The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
To recap, the international safe zone proposal by Germany was brought forward by the Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on October 23. More well-known by her name’s initials, AKK, than her internationally unpronounceable name, Kramp-Karrenbauer now heads the Christian Democrats (CDU) and is regarded as a potential successor of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The proposal basically entailed a blue-helmet mission in northern Syria, meaning the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces on the ground, authorized by an international mandate. The plan’s gist was to resolve all problems in one go: fight the Islamic State and similar jihadist groups, protect the Kurds, abate and even resolve Turkey’s security fears, and fill the void left by the departure of the U.S. special forces. Kramp-Karrenbauer also took the risk of breaking away from Germany’s pacifism and reluctance to dispatch combat troops in international missions. She is among the new generation of politicians moving past that traditional disinclination that from the dark shadows surrounding Germany’s history.
For my part, I found it a welcome surprise that Germany took the “pains” to intervene and propose something—anything at all—to resolve the current quagmire erupting in northern Syria after Turkey’s “Peace Spring” military operation was launched. Aside from expressing disdain and concern, spurting criticism, or trying to engage through backdoor diplomatic channels, Germany put something on the table and proposed a plan in a transparent manner. I personally think the act of tangibly proposing plans and going forward in public, not acting behind closed doors, has its merits, and should be used as the main strategy in Turkey-Germany relations. Otherwise, negative perceptions on the part of the Turkish public will just continue growing, and Turkish politicians will capitalize on such perceptions, exacerbating the downward spiral of relations. MetroPOLL, one of the foremost polling companies in Turkey, found that 72% of the public in Turkey regard Germany as an “enemy.” This figure was just 47% back in 2016.
While the plan quickly expired, it still fulfilled a crucial mission: it acted as a mirror to reflect what is wrong with Germany’s current politics-and foreign relations.
Let’s first start with the relations part: Germany has had certain “moods” in its relations with Turkey in the recent years. In the aftermath of the failed coup in 2016, Germany perceived the new intellectual and financially higher-income émigrés from Turkey as “assets,” and furthermore tried to discern between Turkey’s politics and its people. As of 2019, Germany regards Turkey as a headache in general when it comes to both its politics and its people. Forget about positive reception of new immigrants from Turkey: it is now a hassle to pass through Germany’s borders for Turkish passport holders, even with valid Schengen visas issued by Germany itself or visa-free special green passports. As often done with headaches, the quickest solution is to pop a pill and go on with business as usual. Germany is doing exactly that in regards to dealing with Turkey now. There is neither the will nor the interest to probe deeper into why there are certain conditions that make Turkey a headache. Sadly, and most importantly, there is also no interest as to how these conditions may be ameliorated so that Turkey is no longer a “headache” on Germany’s behalf. Last but not least, if you regard something as a “headache,” then there is absolutely no way that your relationship with that “thing” will be fruitful.
The plan’s quick dismissal within Germany as “vaguely worded,” “unrealistic,” and “half-baked” indicates how personal political rows and confrontations tarnish the country’s ability to define its role as a key player on the world stage. Kramp-Karrenbauer was criticized for putting forward the proposal without even discussing it with the governing coalition’s junior partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), let alone Germany’s main allies. But the cherry on the cake came from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas when he was visiting Ankara on October 26. Maas unabashedly led the way for Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to publicly crush Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plan when he himself said, “We are told everywhere that this is not a realistic proposal.” This was Maas’ way of describing the plan as unrealistic and asserting the status of his party, SPD, as the director of foreign policy, and his own role as the top diplomat of Germany. Maas also dismissed in-depth discussion of the situation in Syria, as he argued that he had no time to discuss “things of a theoretical character, because the people of Syria lack the time for theoretical debates.” Çavuşoğlu, a seasoned politician and jack of all trades, seized the opportunity to gallantly bash AKK’s plan as “unrealistic.” The day after Maas’ Ankara visit, on October 27, Chancellor Merkel felt the need to call President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and clarify Germany’s international safe zone plan, although her office stated that the call was to discuss the situation in Syria in general.
Meanwhile, not mincing his words, the Economy Ministry’s senior official Thomas Bareiss replied critically to Maas in his statement to business daily Handelsblatt, saying what Foreign Minister Maas did “not only contravenes diplomatic custom, it is also tactless and against German interests.”
Maas may have emulated the habits of Turkish politicians by utilizing foreign policy issues to gain leverage in domestic politics. The Social Democrats, governing with CDU/CSU since 2018, will be reviewing whether to stay in coalition next month. If they leave, there will most likely be early elections. According to a Deutschlandtrend opinion poll for the German broadcaster ARD, AKK now features as the ninth most popular politician in Germany, whereas Maas comes in second and Merkel first. AKK could not launch the plan for Germany’s international safe zone, but if she had been able to figure out a better way to be a “problem solver” in the quagmire of Syria, it certainly would have helped her domestic credentials as well.