Germany’s NATO Allies Give Tentative Welcome to Syria Peace Plan

Patrick Donahue, Arne Delfs and Jonathan Stearns

(Bloomberg) -- Germany’s NATO allies offered encouragement to Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s call for an international force to stabilize the situation in northern Syria.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the U.S. ambassador to the organization, Kay Bailey Hutchison, both welcomed the proposal on Wednesday in Brussels when previewing an Oct. 24-25 meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers. Hutchison signaled that the German initiative would require European troops on the ground to make it work.

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s suggestion is "certainly a positive," Bailey Hutchison told reporters. "If the Turks will ask for more help from the international community, I think the Europeans can step forward."

The response in Brussels was very different to the reaction in Berlin, where the plan was sprung on many of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s allies with little warning earlier this week and was greeted with barely veiled contempt by the junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats.

“I find it somewhat unusual – and I don’t think it should become the way the cabinet works,” Social Democratic caucus leader Rolf Muetzenich told reporters in Berlin on Tuesday. “I do think that Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer should learn a little from the discussion that she’s confronted in the past few hours.”

Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK in Germany, said an internationally agreed security zone would defuse the fighting in northern Syria and allow the focus to return to fighting the Islamic State and allowing displaced Kurds to return. It’s not clear how the plan would overlap with Turkey’s proposed security zone, designed to be off-limits to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Turkey is seeking to clear a swath of territory along its border with Syria currently occupied by Kurds.

“This will certainly be discussed during our meeting," Stoltenberg told a news conference. "And I expect AKK to share her thoughts with the other allies.’’

The idea has the backing of the chancellor, but the idea of a military venture in the Middle East puts AKK on risky terrain with a German public that has been broadly resistant to such entanglements since World War II.

The defense minister late on Wednesday suggested that Russia and Turkey alone couldn’t be left to control northern Syria and that the European Union had a type of moral obligation to become involved.

"I cannot say that this initiative will be successful in the end," she said at an event in Erfurt. "But I would blame myself if I wouldn’t at least give it a try."

AKK herself has been struggling to establish her authority since being chosen to succeed Merkel as head of the Christian Democrats last year. Two months ago she asked Merkel for the defense minister’s job in an effort to boost a slide in her approval ratings and her plan for an internationally-monitored security zone in northern Syria was the latest in a series of interventions that have irritated people in Berlin.

Dim View

For now, her party is closing ranks behind her. Merkel, who earlier this year took a dim view of the new CDU leader’s performance, backed her defense minister in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers in Berlin, according to two people present. A similar security-zone proposal was raised in 2016 during the siege of Aleppo, Merkel said. AKK even drew a round of applause.

But earlier in the day, officials in Merkel’s coalition were scrambling to figure out what was being announced.

Syria was discussed at length at a Sunday evening meeting of coalition leaders, including the CDU, their Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats. But AKK made no mention of such a plan at the time, CSU caucus leader Alexander Dobrindt said. He himself learned of the initiative only Tuesday morning.

Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, another Social Democrat, complained that he was informed via text message.

“We would like to know what Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ideas look like concretely, because we’re getting a lot of questions from abroad on what the German position is,” Niels Annen, Germany’s deputy foreign minister and a Social Democrat, told ZDF. “We need to answer that.”

(Adds AKK comment in ninth and tenth paragraphs.)

--With assistance from Caroline Alexander.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net;Arne Delfs in Berlin at adelfs@bloomberg.net;Jonathan Stearns in Brussels at jstearns2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Raymond Colitt

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