Secretary Kerry’s Remarks With Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov at Press Availability in Geneva

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Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands at a joint news conference following a bilateral meeting focused on Syria held in Geneva.

President Wilson Hotel
Geneva, Switzerland

August 26, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good evening, everybody, and thank you very, very much for your patience. I know you were expecting us to have a chance to chat with you a little bit earlier, and you’ve been waiting and waiting, and we thank you for that. We’ve been chatting and chatting too.

So I am really pleased to be back in Geneva, and I want to thank Foreign Minister Lavrov for joining me today, for the whole day, for what I would call a long but productive and constructive discussion. Obviously, our nations are working on a number of different issues together, trying to resolve, along with other countries, each of these issues, including Ukraine, which we chatted about. But mostly today we focused on the crisis in Syria.

As we stand here tonight, Aleppo continues to be besieged and bombarded by the regime and its allies, including Iran, Russia, and Hizballah. And the regime has just today forced the surrender of Daraya after a brutal four years of the siege and continues to take territory in the Damascus suburbs, which I might add runs counter to two iterations of a previously announced cessation of hostilities, which is what brings us here today. That’s why we’re here, because of this. And I think everybody in the world was transfixed by the photograph of two young boys, one of whom died, in that ambulance. The image for some reason obviously caught everybody in a very special way, but it’s an image that is probably repeated time and time again over any given week in the course of the life of Aleppo or the life of Syria. And it needs to motivate all of us to get the job done, to provide for a real ceasefire, and to meet the needs of the Syrian people. And that is why we came here today.

Terrorist groups – Daesh and al-Qaida – continue to menace the Syrian people. And we literally stand on the brink of the Syrian regime and opposition parties going back to a state of all-out war.‎

So needless to say, the situation has dramatically deteriorated since the brief oasis of calm that followed the launch of the cessation of hostilities in February. And I’m grateful that Sergey Lavrov and I were able to work together with other colleagues in the international community through the International Syria Support Group. We were able to cobble together the concept of the cessation of hostilities.

It is fair to say that well into March of this year, Syrians had benefited from a degree of calm they had not experienced in years. For a period of time, the cessation of hostilities held. And the cessation – even flawed – became something of real value to them. For a brief moment, a brief instant, life changed in some communities. People sat in cafes. People went out and began to try to resume life again, but that was lost. And it was lost because of the lack of accountability and the inability to be able to deal with violations.

So as much as we have all seen a benefit to the humanitarian assistance that was delivered – some communities that hadn’t seen humanitarian assistance in years got it. More than a million people were able to be served with humanitarian assistance. And the cessation – even flawed – was valuable. But as we have all seen now, violations eventually became the norm rather than the exception. And the regime continually pressed its military objectives in key strategic locations, and continued indiscriminate aerial bombardment of densely populated areas with barrel bombs, and as we now know from the UN report, also chlorine.

Now some, including my friend Sergey Lavrov from Russia to my left here, may dispute the narrative I just laid out and attribute most of the regime actions to Nusrah. And there is, obviously, legitimate Nusrah – excuse me, illegitimate Nusrah activity, but Nusrah activity taking place, and we are all opposed to that – all of us. And Nusrah has never been part of the cessation. So in some cases the fact that people are going after Nusrah is accurate, but in other cases it’s clearly, by virtue of the evidence of children and women and hospitals and other things, clearly not the case.

Now, while we don’t agree necessarily on how we got to this precarious point, and it’s okay to disagree, neither of us will deny that most Syrians aren’t even aware today that the cessation of hostilities exists – for the most part on paper, if at all. And that cessation needs to be overhauled if it’s going to achieve the reduction in violence that the people of Syria want and deserve, and if it is going to open the window of opportunity for us to be able to get to the table here in Geneva and have a real negotiation about the future, a political solution – because we also agree that there is no military solution to the challenge of Syria.

So we came here to Geneva and we have continued to work, and I want to thank their team and our team. They have worked in good faith over the course of these last weeks, intensely, in order to try to avoid being lost in this cycle of violence.

Last month in Moscow, Sergey and I reached agreement after discussions with President Putin on a broad set of concrete steps that, if implemented, they would enable us to be able to achieve a meaningful, lasting ceasefire. At the time, both of us announced to you, to the public, that we have significant technical details that we needed to work through. And our teams have spent the last few weeks intensely meeting in order to work through those details. And it can only be said that the work was fair, the work was diligent, and the work was productive.

Today, I can say that we achieved clarity on the path forward. We have completed the vast majority of those technical discussions, which were primarily focused on making this cessation real and improving the level of humanitarian assistance, and thereby getting the parties to the table so we can have a serious negotiation about how to end this war. If the remaining details can be completed, we believe we will be able to address the two primary challenges to the cessation of hostilities: one, the regime violations, including the aerial bombardment of densely populated areas; and two, the increasing influence of the al-Nusrah Front.

Now, last month in Moscow we also said before we could move forward with any enhanced cooperation, we need a period of reduced violence to convince the people of Syria and the opposition that the actions of the regime and its supporters will be consistent with the words put on paper. In Moscow, I said, “These are words on paper. What will matter are the actions.” And that is as true today as it was then.

We have a few narrow issues to resolve, and in the next days our experts will be meeting here in Geneva to conclude the remaining technical issues and to move forward in order to take the steps necessary to build the confidence to overcome the deep mistrust that does exist on all sides. For example, we do need to see clear adherence to the cessation of hostilities by the regime. We also need to see the resumption, unimpeded and sustained, of humanitarian access to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas, including Aleppo, according to the UN plans and procedures. And if we can achieve our goals, and we are able to implement a full and lasting cessation of hostilities, then we absolutely will have won the opportunity to have a fundamental change in the trajectory of this conflict.

But as I have been saying from the beginning of this process, the conflict will not end without a political solution. And that is why as soon as the narrow issues remaining are resolved and there is some space and good will established for productive dialogue, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will bring the parties back to the table to negotiate a political transition. That is our ultimate goal and that is the only way that this horrendous war can finally come to an end. It is really the only viable path towards the peace and security and normalcy that the people of Syria desire and deserve.

So with that, I again thank Sergey for coming here to Geneva, for meeting with me today, for being extremely patient while we conversed among ourselves and with Washington, and I appreciate that patience. We are close, but as I have said to you in other contexts before, we’re not going to rush to an agreement until it satisfies fully the needs of the Syrian people and the ability of the international community to address them in ways that can show real results. That’s what we’re after.

Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, the majority of you were betting in regarding the time we were going to allocate for our negotiations, but still the Moscow record remains unchanged. Today we spent one hour less on the negotiations than back in Moscow. But as John has just said, I believe that we made a number of important steps forward in addition to the Moscow agreements. The very fact that we are not making documents public does not mean that we are getting closer in our approaches.

Today, we were discussing the issues, which as John has said, would help us find technical solutions to the implementation of agreements reached in Moscow regarding the need to ensure a durable cessation of hostilities since violations continues on both sides. So we agreed on the need to once again, once and for all, delineate the opposition that adhered the cessation of hostilities from Nusrah, ISIL, and many other terrorists.

We also discussed the ways to, in the most efficient way, address the humanitarian issue in order to ensure access of humanitarian – for the humanitarian assistance into the regions in the east. In this context we were talking about Aleppo. Although we are focused mostly on Aleppo, we also touched upon the situation in Manbij, in Hasakah and many other parts of Syria. We also discussed the humanitarian situation in Iraq, in Yemen, where the international observers keep informing on the gravest humanitarian situation.

We believed that discussing those gravest problems and sufferings of people we should adopt an approach not of journalists or people who express their emotions taking to one side or another, but rather as professionals, as diplomats, that together the military should find concrete solutions. Let me once again state that John’s visit to Moscow on the 15th of July was very useful and the basic principles that were agreed upon during our negotiations and reinstated during the meeting that took place between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Putin were followed up on today.

Due to the reason that John has mentioned today, we still need to finalize minor issues – I would put it that way – that need to be (inaudible). That is why our experts will continue this work in Geneva next week, and I hope that in the nearest future we will be able to present the results of our joint efforts to the international community.

This work is very strenuous. I am sure you have seen and heard what’s going on, what’s being said in various capitals. However, there is already an achievement which is the fact that we have managed and continue putting in effort to reducing the areas of misunderstanding, and most importantly to reducing distrust towards each other. Without being open, without having trust, the tasks that we are facing, the objectives agreed upon during the personal contacts and telephone conversations between President Putin and President Obama cannot be addressed. And step-by-step paces with each and every meeting, with each and every telephone conversation, we are building up this trust, and I do hope that very soon you will feel tangible results coming out of it. And most importantly, it is for the Syrians and all those that are impacted in the region by the Syrian crisis that would be able to feel that.

We agreed on specific areas on which we are going to work together with the parties, Russia with the government and the opposition that is cooperating with us, United States with the opposition that is cooperating with them, as well as with regional players. We are going to do that together so that to remove all stumbling blocks on the way towards the compliance with the cessation of hostilities.

Let me once again stress the problem according to which the troops cooperating with the United States or under U.S.-led coalition are located on the territory where Jabhat al-Nusrah is located. Not only are they located there, sometimes they are cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusrah, and within the framework of their operations, without delineating adequate opposition from terrorists, I don’t think there would be a way to ensure actionable, durable, and full-fledged cessation of hostilities – our overarching priority, by the way. And I note with satisfaction that there is a current understanding regarding this task, and this understanding is become more clear. We talked about specific detailed steps. We have agreed upon almost all of those steps, but some final things need to be finalized, particularly regarding the ensuring the humanitarian access to the Syrian people who need it first and foremost in the Aleppo regions both in eastern and western parts of Aleppo. And here we have had some very substantial discussions. Substantial agreements have been reached, and I am sure that in the (inaudible) future in the nearest days ahead the experts will finalize those efforts. They have specific goals that we have put forth for them. They have been formulated and they are going to be guided by those goals. We also discussed the ways to treat the violators of the state of hostilities, which is closely related to the need to delineate normal opposition from terrorists.

One more thing. Today, we have agreed to step up our bilateral contacts that have been put on hold over the last couple of weeks. I’m referring to the contacts between our representatives in Geneva which until recently took place on a daily basis. And I’m talking about the contacts between the Russian military base in Khmeimim and representatives of the American command located in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I believe that the day-to-day dialogue without any interruptions will be a key to addressing all the goals we are facing.

And John has also mentioned the political process, which is our utmost priority. To come closer to this priority, we are going to ensure the calming down of the situation on the ground so we would ensure improved humanitarian assistance being delivered. But here there can be no preliminary conditions. If we want to wait until the situation is 100 percent calm and only then proceed with the political process, I believe nothing could be achieved at all. All of the things are interconnected. Yes, indeed, reducing violence would be instrumental in bringing all the sides to the table. But in the same way, the launch of the negotiations would help reduce violence on the ground and be more efficient in having an influence on opposing sides both on the side of Russia and United States.

Today we met Staffan de Mistura, who has very interesting, specific ideas on the ways to use the United Nations in order to address humanitarian issues. That is going to be part of our future work. He also has plans on resuming or, rather, to put it that way, on launching the political process, because the direct talks that we agreed upon long ago and the concept of which was reinstated by the UN Security Council hadn’t started. We welcome this approach of Staffan de Mistura and we believe that this task is long overdue and it is utmost priority to launch and announce the launch of direct talks between the government and all the range of opposition as soon as possible.

Let me stress that there is a high need to ensure an inclusive nature of negotiations, including the inclusive nature of the location. This need was reflected in the UN Security Council resolution and it should be complied with. As John has mentioned, we have touched upon many other issues of the international agenda. I am referring to Ukraine. We value the interest of the current Administration of the United States towards making its contribution to supporting the implementation of the Minsk agreements. We have got a bilateral channel that is used quite often. We believe that this channel could be useful in implementing the – and contributing to the efforts underway in the normative format. There were a number of bilateral issues discussed. As you can understand, there is quite a plenty of them in the current circumstances, but I believe that the genuine interests of Russia and United States boil down to the fact that we have normal relations between the two states and the two peoples. I do hope that our today’s meeting was another step in that direction.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible) time for two questions (inaudible).

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Hold on, there’s a mike coming.

QUESTION: Sorry. Okay. First, for Mr. Kerry. In addition to the remaining issues, does the U.S. feel that it has the power to separate forces? You’ve acknowledged, or the U.S. has acknowledged the overlap with Nusrah. How are you going to get them to separate if you haven’t been able to up until now?

Mr. Lavrov, you said the military should find concrete solutions. So have you agreed to ground Assad’s air force, and is this something Assad has agreed to?

And one for both of you with the humanitarian developments in Daraya and Aleppo. You’ve expressed concern. The United Nations had described an increasingly desperate situation in Aleppo and concerns about the evacuations from Daraya. Can you tell us that the humanitarian aid can be – what guarantees can you give the world that the aid is going to be delivered safely and that these evacuations are going to be carried out safely? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: So with respect to the issue of Nusrah, obviously it’s very complicated. We’re not on the ground. There are opposition folks who are on the ground. And in some places, as I have said previously, as a matter of convenience either Nusrah has taken advantage of them or they’ve taken advantage of Nusrah, and either way it is not a helpful situation, and we’re expressing concern about it with the Russians and working on ways to deal with this. This is precisely the kind of detail that we’ve been working through over the course of the last weeks, and so we believe there are actions that can be taken to deal with the current construct. Some of those involved other nations that are supportive of other opposition groups, neighbors within the region who have influence over those groups and who have an ability to help separate.

In addition to that, we – Nusrah is a designated terrorist organization. Nusrah is al-Qaida, and no name change by Nusrah hides what Nusrah really is and tries to do. So we have the power, certainly, as we have stated in the past, to engage with Nusrah in the same way that we have engaged with Daesh, and the President has made it very clear that we will deal with any threat to the United States, to the region, to our allies and friends, and we will continue to do that in the days ahead.

Regarding aid guarantees and evacuation, again, these are the kind – let me say this: We’re here because, as I said in my opening comments, neither of us are satisfied with what has happened with respect to the cessation of hostilities and its enforcement. Now, we may have different views about some of the causes for the problems, but the fact is we both are committed, I am convinced, to trying to find a way to get the cessation of hostilities to be more effective, to be fully implemented. And that is what brought us here. And some of those details – we do not want to make an announcement. I don’t want to make an announcement, speaking for myself, nor does President Obama want an announcement made on behalf of our Administration that is not enforceable, that doesn’t have details worked out, that winds up in the place that the last two announcements have wound up.

So we are determined to dot the Is and cross the Ts and do the job necessary to make certain that if and when we are able to find a way forward – and we hope we can, as Sergey said. The work that can be done in the next week has the ability to resolve some of these remaining issues. But until we have, neither of us are prepared to make an announcement that is predicated for failure. And so it is important for us to do this and to do it right. I think I’ve said that to you many times during the course of the Iran negotiation; this is no different. We don’t want to have a deal for the sake of a deal; we want to have something done that is effective and that works for the people of Syria, that makes the region more stable and secure, and that brings us to the table here in Geneva to find a political solution. And so we’re working on those details; and when they are ready, I assure you you’ll be among the very first to know.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) About the delineation of moderate opposition forces from terrorists, we know that this task is very difficult because Jabhat al-Nusrah keeps transforming, changing names, coming up with new umbrellas under which they bring together various groups which aren’t formally part of Jabhat al-Nusrah. That requires our thorough attention and deep analysis, but it should be done quickly.

We are trying to help our American partners to address this goal. Today we provided them with information regarding the fact we see the Jabhat al-Nusrah and some minor terrorist groups that form part of this structure. We do hope that our colleagues are going to take heed of this information and that it’s going to be useful for them. By the way, today for the first time we have received from our American colleagues a list of organizations that have adhered to the cessation of hostilities through the American coalition. Let me remind you of the fact that the list of the organizations that have adhered to the cessation of hostilities through our reconciliation center in (inaudible) has been transferred to American partners on a regular basis and it keeps – it keeps being adjusted almost every month.

Now about Daraya. As I’ve heard, the operation for the withdrawal from Daraya (inaudible) want to do that, has been finalized based on the agreements reached between the Government of Syria and all those who were in Daraya. I’m referring to the armed groups, to all those who wanted to do that were removed by the Syrian Society of Red Crescent to Idlib together with (inaudible). All those who wanted to behave differently, they withdrew from there and they would be integrated in a normal civil life. That is an example which I believe is going to be highly called for and replicated. At least today our representatives in Khmeimim have received some information regarding the fact there is another area in Syria that is interested in the organization of it and other such an operation with the mediation from the Russian Federation.

Now, regarding the fact whose armed forces are doing what – well, you see not that we are talking about any air forces to be grounded. What we are talking about is that in the Syrian’s (inaudible) to be efficient in its fight against ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusrah, it was agreed upon in Moscow, a certain understanding was reached that is going to be implemented after some remaining technical details will be finalized. And the scheme that John has mentioned which we still cannot make public will be operational, but our main goal is not to ground different parts of this conflict, but rather that those who are in the sky attack terrorists. As of now, we have failed to ensure relevant organization – coordination between our American partners and other participants. But starting with Moscow meeting and today and hopefully after technical agreements are reached between our experts, we will be able to start addressing this task as well.

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Sergum Kadar (ph), Russia Today. (Via interpreter) Lavrov, have you discussed the cooperation in the north of Syria and about the closing of the border in the area which will helpful – be helpful to fight against Nusrah? So you supported the Syrian Democratic Forces who will transfer your (inaudible) to one side and then to return to the eastern (inaudible)? And how you see the Kurds’ role in this process when your allies object quite (inaudible) this participation?

FOREIGN MINISTER LAVROV: (Via interpreter) In Syria there is a number of countries represented through the military and armed forces on the ground. They entered Syria without any consent on this side of the Syrian authorities. Actually on the Russian and Iranian troops, Iranian forces are on the ground upon the request of the Syrian authorities. And according to the balanced pragmatic approach, probably you’ve heard the statements from Damascus according to which they are willing to cooperate with all those who want to fight against terrorism (inaudible) mentioned the need to agree on the ways to do that in the most efficient way. I believe that this approach is the right one. I think that on a step-by-step basis all those who possess the special operation forces and other divisions of armed forces on the ground in Syria will have to realize that priorities need to be set, and choosing among those priorities I am confident no one will be able to turn a blind eye to the problem of terrorists, ISIL, and Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Maybe at the beginning some stakeholders planned to use these forces to weaken Assad’s regime, but now everyone understands that one cannot make these mistakes once again, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq wherein similar attempts were made. The same took place in Libya, and right now we can see the echoes of it far from the territory of Libya. Even the Libyan state itself is on its last ground while I believe that pragmatism and the key focus on the true national interests of all the states without any exception will help all of us finally focus on the fight against our common enemy.

Now regarding various aspects of the Turkish presence on the Syrian ground, including the Kurds factor that has become (inaudible) today together with American colleagues we confirm the need to promptly launch a political process with the participation of all the Syrian parties without any exceptions. I believe that the Kurds should be presented in this process. They should remain part of the Syrian state, and they should be part of the solution rather than an actor that’s going to be used to atomize and fragment Syria that would launch (inaudible) effect in other areas of the region, and no one is interested in that.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody. That concludes that press conference today.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I apologize. Let me just say to you very quickly – I’m sorry – it’ll be a very quick answer. We are for a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurd initiative. There has been some limited engagement, as everybody knows, with a component of Kurd fighters on a limited basis, and we cooperated very closely with – with Turkey specifically to make sure that there was a clearer understanding of the rules by which that engagement would take place. They understand that. Now that Manbij city has been liberated, I think there are other expectations of what will take place, but we understand the sensitivities of our friends in Turkey with respect to this. Vice President Biden just visited and had lengthy conversations about it, and we will continue to work together for inclusivity within Syria as we seek a political solution.

Thank you.

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