Idlib: “The agreement now needs to be put into practice”

06.03.2020 - Interview

Interview by Deutschlandfunk with Foreign Minister Maas on the agreement between Russia and Turkey on a ceasefire in Idlib

Does the ceasefire agreed between Putin and Erdoğan mean that aid can now be provided to the hundreds of thousands of refugees in need?

Well, the agreement between Russia and Turkey is certainly a welcome development. However, it was also long overdue. At two UN Security Council meetings last week, we called on both sides to secure a ceasefire in order to end the suffering this fighting is causing the civilian population, and most importantly, to create a space where further humanitarian aid can be provided.

That is why Germany informed the UN yesterday that it is willing to provide a further 100 million euros in the near future. If the ceasefire holds and the Russians can also persuade the Assad regime to adhere to it, it will be possible to work with humanitarian organisations and aid workers on the ground to actually provide assistance to the many refugees in the region. And that would be a very, very positive development.

Does the outcome of these talks in Moscow yesterday lead you to believe that both sides – Turkey and Russian President Putin – are actually willing to make this kind of humanitarian aid possible?

At the moment, it seems that neither side is interested in a further escalation of the conflict between them. Both sides know that we don’t have enough access to Syria in any case to provide humanitarian support. The number of routes and border crossing points that can be used to deliver humanitarian aid has now been decreased further.

Why should that change?

It should change simply because Russia and Turkey know that people there will continue to flee elsewhere if they do not receive help or if they are still caught up in the fighting. Turkey in particular has no interest in this because it has already taken in four million people, 3.6 million of whom are from Syria. I thus assume that this agreement has also created the prerequisites for helping people and that the international community must now offer to provide this help. We have offered support by providing 100 million euros.

You say that Turkey has no interest in more refugees fleeing towards its borders. I’m sure that’s true. But the question is if this also goes for Russia. Foreign Minister Lavrov recently spelt out that President Putin’s priorities are clear. His main aim is to help Assad recapture the entire country. And Foreign Minister Lavrov said that should this cause flows of refugees, this wouldn’t be his main priority. So let me ask you again what you think shows that Russia would or could now agree to more aid for refugees in the region.

I think that if this were not the case, Putin and Erdoğan wouldn’t have reached an agreement. Neither side has an interest in this becoming a conflict between Turkey and Russia. Russia’s interests in Syria are clear, and that is also what Foreign Minister Lavrov said.

But for a while there was a danger of this turning into a war between Russia and Turkey. Apparently neither side wants this, and that has created the prerequisite for the humanitarian aid we are naturally willing to provide actually being delivered to Syria. The UN will start talks immediately with both sides on how this can be put into practice.

And as regards that, does the plan include something like a safe zone, as Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for in her telephone calls with Erdoğan and Putin? You yourself have talked about a space with safety guarantees. Is that your next goal?

Well, we want to have these safety guarantees, and to be honest, they can only be upheld by Russia exerting its influence on the Assad regime. I have lost count of how many times we have discussed Syria in the UN Security Council in the past years without ever reaching a resolution because Russia and China always used their veto. That’s why I’m not very optimistic that the situation will change in the Security Council via the UN.

What we need is this guarantee, including from Russia, and for it to be asserted against the Assad regime in order to make humanitarian aid possible.

So if Russia provides these safety guarantees, your position as German Foreign Minister remains that the EU should otherwise stay out of the situation? You wouldn’t support any of the plans or ideas on something like a no‑fly zone with a NATO or UN mandate?

I think anyone would be in favour of decisions that increase security, particularly for the civilian population in Idlib. But if one wants to enforce this against Syria’s and Russia’s will, that would simply mean adding a further war party to those already there. That can’t be what anyone wants, as it would escalate the conflict further, so this agreement now needs to be put into practice.

There already was a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone. None of it lasted. That’s why it now needs to be put into practice, as otherwise the misery and suffering of the people in Idlib will continue (over a million people have already fled Idlib, 80% of them women and children), this terrible suffering will carry on, and that needs to stop now.

Some well‑known politicians in Berlin are also calling for possible sanctions against Moscow should Putin be unwilling to help alleviate the suffering of internally displaced persons at least to some extent. Do you support this initiative?

This topic is also being discussed in the EU. However, we will certainly agree to now observe how this agreement between Putin and Erdoğan is put into practice. If it looks like it will work, that would be the prerequisite for helping people. That is the main thing now, to help those who have been suffering for far too long as a result of this dreadful war.

What part do you want to play? What part will the EU play to ensure that this ceasefire is stable and that there are guarantees to uphold it, apart from simply appealing to Russia?

We will table this topic again in the UN Security Council. We will monitor implementation of the agreement. And once it is possible to help people in Idlib, we must create the prerequisites for this. We pledged 100 million euros for this yesterday. I would be pleased if other countries would do the same so that the suffering, which really is immeasurable – we’re talking about a humanitarian disaster in the region – can be alleviated. That is the main priority because the people in the region need help. They have been suffering for far too long.

Mr Maas, I would also like to discuss the situation at the Turkish-Greek border with you. EU leaders have just visited the area and expressed their full support for the tough approach taken by Greece to keep refugees away from the border, including by using force. Does the German Foreign Minister also have words of praise for this approach?

I think we need to recognise that what is currently happening there poses huge challenges to Greece. There are already large numbers of refugees there, too. The Greeks want to be able to keep the situation under control. They want to prevent uncontrolled flows of refugees and even greater chaos than is already the case.

We assume – and this was said yesterday – that all this will be done in a proportionate and appropriate manner. We are also willing to help Greece in this difficult situation, including by providing funding. At the same time, if the number of refugees arriving in Turkey continues to rise, we will also need to think about how to ensure that they can be accommodated in Turkey and to provide funding for this, despite all the things Turkey is doing that we don’t agree with at the moment. That is contained in the agreement between Turkey and the EU and it is important to implement it now and to respond to current developments. Greece needs support with this, but so does Turkey.

Does that mean you are willing to support Turkey in the future by providing even more money although this gives rise to the impression that we are allowing ourselves to be blackmailed by President Erdoğan when he makes use of such methods, namely sending refugees to the border with false promises?

No, we are not prepared to give in to this. But six billion euros have been earmarked for Turkey in its agreement with the EU. Over half of this amount has already been provided. A further billion euros from the agreement are due to be paid to Turkey this year. However, this funding doesn’t go to the Turkish authorities, but rather to the aid organisations that run aid projects in Turkey that they need to fund.

We can certainly also talk about providing the pledged funding sooner if there is greater need or pressure, but this has to be in line with what was agreed.

A final question, Mr Maas, and I’d be grateful for a brief answer. Has the time finally come to move particularly vulnerable refugees, who have spent months in increasingly inhumane conditions, away from the Greek islands?

That is something we are trying to achieve, including here among EU Foreign Ministers. Some countries in the EU are willing to take in refugees. When people were rescued in the Mediterranean by non‑state organisations in the past, we were able to accommodate them in some European countries. That can also be possible in this case. We need a European solution for this. We don’t need all countries to be on board, just a few of them. Some countries have expressed their willingness to take in refugees, and we are working on putting this into practice.

Interview conducted by Jasper Barenberg



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