Macron and Merkel call Putin over Syria

As hundreds of thousands are displaced in bloody Idlib offensive, leaders talk, but do little else.

It may not be an EU army, but at least France and Germany can still team up to dial a phone.

The situation in Idlib, in the northwest of Syria, is so catastrophic that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel broke away from the extraordinary European Council budget summit in Brussels on Thursday to call Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest convening a meeting to try to broker a ceasefire.

“The chancellor and the president wanted to alert President Putin about the humanitarian situation of the civilian population in Idlib province in Syria,” according to a press statement issued by Macron’s office.

The timidness of the call epitomizes Europe’s — and the international community’s — impotence in the face of one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the active support of Russia’s air force, which has targeted hospitals, launched a renewed assault at the end of last year to recover control of Idlib, the last province in the hands of the opposition.

In 2015, the last time Russia participated in such a large Assad offensive, more than a million refugees made their way to Europe.
Around 900,000 civilians, 60 percent of them children, have been internally displaced since December 1, 2019, according to U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Many are left to fend for themselves in makeshift tents in freezing temperatures.

In 2015, the last time Russia participated in such a large Assad offensive, more than a million refugees made their way to Europe.

Stalemate
The military and political support Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has provided to the Syrian president has been the key factor in helping him gradually oust opposition forces from successive strongholds since 2015. And Putin has also used the conflict to reassert Russia on the international stage as a military power.

Macron and Merkel “called for an immediate cessation of hostilities” and asked parties “not to block humanitarian aid access to populations in need,” the Elysée said. But the statement did not explicitly call out Russia for blocking multiple attempts over recent months at the U.N. Security Council to reach an agreement on a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access.

Instead, the leaders “expressed their availability to meet quickly with President Putin and President [of Turkey Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to find a political solution to the crisis.” Ankara is the main military backer of the armed opposition forces still present in Idlib, and has deployed additional troops to the area in recent weeks.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, put out its own statement after the call, with its own version of events.

The conversation focused on “resolving the Syrian crisis in the context of the sharply aggravated situation in Idlib as a result of aggressive actions by extremist groups against Syrian government forces and civilians,” the Kremlin said. “The importance of preventing negative humanitarian consequences for the civilian population was emphasized.”

It was Macron’s idea to call Putin, according to French officials. But the call was made from the German delegation room at the European Council in Brussels, according to a German diplomat. The two are expected to make a similar plea to the Turkish president on Friday.

The European Council also put out a statement on the situation in Idlib Thursday night, which also did not explicitly name Russia.

“The renewed military offensive in Idlib by the Syrian regime and its backers, causing enormous human suffering, is unacceptable. The EU calls on all actors to cease hostilities immediately,” the Council statement said.

The United States, another permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has been largely absent from the Idlib theater, focusing on issuing statements as the fighting intensified.
All talk, no intervention
Earlier on Thursday, Macron called the situation in Idlib “one of the worst humanitarian tragedies” and condemned “the military attacks the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been carrying out for several weeks against civilian populations.”

But he still shied away from pointing the finger at Russia, with which he has been trying to warm relations since he became president three years ago.

Instead, Macron said: “I really ask all the permanent members of the Security Council to own up to their responsibilities.”

On Wednesday, France’s Ambassador to the U.N. Nicolas de Rivière was more direct.

“We tried very hard to get a [U.N. Security Council] press statement calling for a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access to Idlib, basically Russia said no,” de Rivière said as he left the council’s building in New York.

The United States, another permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has been largely absent from the Idlib theater, focusing on issuing statements as the fighting intensified. “There is no dream of the Syrian people; they are living through a nightmare of death and destruction,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus tweeted Thursday.

In October 2018, France, Germany, Russia and Turkey met in Istanbul and called for a lasting ceasefire and the convening of a constitutional committee to begin work toward a political solution to the conflict. The ceasefire did not hold, and the committee has met but achieved very little so far.

In September 2018, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal in the Russian city of Sochi to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib, but the deal broke down.

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