German Chancellor discusses Syria with Russia's Putin

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed recent developments in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone, her office said on Wednesday.

Government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said in a statement that the leaders mainly talked about the recent agreement between Turkey and Russia to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

“The chancellor welcomed the efforts aimed at preventing a military escalation and protecting the civilian population,” Seibert said.

The two leaders also addressed the situation in eastern Ukraine and the humanitarian issues, he added.

On Monday, Turkey and Russia agreed to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib, Syria’s last opposition stronghold, following a meeting in Sochi between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin.

Ankara and Moscow also signed a memorandum of understanding calling for the “stabilization” of Idlib's de-escalation zone, in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.

According to the MoU, opposition groups in Idlib will remain in areas where they are already present.

Turkish and Russian military forces, meanwhile, will conduct joint patrols along the zone's perimeter with a view to preventing any renewal of fighting.

Located near the Turkish border, Idlib is home to more than three million Syrians, many of whom fled from other cities following attacks by regime forces.

The Syrian regime announced plans last month to launch a major military offensive in the area, long controlled by various armed opposition groups.

But, the UN warned that such an offensive would lead to the "worst humanitarian catastrophe in the 21st century".

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Row over ex-spy chief's new job hits German coalition

BERLIN (AA) – Germany’s conservative interior minister has sparked a new row in the coalition government by giving a critical post to the ex-spy chief removed over his right-wing contacts and controversial remarks on anti-immigrant violence.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Wednesday that he would make ex-spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen an undersecretary responsible for security affairs at the ministry.

The contentious spy chief was removed from his post by the government on Tuesday, after coalition partner the Social Democratic Party insisted that he could no longer stay head of the domestic intelligence agency BfV, due to his recent comments on far-right unrest in Germany.

Interior Minister Seehofer, who also leads the Christian Social Union (CSU), a sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), dismissed criticisms by the Social Democrats on Wednesday, and praised Maassen for his achievements over the last four years.

“Mr. Maassen has had great successes in fight against terrorism, in the fight against left- and right-wing extremism (…) in developing our security cooperation with Israel, with the U.S., with Great Britain, and other countries,” he told reporters in Berlin.

Ralf Stegner, the SPD’s vice-chair, heavily criticized Seehofer for promoting Maassen to the position of undersecretary.

“We are really running out of patience with the grand coalition,” Stegner told Inforadio on Wednesday.

Maassen had sparked a debate in the country through his comments on the recent far-right unrest in eastern Germany and his dubious contacts with far-right politicians.

Despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strong condemnation of the far-right violence in Chemnitz and her branding the incidents the “hunting down” of foreigners, Maassen claimed that there was no clear evidence showing that protestors had attacked migrants, and further argued that social media videos of such incidents could be propaganda by far-left groups.

On Tuesday, following nearly two-hour crisis talks between Merkel, Seehofer, and SPD leader Andrea Nahles, the government announced that Maassen would be removed from his post.

Merkel has not yet publicly commented on Maassen, but media reports claimed last week that she also backed his removal from the post, due to his frequent media appearances in recent weeks and his interference in daily politics.

Maassen, who served as the BfV's head since 2012, has been an outspoken critic of Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees.

In recent weeks he came under fire from the SPD for his contacts with senior politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which touts an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform.

The AfD and far-right groups had held anti-immigration rallies in eastern cities in recent weeks, following reports of murder and other crimes allegedly perpetrated by refugees.

During the protests, several mobs hunted down people deemed "foreign looking" on the streets and attacked restaurants owned by Jews or other migrants.

Germany: Controversial spy chief forced from post

BERLIN (AA) – Germany’s coalition government forced out the nation's spy chief on Tuesday for his controversial comments and contacts with far-right politicians.

Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic intelligence agency BfV, had sparked a debate in the country by contradicting Chancellor Angela Merkel on recent far-right unrest in eastern Germany.

Despite Merkel’s strong condemnation of the far-right violence and her branding the incidents the “hunting down” of foreigners, Maassen claimed that there was no clear evidence showing that protestors had attacked migrants, and further argued that social media videos of such incidents could be propaganda by far-left groups.

Following nearly two-hour crisis talks between Merkel and her coalition partners in Berlin, Merkel’s office announced that Maassen would be removed from his post, to be given another position in the Interior Ministry.

Maassen, the BfV's head since 2012, has been an outspoken critic of Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution.

In recent weeks, Maassen came under fire from Merkel’s coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for his contacts with senior politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which touts an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform.

The AfD and far-right groups had held rallies in eastern cities in recent weeks, following reports of murder and other crimes allegedly perpetrated by refugees.

During the protests, several mobs hunted down people deemed "foreign looking" on the streets and attacked restaurants owned by Jews or other migrants.

EU leaders to discuss migration, Brexit in Salzburg

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – European Union leaders will discuss next week new proposals to protect the EU’s external borders and control migration, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday.

Speaking to reporters ahead of a meeting with her Austrian counterpart in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said they would exchange views on the agenda of next week’s informal EU leaders’ summit.

“We share the priorities of the Austrian presidency, that is to say, we must focus on protecting our external borders,” Merkel said.

“European Commission's President Jean-Claude Juncker has recently made some far-reaching proposals on this topic, I welcome these proposals,” she added.

Merkel also called for a strong cooperation between the EU and African countries to control migration, and underlined that the leaders would also discuss proposals on this topic during their meeting in Salzburg next week.

Last week, Juncker had proposed new measures to strengthen controls at the EU’s external borders, and suggested sending 10,000 more border guards to tackle illegal immigration.

Juncker also announced plans to further develop the European Asylum Agency to assist member states in processing asylum seekers, and promised measures to accelerate the return of irregular migrants.

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters on Sunday, ahead of his meeting with Merkel, that besides the issues of migration and internal security, ongoing Brexit negotiations with the U.K. would be another major topic of discussion.

European Union leaders will gather in Austria’s Salzburg city for a two-day informal summit on Sep 19-20.

Austria is holding the EU's rotating six-month presidency until the end of this year.

Merkel condemns far-right violence in eastern Germany

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday condemned recent far-right violence in eastern Germany and called for stronger efforts to strengthen peaceful coexistence in Germany.

“Jews, Muslims belong to our society, just like Christians and atheists,” Merkel told lawmakers during a speech at the German parliament.

She denounced violence by far-right extremists in several eastern German cities in recent weeks, following reports of murder and other crimes allegedly perpetrated by foreigners.

“There can be no excuse or justification for tracking people down, using violence, chanting Nazi slogans and displaying hostility on people who look different,” she stressed.

Far-right groups organized various rallies in eastern cities of Chemnitz and Koethen in recent weeks, where mobs hunted down foreign-looking people on the streets and attacked restaurants owned by Jews or other migrants.

Syria: Berlin hints tough action on new chemical attack

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – Chancellor Angela Merkel signalled Wednesday that Germany could support U.S.-led retaliatory airstrikes on Syria if the regime would further use chemical weapons against civilians.

Addressing German lawmakers at the parliament, Merkel reaffirmed her government’s support for a political solution in Syria but also stressed that Berlin could not remain indifferent to another chemical attack by the Assad regime.

"Simply claiming that we could turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons, to the violation of an international convention… this cannot be our response," she told opposition lawmakers, who have spoken against Germany’s possible support to retaliatory airstrikes against the regime.

"Any response would be decided on the basis of our constitution and in line with our obligations to the parliament," Merkel stressed.

Bild daily reported on Monday that the Defense Ministry was examining options for joining a possible U.S.-led military operation against the regime, in the case of a chemical attack on the last opposition stronghold of Idlib.

The German army Bundeswehr might provide support to such an operation by deploying Tornado surveillance jets, which are generally used for reconnaissance flights but can also perform airstrikes, the daily reported.

The main opposition AfD party claimed on Wednesday that actively joining airstrikes might lead to a military confrontation with Russia, and might also trigger another refugee influx.

Merkel’s coalition partner Social Democrat Party (SPD) has also been skeptical of an active support to retaliatory airstrikes against the regime but has not yet taken a final decision on the matter.

Germany’s constitution and the Parliamentary Participation Act have been highly restrictive and allowed military deployments abroad only in the context of Berlin’s international obligations to the United Nations, NATO or the European Union.

In April, Merkel’s conservative-left coalition gave "political support" to the U.S.-led military operation against the Syrian regime, in response to its use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

German fighter jets did not take part at that time in the joint-strike by the U.S., France, and the U.K.

Merkel should make Idlib top priority: German lawmaker

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – Chancellor Angela Merkel must make Idlib her top priority, and pursue a more active diplomacy to prevent an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in the the northwestern Syrian city, a senior German lawmaker said.

Margarete Bause from the opposition Green Party has warned that a large-scale Syrian military offensive on the last opposition stronghold would cause severe bloodshed and major civilian casualties

“We must do everything that we can in the international platforms to prevent an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. More than four million civilians, including one million children are at risk there,” she told Anadolu Agency.

Bause, a member of the German parliament’s human rights committee, called on Merkel to increase her diplomatic efforts for Idlib, and talk to all relevant actors.

“Merkel should have talks with Russian President Putin, Turkish President Erdogan and U.S. President Trump to find a solution and prevent a humanitarian crisis. One should at least reach an agreement on a humanitarian corridor,” she said.

Bause said Europe would face another major refugee wave in case of a major military offensive in Idlib.

Located near the Turkish border, Idlib province is home to around 4 million Syrians, many of whom fled from other cities following attacks by regime forces.

The Syrian regime has recently announced plans to launch a major military offensive to the area, which has long been controlled by various armed opposition groups.

The UN warned earlier this week that such an offensive would lead to the "worst humanitarian catastrophe in the 21st century".

A trilateral summit of the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran on Friday underlined that “there could be no military solution to the Syrian conflict" and called for advancing the political process to reach a negotiated solution.

Germany warns of ‘catastrophe’ in Syria’s Idlib

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – A major Syrian military offensive in the northern province of Idlib would spark a “humanitarian catastrophe”, Germany warned on Friday.

“The federal government is very worried about the escalation of the situation in northwestern Syria,” the government’s deputy spokeswoman told a news conference in Berlin.

“A large-scale military operation of the Syrian regime in and around Idlib would spark another humanitarian catastrophe with potentially hundreds of thousands of people seeking shelter near Turkey’s border,” Ulrike Demmer said.

She recalled that Chancellor Angela Merkel had discussed these developments with Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago.

“We expect from Russia to use its influence on the Syrian regime to prevent an escalation and a humanitarian catastrophe,” she stressed.

Demmer also underlined that an unhindered humanitarian access to Idlib should be ensured.

On Monday, Merkel spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump over the phone to discuss the situation in Syria, amid reports that the regime in Damascus was preparing for a major military offensive against the province controlled by the opposition forces.

Idlib falls within a network of de-escalation zones — endorsed by Turkey, Russia and Iran — in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.

Stable, democratic Turkey in Germany's interest: Merkel

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – A stable, prosperous and democratic Turkey is in the interest of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Responding to questions by journalists during a regular news conference in Berlin, deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer did not confirm or deny recent media reports that claimed Germany could provide assistance to Turkey to prevent a financial crisis.

“The federal government is closely following developments in Turkey. A stable, prosperous and democratic Turkey is in our interest,” Demmer said.

Several European media outlets reported on Tuesday that Germany was examining ways to assist Turkey, and claimed that the options included a coordinated European assistance, bilateral aid or project-specific loans by state-controlled development banks.

Last week, German government spokesman said Berlin was not planning a bilateral financial assistance for the time being.

Deputy government spokeswoman refrained from making a detailed comment on whether the government had changed its position, but said she did not have an update about the matter.

Demmer also said that one should wait for the upcoming high-level talks between German and Turkish governments.

“As you know preparations are continuing. Ahead of President Erdogan’s visit, the finance minister will meet with his counterpart here,” Demmer said and added that she could not anticipate the discussions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will pay a key visit to Germany on Sept. 28-29.

Ahead of the visit, Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak is expected to meet German counterpart Olaf Scholz in Berlin on Sept. 21.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is also scheduled to visit Turkey next week for talks on economic and political ties, and international issues.

On Tuesday, Maas criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s sanctions and his economic pressure policy towards Turkey.

“Of course we Europeans have a great interest in a stable economic development in Turkey,” he said.

Germany is Turkey’s main economic and trade partner and more than 7,500 German companies are active in Turkey. In 2017, the bilateral trade volume reached €37.6 billion ($43.6 billion).

UPDATE – Germany calls for end to US dominance in global finance

UPDATES WITH COMMENTS BY CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL

By Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN (AA) – German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Wednesday proposed measures against U.S. dominance in global finance amid a growing row between Washington and Berlin over the Iran nuclear deal.

In an article he wrote for daily Handelsblatt, Maas slammed U.S. President Donald Trump for imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran, without consulting European allies.

“It is essential that we strengthen European autonomy by establishing payment channels independent of the U.S., a European monetary fund and an independent SWIFT [payment] system,” he said.

Maas also called on EU partners to maintain their unity and pursue a common policy towards the U.S. in the ongoing dispute over sanctions.

“In this situation, it is of strategic importance that we make it clear to Washington that we want to work together.

"But also: That we will not allow you to go over our heads, and at our expense. That is why it was right to protect European companies legally from sanctions,” he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed Maas’s call for unity among Europeans and for a stronger role for the European Union, but she also expressed caution on plans to find a European alternative to the U.S.-dominated SWIFT payment system.

“Transatlantic relations are changing, we have to assume more responsibility. We Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands,” Merkel told a press conference in Berlin.

Acknowledging growing differences with the Trump administration on a number of international issues, including the nuclear agreement, Merkel said U.S. sanctions towards Iran has caused problems with regards to the SWIFT system.

“But at the same time, we know that the SWIFT agreement is extremely important, especially on questions of terrorism financing,” she said, and added that Europeans still need close cooperation with the U.S. on such security matters.