16 December 2019

Germany, still concerned about Turkey after the London NATO summit

Negoiţă Sorin

What was Germany’s political reaction to Erdogan’s offensive in North-East Syria? What are Germany’s concerns? Does Germany and the European Union really have proper political-military tools to sanction Turkey’s aggressive behavior? Can Berlin still think of Turkey as of an ally dedicated to North Atlantic Alliance’s principles and values? If yes, what will be Germany’s attitude in terms of Turkey’s security interests within NATO?

Image source: Mediafax

Berlin is diplomatically coming after aggressive Erdogan

The offensive started by president Erdogan, at the beginning of October, in North-East Syria, to offload the Kurdish groups occupying many parts close to Turkish-Syrian borders, has raised extremely harsh reactions from Euro-Atlantic space’s states, especially Germany. Turkish president’s Syrian adventure triggered an additional security strategic interests conflict for the already deteriorated relation between EU, particularly the big European powers, and Ankara.

Given that Germany was, from the very beginning, the biggest critic of Turkish leader’s military interferences in Syria, we shall summarize the German reactions to establish the effects the Turkish military developments will bring, given the already weak relations between the West and Turkey.

From the start, we must mention that German federal authorities were surprised by Ankara’s military hostilities in North-East Syria. This is also an argument for the idea that Ankara did not informed its NATO allies, or at least the main Western capitals, on its intentions, targets or Turkish military plans in North Syria’s districts. In fact, this would have been the normal steps to be followed at NATO’s level.

German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas (social-democrat), publicly blamed the Turkish military offensive in Syria, immediately after the first dislocation of military troops and equipment (October 9). The German diplomat asked Turkey “to end the offensive and find a peaceful way to reach its security interests” in the region.

For the allegations Berlin made against president Erdogan there were used harsh words, opposed to Berlin’s usual diplomatic customs. The German federal government stated that Turkey will bring the region an additional destabilization. The immediate and greatest risks will be the return of Islamic State terrorist group, a new humanitarian disaster and a new and massive refugee wave.

Then, other drop-down statements emerged. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel and other members of her government openly blamed Erdogan’s offensive in Syria. According to German government’s spokesperson, S. Seibert, the German leader had a one hour conversation with the Turkish president, asking for the first political explanations on his military initiative. During the conversation, Merkel officially asked president Erdogan the “immediate stop of military operations” in Syria. Furthermore, she reiterated the German stance expressed by her Foreign Minister, adding that Turkey’s military actions can turn on the security interests invoked by the Turkish side, and even destabilize the security and humanitarian situation of this already-fragile region, having serious long-term political consequences, not just in terms of Ankara and its relations with EU and NATO member states, but in terms of Middle East and Europe’s security.

It is noteworthy that Germany’s political opposition has also opposed Turkey’s actions. The German Greens and the Left parties have asked for Ankara’s sanction, demanding their government the immediate cancellation of German military technique export to Ankara.

Furthermore, within an UN format, Germany and other four states (UN’s CS member states- France, Great Britain, Belgium, Poland and Estonia) have asked (October 9), in New York, the immediate stop of the Turkish military offensive, given that the “New armed conflicts in North-East Turkey will endanger even more region’s stability, will increase civilians’ suffering and the number of refugees from Syria” to other areas.

Reasons behind Germany’s political irritation and its first retaliation measures

The Turkish military offensive in North-East Syria has literally irritated the German authorities. Its effects have complicated things for the federal Government, threatening Germany’s main security interests.

Firstly, Germany wanted the Syrian Kurdish groups to succeed (people’s defence units- YPG) in controlling tens of IS supporters in North Syria camps and stop “foreign fighters” and IS militants from refuging in Europe’s states- including Germany. Secondly, Germany needed and needs a cooperative Turkey for matters like migration and the antiterrorist fight, besides the allied cooperation.

According to official data, starting with 2013, around 1.050 people, men and women, left Germany to activate in Syrian or Iraqi conflict areas. German authorities claim that around 220 German “fighters” died in those warfare areas, and other 270 people are missing (they assume they were killed or are being held in the Syrian “underground” areas). They could not concretely prove the return of some of them to Germany, although it is a possibility, given that a third of militants’ number are already back in Europe. There were 120 cases of IS German militants found in other states’ prisons (70% have German citizenship, wherefrom around 30 double-citizenship).

IS militants’ security in captivity is provided by Syrian Kurds from different locations in North Syria, but many Kurdish commanders have withdrew their security personnel, when the offensive started, to fight the Turkish forces. Therefore, the IS prisoners’ security was being compromised, and if the Kurdish unities were losing the control over the camps and prisons IS supporters and military were being held in captivity, then new terrorist cells were given the possibility to reemerge.

Also, Berlin is afraid that a new IS “reactivation” could emerge in North Syria, which would endanger area’s already fragile security, and could lead to a new refugee flux such as the 2015-2016 one. The final destination of refugees will, indeed, be Western Europe. This is a fact proved by the last actions, like the one that happened in October 08/09, when an IS terrorist attacked the local administration in Rakka, two of them being kamikaze attackers.

In fact, German security authorities have repeatedly warned that IS is secretly reorganizing in Syria and continues to develop attacks, therefore Turks’ offensive would only create the proper conditions for Jihadists to reemerge. Additionally to these warnings, there are Syrian Kurds’ ones, who have underlined that terrorist underground cells were spread all over North Syria.

Not least, the Turkish military action against Syrian Kurds in North Syria has also concerned the German federal authorities in terms of the trigger of huge violent protests, on their national territory, of supporters of both sides of the conflict. It is noteworthy that there are around three million Turkish people in Germany, many of them supporting president Erdogan’s actions in North-East Syria. However, there are also hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people supporting YPG, who live in Germany and criticize Turkey. They have protested in the streets against Erdogan from the first days of the offensive, in cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Koln, Stuttgart, Magdeburg. Therefore, German authorities are expecting new protests, which would quickly escalate in violent street manifestations (previously, there were examples of attacks on Turkish mosques in Germany, April 2018, which ended with the arrest of many Kurds).

All these developments pushed Germany to quickly react to Erdogan’s Syrian adventure, though it was only materialized through political and diplomatic statements. As for retaliation gestures, Government’s first measure was taken a few days after offensive’s start, when Germany decided to stop delivering additional equipment to Turkey. However, the export interdiction was also referring to weapons and materials that could be used for the Syrian conflict and not the previous delivery commitments.

There is also Germany’s decision to stop repatriating any IS fighter supporter. Officially, they claim that these people should completely deny their identity before taking any concrete juridical decision. In the end, the German decision is not inadequate at all, as long as most of the European countries are refusing to receive their radicalized citizens back.

Germany supports EU’s security interests

Everyone knows that Trump’s decision to withdraw its forces from this area had an important role for the security developments in Syria, and has also created the proper chance for Erdogan, but also new security risks for Middle East and Europe.

First of all, Europe, and particularly Germany, is concerned with the possible spread of more than 10.000 IS militants captured in North Syria. Around 2000 of them are “foreign fighters” and 800 Europeans. Additionally, I have already underlined that there is a huge risk for a new refugee wave to come to Europe and that European states have different approaches in terms of migration.

Gathered in Luxemburg, on October 14, within the Foreign Affairs Council, EU foreign affairs ministers have firmly blamed the Turkish military offensive in North Syria and asked Turkey to unilaterally stop the military action, but, according to their final declaration, they could not agree on using force tools, like a serious embargo on weapons or economic sanctions against Turkey. It was all up to the symbolic limitation of armament exports which were going to be used by Ankara in Syria.

Germany has indeed called on EU’s tools to be reduced to the political-diplomatic ones. The Foreign Affairs Minister has stated, afterwards, that EU’s attitude became really clear and asked the Turkish military mission in North-East Syria to immediately stop. They also agreed that other measures to “punish” Turkey (economic sanctions and others) will not be imposed until the diplomatic measures will be over: “We want to continue the dialogue with Turkey. I suggest Turkey to stop the invasion. We must keep the dialogue for that”.

Germans’ attitude is understandable, given that, from a diplomatic perspective, it was not necessary to antagonize Erdogan or break the strategic relations between Turkey and NATO or EU. In the end, Turkey remains EU’s trade partner, including in terms of refugees issues[1].

In response to German and European critics on the Turkish military offensive in North-East Syria, president Erdogan has threated EU’s states that he will give up the refugees’ agreement and will (re)open borders for a new flux. "EU, come to your senses! I will say this once again. If you try to label our current operation as an occupation, our job becomes easier, we will open the doors and send the 3.6 million refugees to you”- said the Turkish leader. Moreover, he rhetorically asked the German federal Government: “Are you on our side or on terrorist organization’s side?”

This is most likely the main reason why EU, particularly Germany, is afraid of imposing sanctions to Turkey. Hence, EU is only blaming Erdogan’s military actions, who threatens region’s stability and security, increases civilians suffering and their additional migratory flux.

How is Berlin planning on keeping Turkey away from allies’ anger?

Some German officials were simply outraged by Turkey’s offensive in Syria, as it is a NATO member state and it did not even inform the main member states’ capitals before doing it. A justified question that concerns many allied capitals and the NATO General Headquarter is: how can trust Turkey for being an ally dedicated to Alliance’s values and principles?

Budenstag’s vice-president, Claudia Roth (Green Party), openly accused the Turkish president for starting a “war against the international law” and indirectly asked NATO to reconsider Turkey’s status within the Alliance. “If NATO again does not react, if NATO again refuses to reconsider the member status (of Turkey), then it should stop talking about an Alliance of values”, stated the German politician (October 10). This was not the only reaction[2] on Berlin’s central political scene.

The question would be how responsible are German politicians’ reaction, because there are also circles claiming their reactions are populist an even irresponsible. Why? After a simple analysis, NATO would be less strong without Turkey. Besides the fact that Turkey has the second biggest army in the Alliance- after US, this country is placed at NATO’s South-Eastern extremity, has access to the Black and Mediterranean Seas, is has neighbors as Syria, Iraq and Iran, therefore it is an important player in the security architecture and a projection vector of Euro-Atlantic interests[3], close to the most strategic important areas for the Alliance.

In fact, German defence minister wanted to come up, at the NATO ministerial reunion from Brussels (October 24th), with a constructive initiative for finding solutions[4], even within UN, to Turkey’s security imperatives in terms of Kurds. For now, however, the initiative did not lead to any success in Brussels, nor in Berlin, as not all German politicians supported the initiative.

Furthermore, Turkey tried to block one of NATO’s defence plan for the Baltic Sea and Poland, claiming that the Alliance does not offer any support for its fight against YPG. President Erdogan’s move emerged when allies started to have different opinions regarding NATO. Allies reacted immediately, therefore Germany, along with Great Britain, has harshly criticized the Turkish actions but, in the end, they think it would be a huge mistake if their position would push Turkey away from NATO and closer to political and military relations with Russia. Even if the NATO Summit in London (December 4th) did not focus on the Kurdish militias, president Erdogan gave up his intention on blocking the plans for Baltic States and Poland ahead the Russian aggression. Turkish leader’s gesture did not vanish Berlin’s concerns.

We can conclude that two of the reasons president Macron surprisingly stated that NATO is in a “brain death”, asking what will happen with NATO Treat’s Article 5, are the lack of a NATO-Turkey coordination and the American withdrawal from Syria. French officials are saying the American decision and the Turkish offensive led, on the other hand, on a lack of EU-US coordination in matters of security and defence.

Germans reacted quickly. Blaming her “French friend”, chancellor Merkel stated that “NATO stays the foundation of European security”. In the meantime, the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, still sees Germany as “Alliance’s epicenter”.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] Everyone knows that Turkey received three million refugees since the beginning of the Civil War in Syria, more than any other country in the world. Germany has claimed that EU should spend six billion euro to financially support it regarding the Syrian refugees, but also to prevent other refugees’ waves from to EU’s space.

[2] German critics for the Turkish military action in North-East Syria have continued with Rolf Mutzenich, leader of social-democratic group in Bundestag, who questioned Turkey’s member status within NATO. He stated that “Everyone must verify if they can and want to continue to be part of NATO, and this is available for Turkey as well”.

[3] Turkey has a great number of military men dislocated in NATO’s missions from Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq. NATO has also important forces and equipment dislocated on Turkey’s territory, used by the Alliance as launching base for operations against terrorism. On the other hand, the Montreux Convention, from 1936, on Bosporus and Dardanelle straits, allows Turkey to cool down Western warships presence in the Black Sea.

[4] Federal Minister of Defence from Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has come up with the idea of implementing an international security area, along the border with Turkey, whereat to start an international stabilization mission, under UN’s aegis, such as the MINUSMA mission from Mali. UN’s mission should separate sides in the conflict and monitor the situation. The Initiative was welcomed by the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, who stated, at the NATO reunion: “I have discussed with the German Minister of Defence, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, about this proposal and she discussed with other allies during the meeting. […] Then, I welcome her proposal of analyzing the possibilities of creating a safer international area and, therefore, the increased international involvement.”  However, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has immediately opposed the German initiative, praising the Turkey-Russia agreement on rejecting Kurds from the North-East Syria area, considering it an important positive step to reduce the damages and make steps towards liberating this area in the near future.