Syria issues dominate Munich security meet

Gloom as Europe grapples with failure to stop conflict, Russian intervention, refugee crisis

MUNICH • The failure of world powers to quell the five-year conflict in Syria, the Russian military intervention there and the spread of Islamist terrorism overshadowed an annual security conference, which comes as Europe falters ahead of a new effort to cope with its refugee crisis.

The sombre tone of the meeting here was reflected in comments on Sunday by a senior German official close to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that Russia was unlikely to respect a new accord on ceasing hostilities in Syria, given the aggressive hand it has played there and the advantage it has gained by using armed force.

Adding to the gloom, France indicated during the meeting that it would not join a German plan to redistribute more refugees in Europe.

Days before a new European summit meeting, the rebuff highlighted Europe's failure to unite around a response to more than one million migrants, even as Russian actions and speeches unsettle the region, particularly Germany.

In addition to a drumbeat from Russian news media that Europe's way of life is threatened because of the migrants, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev last Saturday warned the conference about a looming slide into a new Cold War.

The blunt assessment of Russia's intentions from Mr Norbert Rottgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German Parliament, followed biting criticism from United States Senator John McCain over the US-Russian accord, announced last Friday in Munich, to get aid into some Syrian regions and put into effect a truce plan for the devastated country.

Mr McCain, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, said he wished he could regard the truce plan as a breakthrough.

More likely, he said, it was a move that "permits the assault on Aleppo to continue for another week", thus locking in Russian military superiority and allowing the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to take back more territory from rebels.

The criticism from Mr Rottgen and Mr McCain came against the backdrop of news from Syria that no aid trucks had yet moved towards needy regions there, and illustrated how thoroughly the Middle East chaos had dominated the conference, which usually focuses on the trans-Atlantic alliance.

However, the United Nations mediator for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, said on Sunday that UN aid convoys were planned for today or tomorrow. "They will represent an initial test of the Munich commitments," he said.

As for a pause in fighting, he said he expected it to apply to "all areas of Syria except for areas controlled by ISIS and Al Nusra", referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group and the Nusra Front, which the US and Russia regard as terrorist groups.

That provision would allow Russian and Syrian forces to continue air strikes over parts of Aleppo, where Nusra fighters are thought to be present.

A State Department official said last week that different rebel groups are "intermingled" on the battlefield.

US President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone last Saturday to discuss the agreement made the day before and to "stress the importance of rapidly implementing humanitarian access to besieged areas of Syria and initiating a nationwide cessation of hostilities", a statement from the White House said on Sunday.

"President Obama emphasised the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria," the statement said.

Highlighting the complexity of the situation in Syria, Turkey over the weekend shelled positions held by a Kurdish militia that is backed by the US in northern Syria.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Syria issues dominate Munich security meet'. Print Edition | Subscribe