German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday (24 April) that she did not favour classical “safe zones” in Syria which would need to be protected by foreign forces, but believed that peace talks in Geneva could agree areas where fleeing Syrians could feel safe from bombardment.
“I believe that if you had followed what I said yesterday in Turkey, it is something that has to come out of the Geneva peace talks; it is not about classical safe zones,” she said during a news conference with US President Barack Obama.
“Can one, when one speaks about a ceasefire, identify regions in the talks between the negotiating partners in Geneva where people can feel particularly safe. It is not about some influence from the outside but rather from within the talks,” she added.
Safe zones in Syria are a Turkish idea. Ankara has previously indicated it wants to create a “safe zone” in Syria to which Syrians could flee and Turkey could return Syrian refugees.
The UN and aid agencies have previously warned against the so-called’ safe zones’ saying the safety of refugees could not be guaranteed.
Obama however reaffirmed his doubts about creating “safe zones” for refugees in Syria.
“As a practical matter, sadly, it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us being willing to militarily take over a chunk of that country,” Obama said. “And that requires a big military commitment” to protect refugees from attacks.
Visit to Gaziantep
Merkel visited a refugee camp near Gaziantep, on the Turkish-Syrian border Saturday (23 April), kicking off a high-stakes visit aimed at boosting a month-old migrant deal plagued by moral and legal concerns.
Joined by European Council head Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Merkel headed to the Nizip 2 camp near Gaziantep after touching down in the country’s south-east.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pressured Merkel and top EU officials on Saturday to deliver on a promise of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens key to the success of a migrant deal.
“The issue of the visa waiver is vital for Turkey,” he said at a joint news conference with Merkel, Tusk and Timmermans.
Merkel is on a high-stakes visit to Turkey aimed at boosting a six-billion-euro deal plagued by moral and legal concerns to return migrants arriving on Greek shores to Turkey.
Ties between Germany and Turkey are strained following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warning that the deal would fall through if the EU did not keep up its end of the bargain by allowing visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
The bloc promised to present a visa recommendation on 4 May if Ankara complies with its side of the accord, but there has been growing unease in Europe over fears that security concerns are being fudged to fast-track Turkey’s application.
At the same time, Tusk heaped high praise on Turkey for its reception of Syrian refugees, saying the country served as “the best example” in the world on caring for those fleeing war.
“Today Turkey is the best example for the whole world (on) how we should treat refugees,” he said at a press conference.
“This is not only a political and formal assessment… this is also my very private and personal feeling,” he said.
“Welcome to Turkey, the world’s largest refugee hosting country,” read a huge banner hanging over the entrance to the camp, which hosts some 5,000 people, including 1,900 children, in row upon row of white and beige prefabricated houses.
The European leaders are keen to show how funds are helping Turkey improve conditions for the 2.7 million refugees the country is hosting — though critics have pointed out the majority live in poverty far from the official camps.
Security for the visit was high: the delegation arrived at the camp on a coach with snipers on the roof. Police had earlier arrested six people suspected of links to the Islamic State group accused of plotting an attack.
Merkel met some of the camp’s younger residents as she inaugurated an EU-funded child protection centre, bending to praise the drawings of several children armed with colouring pencils in a brightly-decorated classroom, before receiving presents and kisses from other youngsters.
Many in Europe were watching closely to see if the EU delegation to Gaziantep takes a stand against the deterioration of rights.
Tusk set the tone for a confrontational visit on Friday, when he insisted “our freedoms, including freedom of expression, will not be subject to any political bargaining. This message must be heard by President Erdogan.”
His comments came as Turkish scholars and journalists, who have criticised the state’s policies on Kurds and Syria, stood trial in Istanbul accused of betraying the state.
The cases have sounded alarm bells over the growing restrictions on free speech under Erdogan and increased pressure on Merkel to show more spine after allowing a German comedian to be prosecuted for a crude poem about the Turkish leader.
She was taunted Friday by one of the reporters on trial, Can Dundar, editor in chief of an opposition daily, who wrote an open letter saying Germany was “on the wrong side” and asking: “Will you again pretend there is no repression here?”