Joint Press Availability With Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura

Press Availability
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Vienna, Austria
May 17, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon, everybody, and let me begin by thanking the Government of Austria again. They have very generously facilitated this latest meeting of the International Syria Support Group and they’ve facilitated two rounds before this.

I want to express my appreciation to the co-chair of the task force, Sergey Lavrov, and to Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. They have both been obviously integrally involved in every aspect of this and they are partners in the effort to try to make the International Syria Support Group have impact.

The broad range of countries represented – and by the way, it has grown since the last meeting, there were additional countries here – Japan, Australia and France and Canada – excuse me, and Spain and Canada – it underscores the scope of those countries that have a stake in this, those countries that are engaged in helping the fight against Daesh as well as those countries that understand the importance of bringing an end to the conflict in Syria.

And in order to do that, a variety of competing interests are going to have to be reconciled, and those involved in this conflict with competing agendas are going to have to be willing to prioritize peace. So we’ve already shown that it’s possible to get all of the major international partners to agree on a set of common objectives. In fact, all of the international parties – some that are not partners – have agreed on the objectives. And it’s possible, we’ve proven, to reduce the level of violence. It is possible to expand humanitarian assistance. And it’s possible to design a framework and set a timeline for the kind of viable and inclusive negotiating process that we need in order to bring about a political transition and to put an end to this terrible conflict.

Now, let me underscore to everybody, all of the parties – some through their representatives, like the regime – but all of the parties, most importantly Russia, Iran, that have been supportive of Assad and key countries in the region who have been opposed to him, have agreed on a basic framework, which is a united Syria, nonsectarian, that is able to choose its future through a transitional governing body which is, in effect, the implementation of the Geneva process.

The challenge that we face now is to transform these possibilities into a reality of an agreement at some point. And because of the gains that we’ve made in recent months, yet because of their fragility – and we acknowledge they’re fragile – and increasingly threatened by irresponsible and dangerous actions taken by those who would rather have this effort fail, who want to create problems, because rather than solutions, they seek a different outcome. And there are, frankly, actors on both sides who we think make that choice. And the stakes are too high and this conflict has gone on too long in order to succumb and in order to allow all of those nations at that table to be sucked down into a veto of one or two individual actors who want a different outcome. So we can’t give vetoes to bad actors or avoid consequences for any side’s actions who have an agenda that is different from that of reaching an agreement and trying to make peace.

So today, we believe we moved the ball forward in some ways, and I’ll say specifically.

First, we pledged our support for transforming the cessation of hostilities into a comprehensive ceasefire. And we committed to use our influence to use the parties to the cessation in order to ensure compliance.

Second, we agreed that if a party to the cessation of hostilities engages in a pattern of persistent noncompliance, the task force can refer that behavior to the ISSG ministers or those designated by the ministers to determine appropriate action, including the exclusion of such parties from the arrangements of the cessation. Interpreted directly, that means that if they continue to do it and they’re pretending to be part of the cessation and they’re not, they could be subject to no longer being part of the cessation immediately. In addition to that, we underscored the failure of the cessation of hostilities or granting access to the delivery of humanitarian relief that we’ve already seen in some instances. And if that continues, that will increase international pressure and potentially other actions on those who do not live up to those commitments.

Third, we will intensify efforts to get the parties to stop all indiscriminate use of force. We welcome Russia’s commitment to work with the Syrian authorities to halt aerial bombardments over areas predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties to the cessation, and the U.S. commitment to intensify support for regional partners to help prevent the flow of foreign fighters, weapons, and financial support to terrorist organizations.

Fourth, we call on all parties to the cessation of hostilities to disassociate themselves physically and politically from Daesh and al-Nusrah and to endorse the intensified efforts by the United States and Russia to develop shared understandings of the threat posed and the delineation of the territory that is controlled by Daesh and al-Nusrah and to consider ways to deal decisively with terrorist groups.

Fifth, we agree that the delivery of humanitarian assistance must begin or resume – depending on the case – in Douma, East Harasta, Arbeen, Zamalka, Darraya, Fouah, Kefraya, Madaya, Zabadin, Muadhamiya, Yarmouk, Zabadani, and Kafr Batna. And these deliveries will continue as long as the need persists. And starting on June 1st, if the UN is denied humanitarian access to any of these designated areas, the ISSG calls on the World Food Program to immediately carry out a program for air bridges and air drops for all of those areas in need. And the ISSG pledges to support such a program and also calls on all parties to provide a secure environment for that program. The World Food Program will, of course, determine where it is operationally feasible to conduct this program. And the World Food Program will accelerate air drops in Deir al-Zour, where it has already provided some 460 metric tons of food to more than 100,000 people. Aid to these areas must be a step towards a full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country. And the UN will report weekly on aid deliveries to members of the support group – to these members so that members of the support group can allow the parties to have access without delay or denial. And if problems arise, the humanitarian task force, under the ISSG, will work to resolve them.

Sixth, Special Envoy de Mistura will facilitate agreements between the Syrian parties for the release of detainees. And we call on any party holding detainees to protect the health and safety of those in their custody.

Finally, we underscored the need for substantive discussions on the objective of meeting the target date established by the UN Secretary – by the UN Council Resolution 2254 of August 1st to reach agreement on a framework for a genuine political transition to a transitional governing body. Those talks should address the structure, membership, operational rules, and the roles and responsibilities of a broad, inclusive, nonsectarian transitional governing body with full executive powers, and we agreed to work on that. Now, the August date is not a drop date; it’s a target date and we all recognize that if we’re making significant progress and we’re moving, we will respect that process.

So, folks, obviously, there’s nothing self-executing about the list I just shared with you. None of us – no one – can be remotely satisfied with the situation in Syria. It’s deeply disturbing and we are all concerned about the levels of violence that broke out in recent days challenging the cessation. Russia has worked closely with the United States to upgrade our ability, which now has a 24-hour basis in Geneva with high-level people working consistently, but even then, it’s difficult. And in the end, in order to make all of this more than words on a page, some very clear and determined actions are going to be needed in order to implement the steps that we just set out today. And we talked considerably about how that can happen and perhaps even what kind of enforcement mechanisms could be developed in order to achieve this full ceasefire that we are seeking.

So with that, let me turn to Foreign Minister Lavrov and then to Staffan.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Thank you, John, dear ladies and gentlemen, I share your assessments voiced. After our – today’s meeting, John substantially explained what we achieved as the main result. I think it’s confirming without exceptions the fundament of our work that is a joint statement of the ISSG members and the UN Security Council Resolution 2215, 54, 2218, 2262. Today’s document confirmed that all the arrangements that they had are relevant and our collective position is relevant because it is comprehensive and embraces all the aspects of our work – first of all, cessation of hostilities aiming at a full ceasefire nationwide; second, widen humanitarian access; and of course, political process.

I would like to note that all three aspects see movement forward and violence has decreased since February when cessation of hostilities was declared. Humanitarian access has improved. Also, we have to do better there in term framework of the legal process. We had another round of Geneva talks chaired by Mr. Staffan de Mistura and his team. And so after this round, we have some results to organize next meeting, which must push for Syrian parties to cooperate efficiently with the United Nations.

At the same time, it is very important that our joint position in the UN Security Council supposes an inclusive charter of the Syrian talks and we don’t have to exclude any parties, including Kurdish parties. We think it is something that we mustn’t do, and we mustn’t hinder including their party and to give them access to talks in Geneva.

Today’s document, today’s communique, has fixed all the previous agreements and added new steps, voiced now by John. Most of these steps have the basis of Russian-American agreements. In early March, we adopted a document. We have procedures that we have to take in case of ceasefire violations and another statement by Russians and Americans, adopted on May 9th, what to do in case of these violations.

As John said, we work on a daily basis. We have a joint center in Geneva, created thanks to cooperation of our UN colleagues. And we work 24 by 7. Besides that, those military commanders that lead Russian military operation, what is requested by Russian – Syrian Government and our center in Amman, hold video conferences on a daily basis and examine all the cases of ceasefire violations and prepare coordinated joint steps to prevent all the issues that appear on the field.

Something that John mentioned now, that Russia and the United States, as co-chairs of the ISSG, is to contrast that our daily contact on all aspects of the Syrian settlement bear special responsibility. And all the decisions taken in the UN Security Council must be fulfilled and to reassume the commitment in statement as of 9th of May. And the Syrian Government must observe the implementation of this (inaudible). And the United States must work closely with the opposition, with regional actors, and to – with the ongoing flows of militants from outside the Syrian border.

I would like to say separately about what is most relevant now, because what is behind our efforts is a joint concern about increasing terrorism in the region and in Syria in particular. And we have the problem of Jabhat al-Nusrah. It is changing; it makes alliances with some groups that accede to cessation of hostilities, but when it is comfortable to them, they pull out of these arrangements and then go back. And we hope that the commitments by the United States and other countries concerning the need to achieve so that no extremist (inaudible) from the normal position so that this commitments be fulfilled and the countries that still give support to Jabhat al-Nusrah so that they don’t have pretext to bomb their positions.

Besides that, I think that any other issues we have movement forward. As John said, it was fixed on paper, and our joint aim is to fulfill it in concrete particular actions on the ground. Thank you.

MR DE MISTURA: Just to add to what you just heard, you probably would want to know where are we on the next intra-Syrian talks. And the issue is still waiting for some type of concrete outcome of this meeting. But we cannot wait too long. We want to keep the momentum. The exact date, I’m not at the moment revealing it, because it will depend also on other facts.

What we mean by that? Well, we mean that, of course, we’re having Ramadan starting soon, so we need to keep that in perspective. And we need to bear in mind that credible intra-Syrian talks will become credible when, as we heard, there is a credible development on the cessation of hostilities and a credible implement on the humanitarian side.

So on all three elements, we had a discussion, and in my opinion, a useful for me discussion and for the UN mandate.

On the humanitarian – on the cessation of hostilities side, you heard it. The main real difference is that what we used to have at 80 percent has gone down to 50. But we need to bring it back, and there’s been a strong effort in a common line on that. And the main new element, apart from the willingness to address it, is the upgrading in Geneva of this operational center between Russian and American military and civilians. That’s been extremely useful, and we will test it now.

The second element is humanitarian aid. And on the humanitarian aid, we are still not reaching those we want to reach. You heard it. Out of 18 besieged locations – and by the way, besieged areas is the closest to a medieval type of siege that we’re seeing in recent history – only, and perhaps not only, but 12 of them have been reached. So the concept and the idea have been approved that if we cannot reach them by land, as we have been doing together with the World Food Program Deir al-Zour successfully, having a joint operation with the Russian Federation, U.S., and other countries in dropping aid to 110,000 people, we need to start working hard in order to be able to look at the option within security limits. But that’s why we all have to work hard to actually do the same everywhere else where we cannot get by land unless we are allowed to go by land. That goes from Dariya which has been so close to Damascus that there is no reason to stop baby food, to Kefraya and Foah, to every other location. That is, I think, another thing, and a new element which came out from this meeting. We would have never talked about it just a month ago.

Next point, and last, detainees and abductees. Because there are people who have been abducted by the opposition and detainees which are being taken in large number by the government. We need, and we will be addressing that topic, because the families are asking for it, and the ISSG did take note of that with serious concern. So that’s the next challenge. And thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Staffan. Thank you very much for everything you’re doing.

So I think we’ll open (inaudible). You’re running it?

MR TONER: First question is David Sanger of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thanks for doing this. Secretary Kerry, one of the reasons that you were successful in the Iran negotiations here in Vienna a year ago was you had leverage; you had the combination of sanctions and sabotage to convince the Iranians it was necessary to make a deal. In the Syrian case, however, as you’ve often heard, it appears you have less leverage over President Assad now than you did when the Vienna agreement was reached at the end of October. If anything, thanks to the intervention of Mr. Lavrov’s government, Mr. Assad seems to feel now more secure than he did eight months ago. And as you’ve described, the ceasefire has collapsed in part, you’re not getting the aid in that you need, and there’s no indication that there is any reason for Mr. Assad to start talking about a transition. So can you tell us what additional leverage you would need against Mr. Assad, especially now that he appears convinced that there really isn’t a plan B out there that the White House is going to implement?

And Mr. Lavrov, speaking of leverage, do you believe Mr. Assad is now ignoring or resisting pressure from your government to abide by the ceasefire and allowing the humanitarian aid?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you, David. You’re correct that leverage is important in any negotiation. But you’re incorrect in your supposition, I think, that there isn’t leverage in this situation. And I would disagree with you – I mean, if President Assad has come – if you know that he’s come to a conclusion there’s no Plan B, then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without any foundation whatsoever and even dangerous. Dangerous.

There is leverage in the fact that this war will not end for him or for his people without a political settlement. Everybody understands that. That is why the International Syria Support Group came together in the first place. That is why we have the cessation of hostilities we have today, and some delivery of humanitarian assistance, not as good as we want, correct, but it’s there because we have some leverage.

Standing to my right is leverage – Russia. Iran. Others in the community, in the region who have relationships. But in the end, Russia has made it very clear to us at least that President Assad has made a series of commitments to them, that he’s prepared to engage seriously in Geneva, in the transitional negotiation of the Geneva process, that he is prepared to have constitutional reform, prepared to have election – those are three major commitments. And we have yet to see President Assad live up to commitment number one, which is negotiate in good faith on the transition.

So if I were Assad, I’d be thinking hard about the possibilities of leverage out there. I also think he should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time, where he believes that he has to make that decision. And the fact is that President Assad has flagrantly violated Resolution 2254. There’s no exemption in that resolution. Resolution 2254 calls for a broad-based ceasefire and it calls for a broad-based delivery of humanitarian goods not to one place or two places or 10 places, but throughout the country. And the ceasefire the UN has called for, unanimously passing, is throughout the country. Assad doesn’t have a pass to go attack Aleppo and to attack in Latakia and to cut sweetheart deals with ISIL for oil and other things like that.

So I would say to him that I think the United States of America always has leverage, and all of the options are available to any president of the United States. But in the immediacy of this moment, it is clear that we have come here because the greatest leverage of all is the fact that Assad and his supporters will never end the war, will never be safe as long as they continue to prosecute this war and not negotiate a political settlement. There is no way to end this without a political solution. And the reason that Foreign Minister Lavrov and I and Russia and the United States, our countries, are working together is because we long ago came to understand the futility and stupidity of an escalated process that could destroy Syria altogether and create even greater problems throughout the region as well as elsewhere – in Europe and elsewhere with more migrants – and that this instability, which attracts more and more jihadis to Syria, is not good for anybody. That’s leverage, and I think President Assad needs to take stock of reality and understand that.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) In principle, if on the leverage you meant sanctions, then I’m concerned a little bit. Because last time we see, in case of our American partners and the European Union, a temptation – if you fail in something, you turn to sanctions. Concerning the Assad regime, Europe and the United States and other countries applied unilateral sanctions, which aggravates already complicated humanitarian situation, and we must not remember that besides refugees, there are almost 6 million internally displaced persons, and these aspects is something that we’ll bear in mind. And sanctions as a leverage for political purposes do harm for the humanitarian situation, and unilateral sanctions in a case when you fail in something and in exchange – instead of political dialogue leads to something that we see in Iraq and Libya and it impedes national reconciliation in a situation of internal conflict.

In his first words, John said that Russia and Iran will support Assad. We don’t support Assad. We support fight against terrorism. Today on the ground we don’t see any more real and efficient force than the Syrian army, given all its weaknesses, and this armed formation that we launched dialogue with at our base in Khmeimim, several attachments of position, signed up to the ceasefire. And we are going to continue this work, but we don’t protect somebody personally. We protect, we defend a state – a UN member-state at the request of the government of this sovereign state whose sovereignty and political independence we have to protect, as it comes from the UN Security Council resolution.

Another aspect that we must keep present in mind – we must choose our priorities. Today we heard from many ISSG members that you have to choose whether you support the fight against terrorism over the use of (inaudible). I think it is wrong, because somebody says, “If Assad goes, everything will be all right and we will come,” but al-Nusrah and Daesh and other external groups (inaudible). UN Security Council adopted resolutions that terrorism (inaudible) cannot be justified by anything; any terror act can be justified by anything. And in this aspect or we force the Assad out or we don’t fight terrorism contradicts this universal principle.

At today’s meeting when we put this issue why can’t we separate normal position from Jabhat al-Nusrah so that we don’t have a pretext to request to fight al-Nusrah, somebody said that now we will combat al-Nusrah, and who will take the land that we will free? It is a Freudian slip, but it shows that somebody is thinking in the categories of – categories that contradict the UN Security Council principles until somebody sees al-Nusrah as a good force. It is something that we have to discuss with our colleagues in ISSG.

And concerning leverages, you can use leverages against one country, as you request Russia. The other side also needs to be influenced. John said today that we need to get financial and terrorist flows stopped from outside Syria because they nutrition the conflict. We see supplies of tanks to Syria and when suicide bombers used tanks for terror acts, it is something new in this crisis.

I will reiterate: Those who say until Assad goes we won’t stop this type of support, I think it is wrong that – and our priority is fight against terrorism. More than once we talked about it with our Western colleagues. We talk about it sincerely. And everybody said – everybody acknowledged that Assad’s regime is a lesser evil for them if we compare it with an increasing chaos if there is no political process. We are trying to establish a political process, and those who support regime change and work with this (inaudible) opposition is wrong.

Our priority is anti-terror struggle and – but we understand that we have to move forward in all aspects, expanding humanitarian access and cessation of hostilities and (inaudible), also ceasefire and the political process of this aspect must – we have to seek a compromise and we don’t have to – we must not break the political institutions until we have an ISSG decision on this topic.

And whether Assad ignores our work with him, our advice – no, he doesn’t ignore it. He knows well and he remembers that he assumed a commitment to fulfill those order of actions explained in Resolution 2254 from a transition joint mechanism between the government and (inaudible) opposition in the framework of this mechanism, forge a new constitution, and on that basis hold parliamentary elections. All that must take up to 18 months. And these agreements were confirmed by President Assad with the Russian president.

MR TONER: Second question goes to Darya Grigorova of Rossiya TV.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Good morning. (Inaudible) said about it already the control on the border. How will Syrian-Turkish border be controlled if you speak about terrorist movements there?

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) We have been speaking about that since a long time ago. The main channel for supplying extremists and those who take a moderate position – there is a swath of border, something – more than 19 – 90 kilometers controlled to – on the Syrian territory by the ISIL and on the Turkish side by the Turks. And there are two enclaves of Kurds, and from time to time, Turkey says that if the Kurds push the ISIL out from this border zone, it will not put up with that because it is not acceptable for them.

In any case, somebody must combat ISIL on that border area because it is fragile. The contraband flow now – it has decreased and there was a flow of supplies, of weapons to the extremists and to flows of militants, and everybody acknowledges that this is not acceptable. But there are a lot of facts showing that there is a big network created on the Turkish side to continue these supplies, to camouflage it. And some time ago we circulated in the UN Security Council an open document where we gathered facts showing this (inaudible) activity. Our colleagues said that it is not true, and today they said that they deny everything that was written in that document. But there we have names of organizations, of population points, and other facts. So I think instead of denying it ungroundedly, they would have to explain what is not true and ask us for help if they can do it for themselves.

Our main goal is to settle the problem of the Syrian conflict peacefully, and everything we do is aimed at this point.

MR TONER: That concludes the press conference. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, folks.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Thank you.