Turkey turns to West amid Idlib escalation

A Turkish soldier at a position near the village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometres southeast of the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. (AFP)
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Updated 21 February 2020

Turkey turns to West amid Idlib escalation

  • Ankara calls for Patriot missile systems to be deployed along border with Syria

ANKARA: The unfolding crisis in Syria’s Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold, is pushing Turkey to improve its relations with the West.
Two Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib on Thursday in an airstrike by the Syrian regime. The following day, in a phone call with his French and German counterparts, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “concrete action” to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
Erdogan “stressed the need to stop the aggression of the regime and its supporters in Idlib, and emphasized the importance of providing strong support through concrete actions to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” his office said.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on Thursday to Russian President Vladimir Putin to express their concern about the humanitarian crisis and to urge an end to the escalating fighting in Idlib.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News: “Despite many differences between Turkey and EU member states on foreign policy issues ranging from northeast Syria to Libya, they’re stakeholders in preventing a humanitarian disaster in Idlib and a new wave of refugees from Syria to Turkey and Europe.”
He said it would be out of the question for Western countries to send troops to Idlib, but they could provide Turkey with political support and Patriot surface-to-air missile systems close to the border with Syria.
“A declaration of commitment to improving the livelihoods of residents in Idlib after the regime offensive is averted should also be in the mix,” he added.
“A follow-up of the quadripartite meeting between the leaders of France, Germany, Turkey and the UK, this time in Turkey, would be a very good platform for announcing solidarity with Turkey.”
Turkish, French, German and British leaders convened in London last December ahead of a NATO Summit to discuss the Syrian crisis. They agreed to meet at least once a year.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change Inc., told Arab News: “Nobody considers the humanitarian crisis a top priority right now. The humanitarian tool has become the price of the ongoing struggle among the powers in the region.”
He said any potential summit between Turkey and EU leaders should focus on the refugee issue because of the influx of civilians in Idlib fleeing from Russian-backed bombings toward the Turkish border.
“EU leaders should agree to provide Turkey with more financial assistance to absorb the refugees, and must put more pressure on Russia to stop the Idlib operation,” he added.
“EU countries also should push for a serious political settlement, otherwise every time Russia has a conflict with Turkey, another crisis will come up.”
But Oubai Shahbandar, an Istanbul-based defense analyst, told Arab News: “Macron and Merkel have zero impact on either the balance of power in Syria or the humanitarian catastrophe that’s unfolding in Idlib. I doubt that Macron and Merkel will take any steps to counter Russian aggression in northwest Syria.”
Shahbandar said: “Summits have displayed their futility in achieving anything concrete in preventing Russia, Iran and the Assad regime from continuing their campaign of wholescale massacre in Syria.”
He added: “A bilateral US-Turkey understanding on Idlib will probably prove to be the only viable option in preventing disaster at this point.”
Meanwhile, Ankara has urged the US and other NATO members to deploy Patriots along the Turkish border to thwart any attacks from Syrian territory. No decision has yet been made by Washington. 
Germany withdrew its Patriots from Turkey five years ago. Spain is currently the only European NATO member with Patriots at Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base, which has been used in the past to support the US-led coalition’s operations against Daesh in Syria.

Lebanese students caught in a coronavirus no-man’s land

Medical employees on Friday prepare a patient infected with Covid-19 on a stretcher to be evacuated by helicopter to a hospital outside Paris region. (AFP)
Updated 28 min 23 sec ago

Lebanese students caught in a coronavirus no-man’s land

  • With banking rules restricting money transfers, some students want to return home because crisis may continue for months

PARIS: As the coronavirus crisis continues, and given a banking sector in Lebanon that is restricting money transfers, many Lebanese students stranded in Europe are pleading with their government to fly them home.

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said that anyone wishing to return must first be tested for the virus. However, tests are not readily available in four European countries in which we talked to students and diplomats. The Lebanese government has also touted plans to repatriate 20,000 citizens but this has yet to happen.
Many Lebanese students were stranded by state-imposed lockdowns.
Some want to return home because the restrictions will continue for months and they are financially struggling. Others, however, fear they might contract the virus during the journey and infect their families.
Makarram Marhaba, a third-year student studying literature and journalism at the Sorbonne in France, said she contacted the Lebanese Embassy asking to return home but has not received a decision.
“The staff at the embassy were extremely kind and recorded the information,” she said.
“Then they told me there was no procedure for repatriation and suggested I regularly check the embassy’s pages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for any official announcements.”
She initially chose to wait in France for the pandemic and quarantine to end.
“I observed that there were quite a few people who were infected as they went through the airport,” she said.
“Therefore I chose not to endanger my family in Lebanon by possibly becoming infected on the trip.
“Now, however, they say that the lockdown could last until June and the exams might be postponed or canceled. In that case I have waited for nothing. If I get a chance to return, I will take it.”
She is also facing the prospect of financial problems if forced to remain in France for months.
“Since the beginning of the crisis, my parents have been unable to make any money transfers, not because of a lack of money but because of the banking restrictions,” said Marhaba, whose brother is also studying in France.
Richard Malha, who is in his second year of study, also chose to remain. His two brothers also live in France “We were encouraged to go home but it was not always possible,” he said.
“The polytechnic has about 40 Lebanese and Franco-Lebanese students.

If the hospitals in Lebanon are overloaded, I will further burden them and that is why it is better for me to stay in France, where I have a job and am paid.

Layal Messara, Researcher

“Whether in Lebanon or in France, we will be confined. In addition, if I return to Lebanon, there is a risk of infecting my parents, who are not young.”
Layal Messara has lived for five years in France, where she teaches pharmacy at the University of Bordeaux and carries out clinical research in hematology.
Her decision not to return to Lebanon was based on a desire to protect her own health and that of her parents.
“If the hospitals in Lebanon are overloaded, I will further burden them and that is why it is better for me to stay in France, where I have a job and am paid,” she said.
Messara chairs the Aquicèdre Association, which helps Lebanese students adjust and integrate.
“I know that a number of students want to go home because they are uncomfortably confined in cramped studios or rooms,” she said.
“They are suffering psychologically. Others are facing financial problems because their parents cannot transfer money from Lebanon due to bank restrictions or because they have lost their jobs.
“There are also students who relied on part-time jobs in France, in cafes and restaurants, and they have lost those jobs. There is a crisis group at the Lebanese Embassy trying to help them.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to France, Rami Adwan, said there are 240,000 Lebanese in France, including 4,800 students. About 1,300 people have applied to return home, including 1,000 students.
“Some are suffering psychologically because of confinement,” he said. “Many are lonely and afraid and don’t have enough food. Others told us that they are facing financial problems and no longer have money. A group ... was formed to contact those who request help.”
Adwan said that the embassy has contacted the Association of Banks in Lebanon requesting that banks allow money to be transferred to students, and asked private individuals for help.
“The Chamber of Commerce has also created an account with the embassy’s blessing,” he added. “I was amazed by the generous donations to the fund, which will allow students to support themselves for two months.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada, said that 550 Lebanese students in Britain have asked to return home.
“The requested tests (for the virus) are not available,” said Mortada. “We will see what the government decides.” He added that there is a plan to provide students with financial help in the form of a monthly allowance.
Lebanon’s ambassador to Spain, Hala Keyrouz, said about 400 students remain in the country. Their situation is difficult, she said, given the growing numbers of infected patients.
“About 300 students want to return to Lebanon,” she said. “No (virus) tests are available.”
Roula Nourredine, Lebanon’s ambassador in Switzerland, said that more than 300 Lebanese in the country have asked to return home.