the end of August."
Q: "And what does the result depend on?"
Lavrentiev: "The result depends directly on local residents. And on the Americans stationed there, who should ensure the free exit of these civilians and not put a block in the way of this desire."
Q: "Russia objected for so long to a third humanitarian convoy to Rukban, so that the camp will close faster?"
Lavrentiev: "We believe that the next humanitarian convoy in these circumstances is counterproductive. This, on the contrary, encourages refugees to stay there for a longer time. It is not only our position, this understanding is also shared by Jordanians, who express this openly to the Americans, on whom they are very dependent."
Q: "How should the fate of the Al-Khaul refugee camp in northeast Syria be decided?"
Lavrentiev: "This is a headache for the Americans, let them think. Perhaps they will adopt our Russian experience in dismantling the Rukban camp."
Q: "As far as I understand, there are a lot of families of foreign militants in Al-Hawl?"
Lavrentiev: "There are more than 70,000 people, about 40% of whom are Iraqi citizens. The situation is therefore very difficult."
Q: "The United States is trying to ensure that foreigners who fought on the side of the militants are taken from Syria by the countries whose citizens they are. In particular, they are negotiating with Europeans about this. But there are Russian citizens there as well..."
Lavrentiev: "The Europeans do not want them."
Q: "So far is there a decision on what to do with the people?"
Lavrentiev: "Europeans do not want to see their citizens back home. In principle, our approach is similar to the European one: if a person committed a crime in the territory of another state, he should be judged by the court of that state. And therefore, if some claims are expressed, or rather, accusations are brought against a person who participated in the fighting on the side of the “Islamic State” (ISIS), then the Syrian authorities, of course should try him."
Q: "Will Russia continue to return women and children?"
Lavrentiev: "The question is also very difficult - what women and what children are we talking about. Many women fought in the ranks of the Islamic State, the question is also not so clear with children as well. As you know, there was such a practice in ISIS that, starting from almost 4 years old, the child was not only raised in the spirit of ISIS, but trained in shooting. [Kids] took part in executions, took part in combat. Can you imagine? This child, brought up on these ideas, do you think he will get better from this? So the question is very complicated, and requires an integrated approach, an integrated solution."
Q: "In conclusion, I would like to clarify about the further schedule of talks on Syria. In September, a meeting of guarantor countries of the Astana format at the presidential level should be held. After that a 4-way meeting - Turkey, Russia, France, Germany. Correct?"
Lavrentiev: "For now, let's confine ourselves to preparing and holding a tripartite meeting."