Merkel, Erdogan hold tense talks in shadow of protests

Relations between the two NATO countries plummeted after Turkish authorities arrested tens of thousands of people in a mass purge over the attempted putsch against Erdogan. (AFP)
Updated 28 September 2018

Merkel, Erdogan hold tense talks in shadow of protests

  • Erdogan's state visit to Germany, complete with military honors, is Erdogan’s first there since becoming president in 2014
  • Erdogan critics have vowed to take to the streets across Germany to protest

BERLIN: Germany’s Angela Merkel hosts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Berlin Friday to try to repair badly frayed ties, a task complicated by planned anti-Erdogan protests and the chancellor’s own domestic woes.
The pair are meeting a day after Germany beat Turkey to become the Euro 2024 host nation, following a tight race that took on political significance when Erdogan fanned accusations of German discrimination in football.
In an editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily, Erdogan said he wanted to “turn the page” on a long period of tensions, sparked by Berlin’s criticism of his crackdown on opponents after a failed 2016 coup.
His state visit to Germany, complete with military honors, is Erdogan’s first there since becoming president in 2014 and comes as he is sparring with US President Donald Trump and 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.”
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.
But the hostility toward the visit comes at an awkward time for the veteran chancellor, who can ill afford any missteps after being weakened by a slew of crises that have rocked her fragile coalition.
Europe’s de facto leader last week was forced to backtrack on a decision to promote a domestic spy chief who was under fire for his alleged far-right links, prompting Merkel to admit she had misread the public mood.
Erdogan critics have vowed to take to the streets across Germany to protest everything from Turkey’s record on human rights and press freedom to its offensive against Kurdish militia in Syria.
Some 10,000 people are expected to rally under the motto “Erdogan Not Welcome” in Berlin on Friday.
Demonstrators are also planning to protest in Cologne on Saturday where Erdogan will open one of Europe’s largest mosques, commissioned by the Turkish-controlled Ditib organization.
“Erdogan wants a fresh start with Germany. This is an opportunity,” the Sueddeutsche Zeitung said, urging Merkel to push Ankara to end its repressive tactics and free the five remaining German-Turkish nationals considered political prisoners by Berlin.
“But we can’t just forget everything that happened. It could take years to rebuild trust,” it added.
Relations between the two NATO countries plummeted after Turkish authorities arrested tens of thousands of people in a mass purge over the attempted putsch against Erdogan.
But a gradual rapprochement began after German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel was freed earlier this year. He still face terror-related charges in Turkey however.
Germany is home to a three-million strong Turkish community and observers said Merkel now faced the delicate balancing act of accepting Erdogan’s outstretched hand — without glossing over their disagreements.
Erdogan for his part said he would use his trip to urge Germany to show “the necessary support” in fighting the fight against “terrorist groups” like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the movement of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the coup.
Turkey’s stalled EU membership bid and its role in the conflict in Syria are likewise expected to be on the agenda.
In terms of economic cooperation, Der Spiegel weekly reported that German conglomerate Siemens was in talks to lead a potentially 35-billion-euro ($40-billion) deal to modernize Turkey’s rail infrastructure.
In a sign of the contentious nature of the visit, several opposition politicians have vowed to boycott Friday’s state dinner in Erdogan’s honor.
Merkel too will be absent, although her office insists it’s not out of the ordinary for her to skip such events.
Merkel and Erdogan are scheduled to hold a second round of talks on Saturday.


Syria regime forces on edge of key rebel-held town

Updated 21 min 45 sec ago

Syria regime forces on edge of key rebel-held town

  • Maaret Al-Numan is one of the largest urban centers in the northwestern province of Idlib
  • The regime and its Russian ally have escalated their bombardment against the militant-dominated region since December

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces have reached the outskirts of a key city on the edge of the country’s last rebel-held stronghold, a monitor and a pro-government newspaper said Sunday.
The mainly deserted city of Maaret Al-Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 linking Damascus to Syria’s second city Aleppo, a main highway coveted by the regime as it seeks to regain control of the entire country.
It is one of the largest urban centers in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and currently home to some three million people — half of them displaced by violence in other areas.
The regime and its Russian ally have escalated their bombardment against the militant-dominated region since December, carrying out hundreds of air strikes in southern Idlib and the west of neighboring Aleppo province.
Over the past 24 hours, government ground forces have seized seven villages on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Numan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said Sunday.
They have now reached “the edges of the city and are... within gunfire range of part of the highway,” it said.
Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported that loyalist forces were “just around the corner” from the city, whose “doors are wide open.”
Idlib and nearby areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakiya provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militant group, led by members of the country’s former Al-Qaeda franchise.
The regime of President Bashar Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria, despite several cease-fire agreements.
An AFP correspondent says Maaret Al-Numan has become a ghost town.
Assad’s forces, which are also battling HTS militants in western Aleppo province, are backed on both fronts by Syrian and Russian air strikes.
The fighting has left dozens of fighters dead on both sides.
Since 1 December, some 358,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, the vast majority of them women and children, according to the United Nations.
A cease-fire announced by Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but the truce never took hold.
Aid agencies and relief groups have warned that further violence could fuel what may potentially become the largest wave of displacement seen during Syria’s nine-year-old civil war.
Syrian government forces now control around 70 percent of the country and Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib.