BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s defense minister has suggested creating a security zone in northern Syria to protect displaced civilians and ensure the fight continues against Islamic State militants, the first time Berlin has proposed a military mission in the Middle East.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel’s preferred successor as chancellor, said she would discuss the initiative with NATO partners this week and did not rule out sending German soldiers to Syria, saying that would be a matter for parliament.
Turkey meanwhile said it would resume its offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria’s north when a ceasefire expires on Tuesday evening because hundreds of them remain near the border despite the deal’s requirement for them to withdraw.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi for talks on the conflict in Syria, Kramp-Karrenbauer made clear her initiative would need acceptance from those countries.
The Kremlin said it was studying the idea, which caused irritation within Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) who are in coalition with Merkel’s conservatives but were not consulted.
“We cannot just stand by and watch and not do anything,” Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), told Germany’s ZDF television late on Monday.
“My suggestion is that we set up an internationally controlled security zone involving Turkey and Russia,” she told Deutsche Welle broadcaster.
She said the move should stabilize the region and allow civilians to rebuild and refugees to return on a voluntary basis.
The five-day, U.S.-brokered pause in Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria is due to expire at 1900 GMT on Tuesday.
NATO-member Turkey wants all YPG forces to leave a “safe zone” it wants to establish along a section of its border with Syria. Ankara views the YPG as terrorists with links to Kurdish insurgents operating in southeast Turkey.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s idea is a departure for Germany, which is still a reluctant partner in security missions abroad, above all in the Middle East, due to the legacy of World War Two though it has increased its involvement in the last two decades.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, seeking to boost her credentials as the CDU’s candidate for chancellor in a 2021 election, said she had liaised closely with Merkel on the idea.
She quickly won backing from party allies including Norbert Roettgen, head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee who said the proposal was “brave and worthy of support”.
However, the proposal raised tension in Merkel’s coalition as the SPD is wary of foreign military commitments.
Kramp-Karrenbauer also raised eyebrows by saying she had been in touch with SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas by text message and, in an unusually direct riposte, Maas said he did not think much of text message diplomacy.
He echoed scepticism voiced by several other SPD lawmakers and said he needed more details, such as what role German soldiers would play, before making any assessment. But he stopped short of ruling out the plan altogether and stressed Germany would continue to be involved in seeking a diplomatic solution for Syria and in providing humanitarian aid.
The plan won support from Germany’s notable Kurdish community, angry about Turkey’s assault on northeastern Syria, following a U.S. troop pullback, that has sent thousands of Kurds in the region fleeing. Kurds make up about a third of the roughly 3 million people with Turkish roots in Germany.
Additional reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Heinrich