Aid groups worried as Idlib deadline looms

Syrian children play outside their destroyed school in the Frikeh village, in Idlib’s opposition-held Western countryside. (AFP file photo)
Updated 13 October 2018
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Aid groups worried as Idlib deadline looms

  • Failure to implement the deal could spark renewed violence and trigger mass displacement

BEIRUT: Aid agencies on Friday warned of dire humanitarian consequences if a Russia-Turkey deal to avert a regime assault on Syria’s last major opposition stronghold was not fully implemented within days.

Regime ally Russia and opposition backer Turkey agreed last month to set up a buffer zone around the northwestern region of Idlib to separate jihadist and militants inside from regime fighters massing on its edges.

Under the accord, militants have until Monday to withdraw from the buffer zone semi-circling the region of some 3 million people, but have not yet shown any sign of moving.

On Friday, international aid groups working in Idlib warned that failure to implement the deal could spark renewed violence and trigger mass displacement.

Local partner organizations and “civilians receiving aid have expressed fears that violence could spiral out of control in the next few days if either the deal collapses or fighting escalates in areas not covered by it,” they said.

“Even a limited military offensive would displace hundreds of thousands of people,” CARE International, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mercy Corps and Save the Children said in a statement.

Nearly half of the people living in Idlib have fled from their homes in other parts of the war-torn country, according to the UN, and many already depend on aid.

“If this deal falls short and military operations start, many hundreds of thousands will struggle to get the help they will so badly need,” warned Lorraine Bramwell, IRC’s Syria country director.

For the agreement to be implemented, Idlib’s dominant force, an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, and other militants must withdraw from the planned buffer zone by Monday.

But the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance has not yet officially responded to the deal, and a Britain-based war monitor said on Friday that no militant had withdrawn yet from the buffer zone.

“There has been no withdrawal of any members of the jihadist factions with their light weapons,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

An AFP correspondent said that residents in the area received warning messages Friday on their mobile phones from the regime army.

“Get away from the fighters. Their fate is sealed and near,” one said.

“Don’t allow the terrorists to take you as human shields,” said another, addressed to residents of the planned buffer zone.

HTS jihadists from the Turkestan Islamic Party and current Al-Qaeda outfit Hurras Al-Deen control more than two-thirds of the expected demilitarised zone.

Separately, sources said that Yarmouk camp in the Damascus suburbs has been emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria’s seven-year war.

But five months after regime forces expelled the last opposition fighters in the area, Assad troops now stand guard at the camp’s entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.

On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Palestinian Mahmud Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.

“When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw,” said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.

“But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up,” Khaled said.

Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.

Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.

“We have shifted 50,000 cubic meters of rubble and reopened all the main roads,” Khaled said.

But “it will be a while before families can come back,” he added.

As Khaled surveyed the neighborhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.

Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011 and regime forces imposed a crippling siege on the then opposition-held camp a year later.

Since the latest round of fighting to expel Daesh ended in May, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.


‘Homegrown Islam project’ could lead to new Ankara-Berlin tensions

Updated 26 March 2019
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‘Homegrown Islam project’ could lead to new Ankara-Berlin tensions

  • Markus Kerber: “What we need now is an Islam for German Muslims that belongs to Germany”
  • Germany’s new plan aims to counter foreign influence on the Muslim community

ANKARA: Germany has reportedly initiated a campaign to push German Muslims to develop a new interpretation of Islam, the Financial Times reported on Monday. 

“What we need now is an Islam for German Muslims that belongs to Germany,” Markus Kerber, the government representative responsible for relations with the Muslim community under the German Interior Ministry, reportedly told the Financial Times.

The move of Europe’s economic powerhouse is expected to influence Turkey’s state-led diaspora engagement with German-Turks as well as its state-level relations with Germany. But experts do not anticipate relations to further deteriorate as they say they are already as bad as they can get. 

Turks, mostly from the conservative section of society, have been emigrating to Germany since the early 1960s; originally as guest workers during the economic boom. They have since become the largest Muslim community in the country. 

Germany’s new plan aims to counter foreign influence on the Muslim community and provide homegrown training to all imams preaching in Germany. 

The largest Islamic organization in Germany is the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which is affiliated to Turkey’s state directorate for religious affairs. Turkey is sending imams to Germany who are paid by the Turkish government and who are preaching in Turkish in 900 mosques funded by Ankara.

According to Yoruk Halil, a halal butcher living in Frankfurt, Germany’s new move will be beneficial for the Turkish Muslim community. 

“Those imams coming from Turkey do not benefit Turkish youth in Germany because these young people have been raised with a totally different culture and they mostly speak German, so they cannot establish a healthy dialogue with those imams,” Halil told Arab News. “In order to reach out to the Muslim community, including Turks, there is a need to use homegrown imams. 

My 15-year-old son has been going to the mosque for five years and he even told me that he has better communication with imams being trained and educated in Germany,” he said. 

There is also a continuing debate over requiring Muslims in Germany to pay a worship tax.

Turkey is against any “Germanification” of Islam and considers any redefinition of Islam for Germany against the universality of the religion. 

Germany’s move intends to further integrate Muslims’ daily routines into German society, to boost the loyalty of the 3 million members of the German-Turkish community.  It is therefore considered a move for breaking the Turkish community’s ties with their national and religious identity as well as their traditions.

Last year, German police recorded some 578 hate crimes against Muslims between January and September, while about half of Germans think that Islam is incompatible with the values of their nation, according to recent research by pollster YouGov.

“Turkey has been developing diaspora politics since the mid-2000s, and Turks in Germany have been put at the center of it,” Murat Onsoy, an expert in Turkey-Germany relations at Hacettepe University in Ankara, told Arab News. 

However, for Onsoy, the presence of imams in Germany who have been appointed by Turkey is a socialization factor for the Turkish diaspora — who show relatively low rates of crime — and to maintain their links with their home country. 

“If Germany rejects Turkish funding to these mosques, they will face serious difficulties in covering their expenses,” he said. 

Germany has a community of about 4.5 million Muslims worshipping at about 2,400 mosques, and the number is expected to rise with the refugee influx from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Sy The German federal constitution, called Basic Law, gives autonomy to Muslim communities to receive funding and religious officials from abroad to operate mosques in Germany. 

“It is unlikely that this article of the constitution would be easily amended. Various provinces would react to such a move, resulting in widespread protests. The Turkish government would raise the issue at the intergovernmental Islamic organizations, and the German government would be obliged take a step back,” Onsoy said. 

He, however, draws attention to the timing of the debate. 

“It coincides with the upcoming local elections in Turkey this Sunday, and in the past we witnessed that such potential crises with Western countries have been used by the ruling government to consolidate its voters through engaging in international polemics and assuming the role of the defender of external Turks and ‘Islam’ worldwide,” he said. 

Ayhan Kaya, professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, said that the move in Germany to bring a homegrown reading to Islam had already been on the table since Angela Merkel’s initiative in 2006. 

“Although it contradicts with the Sunni Islam rhetoric, what Germany did is a counter-move against the lobbying strategies of Muslim countries such as Turkey, Morocco or Algeria within German territories,” he told Arab News. 

Kaya also noted that in the past Germany and Turkey developed joint projects to train imams who would be appointed in Germany by providing them with linguistic and cultural-integration skills. 

“This latest move is a dialectic result of the political maneuvers on the diasporas by countries who are sending and receiving migration,” he said.