Germany’s defense minister has suggested creating a security zone in northern Syria to protect displaced civilians and ensure the fight continues against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militia, the first time Berlin has proposed a military mission in the Middle East, according to Reuters.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel’s preferred successor as chancellor, said she would discuss the initiative with NATO partners this week and did not rule out sending German soldiers to Syria, saying that would be a matter for parliament.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meet in Sochi for talks on the conflict in Syria, she made clear her initiative would need a buy-in from those countries.
“We cannot just stand by and watch not doing anything,” Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), told Germany’s ZDF television late on Monday.
“My suggestion is that we set up an internationally controlled security zone involving Turkey and Russia,” she told the Deutsche Welle broadcaster.
The move should stabilize the region and allow civilians to rebuild and refugees to return on a voluntary basis, she said.
A five-day US-brokered pause in Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria is due to expire at 1900 GMT on Tuesday.
NATO-member Turkey wants all Kurdish YPG forces to leave a “safe zone” it wants to establish along a section of its border with Syria. Ankara views the YPG as terrorists with links to Kurdish insurgents operating in southeastern Turkey.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s suggestion is something of a departure for Germany, which has in the last two decades gradually stepped up its involvement in foreign missions but is still a reluctant partner, especially in the Middle East, due to the legacy of World War II.
Seeking to boost her credentials as the CDU’s candidate for chancellor in a 2021 election, Kramp-Karrenbauer said she had liaised closely with Merkel on the idea.
She quickly won backing from party ally Norbert Roettgen, the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, who said the proposal was “brave and worthy of support.”
“A protective zone without German participation would be difficult internationally,” he tweeted.
However, the proposal could raise tension within Merkel’s coalition as the co-governing Social Democrats (SPD) are skeptical about any direct military involvement in Syria.
A foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to comment other than to say the view within the ministry was that idea needed to be a subject for discussion.
Kramp-Karrenbauer raised eyebrows by saying she had been in touch with SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas by text message.
Fritz Felgentreu, an SPD lawmaker, said he was surprised by the idea, which had not been agreed with the SPD.
“Obviously, we are skeptical,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding that it was legitimate to discuss what Germany should do and that “the government must act in a united way.”
Her plan won support from Germany’s Kurdish community, angry about Turkey’s assault on northeastern Syria, following a US troop pullback that has sent thousands of Kurds in the region fleeing. Kurds make up about a third of the roughly 3 million people with Turkish roots in Germany.
“We welcome the suggestion of the defense minister. It is high time that Germany and Europe respond,” Ali Ertan Toprak, head of the Kurdish Community in Germany, told ZDF.
Earlier, a Kremlin aide said Putin and Erdoğan would discuss Turkey’s operation in Syria and that Moscow believes that the interests of all ethnic and religious Syrian groups should be taken into account.