Our priority is to stop violence - Lavrov on Syria crisis
Sergey Lavrov says the US and Russia must do “everything possible” to stop violence in Syria, warning that people who fight the Syrian army are “very well armed,” among them “the terrorist organization created by the United States - Al-Nusra Front.”
“This is a tragedy. What must be done and that's where the US
and Russia see eye to eye is to do everything to stop it. You
know that alongside with the opposition which is called Free
Syrian Army terrorist organizations fight. And one of them was
the terrorist organization created by the United States -
Al-Nusra Front. Immediately the political leaders of the
opposition said it was a mistake and betrayal because Al-Nusra
cannot be listed as terrorist organization as long as it fights
the regime,” the Russian foreign minister said in an
interview with CBS in Moscow.
He added that back in the 1970s and ’80s the US was supporting Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. “Then these Mujahideen gave rise to Al-Qaeda, and then Al-Qaeda struck back,” Lavrov said.
Russia is hoping to try to resolve the Syria crisis at the peace conference, due in July, which could gather all interested parties, including the Syrian government, various Syrian opposition groups, regional powers like Iran and others. But doing it requires a genuine joint effort.
“We want Syria to stay united, one piece, sovereign territorial integrity respected,” Lavrov stated.
US and Russia ‘need much more investment’
CBS:Mr. Lavrov, thank you so much for taking the time
to sit down with us. Let's talk a little bit about the
relationship between the US and Russia. What do you see as
the greatest challenges to that relationship currently?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, I don't see any challenges which are not insurmountable. I believe that after some pause and some irritations, which appeared rather officially in our relationship some time ago, both presidents are keen to move forward. And that was the message President Obama sent to President Putin earlier this year. The President of the Russian Federation reciprocated in the same way. We are prepared to go as far as the United States is, of course, on the basis of mutual interests searching for balance between the interest of the two countries and on the basis of equality and respect to each other's positions. Within these parameters anything is possible. And the two presidents pay special attention, which they agreed to do actually one year ago in Los Cabos, to improve radically the economic part of our cooperation. There are conditions for this.
There is interest on both sides - American and Russian business. We need much more investment. The two presidents agreed, and I think this should be materialized soon, to establish some kind of flexible, informal mechanism to monitor the conditions for doing business in Russia and in the United States. Because our businesses encounter, sometimes a treatment which we don't believe, is really conducive to promoting mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
The hi-tech area is certainly something that we should want to
deepen. Outer space is a case in point. Last year we managed to
enter into force the “123 agreement”, which is about peaceful
uses of nuclear energy. This opens up the prospects for
respective companies to cooperate with each other including on
the markets of third countries.
The humanitarian area is very important to promote a mutual trust
and people-to-people contacts. Last year we marked the 200th
anniversary of the first Russian settlement in California - Fort
Ross. There are now plans to use this premise to establish a
permanent Russian-American center of cultural heritage. And we
also signed and ratified an agreement to facilitate the visa
regime for tourists and businessmen. President Putin suggested
considering doing away with business altogether for the
short-term travel of our citizens. This was again reiterated
during his last contact with President Obama. So I think, of
course, without closing eyes on what still irritates our
relations - missile defense is a case in point, some absolutely,
I would say, unprecedented arrogant steps like the Magnitsky law,
whereby the Congress took upon itself to be the judge of the
Russian system, basically. This doesn't help at all. And we would
have to redirect. This is the rule of politics and diplomacy in
the international arena. But all this is taken into account, the
two presidents are keen to build upon the positive foundation
which we have managed to establish.
Syrian peace effort
CBS:It's no secret that Russia and the US do not see eye to eye on the conflict in Syria. Has that put a strain on the relationship?
SL: I thought we saw eye to eye when [US Secretary of
State] John Kerry was here. I don't think we have any difference
in the strategic approach to the situation in Syria or the
situation in any other country. We want all countries to be
stable, prosperous, democratic with the systems which reflect
modern requirements of international law, but also reflect the
traditions of the society so that we promote cultural plurality
in the world. So we don't differ on the goals of what all of us
want to achieve in helping the people in any country to realize
their dreams, if you wish.
CBS:But the US. Government has repeatedly spoken out against what it perceives as being Russia's support of the Assad regime?
SL: Well, that's misperception. And misperceptions are
used in today's diplomacy to build the public opinion the right
way for those who want to achieve some geopolitical goals.
CBS:How is that a misperception?
SL: Russia repeatedly stated that we do not support anyone
in Syria. We are not weathered to any personalities. President
Assad was a best friend of the French, the British and other
European capitals. And that's a fact of life.
CBS:But you've supplied them with weapons?
SL: We supply weapons to all those who contracted legally.
And this is the universal rule.
CBS:Even if those weapons may be used to perpetrate war crimes?
SL: I don't think you can perpetrate war crimes with
defensive weapons, with air defense systems. I hope you also know
about the volume and kind of weaponry sold by the United States
to the countries of the region. And in quite a number of cases,
those equipment and weaponry include things which you can use
against popular demonstrators.
CBS:May I just read you a few elements from this list? This is a request from a Syrian army general to a Russian arms supplier from March of this year.
CBS:Twenty thousand AK-47s, 200,000 mortar rounds, grenade launchers, millions of rounds of ammunition. These are not defensive weapons.
SL: Are we discussing Syrian army requests or the
substance of the contracts which we honor? I think those are two
different things. And you have to make a difference.
CBS:Were these weapons supplied to the Syrian army?
SL: I have not seen this request. And this is not a
contract to which we are committed. Those are two very different
things. As I said, international law does not prohibit legal
supplies, legitimate supply of arms to any sovereign state
without violating any international norms. Take a look at the
existing international legal basis, recently a conference
concluded which was initiated years ago by Britain and some other
Western countries to negotiate and international treaty on arms
trade. We have been very disappointed that the eventual text does
not contain very firm language on making sure that arms do not
get into the hands of those who were not authorized by the state,
in other words non-state actors. This treaty clearly says that
you can no longer sell arms to the international players like
countries, governments and you cannot sell arms to non-state
actors. While this treaty was negotiated, the arms will continue
to flow into the region, including into Syria through hundreds
and hundreds of kilometers of uncontrolled borders. And the
people who fight the Syrian army, they're very well armed. The
situation in the city of Qusair was created by the fact that both
sides were fighting with heavy weapons. The opposition used
artillery and air defense systems.
This is a tragedy. What must be done and that's where the US and
Russia see eye to eye is to do everything to stop it. You know
that alongside with the opposition which is called Free Syrian
Army terrorist organizations fight. And one of them was the
terrorist organization created by the United States -
Al-Nusra Front. Immediately the political leaders of the
opposition said it was a mistake and betrayal because Al-Nusra
Front cannot be listed as terrorist organization as long as it
fights the regime.
I think that I don't even need to qualify this kind of attitude
to what is going on. When John Kerry was in Moscow on May 7 we
were absolutely united that we all must concentrate on bringing
the parties to a negotiating table to implement during those
negotiations, what was agreed in Geneva on June 30 last
‘Our priority is to stop violence’
CBS:The peace conference that was slated for June now looks it will take place in July. Why the delay?
SL: I don't know. You have to interview John Kerry and his
officials, because we promised to make sure that the government
participates in the conference and the government said so.
CBS:So it's the opposition who are lagging?
SL: Yes. Well, that's, I believe, all over the media. And
the American officials recognize that the national coalition on
which some outside sponsors want to put all the money is not
ready not even to negotiate, but to decide who is in charge in
this coalition. And this is very unfortunate because there are
constructive groups including those who never left Syria and
spent all these years together with the Syrian people, who are in
harsher position to the Assad regime and who want to participate
in this conference and who, unlike the coalition, have a
constructive agenda. They have the vision as to what kind of
Syria they would like to see.
I met with the former chief of the coalition M. Khatib in
February in Munich on the margins of the security conference. I
liked the guy. I think he's the patriot and a very responsible
politician. I suggested that instead of trying to get united only
around regime change slogan, they should also present some
positive agenda for their country.
CBS:And you've been successful in that endeavor?
SL: I don't think so. I never saw anything coming from the
coalition which would say “this is Syria which we would like to
build with all ethnic minorities, with all religious groups
feeling comfortable, with all citizens being equal” and so on and
This never came from the coalition which is busy, as I said, trying to decide who is in charge. And we certainly believe that the entire spectrum of the Syrian society must be present. The supreme Kurdish council of Syria absolutely insists that it must be there.
I believe that it is in the interest of all of us to make sure that this is the case. Because we want Syria to stay united, one piece, sovereign territorial integrity respected. And for this you need to have Kurds among other at the negotiating table.
CBS:Do you believe that President Assad should step down?
SL: This is not for me to decide, this is for the Syrian
people to decide.
‘We condemn all use of force which makes civilians to suffer’
CBS:Do you believe this regime has perpetrated war crimes?
SL: I believe that there are signs that war crimes have
been perpetrated by so many people in Syria and that this must be
investigated. This is what we agreed in Geneva on June 30 last
year. But we have to understand our priorities. If our priority
is to punish people, then of course you can say that unless
President Assad steps down, unless international criminal court
considers this case we would not be ready for negotiation. That's
what the coalition and some other opposition figures are saying.
But then revenge and punishment is the priority number one. Our
priority is to stop violence and to save more lives. And for
this, you have to put everything else on the back burner.
Everything can wait.
The immediate task is to make sure that they sit down and start
negotiations. The government said it is ready. It said it has a
delegation. The foreign minister would be the head of the
delegation. We believe that the opposition must do the same as
soon as possible. Those who sponsor the opposition must make all
efforts to use their influence for good purposes. You know,
because sometimes we hear statements like (actually some White
House representative said the other day) that the US will
continue to support the political and armed opposition because
what is needed is to restore the military balance on the ground.
If this is the logic of moving things forward, then I'm not very
CBS:I've spent quite a bit of time on the ground inside rebel held parts of Syria. And I've seen fighter jets dropping bombs strapped to parachutes falling onto civilian areas, civilian casualties, women and children. And I wanted to ask you, have you ever even privately condemned the regime for bombarding its own people?
SL: Not only privately, we did it publicly. We condemn all
use of force which makes civilians suffer. We do this
irrespective of whether this is done by those whom we like or
dislike politically. We condemned what our Western friends call
‘collateral damage’ in Libya when civilians were dying. We
condemned the collateral damage in Iraq. And we condemned the use
of force by regimes when the civilians suffered, be it Libya, be
it Syria, be it any other country. But you have really to be
consistent and you have to understand that the opposition is not
just peaceful civilians.
CBS:But it started that way. I was there. I was at
SL: It started the way it started. And if we now want to
get on to the business of who is to blame and not being able to
lift a finger to stop the violence before we decide who is to
blame, then I'm afraid we would be in for a very, very difficult
and long tragedy.
If we are willing to do everything to stop this and to save
lives, then we have to really agree on our priorities. Justice
must be done. But justice can wait until we stop this. You cannot
really say we would not we would not help stop the bloodshed
until we have this guy in court.
'We're only country who works with all spectrum of Syrians, including armed opposition’
CBS:Do you ever worry that you've backed the wrong
SL: No, we are not cynical enough, you know, to use this
type of analogy to describe a very tragic situation. We are not
whether to President Assad and people know this. And when we
discuss things privately with my colleagues including those who
publicly make statements which are catching the eye, you know, of
the viewers and creating a very simplistic picture of what is
going on, when we talk to them privately, they understand fully
what is going on. But they say, "You must understand that very
early in the conflict we said he must go. And now we cannot eat
our hat." Okay, we have to choose. Either you think about your
reputation because you made the wrong statement two years ago or
you think about achieving real result, which would save lives.
And then you can use any eye-catchers like backing the horse or
CBS:Wrong side of history?
SL: Wrong side of history, yes, we've heard of this. And
we were also told that we had lost the Arab world. Well, come to
put at mind that this is wrong, because we work - we're probably
the only country which works - with the whole spectrum of
Syrians, including all groups of the opposition, including the
armed opposition. And we understand that those of them who think
about their country would be really brought together and a
compromise could be reached. So that not just the opposition who
says, "Well, negotiations are good, but the only purpose to go to
Geneva is for the government to deliver the full authority and to
give it to us”. This is not going to work because this not what
we agreed. Last year in Geneva we said that the government and
the opposition must decide the composition of this transitional
governing organ by mutual consent and because, apart from this
coalition, there are people who, as I said, never left Syria and
who suffered, they lived through all these difficulties together
with their people. They have the right to express their view of
what kind of future they want for their country.
CBS:Some analysts have suggested that Russia's stance on Syria may be a knee-jerk reaction to what it perceives as US meddling in other nation's affairs. Do you think that's fair?
SL: No, I think, this is again something which analysts
invent to have something which would sell on TV, the newspapers
and other media. We don't build our foreign policy on the basis
of this kind of judgment. We try to be consistent. And as we were
condemning the way NATO used the Security Council mandate in
Libya, by the same token we condemn those people who made a
support to Libya when this people are trying to get to power in
Mali now. And our French colleagues who were supplying the Libyan
rebels with arms are now fighting them in Mali and countering the
French equipment which is used against them.
‘What is going on is radicalization of politics’
CBS:You see a hypocrisy in the West?
SL: I see double standards, if you wish. You either deny
terrorists any acceptance in the international life or you make
your double standard policy work the way it has been working. "I
don't like this guy in this country so we will call him a
dictator and topple him. This guy in another country is also
dictatorial. But he's our dictator." To put this a bit
differently than one famous American said about bad guys who were
“our bad guys”. We have to take a look at the comprehensive
picture of what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa
and down south the Sahel region. What is going on is
radicalization of politics, extremists being harbored from Libya,
arms and combatants are infiltrating into Mali and some other
countries in the region. And you either make your choice on the
basis of whom you like and whom you don't. Or you agree that
there is a common enemy in the person of international terrorism.
I think you must be consistent.
CBS:Do you see President Assad in that sense as an ally of Russia's?
SL: We see an ally in all those who want the Syrian war to
CBS:And do you believe President Assad wants that?
SL: For this you have to make sure that the opposition
expresses its readiness to go to this conference. Because he said
his delegation is ready and to call him bluff, you need to see
whether the opposition is coming or not.
CBS:But what do you believe?
SL: Well, I believe he would send a delegation.
CBS:And do you believe that he wants peace in Syria?
SL: I'm not in the business of believing. I'm in the
business of verifying. We won't know whether this conference has
a chance until the time the delegation sit down at the table with
the outside circle pushing them into their bets and not allowing
them to leave this table until they agree.
CBS:You're in a unique position, though. Russia has
great influence on the Syrian regime. Do you feel the weight of
SL: Yes. No doubt about it.
‘We condemn any abuse of international humanitarian law’
CBS:And when you see the regime using ballistic missiles against its own people, killing hundreds, taking out entire city blocks…
SL: We cannot have responsibility for what regime is
doing. And as I've said, we condemn any abuse of international
humanitarian law. We feel responsibility and bear this
responsibility as the Russian Federation, which is co-sponsoring
an important international meeting together with the United
States. We delivered what we promised. Namely, the government
consent to send the delegation to his conference. For all other
responsibilities, be it the regime, be it the opposition, be it
the outside sponsors of the opposition, you have to talk to those
who have influence on this on this groups of people.
CBS:Let me just talk about another issue. I just
wanted to talk to you quickly about the Boston bombings. Do you
see this as an opportunity for the US and Russia to cooperate
further on counter terrorism efforts?
SL: Well, I think we have always been in favor of this cooperation to be deepened. We have a saying “You might not have luck, but bad luck helped”. I think when President Putin just immediately after 9/11tragedy called his American counterpart and expressed his condolences and readiness to help, I believe the two presidents had a very good conversation and agreed in the context of what we just discussed about what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa. They agreed that there should be no double standards in fighting terrorism.
Normally people don't draw lessons from past history. But I think
9/11 is still very fresh in the minds of the Americans and all
others to forget the fact that when the US back last century in
the 1970s and 1980s was supporting Mujahideen in Afghanistan
against the Soviet troops. Then these Mujahideen gave rise to
Al-Qaeda, and then Al-Qaeda struck back. We have to be
consistent. And I hope that this terrorist attack in Boston will
improve the cooperation of the coordination between our agencies.
Immediately after the Boston terrorist attack we arranged for the
FBI to visit Makhachkala [capital of Russia’s Republic of
Dagestan] to talk to the family of the Tsarnaev brothers. The
director of the FBI, Mr. Mueller, visited us last month and had
useful discussions with his colleagues and other special services
and intelligence communities, cooperated very closely on this
particular case, but is also trying to establish priorities for
future cooperation in other cases.
CBS: Some people have suggested the Boston bombers are an
American issue. That they have no relation to Russian's own
difficulties in the Caucasus. Do you see it as purely American
SL: Well, some 15 years ago the Americans called those who
were trying to establish Sharia law in the Chechen Republic just
like they did the Mujahideen in Afghanistan – “freedom fighters”.
Quite a number of them were given political asylum in the United
States, including a gentleman called I. Ahmadov, a very close
associate of Basaev, who was recognized as a terrorist by the US
and by the United Nations. But Ahmadov still lives there and
enjoys the status of political refugee. By the way, he was given
political asylum by a Boston court decision. He writes books and
receives subsidies from national endowment for democracy in spite
of the fact that all necessary material on this particular person
is available with the United States respective agencies.
So I think this will be changing. And the less we attempt it to
use terrorist situations, I would say, to achieve one or another
geopolitical goal different from fighting terrorism wherever it
pops up, I think we would be doing right thing.
CBS:Mr. Lavrov, thank you so much for your time. Do you think that more could've been done on both sides (on the US and the Russian side) to pin down these men before the attacks happened?
SL: Well, this was discussed broadly in the US media. And
it was not us who raised this issue in the public domain. But
there were contacts a couple of years ago. And there were some
warnings. But I don't want to get into the substance of this. I
am not a professional on counter-terrorism in practical terms.
But the legal basis for counter-terrorism, the politics which we
promote on the basis of this legal understandings and legal norms
are very important.
CBS:But you're looking very closely to see what lessons have been learned. And I'm assuming it's sort of refocused Russian security forces on looking at Dagestan and Ingushetia.
SL: Well, the terrorist manifestations still take place
but in much lower numbers than it used to be. I can assure that
we have understanding with intelligence and special agencies of
other countries including the US to make certain that this would
not be treated in isolation. Because it's all related -
Afghanistan, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, some no man’s land
Waziristan between these two countries, then Central Asia, the
Caucasus - it's all part of what we call terrorist international.
And the sooner we stop calling terrorist good and bad and call
them just terrorists the better is for the world.