What is really needed for a permanent solution to the Libyan civil war is a Libyan-owned and Libyan-led peace process under the auspices of the United Nations, Russian Ambassador to Ankara Aleksei Erkhov underlined. He added that with this aim, Russia and Ankara stay in regular contact and try to transfer the positive experience accumulated in the Astana process to the Libyan crisis under a joint working group.
“When politicians talk – canons are silent,” the Russian ambassador told Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview. “The parties on the ground are not always ready to talk to each other, to make concessions. However, it’s impossible to settle a conflict without compromises from all the sides. Therefore, we need a kind of external assistance to bring all Libyans together at a negotiating table and help them work out compromises based on a balance of interests for all Libyan people and a revival of the Libyan state.”
Reaffirming their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Libya, both countries in a joint statement on the Turkish-Russian High-Level Consultations in Ankara on July 22 expressed their consideration of the creation of a joint working group on Libya and to hold the next round of consultations in Moscow in the near future.
The ambassador continued to say that the developments in Libya remind him of a pendulum, “When one side is in the offensive being confident of its prompt victory it is reluctant to negotiate. However, one should acknowledge that the Libyan conflict cannot be resolved by military means.”
Libya has been torn by civil war since the ouster of late ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The government was founded in 2015 under a U.N.-led agreement, but efforts for a long-term political settlement failed due to a military offensive by forces loyal to putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
The U.N. recognizes the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Sarraj as the country's legitimate authority, as Tripoli has battled Haftar's militias since April 2019 in a conflict that has cost more than 1,000 lives.
‘GNA has little chance to succeed in Sirte’
“As far as I can judge, if the Government of National Accord decides to assault the city of Sirte I doubt very much it has chances to succeed,” the Russian envoy highlighted.
Sirte has been emerging to become the new hot spot of the Libyan conflict as GNA forces have dispatched several military vehicles to the west of the province for some time. The key city of Sirte, which lies some 450 kilometers (280 miles) east of the capital, is currently under the control of Haftar's forces.
Sirte briefly served as a stronghold for the Daesh terror group before being liberated by the GNA in 2016. It fell last January into the hands of Haftar's camp. Taking Sirte would open the gate for Tripoli-allied forces to advance farther eastward and potentially seize control of vital oil installations, terminals and oil fields that forces loyal to Haftar shut down earlier this year, cutting off Libya’s major source of income.
Erkhov stressed that another surge of violence would only “cause more victims, first of all – among civilians, and more destruction of socioeconomic infrastructure. We must avoid it.”
The envoy called on all parties to do their utmost to ensure a fast cessation of hostilities and launch meaningful negotiations, while he stated that Russia will continue its contact with countries interested in the stabilization in Libya.
“We see no alternative to political settlement under the U.N. ‘umbrella,'” he said, considering the level of foreign support pouring to the parties of the Libyan conflict.
"Another side also receives international support and the volumes of this aid, increasing from day to day, are really impressive. Some countries back Haftar, some countries stand by Sarraj and everyone strongly contests the legitimacy of the opposing side.”
Recently, the U.S. military command for Africa, or Africom, claimed that Russia sent fighter jets to Libya to support mercenaries fighting for Haftar. In this regard the envoy said in local conflicts, all kinds of speculations are to be expected.
“Some actors lament alleged ‘Russian fighter jets’ in Libya; others express discontent with Turkish-made drones operating there. Let’s leave these statements on the conscience of those who wage such propaganda campaigns,” Erkhov continued.
Hagia Sophia, domestic affair of Turkey
Regarding the reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after 86 years, the Russian envoy reiterated Russia’s stance and said it is Turkey's domestic affair. “We consider this matter to be a domestic affair of the Republic of Turkey. Meanwhile, taking into consideration the significant historical and spiritual importance of Hagia Sophia for Russian people, our major concern is that our tourists are able to visit this monument, adore its grandeur and touch upon history contemplating its unique ages-old mosaics," Erkhov stated.
The envoy underlined that Russia's history too is deeply linked with Hagia Sophia and is visited by pilgrims from the country. Turkey has always welcomed them hospitably, he added. “So, we hope that this unique monument will be preserved in accordance with international norms of world cultural heritage and access to it for our citizens will be ensured,” he said.
Turkey’s iconic Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque reopened for worship on July 24 for the first time in 86 years. The iconic monument served as a church for 916 years until the conquest of Istanbul. It then served as a mosque from 1453 to 1934 – nearly 500 years – and most recently as a museum for 86 years. One of the most visited historic buildings in Turkey by domestic and international tourists, in 1985, during its time as a museum, Hagia Sophia was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. On July 10, a Turkish court annulled a 1934 Cabinet decree that had turned Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for its use again as a mosque.
Regarding the anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, led by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), Erkhov said Russia’s stance is also firm on the coup attempt. “Our stance was clearly set forth during the telephone conversation between our two leaders in the aftermath of these events. (Russian President) Vladimir Putin underscored Russia’s principal position that anti-constitutional actions and violence are categorically unacceptable in any country,” he continued.
'Democratic world denies aid to Syrians'
Seeing the latest developments in Syria, the Russian envoy accepted the fact that Syria is experiencing serious economic problems.
“Syria is experiencing serious economic problems. But why do they happen? Where they come from? The country, devastated by long-lasting civil war, in need of economic help for the post-conflict reconstruction, is now living under inhuman sanctions imposed by the so-called 'democratic world' denying life-saving aid to Syrians," Erkhov said.
Fresh sanctions from Washington have come at a time when Syrians are wrestling with a severe currency crisis. With the world focused on combating the global coronavirus pandemic, the Syrian regime has struggled to hold up the economy. After nearly a decade of war, the country is crumbling under the weight of yearslong Western sanctions, regime corruption, infighting, a pandemic and an economic downslide made worse by the financial crisis in Lebanon – Syria’s main link with the outside world. In regime-held areas, prices go up several times a day, forcing many shops to close, unable to keep up with the chaos. Recently, the Syrian pound dropped to a record 3,500 pounds to the U.S. dollar on the black market – compared with 700 at the beginning of the year. Some staples such as sugar, rice and medicine are becoming hard to find.
'Russia believes the stable functioning of Syrian state institutions'
Regarding the alleged parliamentary elections in Syria, Erkhov asserted that elections were held in accordance with the acting laws, whether they are good or bad. "Dura lex, sed lex. We firmly believe that the stable functioning of state institutes on the basis of legislation in force is in the interest of all the Syrians. Some countries do not hold elections at all, and nobody criticizes them for the lack of democracy,” he added.
Bashar Assad's Baath Party came first in the parliamentary elections last week, claiming 177 seats out of 250, in the third such elections since the start of the war nine years ago. Voter turnout stood at 33%, down from 57% in 2016.
The election came as the regime had regained some territories lost at the beginning of the country's war but faces its hardest economic challenges yet amid the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 7,000 polling stations opened across regime-held parts of Syria, including for the first time in former opposition strongholds. However, the millions of Syrians who fled the conflict were not eligible to vote.
Describing the sanctions against the Assad regime as “coercive measures,” Erkhov claimed that they seriously undermine not only the socioeconomic situation in Syria but also impede activities of humanitarian NGOs that are ready to help the population in territories controlled by Syrian official authorities. He also asserted that sanctions simply do not work and have a “paralyzing effect," as NGOs and third countries are scared of being sanctioned if they join efforts with the Assad regime.
“Such sanction policy being far from reaching its aim as the cases of Iran, Russia and Turkey show, may only exacerbate the situation and trigger a new influx of migrants coming to Europe. Therefore, we repeatedly call the international community to get rid of phobias, rise above one-sided political views and combine efforts to reconstruct the country,” he continued.
Concerning Russia’s bilateral relations with Syria, Erkhov said Russia keeps on delivering humanitarian aid to Syrians. “The bilateral Intergovernmental Commission continues functioning, various agreements that enable Russian investments to come into the energy, transport and other spheres finally aiming at the reconstruction of infrastructure in this worn-torn country were signed,” he added.
Erkhov also answered the question of the reason behind Russia’s recent veto for the closure of the remaining border crossings to enable humanitarian aid to Syrians in need, which has been heavily criticized by the international community as well as humanitarian groups.
“We repeatedly underscored that the existing mechanism of the CBM (cross-border mechanism) in Syria does not reflect the requirements of the international humanitarian law. The U.N. still has no presence in the Idlib de-escalation zone, which is largely controlled by international terrorists and fighters. Therefore it’s impossible to control how humanitarian assistance is delivered and who are its final beneficiaries. It’s not a secret that the terrorist groups, listed as such by the U.N. Security Council, control certain areas of the de-escalation zone and use the U.N. humanitarian aid as a tool to exert pressure on the civil population and openly make a profit from such deliveries. Direct as well as indirect proof of these acts are becoming more and more numerous,” he responded.
The envoy also said it is not correct to say that all border crossings are now closed. “The resolution excluded only the crossing-point 'Bab As-Salam,' covering only 14% of all CBM deliveries from outside Syria. At the same time, the Security Council extended the work of the CBM through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing point for another 12 months. As a result, regular provision of humanitarian aid to this area of Syria will be continued,” he stated.
Claiming that the CBM was used by some external players as a tool to freeze dividing lines in Syria, the envoy said it contradicts the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial unity of Syria.
“We remember how vehemently a number of our colleagues tried to oppose the closure of the al-Yarubiyah border crossing last January, which provided humanitarian deliveries to the northeast of Syria in the framework of the CBM. They consistently misled the international community claiming that there were no other ways to help the civilian population in that area. As it turned out, this was just a political game,” he added.
Erkhov also asserted that since the beginning of 2020, when al-Yarubiyah was closed, more humanitarian aid has been delivered to the northeast of Syria than in previous years. “The Syrian government has confirmed its readiness to provide cross-line humanitarian supplies to the Idlib de-escalation zone. However, these efforts are hindered. We urgently call on the U.N. to arrange and increase the deliveries to all parts of Syria from within the country, including to Idlib,” he continued.
The 15-member U.N. Security council reduced the number of gates for aid deliveries from Turkey to Syria to one, with only the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, near the Cilvegözü crossing point, to remain open for aid delivery for another year. Authorization for the continued transport of aid to Syria, a system in place since 2014, expired in July.
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