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October 23, 2019

Putin brokers deal to push Kurds away from border

The agreement between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin cements two things: it pushes Kurdish forces out of the 440km-long Syrian border area with Turkey and it installs Russia as the de facto power broker in the region. According to the agreement Kurdish forces will have a 150-hour window to retreat from a 30km-deep corridor along the Turkish border, starting at midnight tonight until October 29. Russian military police and Syrian border guards are to oversee the Kurdish retreat, while Turkish forces stay in place without further advances. After October 29, Russia and Turkey will patrol a 10km strip along the whole 440km border with the exception of Qamishli, the de facto Kurdish capital. This buffer zone appears to include the two strategically-important towns of Kobani and Manbij. 

What are the quid-pro-quo's? Turkey got its safe zone and control over it. In return Turkey is to respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, an important concession Putin brokered for his ally Bashar al-Assad. What this means for the Idlib province, where Turkey maintains observation posts, is not clear yet. It is also not clear to us what it means for Erdogan's plans to resettle Syrian refugees. And nowhere in the declaration is anything said about the Isis prison camps. 

There are no comments yet from the Kurds. Earlier during the day the army commander in Kobani confirmed that fighters retreated from the border strip between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn just hours before the US-brokered ceasefire ended. Amid the Turkish operation and the US retreat, the Kurds were forced to seek the protection of the hated dictator Assad, who gets his grip on land that used to be under Kurdish authority. The Kurds are screwed over again, it seems. 

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October 23, 2019

AKK’s biggest gamble yet

AKK has done it again. She surprised everybody with a proposal of far-reaching military and strategic implications by making the case for a UN-policed protection zone in northern Syria. The last time she did something like this was before she became German defence minister. Readers may remember she suggested a joint Franco-German aircraft carrier, and that France give up on seat on the UN security council.

We agree with the assessment of Berthold Kohler of FAZ: this is a make-or-break moment for her. If this were to get under way, it would be a big step for German diplomacy and for her personally. But if this fails, her party will invariably come to the conclusion that she cannot conceivably succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. In that case, her job as CDU leader would also be in doubt.

Another article in FAZ tells us that she plotted her proposal within her ministry and in close co-ordination with Merkel’s foreign policy advisers but, crucially, not with the SPD. A UN-led mission to police Northern Syria would require some 30,000-40,000 ground troops. An operation of that scale would have to include German troops. Merkel yesterday said she finds the idea of a UN mission promising. But Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, accused AKK of doing diplomacy by text message. We also wonder whether the decision might become an issue in the present SPD leadership race and in the party’s upcoming internal review of the coalition. We think the SPD will want to sit out the remaining time in office as they always do, but one should never underestimate how defence issues can develop their own political dynamism in Germany. 

AKK said she had some positive responses from Russia and also from Turkey. The Kurds support the idea. Merkel said she wanted to consult with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron.

Wolfgang Munchau writes: I welcome the idea of a more assertive and more strategic security policy. Based on its merits, AKK’s proposal has a lot going for it. The EU has an overwhelming interest in preventing a further de-stabilisation of the region. But the political job does not consist of arriving at that conclusion but in organising majorities for it - like Joschka Fischer did in 1999 when he persuaded the Green’s party congress to accept German participation of a UN-led mission to Kosovo.

So why has she not tried to seek broader support for the idea inside her coalition? I can see two rational reasons: she is either deliberating trying to provoke the SPD to pull out of the coalition; or she is convinced that the SPD will follow because it has no alternative choice. But it is also possible that she miscalculated. Given her record, I just cannot exclude the latter.

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