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Germany caught between Turks and Kurds in Syria

October 9, 2019

Germany's large Kurdish and Turkish communities are a major factor in its unique geopolitical role in the Syria conflict. Kurdish leaders in Germany say Berlin needs to up the pressure on Ankara to stop all-out war.

Demonstrators make the symbol of the Grey Wolve
Image: Imago/ZumaPress/S. Babbar

The Turkish military action in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria has exposed the German government's awkward tightrope-walk in its policy in the region.

Germany is part of a United Nations alliance that provides humanitarian relief in the Kurdish area of northern Syria, where it sent some €50 million ($55 million) in 2017, while the German military helps to train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters as part of its mission in northern Iraq.

At the same time, the German air force helps the Turkish military by flying reconnaissance missions in the area for NATO, of which Turkey is also a member.

At a regular government press conference on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger aired the government's official position one more time: "We have repeatedly called on the Turkish government to refrain from a military intervention in northeastern Syria, because we fear that such an intervention could threaten to destabilize the region further," he said. Not least, Burger warned, Turkey's action could lead to a new refugee problem there.

Read more: Explained: Why Turkey wants a military assault on Syrian Kurds

Irak Kurdistan AKK bei Peschmerga Training
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer visited Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq in August 2019Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Hamed

Destabilization at home and abroad

That fear was just one among many dangers raised by several observers this week, including worries about the estimated 12,000 Islamic State fighters in Kurdish prisons in the region (around 100 are thought to be from Germany). Should they escape, the terrorist militia that had been thought defeated could be reinvigorated

And then there are worries about unrest in Germany, which is home to upwards of two million people of Kurdish and/or Turkish heritage. Hundreds of Germany's Kurdish community already took to the streets of Berlin on Tuesday in protest, and further demos are planned this week, where banners showing the banned organizations like the PKK are likely to be shown.

Mehmet Tanriverdi, deputy chairman for the largest Kurdish Community organization in Germany, the KGD, also warned of Ankara's plans for "ethnic cleansing" in the Kurdish region, as well as the forcible alteration of the demographics by resettling Arab migrants from Syria there.

In the face of all these dangers at home and abroad, Tanriverdi thinks Germany's verbal condemnations and concerns don't really hold much weight.

"Germany must act," he told DW. "The government cannot just put its hands in its lap, as it has till now, and say: the killing in the Syrian civil war has nothing to do with us."

Sending stronger signals

Chancellor Angela Merkel has many ways to put real pressure on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Tanriverdi added.

"This war can be prevented," he said. "If you say to him: 'Mr. Erdogan, we will raise questions about Turkey's membership in NATO,' then he would think twice about taking another step."

Tanriverdi had a few more ideas about how Germany could send "stronger signals" to Ankara. "Germany could for example ban all arms exports to Turkey," he said. "That wouldn't be difficult. Or they could say: 'we will suspend the refugee deal with Turkey, then we wouldn't need to pump more billions into Turkey'."

Another possibility could be economic sanctions: two weeks ago, German carmaker Volkswagen announced that it would build a new electric car factory in western Turkey — a deal which the regional government of Lower Saxony is directly involved in. "They could have an influence and say: we're not building that factory," he said.

As it stands though, the German government is maintaining its line: offering limited military support to both sides while criticizing Turkey and banning the Kurdish political organization, the PKK, at home.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight