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A risky, refreshing Syria proposal by new defense chief

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Jens Thurau
October 22, 2019

Germany's Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has told DW she wants a security zone in Syria overseen by Russia, Turkey and Europe. The proposal is a major departure in German policy thinking, says Jens Thurau.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaking to DW
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

In the face of international crisis, the German response has often been tepid: Other countries would make proposals, and Germany would take note and dither. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in which Germany played a central role in bringing about a ceasefire negotiation, is one notable exception to the rule.

But otherwise the examples are plentiful: Whether dealing with reforming the EU or addressing conflicts in the Middle East — and especially wherever military interventions are needed, Germany has always stayed on the sidelines. Just look at Mali, where Germany has forces deployed, but it is the French who do the real fighting.

Multiple considerations

The defense minister, who has her eyes on succeeding Chancellor Angela Merkel, has now broken with that dithering tradition in suggesting a multinational security zone in northern Syria with German participation. For one thing, there was great skepticism that the US-brokered pause in fighting had really taken hold — and Kramp-Karrenbauer showed little interest in trying to bring the US back on board. The withdrawal of US troops from the region had made Turkey's offensive possible in the first place. It appears this was for her the final straw, taking away any remaining illusion that President Donald Trump could be relied on to coordinate foreign and security policy.

Nor did she wait for France or the United Kingdom to put forward a suggestion to address a difficult political and military crisis, one that directly affects Europe. What Germany's European NATO partners think of her initiative, though, remains unclear.

DW's Jens Thurau
DW's Jens Thurau

Kramp-Karrenbauer made sure to remember to mention that she had conferred with Chancellor Angela Merkel on the matter. However, it's telling that the chancellor delegated such an important matter to the woman who followed her as the head of the conservative party.

The policy announcement appears to be one the defense minister has long considered. "I've had enough hearing that we are concerned," she had said on Saturday during the party convention for her Bavarian allies, the CSU. This was clearly a reference to the German approach: expressing dismay at global conflict, but avoiding doing anything about it militarily.

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

A sudden surprise

From the perspective of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Social Democrats (SPD) in government with Kramp-Karrenbauer's CDU, the proposal has come out of nowhere. At the start of Turkey's offensive, Maas had only announced mild restrictions on arms exports, as did other EU and NATO members. There has been no talk of sanctions. It then took days for Maas to forcefully refute Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly calling him an amateur in foreign affairs.

German defense chief recommends international security zone in Syria

The wisdom of Kramp-Karrenbauer keeping her coalition partner in the dark is another question. She knows that the armed forces are a matter for Bundestag, Germany's parliament. The SPD, along with the Green and Left parties in parliament, are not particularly enthusiastic about deploying troops to a security zone in northern Syria. She's got her work cut out for her in convincing them, if she doesn't want to see her proposal go the way of most good German ideas that have come before: calling for peace and understanding, while leaving the dirty work to others.

At the very least, Kramp-Karrenbauer's proposal is a refreshing one. It shows that, unlike the US president, the Germans have not forgotten the Kurds and their service in fighting the "Islamic State."

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau