Merkel plans four-nation meet on Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at a news conference in Germany yesterday. Mr Erdogan is on a state visit to patch bilateral ties, but rights campaigners and German politicians are angered by the re
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at a news conference in Germany yesterday. Mr Erdogan is on a state visit to patch bilateral ties, but rights campaigners and German politicians are angered by the red carpet treatment he received. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Leaders from Turkey, Russia, France and Germany to discuss Syrian conflict in Oct

BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she and the leaders of Turkey, Russia and France planned to hold a summit next month on the situation in war-ravaged Syria, as she hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a state visit aimed at patching cracks in their ties.

"We are in favour of a four-way meeting with the presidents of Turkey, Russia and France and myself because the situation (in Syria) is still fragile," Dr Merkel told reporters after talks with Mr Erdogan yesterday in Berlin. "We aim to do this in the month of October."

Dr Merkel said the talks were particularly urgent in the light of the fraught situation in Syria's rebel-held province of Idlib.

Turkey has backed rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but since late 2016 has been working increasingly closely with Iran and Russia to bring an end to the Syrian conflict.

Russia and Turkey agreed during a summit meeting in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Sept 17 to set up a buffer zone in Idlib aimed at preventing a military assault.

Syria, which has received vital military support from Russia and Iran, had said that it planned to seize Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the seven-year war.

The Russia-Turkey deal was agreed following warnings that an all-out military offensive would trigger a bloodbath in the province of three million people.

SYRIA SITUATION FRAGILE

We are in favour of a four-way meeting with the presidents of Turkey, Russia and France and myself because the situation (in Syria) is still fragile.

GERMAN CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL

Mr Erdogan had previously indicated that he planned to host a summit to discuss Syria on Sept 7 in Istanbul with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Dr Merkel but the meeting never came together.

Mr Erdogan's state visit to Germany, complete with military honours, is his first there since becoming president in 2014 and comes as the Turkish economy is in rapid decline. But critics, including rights campaigners and German politicians, are angered by the red carpet treatment for a leader who has built an increasingly authoritarian reputation and just 18 months ago accused Berlin of "Nazi practices".

Dr Merkel herself has repeatedly stressed the importance of good relations with Ankara, a partner she relies on to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe. Yesterday, she praised Turkey's "outstanding" work in hosting more than three million Syrian refugees.

Germany has taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers - a policy that has proven deeply divisive within Dr Merkel's own government.

At the same conference, Mr Erdogan said Turkey aims to win easier access to the European Union for its citizens and his government would move to meet the EU's criteria for achieving visa liberalisation.

Turkey, whose economic crisis has been aggravated by sanctions imposed by United States President Donald Trump, is hoping improved relations will bring in private investment from the economic superpower on its doorstep.

Germany, home to three million ethnic Turks and reliant on Turkey to help contain a migrant crisis beyond Europe's borders, is also keen to repair ties, which have frayed since the Turkish crackdown after a failed coup in 2016.

But there are concerns about Turkey's human rights record and press freedom.

"We are planning to fulfil the remaining six criteria for visa liberalisation as soon as possible," Mr Erdogan said. "Visa liberalisation, updating the Customs union and reviving accession talks will benefit both Turkey and the EU."

Mr Erdogan's critics have vowed to take to the streets across Germany to protest against everything, from Turkey's record on human rights and press freedom to its offensive against Kurdish militia in Syria.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2018, with the headline 'Merkel plans four-nation meet on Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe