Europe, Russia should set up security zone in Syria, German defense minister says
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 22, 2019
STUTTGART, Germany — Europe and Russia should work together to establish a security zone in northern Syria to stabilize the region and relaunch the fight against the Islamic State group, Germany’s top military official said.
A new approach is needed after the withdrawal of American troops and a push by Turkey into Syria diverted Kurdish fighters from the battle against the extremist group, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told Deutsche Welle Monday.
“This security zone would seek to resume the fight against terror and against the Islamic State, which has currently come to a standstill,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “It would also ensure that we stabilize the region so that rebuilding civilian life is once again possible, and so that those who have fled can also return voluntarily.”
The French-German Defense and Security Council would work out details of how the security zone would be implemented, she said. Besides Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom would also be involved in the plan, Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
However, It isn’t clear what kind of backing there would be for such an arrangement.
A plan to send German troops to help enforce a security zone would likely be intensely debated in Berlin, and opinion is mixed in Germany when it comes to sending soldiers abroad on potentially dangerous security missions.
The idea of European NATO members working with Russia to set up a security zone underscores how Moscow’s influence in the region has grown.
Russia has stood by Syrian President Bashar Assad since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 and stepped up its involvement in 2015 when it began conducting airstrikes in the country. Last week, no sooner had American troops pulled out of northern Syria than Russian personnel moved into the outposts they’d vacated.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to hold talks Tuesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the situation in Syria.
“Some Russian personnel are already patrolling zones along the border and many more could do so if Turkey and Russia work out an agreement, leaving the United States sidelined and marginalized in any post-conflict settlement,” international security firm the Soufan Center said in an analysis Tuesday.
“Putin is positioning Russia as the essential power broker for any peace deal or political solution,” the analysis said.
Europe must take steps to make sure it isn’t sidelined, too, Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
“Russia is one of the most important actors in Syria,” she said. “Regardless of whether one likes that or not, it is a fact that we have to deal with.”
If NATO doesn’t act, member states would “simply watch as talks between Turkey and Russia continue,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s idea of an international security zone could emerge in talks Thursday when NATO defense ministers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, meet in Brussels.
Esper said last week he intended to pressure allies to take a tough stance on Turkey for the invasion of northeastern Syria, and explore collective diplomatic and economic measures against the NATO ally. And during a brief stop in Afghanistan Monday, he said the Pentagon is discussing leaving a possible “residual force” in Syria to guard oil fields, and ensure ISIS and other groups cannot generate revenue by accessing the sites.