Germany’s Syria Debate: Four Key Questions on European Military Action

Germany’s Defense Minister triggered a debate there and across the Atlantic when she called recently for greater German involvement in Syria and for the establishment of an international security zone. The minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (often referred to as “AKK”), has remained vague, however, about the details of her proposal.

So far, the debate has yet to provide real insight into what a proposed “international security zone” would look like, what it would aim to achieve, and who ultimately should bear responsibility for implementation. The minister’s proposal faces slim prospects amidst rejection from the Social Democratic Party, which is partner in Germany’s governing coalition with AKK’s Christian Democratic Union, and lack of interest from NATO allies. Other obstacles include the recent Russian-Turkish agreement on a temporary cessation of hostilities in the area and a joint approach to “pacify” northeastern Syria, as well as the understanding between Damascus and the Kurds on the regime deploying its troops in the border area. But, given the complexity and fluidity of the situation in Syria, and the upcoming NATO summit in December where these issues likely will be on the table, a systematic analysis of options as well as the political and military challenges of a possible mission might be useful.

As Germany and Europe consider military engagement in Northern Syria, some key questions should be addressed: 

What should an international military coalition in Northern Syria actually accomplish, and how?

Two main approaches are currently being discussed by AKK and others. A “security zone” as proposed by AKK is generally understood to refer to what United Nations peacekeeping troops traditionally do in an area where armed conflict has occurred: namely to monitor a ceasefire achieved between warring parties after the end of a military conflict and thus make room for political negotiations. In concrete terms, this would mean setting up demilitarized zones, disentangling troops and, if necessary, disarming the belligerents. Such an international force would have to be neutral and only lightly armed.

However, all of this is only possible with the consent of the parties to the conflict. In the current environment in northern Syria, such a deployment is hardly conceivable: a temporary calm between Turkish troops and Kurdish militias has expired and was fragile from the outset; negotiations about a long-term ceasefire have not even begun. An agreement by Damascus to an international presence on Syrian territory has been ruled out by President Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, Ankara and Moscow as well as the Kurds and Damascus have already agreed on a division of labor that leaves no room for third parties. In addition, fighters of the self-styled Islamic State are still active.

The second main approach that others have floated aims for the establishment of a “protection zone,” like the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) set up with limited success from 1992 to 1995 during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. International troops would effectively occupy territories even against the will of the warring parties, and for a longer term, to protect civilians, to ensure access for humanitarian relief, and to allow refugees and displaced persons to return. In addition, there would need to be air force units, since the protection zone would have to be covered by a no-fly zone in order to ward off attacks from the air. This would be a large-scale military operation requiring several thousand soldiers (depending on the size of the zone) in a largely hostile environment. There would be a high probability of combat and loss.

In principle and after fighting has come to an end, it would also be conceivable to have an “international stabilization mission.” Such a mission could include military and civilian elements for the stabilization and reconstruction of Syria, similarly to the goals of MINUSCA in the Central African Republic or KFOR in Kosovo. Whether the political will could be generated for such a deployment, however, is doubtful in view of the close cooperation among the Assad government, Moscow and Tehran.

Who gives this plan the green light? 

For Germany to participate in any operation, there has to be a mandate in accordance with the U.N. Charter – as was stipulated by the German Federal Constitutional Court in 1994 for all foreign operations.

Absent Syrian consent, which is a non-starter, only the U.N. Security Council, with the approval of all five permanent members, can approve an exception to the prohibition on the use of force under international law. It is unclear whether the Trump administration would raise objections to a European deployment. But Moscow’s approval is unlikely, since it is working with Turkey and Iran to create their own political and territorial post-war order for Syria.

This would leave only the option of proceeding without a U.N. mandate, which is contrary to international law. Germany took this path in 1999 with its participation in the war in Kosovo, unintentionally contributing to the erosion of the foundational principle of the prohibition on the use of force in international politics.

Who would be in charge? 

Another critical question is which multilateral organization should carry out such an operation. Last week, NATO defense ministers discussed the German initiative. This setting, rather than the United Nations, is an astonishing choice of forum, given how negatively neighboring Russia views the alliance. Moscow will certainly not agree to any NATO operation in Syria, whatever its objective.

President Assad would also regard a military contingent of NATO or the EU not as neutral but as a coalition of the “enemies” of Damascus, and he likely would see a deployment as a late attempt by the West to undo his victory in the Syrian civil war. Additionally, NATO would hardly be in a position to either protect Kurds against its own alliance member Turkey or to act as a neutral force between Turkey’s troops and the Syrian Arab Army.

Other voices in the German debate prefer a coalition of the willing from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Yet ad-hoc coalitions have their own disadvantages: First, they are usually less transparent because there are no political oversight bodies of multilateral organizations involved. Second, they run the risk of being less clear about their political objectives. Formal multilateral cooperation forces those involved to set clear political objectives for a specific mission. Third, there are no agreed procedures for sharing the financial burden and providing military capacities.

What is more important, if the military deployment is to serve Europe’s desired strategic autonomy, which Germany has been promoting, it should have a “European face” and rather make use of the procedures and institutions that the EU has developed with its Common Security and Defense Policy. In that framework, all the structures necessary for such operations are in place. So far, the only thing missing has been the political will of the EU member states to undertake major operations.

What is the political objective? 

First and foremost, German and European policymakers should agree on the political objectives that the deployment would serve. Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer has promoted her proposal for a security zone as part of both the continuing fight against the Islamic State and support for the constitutional process in Syria.

But neither of these concerns would necessarily be supported by establishing a security or protection zone. Germany is also already involved in the international coalition against the Islamic State. In general, a military operation can only be successful if it has clearly defined and achievable political objectives. The clearer the vision, the easier it will be to assess how meaningful any military operation can be, what resources and partners are necessary, and when to end it.

A clear definition of objectives is indispensable for decision-making processes both inside and outside Germany – in the current as well as in future debates about international deployments to Syria (and beyond).

IMAGE: Turkish and Russian military vehicles return from a joint patrol in the countryside of Kiziltepe town in Syria’s northeastern Mardin province on the Syrian-Turkish border, on November 1, 2019. – Turkey started joint patrols with Russia in northern Syria on November 1, to verify whether Kurdish forces have withdrawn from a key border zone in compliance with a deal reached between Ankara and Moscow. (Photo by Ilyas AKENGIN / AFP) (Photo by ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Muriel Asseburg

Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Markus Kaim

Helmut Schmidt Fellow of the Zeit Foundation and the German Marshall Fund in Washington.