Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

An anti-Assad fighter stands at a checkpoint in Idlib. Russia and Turkey reached an agreement last month to set up a demilitarized zone to prevent a regime offensive on the region. (AP)
Updated 22 October 2018
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Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

  • The event will focus on ‘harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict’
  • Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend a critical four-way summit on Syria in Istanbul next Saturday. 

They will discuss recent developments in the war-torn country as well as projections for a political settlement.

Experts have underlined the importance of this summit in providing a strong push for key EU countries to work together with regional players to end the years-long conflict in Syria as it will gather the four countries’ leaders at the highest level.

The summit will focus on the recent developments in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, and the parameters of a possible political settlement.

The ways for preventing a new refugee inflow from Idlib into Europe via Turkey, which is home to about 3.5 million Syrian residents, following a possible offensive by the Assad regime will also be raised as a topic that mainly concerns France and Germany and pushes them to work more closely with Turkey and Russia.

The summit will also aim at “harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict,” presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced on Friday.

Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province. Although the withdrawal of some opposition groups from the zone has not been accomplished in due time, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to extend the deadline for Idlib, which is still a strategic area where the opposition holds out.

“Turkey and Russia want the status quo for Idlib. Although the jihadists have not withdrawn from the demilitarized zone, Russia is turning a blind eye,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon II.

“Turkey will make some efforts to save face. Turkish proxies have withdrawn because Turkey pays wages, so they must obey, but for the jihadists it is more complicated,” he told Arab News.

According to Balanche, without the complicity of Turkey, the Syrian regime cannot take over the north of the country.

“In exchange, Turkey wants a buffer zone in the north, all along its border. The main objective is, of course, to eliminate the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the border as it has already done in Afrin. A secondary objective is to protect its opposition allies and the Turkmen minorities, many in the province of Idlib but also between Azaz and Jarablus,” he said.

But the summit also shows that these four countries need each other in the Syrian theater as each of them has stakes regarding the settlement of the crisis.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said the main goal of the summit is to provide a major diplomatic boost to the ongoing Astana and Sochi peace processes, which have so far been led mainly by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“A second and maybe even more important goal is to include France and Germany in the reconstruction efforts in Syria once the civil war is over,” he told Arab News.

Considering the cost of the reconstruction, estimated at about $400 billion, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are not ready to take this enormous financial burden without the financial support of the West, Ersen said.

“Both Paris and Berlin hope that Ankara’s ongoing efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib can be successful. If the settlement in Idlib does not work, everybody is aware that this may lead to a big refugee crisis for both Turkey and Europe once again,” he added.

Martina Fietz, deputy spokeswoman for the German government, told a news conference in Berlin that her country is also hopeful about the forthcoming summit’s potential contribution to the stabilization of Idlib’s de-escalation zone.

“Progress in the UN-led political process, in particular the commencement of the work of the constitutional commission, will be discussed,” she said.

The chief foreign policy advisers of the quartet have met in Istanbul in recent weeks to discuss the agenda of the summit.


Syrian refugees wade through their worst Lebanese winter

A child wades through flood waters at an informal tent settlement housing Syrian refugees following winter storms in the area of Delhamiyeh. (AFP)
Updated 6 min 9 sec ago
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Syrian refugees wade through their worst Lebanese winter

  • Aid organizations say they are doing their best to distribute emergency aid to the most vulnerable
  • The Litani River flooded many of the fields stretching across the two majestic mountain ranges flanking the Bekaa

DELHAMIYEH, Lebanon: Snowstorms and weeks of bad weather have turned Lebanon’s lush Bekaa Valley into an unliveable swamp for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The Litani River flooded many of the fields stretching across the two majestic mountain ranges flanking the Bekaa after this year’s second major storm hit on Wednesday.

Some families had barely finished repairing their tents when the most severe winter they have faced yet unleashed another crushing night of snow, wind and flooding.

“We spent all night emptying the tent but the water kept coming in,” said Thaer Ibrahim Mohammed, a red and white headscarf wrapped around his head.

“This is the worst winter,” said the greying man.

Gaggles of children made the most of the afternoon sun and pulled rubber boots on their bare feet to romp in the camp’s sludgy alleys and have snowball fights.

The shelters in “Camp 040,” which lies on the edge of the village of Delhamiyeh and is one of the many informal settlements that dot the valley, are all the same.

They were erected on concrete slabs and their roofs are held down with used tires.

Their tarpaulin walls provide a flimsy protection against strong winds and freezing temperatures.

The camp looks like it could have sprung up just weeks earlier but many of its residents have lived there since 2012, when the Syrian conflict escalated.

Abu Ahmad, a native of Homs spending his seventh winter in Lebanon, said aid was inadequate.

“This year there was a lot of rain. But humanitarian organizations have reduced aid,” he said, standing on a brick placed as a stepping stone in a muddy puddle.

“You just need to look: Do you think this sheeting keeps us warm or keeps the water out? They gave us nothing, no new tarps, no firewood, nothing,” the young man said.

Aid organizations say they are doing their best to distribute emergency aid to the most vulnerable among the estimated 340,000 refugees living in the Bekaa Valley.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said close to 24,000 people were affected by extreme weather conditions.

Some tents were destroyed by the storms that elsewhere in Lebanon have cut the main road to Syria several times, flooded the highway north of Beirut and forced schools to close.

Relief agencies have had to relocate families who were left homeless, once again, in several feet of snow.

Fatima, a 20-year-old refugee originally from the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo, had to leave her tent with her family but opted to squeeze in with neighbors.

“The tent is totally flooded, we can’t live in it. So we took our things and left, what else can we do?”