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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Putin pushes Merkel for Syrian refugee return even as many go hungry

The Russian president raised the spector of further migration crisis but in Syria many still rely on aid

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a statement on August 18, 2018 at Schloss Meseberg castle in Meseberg, northeastern Germany, where they meet to discuss conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well as energy issues. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a statement on August 18, 2018 at Schloss Meseberg castle in Meseberg, northeastern Germany, where they meet to discuss conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well as energy issues. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he supports the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, warning that Europe can’t afford another migration crisis.

The pair discussed the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as Iran and a gas pipeline project that has drawn U.S. ire during tough talks outside Berlin that ended with no clear-cut progress. It was their first bilateral meeting in Germany since 2013.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters no agreements were reached, but the meeting had simply been intended to "check the watches" after Ms Merkel's meeting with Mr Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May.

The invitation by Ms Merkel, Mr Putin’s most implacable critic since he annexed Crimea in 2014, is a break in his isolation that also reaffirms the German leader’s pivotal role in Europe. Yet while Mr Putin dangled the vista of humanitarian aid paving the way for some Syrian refugees to return home, German officials say that’s unrealistic for now.

“I remind you that there are a million refugees in Jordan and a million in Lebanon,” Mr Putin told reporters alongside Ms Merkel on Saturday before they met for about three hours at a chateau north of Berlin. “There are 3 million refugees in Turkey. This is potentially a huge burden on Europe, so it is better to do everything possible so that they can return home.”

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Standing beside Mr Putin before the talks, Ms Merkel said both countries - but especially Russia as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council - had a responsibility to try to solve the ongoing fighting in Ukraine and Syria.

She said she also planned to raise potentially thorny human rights issues with Mr Putin.

This picture taken on August 16, 2018 during a guided tour by the Russian Forces in Syria, shows a Russian military police officer in the citadel of Aleppo. (Photo by Andrei BORODULIN / AFP)
A Russian military police officer in the citadel of Aleppo, seen during a guided tour by the Russian forces in Syria. AFP

"I am of the opinion that controversial issues can only be addressed in dialogue and through dialogue," she said.

Ms Merkel said it was important to avert a humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria and the surrounding region, and said she and Mr Putin had already discussed the issue of constitutional reforms and possible elections when they last met in Sochi in May.

Backed by Russian warplanes since 2015, President Bashar Al Assad's regime has recovered large parts of Syria through a combination of deadly bombing campaigns, crippling sieges and surrender deals.

The central Syrian town of Rastan in Homs province was recaptured in May after an agreement that saw rebels and their family members bused out of the town and up to northern Syria.

Despite the return of government rule, 31-year-old Suleiman Berber said he and his family depend on aid from Russia to survive.

Before the regime returned to Rastan, "it was really tough. We didn't have enough to eat or drink," Mr Berber said as he watched Russian soldiers unload food parcels from a truck. "Now there's this aid, it's better."

Seven years into Syria's civil war, some 6.5 million people in the country are unable to meet their food needs, the United Nations says.

Around him, dozens of Syrians and their children, many dressed in dusty clothes, gathered to receive parcels of rice, flour and condensed milk.

A Russian convoy drives through a checkpoint decorated with portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the central city of Hama, on August 15, 2018. (Photo by Andrey BORODULIN / AFP)
A Russian convoy drives through a checkpoint decorated with portraits of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the central city of Hama. AFP

Each package bore Russia's flag and the message "Russia is with you" in Cyrillic script.

Russian army spokesman Igor Konachekov said the regime ally delivers food to the town once a day.

"We will continue until the food situation in Syria improves," he said.

"After the war is finished, it could still take several months."

In July, the UN's World Food Programme distributed food assistance to more than 3 million people in Syria.

"Soaring food and fuel prices, stagnant salaries, loss of livelihoods and reduced food production have led to widespread food insecurity across the country," it said.

In the neighbouring province of Hama, more than a dozen Syrians worked away on a farm.

Ahmad Al Tawil, the owner of the land, said some had returned to work after they were displaced to other parts of Syria or abroad.

Others had rented a plot to help feed their families, after the fighting between rebels and regime fighters subsided.

"The fighting happened just five kilometres from here," Mr Al Tawil explained, standing in an orchard where he said he has found landmines.

"When the shooting got too intense, the workers couldn't come."

His yield has been good this year, he said, after "lots of rain, which is perfect for potatoes and fruit".

A farmer picks peaches from trees in a farm in the village of Rahbet Khattab in the northwestern countryside of Hama province in central Syria, on August 15, 2018. - Seven years into Syria's civil war, some 6.5 million people in the country are unable to meet their food needs, the United Nations says. (Photo by Andrei BORODOULINE / AFP)
A farmer picks peaches from trees in a farm in the village of Rahbet in Hama province of central Syria. AFP

But due to low exports, Mr Al Tawil is selling them cheap and his farm is "working at a loss", he said, complaining about the high price of fertiliser.

Syria's Prime Minister Imad Khamis this week said developing the agricultural sector was a priority in areas the government controlled.

Measures are to include abolishing certain taxes for family agriculture projects, a cabinet statement said.