By proposing a security zone in northern Syria, Germany’s defense minister has irked important allies in Berlin and taken international partners by surprise. It is a risky move and could determine whether she will succeed Merkel as chancellor. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
The MC looks around the small event space in Erfurt. Does anyone in the audience have a question? Would anyone like to get the ball rolling? Not a lot of supporters of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party have descended upon this central German city to see their party’s leader up close. It can’t be more than 70, several of whom are young but most of whom are of retirement age.
Anyone have anything to say? the MC asks. Yes, says a gentleman in the back. A white-haired man stands up. “I’ll begin,” he says. “I wanted to thank you, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, for the initiative you’ve taken for the people in northern Syria. Thank you very much!” He sits down to friendly applause.
The woman he addresses is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister and the chair of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party. The man’s supportive words reflect a broader truth: While many may criticize Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal for an international security zone in northern Syria or her going it alone — even abroad, there is mockery and criticism — here in Erfurt, the base has nothing but praise for Kramp-Karrenbauer and her party. At least that’s something.
“I’ve always said that the European Union is a community of values,” Kramp-Karrenbauer says. “And we must take this seriously.” Of course, she doesn’t know whether her initiative will be successful in the end, “but I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if we hadn’t at least tried.” There’s more applause.
Two hours later, at the next campaign event — this time at a car dealership in Gotha — there’s more praise from the CDU’s local candidate for state government. She said she had spoken to the senior citizens’ union about Syria and that their reaction was very positive.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is living in two different worlds these days, and they could hardly be more different.
The first world consists of the defense minister’s advisers, the military and specialist politicians, plus encounters like the one in Erfurt. Here, people are proud of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s service. Finally, a decisive step on the world stage, they say — a courageous reorientation of German defense policy. That’s a big deal. And who cares whether the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in Merkel’s coalition government play along? We’re on the same level as Macron, Putin and Erdogan! In these circles, it seems safe to take another step on the path to becoming Germany’s next chancellor.
And then there’s the other world, where thoughts like this are treated as delusions of grandeur. Here, the mood ranges from dubious to downright angry, and Kramp-Karrenbauer is criticized — either in secret or out in the open — for what are perceived as quick-draw policies that don’t have the slightest chance of succeeding. In this world, Kramp-Karrenbauer also encounters loyal supporters, but even they are dismayed about their party leader seemingly going it alone. By this point at the latest, even these adherents don’t think Kramp-Karrenbauer has what it takes to succeed Merkel as chancellor.
Soon, it will be decided which of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s worlds is the real one. There is much to suggest that the disappointed and critical camp will prove to be the more important one for her. This could be the group that decides Kramp-Karrenbauer’s future. The CDU chairwoman has already been written off and declared politically dead for far more banal reasons in her short tenure as party leader. But now, with as truly existential a topic as German foreign military policy, where the lives of German soldiers are on the line, many believe Kramp-Karrenbauer has proven herself incapable or unwilling to adhere to the conventions in political Berlin by involving important allies.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is often referred to by her initials AKK, is in full-risk mode. Any collateral damage is likely to become apparent when it comes down to the question of whether she is a viable candidate for Germany’s next chancellor.
That said, the CDU chairwoman isn’t finished yet. Where she’s taking the most risk is also where she stands to gain the most. Even her opponents are impressed by her chutzpah. Most leading politicians dare to go it alone at least once in their careers. And if their idea fails, it could still set the bar higher for future German governments in dealing with international crises.
Kramp-Karrenbauer has correctly calculated that the CDU’s voter base as well as many conservative members of parliament would like to see a more proactive German foreign policy. Her own people also aren’t standing in her way; officially, she has the support of the CDU’s parliamentary group and Chancellor Merkel. Even the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), Markus Söder, is behind her. “I support the defense minister’s initiative,” says German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, also with the CSU. It is “in Germany’s and Europe’s interest in terms of migration and security policy” to stabilize Syria. “I’m thinking especially of the millions of Syrian refugees who are on Turkey’s doorstep. Stability and security in the region are imperative in order to avoid additional waves of migration.”
No one can accuse the defense minister of failing to provide hints in advance regarding her plans. Most recently, she spoke at a CSU party conference: “When was the last time that Germany, and when was the last time that the CDU and CSU made a genuinely important proposal on international matters?” the minister said. “I can’t stand hearing anymore that we’re concerned. We are strong. The buck stops with us. At some point, we have to start providing our own political answers.”
Not Even a Whisper
Her words were received by thundering applause among the CSU delegates. But in Berlin, most seemed to expect her words would remain just that — words, as is usually the case with German foreign policy. No one suspected the minster would announce her plans via the media just two days later.
How could they have? When senior coalition members met at the chancellor’s office last Sunday, less than 24 hours before Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement, there was not even a whisper of her intentions. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of the SPD talked at length about the crisis in Syria without Kramp-Karrenbauer making any significant contribution, people familiar with the meeting said.
The leader of the SPD’s parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, even explicitly asked about the 200,000 refugees in northern Syria, meeting participants said. He wanted to know whether it was possible for humanitarian aid to reach them at all. That would be difficult, Maas replied, but thanks to aid organizations like the Red Cross, not entirely impossible. This would have provided a perfect opportunity for Kramp-Karrenbauer to speak up about her plans. But she kept silent. Presumably she didn’t want anyone to attack it.
As a result, the SPD was completely caught off guard on Monday. Foreign Minister Maas, considered a friend of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s as a result of both having got their political start in the German state of Saarland, did, at the very least, receive a text message. In it, however, his Defense Ministry counterpart merely alerted him that she would soon be announcing something about Syria in an interview, according to reports. Maas responded with a question, which went unanswered. He learned about the ploy from the news.
Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a similar experience. He heard about Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plans at the Funke Mediengruppe media house’s capital city festival in Berlin. The only advantage of the very public setting was that Scholz was able to personally convey his astonishment to the chancellor, who was also present.
Mützenich, long a foreign policy specialist in his party, was caught off guard by Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement as he was on his way to a party hosted by the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). Once the peeved Social Democrats had a chance to convene and discuss the issue, they agreed that this ball had no business being in their court — the SPD could not afford to inherit yet another problem from the CDU.
They agreed to bombard the defense minister with detailed questions. Where exactly would the zone extend? How should Germany participate? With which international partners? First, they wanted answers.
Leaving a coalition partner in the dark was bad enough. Without the SPD, there could be no majority approval in the Bundestag for a Syria mission. But the CDU chairwoman even refrained from giving her CSU counterpart, Markus Söder, a discrete head’s up. Without the sister party’s consent, such a foreign policy paradigm shift would be impossible.
Instead, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s closest adviser explained the plan to two party colleagues of Söder’s on Monday: the parliamentary undersecretary of defense, Thomas Silberhorn, and the defense policy expert Florian Hahn. The latter subsequently informed CSU boss Söder via text message.
Söder was furious. Like Alexander Dobrindt, leader of the CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag, he considered Kramp-Karrenbauer’s approach to be extremely sensitive, both in the way it was presented and the contents of the proposal itself. The idea of deploying German soldiers between Turkish and Syrian troops, not to mention terrorist militias, was something both regarded as audacious. It took two days for Söder would offer his public support to the minister.
Kramp-Karrenbauer was a bit more careful when it came to informing the chancellor, whose job she hopes to inherent in the not-too-distant future. Angela Merkel was fundamentally aware of the defense minister’s considerations, government sources familiar with the matter say, and the two women had talked about a possible security zone in northern Syria — something that had already been under discussion for years anyway. Merkel then supported the plan in front of the CDU faction in the Bundestag.
Grasping the Rules
Yet the chancellor still seemed reserved. Kramp-Karrenbauer had apparently withheld a decisive detail from her, namely the timing of her proposal. Merkel had assumed that her minister would coordinate such an important initiative with the other relevant ministries, if for no other reason than to maintain peace within the governing coalition. This would have allowed the others to have their say. Now they had to do so retroactively.
The fact that Kramp-Karrenbauer left her party’s secretary general, Paul Ziemiak, the head of the CDU’s parliamentary group, Ralph Brinkhaus, and the party’s most important foreign policy experts in the dark was clumsy, but the political consequences will likely be bearable. But in Söder and Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer rubbed two incredibly important allies the wrong way. Söder’s support and trust will be vital during any bid for the Chancellery. And without Merkel’s active assistance, Kramp-Karrenbauer will have a tough time boxing her initiative through the coalition — not to mention implementing it on an international level.
This is why many people within the CDU’s leadership are wondering whether Kramp-Karrenbauer has a grasp on the rules of politics yet. One high-ranking party official says the chairwoman damaged a good cause with her clumsy communication.
The minister is now trying to limit the fallout and improve information-sharing with her colleagues. But she hasn’t been able to provide too many details. First, these needed to be discussed with Germany’s international partners, Kramp-Karrenbauer is said to have announced in committee meetings.
But those partners are hesitating. The Americans, for one, have expressed irritation with Kramp-Karrenbauer’s project. After all, negotiators from the United States had traveled to Berlin multiple times this year to try and convince the German government to participate in a U.S.-led security zone. Each time, they were rebuffed: No, Germany would certainly not be sending any ground troops to Syria. Since then, Berlin has been regarded in Washington as an unwilling ally who is militarily incapable of action due to its pacifistic coalition partner, the SPD.
And now that the Americans are withdrawing from northern Syria, Washington is no longer interested in Kramp-Karrenbauer’s offensive. “We weren’t informed. Now amazement all the way up to the top,” a high-ranking U.S. government official commented via text. The source said he had heard that on Sunday, an email from Berlin had reached the Pentagon, though no one knew exactly what the German defense minister was planning. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also said on Thursday in Brussels that he had not read the German proposal, nor had he studied it in detail. He said he thought it was “fine” that the Europeans wanted to establish a security zone, but he added that the U.S. would not contribute ground forces.
The sense of confusion extended to Germany’s European allies as well. Paris was alarmed by Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plans for northern Syria. “What is this?” a person within the French government asked their counterpart in Germany via text message. They continued: “Do we need to take this seriously?”
Answers were not forthcoming, mostly because very few people in Berlin actually knew was “this” was. “It’s hard to believe, but even in Germany, chaos reigns,” came one smug reaction from French governmental circles. Kramp-Karrenbauer doesn’t have the best reputation among Macron’s people in the first place. Her reaction to the French president’s call for more Europe was received as an affront in Paris. Instead of more, they should “do Europe right,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said, much to Macron’s chagrin.
And so, when it comes to bilateral cooperation over Syria, the French are sticking to an old diplomatic platitude: “Of course we will remain in contact over Syria.” To date, the French haven’t really regarded Germany as much of a military partner either. One saying that has gained traction: “The Germans defend peace, down to the last French soldier.”
Behind closed doors at NATO headquarters, officials have ruled out the alliance playing a role in Kramp-Karrenbauer’s mission. NATO operations require consensus, including from U.S. President Donald Trump or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose offensive in northern Syria made the security zone necessary in the first place. This is more than unlikely.
General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said before the start of a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday that there had been no request for a NATO mission in northeastern Syria. The proposal, he continued, would have to be “discussed more in detail before any decision can be made.” The partners that Kramp-Karrenbauer had hoped to rely on have either declined to participate, are playing for time or don’t feel themselves called upon.
Nevertheless, the NATO meeting didn’t turn into a humiliation for Kramp-Karrenbauer. Several of her counterparts from other countries expressed understanding for her proposal. The “internationalization of conflict resolution” was necessary, many of them said. Stoltenberg doesn’t want to undermine the Germans either — he needs them: Kramp-Karrenbauer has promised to push for higher defense spending. This allowed the German defense minister to save face.
On Thursday, the European Parliament also voted in favor of a resolution calling for a Syrian security zone under United Nations supervision. But this showed just how unrealistic Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plans are: A UN mandate would require approval in the Security Council by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin, the very man who has been bombing Syria for years and is responsible for many civilian deaths. But Russia’s vision of a security zone isn’t an option either. Putin and Erdogan recently divided the northern Syrian territory amongst themselves. Against this background, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s idea strikes many military strategists and foreign policymakers as rather naive.
First and foremost, Putin is propping up Syrian ruler Bashar Assad. Implementing Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal would mean dealing with both the dictator in Damascus and with Turkey, which the German government has accused of violating international law by invading Syria. Are those the allies Kramp-Karrenbauer wants to rely on for the Bundeswehr’s most dangerous mission in its history?
Everything seems to indicate, in other words, that her proposal will never become reality — and maybe that was never the intention. Kramp-Karrenbauer likely knows as much, which makes the move seem cynical and calculated. Even if a German soldier never sets foot in northern Syria, that won’t necessarily be a setback for Kramp-Karrenbauer on the domestic front.
Her brief tenure as head of the CDU has been marked by several missteps and after 100 days at the helm of the Defense Ministry, her accomplishments are few. This maneuver is a risky attempt at sharpening her profile and breaking out of the doldrums after less momentous proposals — such as allowing soldiers to ride German trains free of charge — proved unable to improve her poor approval ratings.
The minister’s overture was aimed at a trio of extremely specific audiences: the CDU voter base, whose support she will need to succeed Merkel as chancellor; the defense- and foreign-policy experts in the CDU parliamentary group; and the soldiers themselves.
Respect and Support
And the fact that a German defense minister is finally taking the initiative instead of merely voicing “deep concern” over an international crisis has indeed been well received in the officer corps. “Finally, we aren’t hiding behind the others,” says one senior general. The minister has gained respect and support in his circles, he says.
But at the same time, military leadership is bothered by the fact that Kramp-Karrenbauer intentionally bypassed them. The senior-most Bundeswehr soldier, General Inspector Eberhard Zorn, was in his car on Monday afternoon when Kramp-Karrenbauer informed him of her proposal over the phone. Two days later, Zorn informed the inspector of the reserves about what was going on, but there wasn’t really all that much he could say.
The minister’s most important adviser in the development of the proposal was not actually an experienced soldier at all, but her chief of staff, whom she brought with her from CDU headquarters when she moved over to the Defense Ministry. “Making such an important proposal solely with the guidance of someone from CDU headquarters demonstrates a denial of reality,” officers quoted one general as saying.
Military strategists must now fill the minister’s idea with life, but there aren’t any half-developed plans lying around that they can fall back on. After the U.S. was rebuffed when it came to the establishment of a security zone, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, ordered that all planning be stopped. She even put a halt to strictly confidential policy development out of fear that a leak could result in uncomfortable headlines.
As a result, the German military had nothing on hand when Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped forward. Still, military leaders were able to hurriedly produce broad estimates regarding what she could offer to European allies. The strategists assume a scenario in which a possible security zone is divided into sectors measuring roughly 40 by 30 kilometers. The Germans could take over the leadership of an international force in one of these sectors as a “framework nation” in addition to providing three combat battalions, the equivalent of roughly 2,500 troops.
Military planners say they could envision making a “complete package” available, including reconnaissance, special forces units, armored fighting vehicles, heavy weapons, self-propelled howitzers, sappers and mine clearance specialists. The German military can also imagine providing air support for its own soldiers, including reconnaissance planes and fighters. Assistance would be necessary, however, in two areas: helicopters and medical support.
Thus far, missions engaged in by Germany’s Bundeswehr have tended not to be subject to time limitations. For the Syrian proposal, though, planners have recommended that the Dutch example be followed and the mission be limited to two years, after which other countries would have to take the initiative.
Still, it seems unlikely that the SPD, having been taken by surprise, will grant its approval. And it may ultimately be best for Kramp-Karrenbauer if her operation were to quietly fade into obscurity. Such an eventuality would both save Germany and its military from an extremely risky operation and allow her to claim that she had made a bold proposal.
Among senior politicians, there is certainly acceptance for this sort of approach. “If you want to move things forward in politics, you sometimes have to chuck a rock into the water,” says CSU head Horst Seehofer. “That’s exactly what the CDU chair did.”
It remains to be seen whether Kramp-Karrenbauer’s own party allies will be quite as understanding.
By Christoph Schult, Ralf Neukirch, Peter Müller, Veit Medick, Julia Amalia Heyer, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Florian Gathmann, Melanie Amann and Matthias Gebauer