ABC RN Breakfast - interview with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST: And you can hear that full interview on our website. Ammar Salmo speaking to us from Western Syria about the nightmare scenario that's now descended on Aleppo after the collapse of last week's ceasefire, it's only been three or four days, but already something like 1200 bombing strikes on Aleppo. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has just arrived back in Australia after attending the UN talks in New York. Julie Bishop thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP: Pleased to be with you, Fran.

JOURNALIST: That was a heartbreaking plea there from Ammar Salmo, how can world leaders continue to trade barbs and accusations in New York while the men, women and children of Aleppo live in, as Ammar told us there, a doomsday scenario, living hell?

JULIE BISHOP: He's absolutely right; all reports indicate that Syria is an ongoing humanitarian disaster of almost unprecedented proportions. Already we believe about 400,000 people have been killed, more than 10 million people have fled their homes and now the Syrian regime has launched an offensive in Aleppo, with reports on indiscriminate bombing and the use of incendiary bombs and the like. There have been ongoing efforts at finding an end to the conflict which have failed for a variety of reasons but primarily because the warring parties, the Assad regime on one side and the opposition groups on the other clearly believe they can achieve the defeat of their opponents militarily and of course there are also terrorist groups, including ISIL and al Nusra operating there. I attended two meetings last week in New York of the International Syria Support Group co-chaired by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. While all the key nations were represented there, including Australia, the warring parties were not in the room. The Assad regime is not there, the opposition is not there. So to call for a ceasefire is one thing between the United States and Russia, but the challenge is to ensure that the Assad regime and the opposition groups abide by it and the point that I made in both meetings was that those nations with influence or leverage over the warring parties must use it to stop the fighting and put every option on the table in order to do so.

JOURNALIST: Well Minister, I hate to say it but I don't think they've listened to you because if anything it's gotten worse, US Secretary of State John Kerry last week talked about parallel universes when it came to Syria, we'll talk about a parallel universe when you've got people, tens of thousands of people being bombed, relentlessly in Aleppo and in the UN you've got the Russians standing up, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, standing up saying overnight peace is now impossible and basically blaming America for that and acting as though Russia has nothing to do with this. In fact Russia has a huge amount of control over what goes on in Syria and what the Assad Government is doing, doesn't it?

JULIE BISHOP: It's extraordinary, I witnessed the claims and counterclaims, the denials, the misinformation throughout both meetings. Russia and also Iran have huge influence over the Assad regime. They are providing military support. The United States and some of the Gulf countries have been supporting some of the opposition groups but there just doesn't seem to be the will on either side to compromise to end the fighting. Let me give you one example: the announcement of the Aleppo offensive came during the Syria Support Group meeting last Thursday in New York. It was announced to the group of foreign ministers there by John Kerry. Sergey Lavrov left the room only to return and utterly refute the report as being false. We then later learned that Russia was indeed taking part in the bombardment of Aleppo. So there is misinformation, there are denials, it is so hard to find the truth. There's an absence of trust on all sides and while the terms of the ceasefire have been agreed more than once, they are then systematically undermined by the actions of groups on the ground. So fundamentally while ever the parties to this conflict believe they can achieve their goals through military means, it seems they will continue fighting.

JOURNALIST: Well while that happens and while there is this trust deficit you describe there between the two major players, is Vitaly Churkin right? Peace is now impossible in Syria; I mean can the world just say that? What does that mean?

JULIE BISHOP: There has to be greater will on all sides to compromise and end the fighting. Both sides, the United States and Coalition groups and the Gulf countries, have to convince the opposition groups that a ceasefire must hold. Russia and Iran must convince the Assad regime that they hold to the ceasefire which has already been agreed. As I said, the challenge is to ensure that they abide by it but I think every option still needs to be considered including the withdrawal of support to either side.

JOURNALIST: The withdrawal of support from Russia or the US to either side?

JULIE BISHOP: That's right.

JOURNALIST: When you say every option needs to be considered, we've got now Britain, the US and France basically saying that Russia could be guilty of war crimes because of these latest bombings over Aleppo over the last few days, we've got the US Ambassador to the UN coming out and saying Russia's not involved in counter-terrorism, it's involved in barbarism. So this level, it's really escalated. I mean, when you say every option could be considered, what else could be considered? What else can happen?

JULIE BISHOP: Well the parties must continue to meet, that is Russia and the United States seem to be holding the cards. They need to continue to meet and continue to exercise whatever influence and leverage they have to stop, on the Russian side, the Assad regime from pursuing its current course of action, which is only going to deepen the crisis and harm even more civilians, and for the United States to continue to insist on reinvigorating the cessation, restore confidence in the process. Secretary Kerry has called for an immediate grounding of aircraft in certain areas for seven days, and Russia is yet to agree that. They must continue to negotiate a cease fire for at least seven days to enable humanitarian relief, to be received by those who are so desperately in need.

JOURNALIST: And that US-led airstrike that Australia was a part of the coalition during this mission that hit the Syrian Army post just over a week ago, perhaps that didn't help. It certainly allowed the Assad regime and the Russians to blame America more squarely and accuse them of having another agenda. So there's agendas on both sides, but do you think this increase in the rhetoric criticism of Russia, is that going to have any impact on Vladimir Putin? What is - why is Russia risking so much opprobrium internationally to take to the skies as it has over the last five days and rain down cluster bombs and other shocking munitions on the people of Aleppo?

JULIE BISHOP: Well just first, in relation to the incident involving Australian planes, it was a deeply regrettable incident. However the United States, the Coalition, admitted to an error and expressed remorse. In contrast, with regard to bombing of the UN humanitarian convoy, there's been nothing but denials and misinformation. So there's a vast contrast between the approach of both sides to this appalling conflict. In the case of Russia, it clearly has an agenda involving its own status in the world, its own place in the world. It's looking after its equities in Syria, it has military bases there, it has many people on the ground, as we understand it. And Russia is continuing to back the Assad regime, which is guilty of some appalling crimes, including a recent report about the use of chemical weapons.

JOURNALIST: Is Russia guilty of war crimes, in your view?

JULIE BISHOP: Well I'm not going to speculate on matters like that, I don't think it would be useful. But we need independent evidence of reports such as we've had from the UN recently that there were chemical attacks by not only the Assad regime but by Daesh in this part of the world. I mean, it's just a terrible situation.

JOURNALIST: It's quarter to eight, our guest is Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Julie Bishop, if I can ask you about other matters that I know you were involved in discussions with in New York, particularly the discussion around some kind of third country resettlements for the people in Nauru and Manus Island. I think a lot of people here are wondering why Australia said yes to a request from the United States to take people from settlement camps in Costa Rica without apparently getting anything in return. What are we missing here? What - is there some kind of deal?

JULIE BISHOP: We are part of, first, the Bali Process, which involves about 48 countries, focusing on resettling those who are found to be genuine refugees, working against human trafficking and people smuggling. So within the Bali Process itself there are attempts at permanent resettlement for those found to be refugees and we're part of that process. Otherwise there are countries like Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand who do take a significant number of refugees compared with other countries around the world, and so this has always been the case. Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand have taken refugees in the past. The point that we're making though is we will not take people – that will send a message to the people smugglers that they can get their trade back up and running again.

JOURNALIST: No, but there's a - there's... A lot of people are suggesting that there's some broader resettlement plan being hatched at the moment to move people from Nauru and Manus. Has there been any movement on that, either linked or not to the Costa Rica agreement?

JULIE BISHOP: The Costa Rica agreement is a separate issue altogether. It's an arrangement we've come to with the United States as we've done in the past.

JOURNALIST: So did you get any agreements to - for any countries there to resettle the people from Nauru and Manus?

JULIE BISHOP: We continue to work with other countries, to seek support from other countries, particularly through ...

JOURNALIST: So that's a no?

JULIE BISHOP: Particularly through the Bali Process. It's ongoing, Fran. We're continuing to work with other countries to find resettlement options for those who have been found to be owed protection. Those who are not owed protection, who've been found not to be owed protection, should return home.

JOURNALIST: And just on that, just briefly, in terms of returning home a lot of those are Iranians. Iran doesn't accept forcible returns. Steve Ciobo, our Trade Minister is heading to Iran to set up a trade centre; is that the hope, that as that trading relationship deepens, forcible returns will be possible?

JULIE BISHOP: I have been working with my counterpart Foreign Minister Zarif for some time over this issue. Iran knows where we stand on this, that we believe that Iranians who have sought to come to Australia but are not owed protection should return to Iran, and that's an ongoing discussion that we will have with Iran, and I'm sure it will come up in Steve Ciobo's meetings in Tehran this week.

JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP: Thanks Fran.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

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