Syria trip by German far-right stokes refugee tension

AfD delegation claims that country is safe provoke locals and exiles while regime bombs civilians

A picture taken on March 8, 2018 shows Syrians walking down a street past rubble from destroyed buildings, in the rebel-held town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of Damascus. / AFP PHOTO / HAMZA AL-AJWEH
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A visit to Damascus by far-right German politicians who want Syrians to go home has been condemned by civilians under fire near the capital as well as exiles who say the trip has inflamed tension over refugees.

The seven MPs from the Alternative for Germany party have met representatives of President Bashar Al Assad's government, despite suburbs around the city being pounded by regime warplanes.

The AfD, which won a record level of support in Germany's recent elections by touting an anti-immigrant campaign, has long argued that large parts of Syria are peaceful and that the country should be declared safe. It has called for Germany to agree a treaty with Mr Assad's government to arrange the return of refugees, even though the majority of them oppose him.

The seven-day Syria trip has been billed as a fact-finding mission with the visitors meeting MPs, the Assad-loyal Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, and reconciliation minister Ali Haidar. Facebook posts by the leader of the AfD delegation, Christian Blex, referred to opposition fighters as "terrorists" and praised the Syrian government for providing free education and healthcare.

He posted dozens of photos on Facebook showing the delegation sitting in a cafe in Homs, meeting smiling students and schoolchildren and strolling through a market in Damascus since they arrived in the country on Monday. They also plan to visit Aleppo.


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Their itinerary does not include the rebel-held suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, three kilometres from the capital, where the United Nations has said people face an "apocalypse" and where 900 civilians have been killed in the last 18 days in a ferocious bombardment by the Assad regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In a video clip posted on Twitter by German-Syrian human rights group Adopt a Revolution, Syrians in Eastern Ghouta posted a response to the AfD's trip. "You’re in Damascus. So you can hear the fighter jets and shells the whole time," said a woman standing in a destroyed building. "I challenge you to come here and see if you can stand it for 24 hours. Or even one hour."

One man filming himself in front of a rubble-filled street in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta said above the sound of gunfire: "The refugees are supposed to come back? Where are they supposed to live? See for yourselves, it's all destroyed."

Syria's Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar meets with Christian Blex, a regional AfD lawmaker, in Syria March 6, 2018. Picture taken March 6, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE
Syria's Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar meets with Christian Blex, a regional AfD lawmaker, in Syria March 6, 2018. Picture taken March 6, 2018. SANA via Reuters

Mr Blex, a former schoolteacher, however, was unequivocal: "As media reporting in Germany doesn't provide a trustworthy means of assessing the actual situation in Syria, the aim of the trip is to to get a detailed picture on site of the humanitarian situation in Syria and the reconstruction work being done in the areas liberated from the terrorists,' he wrote.

In another Facebook post, he added: "While so-called 'Syrian refugees' from Homs are drinking coffee at the German taxpayers' expense in Berlin, we're drinking coffee in Homs out of our own pocket."

Upon his arrival in Damascus he wrote: "You hardly see any military. There are adverts for mobile phones and TVs. Normal everyday life."

The AfD is the largest opposition party in Germany since it won 12.6 percent in the September 2017 election by riding a wave of protest against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to keep the borders open during the 2015 refugee crisis.

Over a million people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have entered Germany since the beginning of 2015. Syrians have been the biggest single group. Since the outbreak of the conflict in spring 2011, more than 600,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed in.

The German government condemned the trip. "People who fawn over this regime are disqualifying themselves," said Ms Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert. "The Syrian regime shows every day how inhumanely it treats its own population."

All parties voiced outrage of the trip. Michael Brand, a lawmaker for Ms Merkel's conservatives, said: "This is disgusting. As politicians from Germany, they have dragged the good name of our country through the mud and derided the victims of a brutal war. They're obviously willing to resort to any means to pursue their own agenda."

Politicians noted that the Grand Mufti had in the past threatened the West with suicide attacks. Mr Blex described the meeting with "his excellency" as the highlight of his first day in Syria. "He calls on all Syrian refugees to return to their homeland," he wrote.

Rolf Mutzenich, a lawmaker from the Social Democrats, said the German parliament would check who paid for the visit. The AfD members said they financed it themselves and called it a private trip. It is evident however that the regime helped to set up their meetings.

The AfD's rhetoric has drawn comparisons with the Nazis. AfD politicians have hailed the achievements of German soldiers in the Second World War and criticised the building of Germany's main Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

The have promised to "muck out Germany", shut its borders, boost deportations and put a stop to the "invasion of foreigners." AfD politician Andre Poggenburg last month called Turks "camel drivers" who should go back to their "mud huts far beyond the Bosphorus".

But support for the party has grown in recent months and one recent poll put it at 15 percent, neck and neck with the Social Democrats who are about to form a government with the conservatives. It filed a motion in parliament last month to forbid women from wearing burqas in public places.

But the trip might yet backfire. "The only purpose is to provide sham justification for their claim that Syrians don't need to be in Germany," political analyst Hajo Funke, one of Germany’s leading experts on the far-right, told The National.

"This is a cheap propaganda ploy that is being backed by the party leaders who are responsible for this nonsense. It will cost them votes."