German defence minister proposes to NATO allies a security zone for Syria-Turkey border

23 October 2019

While the alliance has no mission in Syria, it's been dragged into the debate over what's happening on the ground there.

Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is to present to NATO allies a proposal for an internationally controlled security zone on the Syria-Turkey border. The proposal is due to be presented at the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers on 24-25 October in Brussels—unless it is overtaken by events on the ground.

"The question as to how this solution might look lies in the creation of an internationally controlled safe zone involving Turkey and Russia, with the goal of de-escalating the situation", Kramp-Karrenbauer said. If the German military were to take part in such a mission, their deployment would need to be approved by Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. However, with the Presidents of Turkey and Russia reaching agreement on the parameters of a proposed Turkish ‘safe zone’ in Syria on the 22 October, it seems unlikely that any NATO-led solution would now be viable, even if consensus for such an approach could be reached within the alliance.

Another potential way that NATO could collectively become involved in Syria would be if Turkey were to trigger the mutual assistance clause (Article 5), perhaps following an attack on Turkish troops by Syria’s armed forces. This also seems unlikely, however, not least since Turkey's incursion is so unpopular among several key NATO countries. The German government considers it to be a violation of international law, but so far has only restricted some military exports to Turkey along with other EU and NATO states including Canada, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. “We don’t believe that an attack on Kurdish units or Kurdish militia is legitimate under international law,” AFP reported Foreign Minister Heiko Maas as saying on 20 October. “If there is no basis in international law for such an invasion, then it can’t be in accordance with international law”.

French President Emmanuel Macron was scathing in his remarks on 18 October, decrying NATO’s inability to react to what he called Turkey’s “crazy” offensive and said it was time Europe stopped acting like a junior ally when it came to the Middle East. Macron told reporters after a European Council summit in Brussels, “I thought we were in NATO. I thought that the United States and Turkey were in NATO, and then I discovered by tweet that the US had decided to withdraw its troops and pave the way (for Turkey’s offensive) in the area. Like everyone else, I realised that another NATO power had decided to attack partners of the coalition fighting Islamic State”. Meanwhile, Milos Zeman, President of the Czech Republic accused Turkey of war crimes in Syria.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on 22 October that Germany had received questions and some irritation from allies over the proposal. "Since yesterday, after the CDU leaders' proposal, we have got some questions from our allies and there is some - this is indisputable - irritation among our partners," Maas said, adding there was currently no discussion among partners about creating such an international security zone.

With NATO divided over how to deal with the fallout from Turkey’s military offensive in northeastern Syria, it has been left to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to attempt to square the circle. Speaking in advance of the NATO Defence Ministers meeting he welcomed Germany's call for an international presence in Syria as a possible political solution. Earlier during his visits to Rome, Athens and Istanbul, he said that Turkey had "legitimate security concerns", adding that "no other ally suffered more terrorist attacks," and "no other ally is more exposed to instability, turmoil and violence from the Middle East". He nonetheless urged Turkey to act with "restraint and in coordination" with other allies. During a question-and-answer session after his speech at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, however, he was pressed by several delegations to be much tougher with Ankara.

Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring on 9 October—the third in a series of cross-border anti-terror operations in northern Syria—after US President Donald Trump said he would withdraw the majority of US troops from northeast Syria. Turkey’s armed forces and Syrian rebel groups operating under the banner of the Syrian National Army aim to push the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its predominantly-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) south in order to occupy a 30-km-wide buffer zone along the border.

Backed by the US-led Coalition, the SDF fought the ground war against the Islamic State in north and east Syria. Turkey considers the YPG, the spine of the multi-ethnic SDF, to be a terrorist organization indistinguishably linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The PKK (but not the YPG) is also recognized as a terrorist organization by the EU and United States.

The Turkish offensive has so far focused on the 120-km area between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, part of a stretch of Syrian territory where Turkey wants to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. The SDF pulled back from the border town of Ras al-Ayn on 21 October during a 5-day ceasefire brokered by US Vice President Mike Pence during a visit to Ankara. The SDF has already signed up to a military agreement with the Syrian government and Russia in a bid to push Turkey-backed rebels out of northeast Syria.

The Trump administration has sanctioned three Turkish ministries and two senior officials while the Pentagon is evaluating plans for the removal of the 50 nuclear weapons stationed at the Incirlik Air Base. Some members of Congress and commentators have also suggested expelling Turkey from NATO, although there is currently no mechanism to remove a NATO member state. While Canada proposed an expulsion provision in discussions leading up to the establishment of NATO in 1949, the idea was dismissed at the time by the 12 founding members because it might have sent the wrong message to the Soviet Union.

Demands to suspend or expel Turkey have also been made before, including in response to the political crackdown in 2016 and its decision to acquire the Russian S-400 air defence system. Thus, concerns over Turkey will primarily need to be resolved primarily through diplomatic means, political pressure and by taking a long-term view (i.e. by waiting out misbehaving national leaders until a government consistent with alliance values eventually returns to power).

More than 200 civilians have been killed in the clashes on the Syria-Turkey according to Kurdish authorities, while the UN estimates that 160,000 people have been displaced, warning that "the fighting compounds an already dire humanitarian situation in northeast Syria". Hundreds of suspected Islamic State fighters and their family members have also fled the detention camps they were in, according to Kurdish authorities.