Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the architect of the recent agreement with Secretary of State John Kerry to remove chemical weapons from Syria, spoke with Lally Weymouth at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. Lavrov made it clear that Russia is determined to see Syria remain unified, but that it does not insist that President Bashar al-Assad remain in power. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: What was your reaction to President Obama's speech this week at the United Nations?
Sergei Lavrov: It addressed important issues, and he stated willingness to cooperate on resolving problems in the Middle East and to help us find common approaches, which is the key for the international community. … No one country can solve problems which are becoming trans-border, transnational, common threats and challenges.
L.W.: President Obama spoke about enforcement of the Syrian chemical weapons agreement that you and Secretary Kerry came up with. Where do you think the United Nations Security Council resolution will end up? Do you see some enforcement mechanism being built into the resolution?
S.L.: The chemical weapons problem in Syria is first of all an issue for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW]. The president of Syria addressed the secretary general of the United Nations and the director general of the OPCW with a formal request to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. . . .
L.W.: You're speaking of President Bashar al-Assad?
S.L.: Yes, President Assad. He asked formally to accede to the convention and now he's under legal obligation derived from this convention. And the steps of the Syrian government indicate clearly that they are fulfilling their obligations under this convention. … We also agreed in Geneva with John Kerry that we will initiate a Security Council resolution which will support and reinforce the decision of the Chemical Weapons Convention. … We will be very serious about any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria and those issues would be brought to the Security Council under Chapter 7 [of the United Nations Charter, which includes a provision for the use of force].
L.W.: Secretary Kerry claims that an enforcement mechanism under Chapter 7 should be part of the U.N. resolution and you apparently disagree.
S.L.: The Geneva framework is available and anyone can read what is in it. And we agreed today with John Kerry that we would follow that understanding in the draft of the Security Council resolution.
L.W.: So there is no difference between the Russian and American position?
S.L.: As these positions are reflected in the Geneva framework of 14th of September? No.
L.W.: In President Obama’s [U.N.] speech today, he spoke of consequences if the Syrians fail to comply.
S.L.: I cannot speak about the individual position of any U.N. member. I can only speak about the arrangements to which Russia is a party, and we are a party to the Geneva framework of the 14th of September and we are committed to implement this fully.
L.W.: So if there were violations, you would go back to the Security Council and get another resolution to do something about it?
L.W.: How did this chemical weapons agreement come about? The White House said President Vladimir Putin and President Obama discussed chemical weapons several times, starting at the G20 summit in Mexico last year. Then there's the story that Secretary Kerry just threw out this remark that if President Assad were to agree to give up chemical weapons, then the United States wouldn't use force. Then, Russia quickly produced this chemical weapons proposal.
S.L.: We aren't looking for any credit. Indeed, the presidents of Russia and the United States discussed this threat of chemical weapons in Syria in Los Cabos in June of last year on the margins of the G20 summit in Mexico. They agreed that the biggest threat to peace and security was an eventuality when chemical weapons might get into the hands of terrorists. When they met again, at the G8 summit in Lough Erne [Northern Ireland] in June of this year, the reports about the use of chemical weapons were already available. Russian experts even investigated one such report of the use of the weapons on March 19 in the vicinity of Aleppo. There were other reports and it was obvious that this threat was not just a probability but it was already with us. Therefore, [Putin and Obama] agreed to think how we can make sure that all these reports are investigated and the results are brought to the Security Council. By the time [Putin and Obama] met on the margins of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on the 5th of September, they had a talk about some practical steps which could be taken to resolve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria once and for all. We initiated through John Kerry's statement and my support of that statement the process which is now under way. And we are gratified that the Syrian government responded very efficiently and promptly.
L.W.: Did John Kerry throw out the statement on purpose or was it an accident?
S.L.: Ask him. We took it as a statement that reflected the need of the day.
L.W.: Did Russia put a lot of pressure on President Assad to cooperate?
S.L.: We certainly conveyed to the Syrian government our conviction that the chemical weapons problem must be resolved on the basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and we are satisfied that the president of the Syrian republic responded promptly and positively.
L.W.: How will the United States verify that Syria is being forthcoming about its stock of chemical weapons?
S.L.: I don't know. I know the American ambassador to the OPCW looked into the declaration submitted by the Syrians and found it quite good.
L.W.: Russia is still saying that it was the rebels that fired the chemical weapons on August 21—not the Assad regime?
S.L.: Yes, we believe there is very good evidence to substantiate this.
L.W.: Are you willing to present this evidence?
S.L.: Yes, I just presented a compilation of evidence to John Kerry when we met a couple of hours ago. This evidence is not something revolutionary. It's available on the Internet. They are reports by journalists who visited the sites and talked to the combatants who said they were given some unusual rockets and ammunition by some foreign country and they didn't know how to use them. There is also evidence from the nuns living in the monastery nearby who visited the site. You can read the assessments by the chemical weapons experts who say that the images shown do not correspond to a real situation if chemical weapons were
used. And we also know about the open letter sent to President Obama by former operatives of the CIA saying the assertion that the government used chemical weapons was fake. So you don't need to have any spy reports to make your own conclusions, you only need to carefully watch what is available in public.