A European security force in Syria is a courageous idea

Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer attends a news conference in Berlin, Germany October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi - RC14E36E7400
Editor's note:

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal for a European security force in Syria exposes a devastating truth: European passivity in Syria is morally reprehensible and harms Europe’s own security interests, argues Constanze Stelzenmüller. This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Last week, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer made an unusual and courageous suggestion to help contain the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

Germany’s defence minister called for an international security force in northeastern Syria, with a substantial German military contribution. But she was slapped down publicly by her cabinet colleague, foreign minister Heiko Maas, who called her proposal unrealistic in a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. The episode got little attention beyond Berlin. Yet it shines a harsh light on the shameful disarray of western, European, and German foreign policy.

Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires”. But it is Syria — referred to as a patch of “bloodstained sand” by US president Donald Trump — that may be the west’s. Syria’s eight-year-old civil war has profoundly destabilised the Middle East. It has drawn in regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, as well as the Tehran-backed Lebanese Hizbollah. It has enabled Russia to greatly expand its influence in the region.

Of Syria’s prewar population of 22m, the war has killed half a million, displaced more than 6m internally and driven almost as many people to flee into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and other regional neighbours. Less than a million Syrians have applied for asylum in all of Europe since 2015. Yet that influx, which peaked in 2015, fuelled a surge of ethno-nativism which is still resonating in the continent’s politics.

The inaction of western governments contributed to the disaster, of course — most egregiously when former US president Barack Obama and the British parliament crossed over their own red lines and refused to punish Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against its own citizens. Now, Mr Trump’s pullout of US troops from north-east Syria, and his betrayal of America’s Syrian Kurd allies in the fight against Isis, has cleared the way for a brutal Turkish incursion. It has given free rein to three autocrats: Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad; and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Europeans seem to think all this is none of their business. Yet French and British special forces were fighting side by side with Americans and Kurds. (Germany has no ground troops in Syria, but has been training and arming Kurdish peshmerga units in Iraq). Damascus is only 3,700km from Berlin, and 4,300 from Paris. A recent estimate says about 4,000 “foreign fighters” in Syria and Iraq come from EU countries; but many captured fighters were freed in last week’s hasty retreat. In his press conference on the capture and killing of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mr Trump offered to send European-born fighters home. No doubt some will attempt to do so on their own.

According to the UN, nearly 180,000 Syrians have already been displaced by the Turkish incursion. If future ceasefires are broken as swiftly as the one negotiated by US vice-president Mike Pence last week, there might yet be another big outflow of refugees in the direction of Europe, further destabilising fragile political economies from the Balkans to Greece, Italy and Spain.

But even without a single foreign fighter or refugee arriving on European shores, the Syrian catastrophe has important ramifications. Europe harbours large Turkish and Kurdish diasporas. Germany alone is home to 2.9m people of Turkish origin, while estimates of its Kurdish population range between half a million and a million. They have been known to clash.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal may have been debatable on points of substance as well as style. No doubt it also served the tactical purpose of deflecting from Germany’s inability to meet its 2 per cent defence spending commitment before 2031 (instead of 2024, as agreed with Nato).

Still, her central point is devastatingly accurate: Europe’s passivity in Syria is not just morally reprehensible — it harms European security interests. A judiciously-sized military force, combined with the deliberate application of the considerable leverage European nations have over Turkey and Russia, could still be a game-changer.

Continued inaction, however, is increasingly dangerous. As they say in the US: if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.