Germany condemns Turkish military offensive in Syria

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday Turkey’s military offensive in Syria’s northern town of Afrin was unacceptable and she criticized Russia for “just watching” the continuing attacks by Syrian forces on eastern Ghouta.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Speaking in the lower house of parliament, Merkel said the government also condemned the air strikes on the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta “in the strongest terms”, pointing to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also blaming Russia for letting the events unfold.

Merkel said Turkey’s actions in Afrin were unacceptable despite its own security interests. “I’m also condemning this in the strongest terms,” she added.

The United Nations called on Tuesday for full access to civilians inside and outside of eastern Ghouta to meet their urgent needs, after the flight of 50,000 people in recent days, and in Afrin, where fighting has uprooted some 104,000 people.

Turkey on Sunday stormed Afrin after a two-month offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. UNICEF estimates that about 100,000 people are still inside Afrin district, half of them children.

The German government has come under fire from opposition lawmakers and Kurdish migrants for not speaking out more clearly against the Turkish offensive, particularly given Turkey’s use of German-made tanks in the operation.

Merkel cited concerns about the high civilian death toll and the flight of many thousands of people from the city.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Merkel’s comments were “unacceptable” and were made based on “disinformation not even remotely linked to the truths” of its operation in Syria.

“We call on our allies to work towards lasting peace, security and stability in Syria by remaining in close coordination and contact with our country,” the ministry said in a statement late on Wednesday.

Separately, a source in Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s office said he and German counterpart Frank Walter Steinmeier had discussed by phone on Wednesday the importance of a joint fight against terrorism.

Erdogan and Steinmeier did not address Merkel’s latest comments, the source said, adding that the two leaders had voiced determination to give bilateral relations a new impetus.

Merkel’s comments could reignite tensions with Ankara, which says its military operations are defensive in nature and has criticized Berlin for not doing more to crack down on supporters of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Germany.

Merkel said relations with Turkey would remain difficult, and that Berlin would continue to fight for the release of Germans who it says Ankara is holding for political reasons.

She said the European Union would provide an additional 3 billion euros to help mainly Syrian refugees housed in refugee centers in Turkey.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; editing by Michelle Martin and Mark Heinrich