Tillerson, Lavrov tackle tough questions in live news conference in Moscow

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shake hands for the media during their meeting in the Russian Foreign Ministry guest house in Moscow on Wednesday. Tillerson is in Moscow meeting with Lavrov and other Russian officials to discuss Ukraine, counterterrorism efforts, bilateral relations and other issues, including North Korea and Syria. Photo by Sergei Chirikov/EPA

April 12, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — In a live joint news conference from Moscow Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov each outlined their positions on the issues of Syria, chemical weapons, North Korea and denuclearization, and told reporters, without going into great detail, what they discussed in their meeting earlier in the day.

Lavrov expressed his country’s wish that an investigation be conducted into the April 4 chemical weapon attack on the Syrian people. He questioned U.S. accusations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the attack on his own people and that Russia may have been complicit, and said no actual evidence of that has been provided by the U.S.

Lavrov emphasized that the organization in the Hague for the prohibition of chemical weapons has the resources to investigate the issue and carry out inspections, and he stated that “our U.S. counterparts are ready to approve this investigation.”

“We want an honest, objective investigation,” Lavrov said.

He further stated, regarding the agreement between Russia and the United States on the conflict in Syria, “As you know, Russia has suspended this agreement … we would be willing to put this memorandum back into effect if we all agree that the purpose is to fight ISIL.”

He said he and Tillerson discussed the Syrian issue at length. Lavrov said our countries shouldn’t meddle in the internal conflicts in Syria, and that he and Tillerson reaffirmed that we should be fighting ISIL.

“We have a common interest in a solution to the Syrian crisis,” Lavrov said.

He stated that all the players inside Syria and externally should be “brought to the table,” with the U.S. participating as an observer.

Lavrov also pointed out that solutions must be found for the problems between Palestine and Israel, as well as the situations in Afghanistan, Yemen and other hot spots.

On April 14, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran will meet in Moscow, and Lavrov said the United States representative is invited to attend.

In his comments to the media, Lavrov also touched on the crisis in Ukraine and said the previous U.S. administration had a bilateral agreement, and he believes the U.S. is ready to continue this bilateral cooperation. He did not elaborate beyond that.

Lavrov said U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding denuclearization must be complied with in regard to North Korea, as well as arms reduction treaties between the U.S. and Russia.

He also said it’s important for our countries to step up economic cooperation, and for representatives from both countries to look at the “irritating factors” we’ve had in the past, “particularly during the Obama administration.”

Lavrov stated that after many hours spent with Tillerson, Russia and the United States have a “better understanding,” and he said we are ready to work together, not just dialogue, in the interest of both of our countries.

When it was Tillerson’s turn to address the audience, he said he concurred with most of what Lavrov said, and stated that he and Lavrov had discussed the low points between Russia and the U.S., and the low level of trust between the two. He said two major powers cannot have this kind of relationship.

Tillerson said they talked about several issues requiring attention, both immediate and long-term, including the need for a stable Syria and the denuclearization of North Korea.

Like Lavrov, Tillerson mentioned the need to put together a smaller group of representatives from both Russia and the U.S. to look at all of the issues, both global and bilateral, and work together to find solutions.

Still, there were obvious differences as each responded to questions addressed to both of them by the media.

One questioner brought up U.S. President Donald Trump’s referring to Assad as an “animal,” and Sean Spicer’s recent reference to Hitler, and asked, “When will this rhetoric end?”

Tillerson avoided addressing the “rhetoric” part of the question and replied that the U.S. is confident of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and he mentioned the use of cluster bombs and other weapons as well.

Regarding Russia’s insistence on a investigation, Lavrov said they had reports in 2013 that noted a couple of places in Syria controlled by extremists. He said Russia is happy with the progress they’ve made so far in getting chemical weapons out of Syria. Lavrov said accusations are coming from various organizations regarding the use of chemical weapons, but “the Russian government and servicemen have repeatedly provided hard evidence of no chemical weapons.”

This is why, Lavrov said, an international group of experts should be sent to the airfield the U.S. struck with missiles and to other areas where chemical weapons supposedly are kept.

“If all of our colleagues … refuse to investigate … we will assume they are not interested in the truth,” Lavrov said.

Tillerson was asked how the U.S. plans to convince Assad to “come to the table” to work on resolving the problems in Syria. He replied that the U.S. has discussed the future role of Assad and whether Assad will be part of the political process.

“Clearly,” he said, “we feel the Assad regime is coming to an end.”

Assad’s departure, Tillerson said, should be done in an orderly way. He added, “The final outcome, in our view, does not provide for Assad or the Assad family to have a role in government.”

One questioner asked about Russia and the U.S. being “world’s apart” on issues on the international agenda today.

Lavrov said he doesn’t think our countries are world’s apart. He did say that Tillerson told him that he (Tillerson) prefers to deal with the issues of today. However, Lavrov said, history can’t be ignored, and it’s necessary to look at previous issues, such as Yugoslavia, as well as Saddam Hussein, who was hanged after the invasion by the U.S. coalition.

“Tony Blair was the only one who admitted that the pretext for the invasion was fake,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov again stated that everyone must come to the table, including Syria, to determine how Syria should work as a country.

On the issue of cybercrime, Russian hacking, and the U.S. using the same tools against North Korea and other countries, Tillerson said that he and Lavrov only briefly touched on cyber security. He added that he makes a distinction between using cyber tools to interfere with a country and using those tools for purposes of national security.

In response to that same question, Lavrov said Russia has an interest in closely cooperating to prevent cybercrime. He said Russia had told President Obama how concerned they were about Russian hackers all around the world, and that Russia wanted to establish security against this, but that the Obama administration ignored the request.

Lavrov said Russia is suggesting that cooperation between agencies in the U.S. and Russia should be resumed, and that Russia still hopes to set up these channels through a bilateral presidential commission.

Asked if the U.S. has sent a Navy ship to the Korean peninsula with plans to start a military action, Tillerson replied that the USS Carl Vinson is always in that area and people shouldn’t read anything into its presence there.

Lavrov said it’s agreed that “these problems” can only be resolved by peaceful means, and the denuclearization of North Korea must be resolved peacefully.


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