As the world braces for major military action to take place in the last Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ visit to Ankara on Sept. 5 is set to bring forth some urgent issues.
The meeting between the two states, taking place during a “de-icing” period overcoming sour relations, is expected to cover a number of topics, including detained German citizens in Turkey and the troubles in the Turkish economy. But the most serious and time-sensitive concern for both countries at this time lies abroad.
"We will do everything to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib,” Maas told reporters in Berlin on Sept. 3 amid reports that the regime in Damascus is preparing for a major Moscow-backed military offensive against Syrian rebel concentrations south of the Turkish border. On Sept. 4, Russia announced that it had begun striking Idlib, after several weeks of a pause, in a bid to support its longtime ally.
“It will be a highly important topic of my visit to Turkey on Wednesday and Thursday this week,” Maas said ahead of his meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
In parallel with the German government’s campaign to mobilize world powers against the offensive, the minister underlined that Turkey had a key role to play in terms of the next steps for "Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad.” This was in reference to the three-way cooperation officially declared through the de-escalation zone agreement signed in the Kazakh capital, Astana, last year between Turkey, which is known to support rebel groups, and Iran and Russia, both Assad allies.
Two weeks ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel also asked Russia “to use its influence on the Syrian regime to prevent an escalation and a humanitarian catastrophe,” although it was met with a counter-call from Moscow for Berlin to use its influence with the rebels. Last week, Merkel also touched base with US President Donald Trump over the phone and discussed the situation in Syria.
In addition, a European Union official told Al-Monitor that the Astana guarantors should act “to prevent a new upsurge of violence and maintain their commitment for the implementation of the de-escalation agreement for Idlib, which has now the largest presence of internally displaced persons and can therefore turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Turkey, which has backed some insurgent groups in Idlib, where it also has 12 observation points, is also trying to avert an attack by forces loyal to Assad for a number of reasons, including the expected refugee outpour and worries about Ankara's prestige within Syria’s borders. The Turkish foreign minister said Aug. 24 that it would be disastrous to seek a military solution in the region.
The international community’s prevention efforts seem doomed to fail. The Kremlin has been saying that rebels, with the help of a British contractor, are planning a chemical weapons attack with the intent of blaming it on Syria. The Syrian regime appears ready for a final showdown.
On Aug. 30, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, said government forces will "go all the way" in Idlib and liberate the "whole territory from terrorism." This came only several days after Russian media reported Moscow's largest naval deployment in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.
Regaining control over Idlib is both strategic and symbolic for the Assad government, and thus, Moscow. While some have suggested it could mean the end of the war — after having retaken eastern Ghouta, Daraa, Quneitra and parts of Homs, taking back Idlib would give Assad control of western Syria, where the majority of the population lives.
The government would also regain control of a critical trade route that runs from Jordan to Turkey, and also another one running between Aleppo and the Assad stronghold of Latakia; Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in Latakia is located near this route and has reportedly faced occasional rebel attacks coming from Idlib.
The city of Idlib is some 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of the al-Bab border crossing, which is near Rehanli, Turkey. The city of Idlib and surrounding Idlib province are home to nearly 3 million Syrian civilians, many of whom fled from other cities that were retaken by Assad forces. If the Idlib offensive is launched, it is feared that many people won’t make it out alive, and that large numbers of those who do survive will be displaced.
Germany and Turkey, two countries whose migration policies have been under fire, are quite worried about that displacement — and thus the huddle.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, told Al-Monitor that an Idlib operation poses a dilemma, and that a potentially strong migrant influx toward Europe will put Idlib under the spotlight during the encounter of the two top diplomats.
“It is a matter of up to 1 million Syrian refugees pressing against Europe’s gates: Of course [the top agenda topic] is Idlib in these meetings,” he said.
Highlighting clashing opinions in German domestic politics, the director said that a new wave of Syrian refugees would spark even harsher rows in the Bundestag, and would pose as yet another test for Merkel on a highly sensitive topic.
Her government’s decision to admit some 1.3 million refugees in 2015, mainly from parts of the Middle East like Syria and Iraq, had already drawn widespread criticism from parts of the German public, and in last year's general election, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party entered parliament for the first time, winning 12.6% of the vote and more than 90 seats.
On Sept.1, some 5,000 far-right demonstrators filled the streets of the German city of Chemnitz, voicing fury against Berlin’s immigration policy after a pair of Iraqi and Syrian refugees were suspected of murdering a German national.
Law enforcement officials had a tough time breaking up clashes when angry demonstrators — some of who were seen to do the Nazi salute and chant “foreigners out” — were met by a counter-protest from a group of 1,000 citizens supporting immigrants.
Yet an offensive on Idlib, the last of four "de-escalation" zones agreed to by world powers in 2017, poses a threat not only of more displaced persons but also for Syrian refugees looking to move back to their homeland, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Aug. 31.
“You risk also sending a message to refugees that the situation is not secured. Refugees will be watching very closely what is happening in Idlib in the next few months,” Grandi said.
Turkey itself is seeking to create safe zones in Syria in order to transfer the Syrian refugees back to their homeland.
Since increasing its military involvement in Syria in 2016 with Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey has been carrying out its second cross-border military operation in the northern Syrian province of Afrin and also is conducting coordinated but independent military patrols with US forces in Manbij. Turkey's objective in Manbij is to remove the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Ankara sees as a terrorist offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. Safe havens will be created as a result of these efforts, Ankara says.
As it works to create what it calls “safe zones” in Afrin and the Euphrates Shield Operation areas, Turkey, under heavy economic pressure nowadays, could get economic support it seeks from Europe, Al-Monitor has learned. The German government would consider supplying money, it was understood, on condition that Turkey keeps its border gates closed to those trying to flee Idlib and places them in Syria’s north instead.
However, Unluhisarcikli said that based on the information obtained, areas under Turkey's sway will not be big enough to accommodate those who flee from Idlib following a military confrontation.
Set to be launched in phases, as the Syrian army has announced, the assault would initially target southern and western parts of the insurgent territory, Reuters reported, quoting an official in the regional alliance backing Assad.
The offensive would eventual wind up in Idlib city. An ordinary Syrian urban area seven years ago, Idlib today is host to around 60,000 armed rebels indoctrinated by various radicalized militant groups. These groups include Syria’s strongest rebel faction, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Other armed groups include Islamist heavyweights Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddine al-Zinki — the Syrian Liberation Front.
“That is why this is not only Europe’s or Turkey’s problem. It is also not only a matter of refugees. This is a threat to China, Russia, too,” Unluhisarcikli said, referring to the foreign fighters in Idlib who will now head elsewhere, creating some serious security concerns.
“Some intense international cooperation is required to overcome the dangers of Assad’s final strike on the rebel stronghold that will pressure Turkey more than any,” Unluhisarcikli said, coming back to the reason for the meeting between the German and Turkish foreign ministers.
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