Merkel’s Successor Splits German Coalition With Rogue Syria Plan

Patrick Donahue and Arne Delfs

(Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel’s designated successor is causing trouble in Berlin with her efforts to assert authority.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been undermined by a series of errors since she was chosen to follow Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union last year. In the latest on Tuesday, just two months after also taking the job as defense minister, she sprang a proposal for an internationally-monitored security zone in northern Syria with little warning. Allies in the coalition, which includes Social Democrats, complained they were informed late or not at all.

“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.”

The political storm that surrounded Kramp-Karrenbauer’s rushed roll-out comes after she stumbled for months in her role as Merkel’s heir apparent, committing a string of gaffes and failing to communicate. That assessment was buttressed as many party colleagues were caught unawares by the plans of AKK, as she is also known.

If nothing else, the volley drove a wedge between the CDU and its junior coalition partner just as the Social Democrats approach a sensitive decision on whether to remain in the 17-month old government.

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.

That sense of unity only went so far. 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.

“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.”

Annen also said prospects for any such plan would hinge on the deal struck Tuesday by Russia and Turkey to secure a buffer zone in northern Syria, involving a coordinated effort with Syrian forces to remove Kurdish fighters from the border area.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is battling to reverse an increasing sense of disappointment among the party faithful 10 months after she was elected its chief in a tight vote. Complaints range from a leadership vacuum AKK has left to an inability to implement or communicate fresh ideas, according to at least three people familiar with the thinking within the party.

The fresh approach of 57-year-old AKK hasn’t been a boon to the CDU’s public backing. The party has 27% support, down five points from the week she was elected in December of last year, according to an Oct. 19 Forsa poll. Separately, Bild newspaper last week carried a headline showing a “horror” poll for AKK, who came last in a list of top German politicians.

Kramp-Karrenbauer would have to forge a unified position among coalition partners to gain any traction, according to a German government official. Judging by the Social Democrats’ response, that’s unlikely to happen before the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, when she intends to present her proposal.

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

“I don’t believe much in SMS diplomacy,” Maas told local media. “That can quickly turn into SOS-Diplomacy.”

Muetzenich, the usually soft-spoken SPD caucus leader who has opposed German participation in military interventions, was more withering, asking how such a security zone could win United Nations approval after failing to do so for years.

Still, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that he welcomes the proposal.

“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.’’

Kramp-Karrenbauer said an internationally agreed security zone would defuse the fighting in northern Syria and allow the focus to return to fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS, 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.

Irrespective of the merit of the Syria proposal, a German bid for a military venture in the Middle East puts AKK on risky terrain with a public that has been broadly resistant to such entanglements throughout the country’s post-World War II history.

(Adds Stoltenberg comment in third to last paragraph.)

--With assistance from Jonathan Stearns.

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

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

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