Putin calls on Europe to rebuild Syria

BERLIN: Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Europe to financially contribute to the reconstruction of Syria to allow millions of refugees to return home. “We need to strengthen the humanitarian effort in the Syrian conflict,” he said ahead of a meeting with his German counterpart Angela Merkel at the government retreat of Meseberg castle 70 km north of Berlin.
“By that, I mean above all humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and help the regions where refugees living abroad can return to.”
There are currently one million refugees in Jordan, the same number in Lebanon, and three million in Turkey, Putin said.
Germany has accepted hundreds of thousands of migrants since 2015 — the height of the migration crisis — which has weakened Angela Merkel politically and split the European Union. “This is potentially a huge burden for Europe,” Putin said.
“That’s why we have to do everything to get these people back home,” he added, emphasising the need to properly restore basic services such as water supplies and healthcare.
Merkel said the priority in Syria was “to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe”, but did not give any further details.
Also on the agenda for the two leaders is the Ukraine crisis, which “unfortunately does not advance at all,” Putin said.
Meanwhile, Russian aid keeps many Syrians alive. Russian soldiers unload food parcels from a truck in government-held central Syria.
Suleiman Berber carried his son in his arms, anxiously observing Russian soldiers unload food parcels from a truck. His face suddenly lit up as his wife managed to grab one, while journalists on a media tour with Russia’s army watched on.
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. In the town of Rastan in the central province of Homs, 31-year-old Berber said he and his family depend on aid from government ally Russia to survive.
Before the regime returned to Rastan, “it was really tough. We didn’t have enough to eat or drink,” said Berber, dark rings under his eyes.
“Now there’s this aid, it’s better.”
Around him, dozens of Syrians and their children, many dressed in dusty clothes, gathered to receive parcels of rice, flour and condensed milk.
Each package bore Russia’s flag and the message “Russia is with you” in Cyrillic script.
Backed by Russian warplanes since 2015, President Bashar al Assad’s government has recovered large parts of Syria through a combination of deadly bombing campaigns, crippling sieges and surrender deals.
Assad’s forces took back control of Rastan in May, under an agreement that saw rebels and their family members bused out of the town and up to northern Syria.
Russian army spokesman Igor Konachekov said the 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 three 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.
“The fighting happened just five kilometres from here,” Tawil explained, standing in an orchard where he said he has found landmines. — Agencies