‘President Assad is not going to leave’ – says Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov


RUSSIAN Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interview to the BBC on 7 March, ahead of his visit to London to take part in the first Russia-UK strategic dialogue meeting on 13 March.

Lavrov spoke about Russian-British relations, the upcoming inquest into the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko (the former Russian security service officer who died from polonium poisoning in London in November 2006) and about the conflict in Syria.

The following is the text of the report published in English by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on 8 March.

‘Question: Sergey Viktorovich, you are in London next week for this new strategic dialogue meeting between Russia and Britain. Is this a sign that the relationship between Britain and Russia is continuing to improve, do you think?

Sergey Lavrov: I would say so. The relations have been developing on the positive lately. This was reflected during the meeting between President V.Putin and Prime Minister D.Cameron, when they met last summer. And the decision of the two leaders to create this new 2+2 format, I think, is a reflection that we both like to continue the improvement of our relationship.

Question: It has been quite a difficult relationship for the last maybe seven years. Are there any pitfalls you are seeing ahead, which need to be avoided, that could damage the relationship again?

Sergey Lavrov: Problems will always exist in the relationship between any two countries, especially countries with regional and global interests. The main thing in my view is to make sure that artificial problems are not added to objective ones. And I believe – also from my regular meetings with W.Hague and our discussions – that there is an understanding on both sides that this should be the goal.

Question: As an observer, the thing that caused the problem with the relationship was the argument over the Litvinenko death. And this year, we have the Litvinenko inquest coming up, probably in the second half of the year. Is that not a risk that what comes out of that is going to drag the relationship down again?

Sergey Lavrov: We have always been saying that we want the truth to be established, without violating our own laws, and with the respect to the investigation which is being done in Britain.

‘You know, we, through the Office of the Prosecutor General, proposed all sorts of cooperation on the Russian soil – and this was not considered possible. We respect that decision, and we hope that the court would be provided with all objective material they need for the truth to be established. I understand also that the widow of Mr Litvinenko wants the same.

Question: Let’s turn to next week’s meeting. What is going to be the major international issue – the big bone of contention, do you think, between the two countries?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, it’s either a major international issue for tomorrow’s discussions, or the big bone of contention – because they don’t necessarily coincide.

The biggest international issue, I think, will be what is called the Arab Spring: Syria, but not only Syria, the rest of the region. It is very useful to take a comprehensive look at what is going on there. Because the situation is very fluid, and the events are very much interrelated in the region.

The Libyan aftermath we feel now in Mali: the French are fighting terrorist groups, which we strongly support, but, ironically, those terrorist groups are very closely associated with some of the terrorists who used to fight in Libya with the outside support. But speaking of Syria, I don’t think we are far apart, as far as the eventual goal is concerned. We both want Syria to be united, to be democratic; we both want the Syrian people to choose freely the way they would like to run their country, with full respect to the rights of all ethnic and confessional groups. And, of course, that has been the Russian position for two years since the crisis started.

We have been in favour of immediate end of violence, and in favour of pushing the parties to the negotiating table. This was, by the way, supported by all major outside players at the Geneva meeting on June 30 last year. And we still are committed to this.

I’m ratified to notice lately some more constructive elements in the position of the Syrian National Coalition. The leader of the Coalition has been speaking about his interest in dialogue, the government reiterated its readiness to do the same, including with those who are fighting on the ground, and so on, and so forth.

I believe we must encourage this trend on both sides. That was our understanding with the Americans, when we met with J.Kerry a couple of weeks ago. And this would be certainly my intention to discuss in detail with W. Hague. Because unless we all act in sync, telling the parties that we don’t want any military solution, that we don’t want any further loss of Syrian lives, and that we want them to start negotiating in earnest – unless we do this, this crisis would continue, and more blood would be shed.

Question: You are right, the language is very often in sync about the solution, everyone agrees that there needs to be a negotiated solution. But when you look at the situation with the British now talking about providing armoured vehicles and providing body armour, and the Americans talking about providing military rations, and with the Russian government still keeping its contracts in terms of arms supply to the Syrian government – it does seem as if Russia and Britain are on very different sides of the Syrian conflict . . .

Sergey Lavrov: The air defence weapons, which we have been supplying to Syria under the existing contracts, can’t be used in this war. And they are needed legitimately to any country, who is under a threat of being attacked.

Question: And helicopters? The helicopter repairs and so on we keep hearing about?

Sergey Lavrov: There was a dispatch of a couple of helicopters, but this doesn’t make any difference. They have been shipped there being disassembled for the assembly on the ground, and this would not make any change on the ground.

We have been respecting all contracts, and we have not violated any single international convention. And in the Geneva Communique, when we discussed it, this question was raised – about demilitarizing the conflict, and we wanted to understand how this could be done as far as the supplies to the opposition are concerned.

We wanted to understand, we want some explanations: how exactly, on what exact roots the supplies which are heading towards the opposition could be checked. And if we are provided such an answer, such a presentation, then, maybe, we can consider some steps to demilitarize this conflict. But so far, there was nothing.

Question: The other thing that both sides seem to agree on is that a united Syria is the answer. The big disagreement is about whether or not it’s possible there to be any kind of negotiations over a united Syria, where President Assad is still . . . he has to be part of the talks. Is it still possible for him to, in any way, lead a united Syria?

Sergey Lavrov: It’s not for me to decide. It’s not for anybody else to decide, except for the Syrian people. We have been against any preconditions to stop the violence and start a dialogue, because we believe that priority number one is to save lives. If people say that, before anything, President Assad must disappear, then they have a different priority; then this is their priority, not saving Syrian lives.

He’s not going to leave, he said so in many interviews, including the one for The Sunday Times, if I’m not wrong. And this is, absolutely, his position – we know this for sure. All those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing, and that he is prepared to discuss any issue – among the Syrians.

Question: But he can’t still lead a united Syria, can he? After all that bloodshed, after so many of the Sunni community losing faith in him . . .

Sergey Lavrov: Once again, once again. I can only say what I just stated already: It is not for us to decide who should lead Syria. It is for the Syrians to decide. And I’m glad that the latest discussions and the latest gestures from the opposition, and statements from some of those who support the opposition, hint that they would be prepared to start negotiations with some negotiating team without asking President Assad to step down. And I believe unless they sit down, and they could, and would discuss, I’m sure, the future of Syria, including who’s going to lead Syria. And unless they sit down and start talking, we would not know whether this chance could be materialized, or not.

Question: So, still, there’s no chance, at this stage, of Russia saying, “President Assad, look. If we want to get peace in Syria, then you have to take yourself out of the equation.” There’s still no question of that happening.

Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely not. You know that we’re not in the regime-change game. We are against interference in domestic conflicts. And this is our position, which should be of no surprise to anyone. This is a point of principle, if you want. A practical point is that he is not going to leave. So we have to take it as a given. And instead of asking ourselves some hypothetical questions – whether he could, or whether he could not, I think if we want to save lives, and I reiterate once again that this is priority number one for Russia, then we should drop any preconditions and tell all those who are fighting, “Guys, we want you to sit down and talk.”

Question: So, back to the talks with the British next week. Do you think that this kind of lengthy, face-to-face talks, which haven’t been a regular part, in the last few years, of the Russian-British dialogue. Do you think that it’s really going to allow these issues like Syria to be expressed more openly? Do you think this is a good way forward, and of solving these problems?

Sergey Lavrov: It’s a very comfortable format. It allows for the Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers to discuss various situations in a comprehensive manner, from the political, military, humanitarian, social point of view. And it helps to get a better knowledge of what we are discussing, a better knowledge of the positions of each other. And, apart from the Syrian crisis proper, we would certainly discuss the situation in other Arab countries, where there is some “lack of calm” – let me put it mildly.

We would certainly discuss the Middle East settlement issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, because both Russia and the UK are part of this 5+1 group, and many other things that are on the agenda of the Security Council, since we are both permanent members of that body.

Plus, I’m sure our military colleagues, the Ministers of Defence, would be interested in discussing military-to-military cooperation, military-technical cooperation. There has been some experience in this regard as well.’