Syria: German Foreign Minister calls for humanitarian zone to be established in Idlib

Ankara and Moscow brokered ceasefire triggers European scrabble to set up a safe haven

Germany's Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas (C) arrives  at the Informal meeting of EU Foreign Affairs ministers (Gymnich) at Luznica Castle near Zagreb on March 5, 2020. / AFP / Damir SENCAR
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for a humanitarian zone to be established in Syria’s war-ravaged Idlib province with “security guarantees” offered by Russia, a day after Ankara and Moscow brokered a ceasefire in the region.

European foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in the Croatian capital on Friday to address the crisis in Idlib, but talks were overshadowed when renewed clashes broke out on the Greek-Turkish border.

Russia and Turkey back opposition sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict: Moscow supports President Bashar Al Assad and Turkey backs some rebel groups. Several previous ceasefire deals in Idlib have collapsed.

“The development of the refugee situation on the Turkish-Greek border is also one that the European Union cannot simply accept,” said Mr Maas, after meeting with EU counterparts in the Croatian capital.

“We are ready to fulfil our obligations under the EU-Turkey agreement. Turkey must be too. Regardless, we want Turkey to also keep an eye on Europe and that Turkey has a connection with the West. It’s better than anything that presents itself as an alternative. That’s why we have to develop this difficult relationship very concretely. “

As ministers met in Zagreb, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the ceasefire and said he would visit Russia to discuss Syria as soon as possible.

He said that the European Union would host a Syria donor conference in Brussels on June 29-30 to raise funds for victims of the nine-year civil war and the surrounding countries. He added that governments involved in the conflict would be invited, referring to Ankara and Moscow.

Mr Borrell said that relations between Turkey and Russia needed to be improved to help the crisis in Idlib, before adding that EU ministers would discuss sending more funds to Ankara.

“Turkey is having a big burden, 4 million people [refugees], we have to understand that,” Mr Borrell said. “But at the same time we cannot accept migrants being used as a source of pressure.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the ceasefire needs to be strengthened by adding a no-fly zone over the province to stop further bombings of hospitals.

“It would be wise to add a no-fly zone,” he told reporters as he arrived for a meeting with EU counterparts in Zagreb.

“I think European countries are very willing to step forward ... to convince all U.N. Security Council members to set up this no-fly zone. It wouldn’t hinder the fight against al Qaeda (militants), but it will stop the bombings of hospitals,” Mr Blok said.

He also criticised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for politicising migrants and opposed more aid to be given to Turkey.

Meanwhile, more clashes broke out on the Greek-Turkish border on Friday as migrants tried to push through into Greece.

The country has seen an increase in the number of migrants reaching its shores since 2015. But earlier this week, it saw a sharp increase when more than 10,000 migrants, mostly from Syria, other Middle East states and Afghanistan, reached Turkey's borders with Greece and fellow EU member Bulgaria.

The influx of people came after Turkey opened its borders to Europe, saying the EU had not fulfilled its end of a more than €6 billion deal designed to reduce the flow migrants into Europe after more than a million people entered the EU in 2015.

Greek officials have accused Turkey of orchestrating a co-ordinated effort to drive migrants across the frontier.

Greek riot police used tear gas and a water cannon to drive back people trying to cross the land border from Turkey on Friday morning. Turkish police fired tear gas back toward Greece.

On Wednesday, the bloc pledged an extra €170 million to vulnerable people in Syria, with €60m of those funds being allocated to Idlib.