Merkel & Macron’s presence at Syria talks will seal Putin’s diplomatic triumph – on one condition

By coming to Saturday’s summit in Istanbul, European leaders are admitting that Russia is now dictating the terms on Syria. But Vladimir Putin’s 3-year gambit won’t be vindicated until a resolution comes in Idlib and beyond.

While all parties in the so-called quadrilateral talks have been given equal billing, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron’s role will be to salvage the best deal for Europe from the accord that was struck without them by Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month.

In 2018, sitting at the table headed by the Russian and Turkish presidents seems like pragmatism, as Europe outspokenly quakes in fear of a new wave of refugees in the aftermath of the inevitable government assault on Idlib, the last substantial rebel stronghold in Syria. But did such a scenario seem plausible after the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, and the West demanded nothing but Bashar Assad’s removal, in the summer of 2015 when the Syrian president’s forces reached a point of depletion, or November the same year, when Turkish forces shot down a Russian Su-24, setting off a 9-month diplomatic rift between the countries?

This much “give” from Europe is unprecedented. Often lectured and castigated by those sitting across them, Erdogan and Putin can allow themselves a moment of self-congratulation, more so the latter, whose ally Assad looks poised to take back control of his country.

 
FILE PHOTOS © Reuters / Umit Bektas, Francois Lenoir, Toby Melville

In Syria, the past three years have served as proof of concept for Russia’s foreign policy for the future. Crimea may have galvanized Putin’s domestic audience more, but it is Syria that gave Moscow its new-found international standing, and created a reputation for its leader as some multi-dimensional chess master.

Yet Russia’s recipe has been simple. Its military support, intended not to signal help, but to provide it, tipped the scale of what was already a festering conflict towards a way out, however undesirable by some of the outside players. In parallel, Moscow’s initial diplomatic efforts – bringing together Tehran and Ankara – were perceived as showy window dressing for the falling bombs, lacking participation from many of the key actors on the ground. But backed by genuine power ten rounds of Astana and Sochi have actually laid the foundations for actionable proposals, including the Idlib agreement. As France and Germany’s participation indicates, this diplomatic track has now overtaken the stalled but ongoing UN-backed Geneva process.

Just as important as who sit down in Istanbul, are those that have been left by the wayside, no longer considered powerful or essential enough to the peace settlement. Saudi Arabia’s designs on turning Syria into another Sunni-dominated outpost have sputtered, and while it continues to fund rebels, and counteract Iran, with its domestic reforms, multiple parallel conflicts, and the Khashoggi crisis that has pitted it against Ankara, Riyadh has more pressing matters on its hands.

READ MORE: Business as usual: US Treasury Secretary meets with Saudi Crown Prince amid Khashoggi outrage

Meanwhile the US has bungled its way out of any serious diplomatic consideration. From the empty posturing and red lines of the Obama era, to the half-hearted support of the purported moderates, the US has struggled to articulate its aims, particularly in the wake of the demolition of Islamic State, which offered it a straightforward adversary. Unlike Iran, where Donald Trump has been tenacious and focused, in Syria, the US leader has been reactive, and prone to flip flops, such as over the future role of its troops on Syrian land. Washington continues to be present in the country, and is supporting another faction in the conflict, the Kurds, but rather than serving American policy interest this seems to merely be aggravating Ankara, which views them as the terrorists, and turning it towards Moscow.

Russia will be pleased at its outmaneuvering of the US in this theater, and as with energy cooperation and the Iran deal, Putin will enjoy driving a wedge between Europe and the US, by bringing in the former, while leaving Washington on the margins.

Idlib accord or discord?

But the gloating amid the geopolitical games will ring hollow for as long as the war, which has taken around half a million lives, continues.

Idlib, located in the north-west of the country, between Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, and Aleppo to the east, has become the drain pit into which the anti-government forces have collected after a series of defeats through the course of the last two years. Controlled by Islamist factions of varying radicalism, including a powerful Al Qaeda affiliate, Tahrir Al-Sham, it is also home for up to 3 million civilians, many of them refugees from elsewhere in the country. A direct confrontation between government forces engaged in a final assault, and militants making a last stand would be gory.

The Idlib memorandum was a last-ditch attempt to avert what the UN predicted would be a humanitarian catastrophe, but it remains complex and ambiguous in its aims and potential outcomes, and there is little surprise it was delayed beyond its original October 15 implementation date.

 
© Sergey Guneev

It proposes a 15 to 20 km de-escalation zone around the rebel-controlled area, which could become a safe haven for civilians, and a means of testing compliance from the group inside that would be forced to leave or face destruction. Communication and trade with the outside world is set to be restored by the end of the year.

But the plan contains no actual proposal for a long-term cessation of hostilities, and does not in any case neatly fit any of the sides’ agendas.

The Syrian army wants to simply retake the area, as is its right, but is wary of sustaining heavy casualties against a force that is not in an enclave, but directly connected to supply lines behind the border.

Turkey desires to maintain its foothold in Syria, and in the longer term, perhaps to convert the area into an occupied territory, weakening Damascus, giving Ankara a launching ground for its conflict with the Kurds, as well as a location for refugee camps. But what it doesn’t want is more than its current 3.4 million refugees that would inevitably result from an all-out assault, so it benefits from prolonging the status quo.

Meanwhile, Moscow has a tough balancing act, as it supports Assad’s campaign, but will not want to aggravate Turkey, without whose cooperation a full-scale conflict would resume. Russia has encouraged Turkey to defuse the situation by encouraging the fighters it has funded to pull out, ensuring that the ones left are legitimate targets.

Within Idlib itself, there are splinter groups, some of which would surrender or escape, while others are determined to fight to the death. So far none of them have moved from the buffer zones, and worse still, they could begin an internecine factional battle that could be every bit the humanitarian disaster of any external assault.

Can anyone on Saturday do anything to break this deadlock? Is Turkey prepared to sacrifice some of its ambitions on the wrong side of its border? Will Putin promise Erdogan to hold back the Syrian forces, and for how long? And can Europe offer anything more than platitudes about civilians, and bribes for Turkey not to send more asylum seekers?

The optics of Istanbul will likely be promising, but this does not appear like an issue that can be solved by four leaders in an afternoon, and Kremlin has already attempted to lower expectations, saying that the summit will be about “comparing notes” and not “breakthroughs.”

Igor Ogorodnev

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Europe Can No Longer Rely On US To "Protect" It: Angela Merkel

Aachen:  Europe can no longer rely on the United States to protect it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday, urging the bloc to take its destiny in its own hands.

"It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands, that's the task of the future," she said, after US President Donald Trump left traditional allies scrambling by ditching the landmark Iran nuclear deal.

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‘Merkel is on a destructive course, refuses to correct her policies’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s momentum is clearly downward, and she is going to be in an even weaker position if snap elections are called. She should step aside and recognize time has been called, political experts told RT.

After talks on forming a coalition government collapsed, Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to seek advice from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The president will now try to persuade the members of the failed coalition to rethink their decision and return to talks.

RT talked to political experts about the uncertain future Merkel's currently facing.

RT: Merkel says she'd prefer a snap election to the formation of a minority government. Would that not be a retrograde step?

 
German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) speaks to media after the exploratory talks about forming a new coalition government collapsed in Berlin, Germany, November 20, 2017 © Hannibal Hanschke

Steven Meissner, independent political observer: It will be a step backward for her. I don’t think there is any chance that she will be able to make the 34 percent that she made in September. Her momentum is clearly down. The voting population will be fairly disappointed in the outcome of her negotiations. Her standing has been hurt. She is on the way out. I said this on the eve of the elections that her days are numbered, and it is becoming more and more apparent to other observers that her days are numbered. If they have to go through another election, I would guess a number something like 29 to 30 percent is all she will do. In other words, she is going to be in an even weaker position than she is right now. Ideally, the CDU before they go into another election should have a new candidate and start over with a fresh face, but they are not going to be able to do that very quickly.

RT: Why is she calling for the snap elections?

SM: She is between a rock and a hard place. Where is she going to go? This Jamaica coalition has basically not been doable. A minority government in Germany on a federal level has never been done. Nobody really thinks that that would work or would be stable. In other words, within a year or two, it would probably collapse anyway, and you would have elections. If she had any real honor as a leader, she would have stepped back on election night, and she didn’t. So I don’t expect her to step down now either… she could step back and say I’m giving it up to a new leader of the party, and he or she will go into the election with better chances than she will...

RT: Could you explain the situation with the possible snap elections in Germany? What does it mean? Is it a step back for Merkel?

Dr. Max Otte, professor for general and international business administration at the University of Applied Sciences, Worms: It was very surprising to me. So far, she has always clung to power. I thought she would have sought another negotiated solution, so this is a surprise. Everybody is putting this to FDP. In the end, the Jamaica coalition, comprised of Greens, FDP, CDU/CSU was a very unlikely and strange construct. That cannot work, and we can see that the country is in some turmoil here. This is indeed an unprecedented situation.

 
Migrants take selfies with German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Fabrizio Bensch

RT: The German president has called this an unprecedented situation in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, and he is calling for fresh negotiations. How likely is it they will lead to anything new?

MO: The FDP is really for a change in the course. The FDP is maintaining its senses. I think it could have the power to bring the CDU back to its senses. It is unfortunate that the FDP was singled out as a culprit in this. I think they have a very sensible direction. We don’t know if there is going to be new elections, but if there are going to be new elections, I am pretty certain the FDP and probably also the AfD - the opposition party that came into a parliament with 13.6 percent of votes - will gain because there is quite silent and significant part of the population that wants a change in the immigration policy. I would be surprised if we had fresh elections, but Merkel has apparently stated that we are going to have them…

The Greens want this immigration policy to continue, and I think this is a big detriment for Germany, so the FDP had to walk out because there was no possibility of a consensus… Merkel is apparently closer to the Greens than to the FDP, which is really not surprising, but it’s a shame for the country. Why not form a minority government with the CDU/CSU being tolerated by the AfD and the other parties? That’s a very sensible option, but nobody talks about that. Everything is in the air, and we just have to wait and see how things develop.

RT: How likely is it that Merkel will win again if there are snap elections?

MO: I was surprised that she actually called for fresh elections because I think that she will lose further. I think she is past her prime and she should step aside. She hasn’t recognized the call of time. And sometime now or later the reality will hit her. I think she should resign, she has completely failed and this is the receipt for it.

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German Federal Chancellor Criticizes Trump's Migration Measures

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the temporary veto imposed by US President Donald Trump on the arrival of citizens of several Muslim-majority nations.

'Merkel is convinced that the determined war against terrorism does not justify putting people under general suspicion based on a particular provenance or religion,' said on Sunday German Cabinet spokesman Steffen Seibert.

According to Seibert, who published a statement by the chancellor on Twitter, Merkel regrets the decision of the US government and expressed this in the 45-minute telephone conversation held on Saturday with the new occupant of the White House.

The German spokesman explained that his government will now analyze the consequences that the measures imposed by Trump have for German citizens with dual nationality.

On Friday, the US president signed an executive order banning refugees from entering the country for four months, as well as delivering visas to citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days. The goal, in his view, is to keep radical terrorists outside the United States.

The provisions now generate rejection by the international community.

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Berlin Christmas Market Was Target of Terrorist Attack, Angela Merkel Says

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that the Berlin Christmas market where 12 people died Monday night was the target of a terrorist attack.

The German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said that a man arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attack was a 23-year-old Pakistani who had applied for asylum.

“We must assume at the current time that it was a terrorist attack,” Ms. Merkel said on Tuesday. “I know that it would be particularly difficult for all of us to bear if it is confirmed that this deed was carried out by a person who sought protection and asylum in Germany.”

It would also greatly amplify the political problems Ms. Merkel already faces over her government’s policy of admitting refugees by the hundreds of thousands. The policy has come under mounting criticism, both from her allies and from the far right of the political spectrum.

Continue reading the main story

Ms. Merkel, dressed in black, made a brief appearance before reporters Tuesday morning, saying that she was “horrified, shaken and deeply sad.” Those behind the killings would be punished “as severely as our laws demand,” Ms. Merkel said.

In the attack, a tractor-trailer truck jumped a sidewalk around 8 p.m. and plowed into the market near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a symbolic Berlin site whose spire, jagged from bomb damage, was intentionally left unrepaired after World War II.

The driver fled after the attack.

The police said they had later arrested a man near the scene who was suspected of involvement. The chief of police in Berlin, Klaus Kandt, told reporters on Tuesday that “it is actually not clear” whether the man they had arrested was the driver.

The chief federal prosecutor, Peter Frank, noted at a news conference that “a suspect is not a perpetrator,” and said the investigation of the man was a priority, but not the only one. He refused to speculate about whether there were others involved in the attack who were still at large.

Mr. de Maizière said in a late-morning news conference that the suspect entered Germany and registered as an applicant for asylum on Dec. 31, 2015, and that he reached Berlin in February. Several hearings were scheduled in his asylum case, Mr. de Maizière said, but the man did not appear at some hearings and there were problems with translation at others, so his application has not been processed.

Mr. de Maizière said the suspect had denied any involvement in the attack.

Officials in Berlin have been straining to deal with a flood of asylum applications. Although the number of arrivals has slowed recently from a high point in the summer of 2015, tens of thousands remain in communal housing, awaiting processing of their applications.

Merkel: ‘This Is a Very Difficult Day’, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that, for now, it must be assumed that a truck's plowing into a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday night, killing 12 people, was an act of terrorism.

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In addition to the 12 dead, 48 people were wounded at the Berlin market, 18 of them critically, Mr. de Maizière said.

Seeking clues about the attacker and his motives, the German special police conducted a search at the refugee shelter at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin early Tuesday, a security official said, declining to give details.

The Berlin police appealed to anyone who was at the Christmas market or in the area on Monday night to send them any videos or photographs of the attack and to refrain from posting the material on social media.

Mr. de Maizière made a similar appeal, noting that the country’s security depended on tips from the public.

The president of the federal criminal police, Holger Münch, said investigators were collecting evidence at the scene and were asking the public for any information that could help piece together the sequence of events leading to the attack.

Mr. Münch noted that his agency had warned of a possible terrorist attack, and that the events in Berlin had confirmed that the threat was serious.

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said the search of the shelter at Tempelhof occurred around 4 a.m. No arrests were made, according to the radio station Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, which cited a city security official whom it did not identify.

“Twelve people were among us yesterday and were happy about Christmas and the holidays,” Ms. Merkel said. “This is incomprehensible, this act that robbed them of their lives.”

She said she was meeting with Germany’s interior and justice ministers and would visit the Christmas market later in the day. “We don’t want to do without Christmas markets, without nice outings together,” she said. “We do not wish to let fear and angst take away our freedom to live.”

Mr. de Maizière said that Berlin’s Christmas markets should close for a day, but he added that, in general, Germany’s many holiday-themed markets and other events should continue to take place. He said that there would be an increased security presence and that local officials would make decisions about particular aspects of events that might need to be curtailed for safety reasons. He also said that security would be heightened at railway stations and other public facilities.

Officials have been aware for some time of the risk of attacks on holiday-themed events in Europe. The State Department issued a travel alert on Nov. 21 recommending that Americans “exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets” throughout the Continent.

Witness Describes Fatal Crash At Berlin Market; a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday evening, leaving at least twelve people dead and many more injured, according to the police. A British tourist who witnessed the incident described what she saw.

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“Credible information” indicated that the Islamic State, its affiliates and sympathizers “continue to plan terrorist attacks in Europe, with a focus on the upcoming holiday season and associated events,” the alert said, and that an attack could come with little or no warning.

The general mood in Berlin was subdued on Tuesday. People went about their business calmly but much more quietly than usual, and they were reluctant to speak to reporters — or, seemingly, even to one another.

“People are a little bit taking time off, and a little bit afraid,” said Memo El-Schafie, 47, a vendor at a coffee and cake stand in the Stadtmitte subway station, where there were notably few passengers for a weekday morning.

Heiko Maas, the German federal justice minister, said on Tuesday that the events “not only hit Berlin right in its heart, but hit us all.”

The truck that plowed into the market belonged to a Polish company, and more signs emerged on Tuesday that it had been hijacked.

Mr. de Maizière said that one of the 12 people killed in Berlin was a Polish man who was found dead with a gunshot wound in the passenger seat of the truck. The gun that caused the injury has not been recovered, he said. Officials indicated that they considered the Polish man a victim and not a perpetrator.

Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party said in a statement early Tuesday that “Germany is no longer safe,” and told citizens that it would be Ms. Merkel’s “duty to tell you that.”

Noting the successive terrorist attacks in France, including a truck driven into a crowded beachfront promenade in Nice in July, Ms. Petry called the carnage at the Berlin market “not just an attack on our freedom and our way of life but also on our Christian tradition.”

The side of the market where the truck slammed into the crowd remained cordoned off early Tuesday. Police officers patrolled the area, as Berlin residents bearing flowers and candles placed them at makeshift memorials on either side of the church.

Oliver Horn said he had written the slogan “Même pas peur” (French for “Not even afraid”) from the aftermath of the Nice attacks, on a poster and hung it near the site on his way to work on Tuesday.

“It just came to my mind,” he said of the gesture. “I felt I had to do something.”

The sign caught the attention of Cyril Leteuil, who was visiting Berlin from Bordeaux. “It’s just like Nice,” he said. “We’ve seen this in France.”

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