Heiko Maas in Turkey: German foreign policy 2.0?

Published 30.10.2019 00:32
Updated 20.12.2019 01:19

Seldom would the official visit of a foreign minister or a secretary of state cause an uproar back home as is the case with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ trip to Turkey on Saturday. Public comments by coalition partners, as well as other political parties range from awkward - probably being one of the more diplomatic statements - to much more frank analysis. Some suggested, for instance, that the foreign minister would lack decency, not understand that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming and focus on his emotional situation instead after a fellow cabinet member had suggested alternative plans for how a safe zone should look like. Unusually harsh criticism to say the least!

At stake: Maas had rejected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's, the defense minister of his own coalition government, statement on how a safe zone should be structured under U.N. supervision. And he had done so while on a foreign mission which many say renders invalid the commonly accepted style levels of diplomacy.

But diplomacy was the reason for Maas' whirlwind tour of Turkey to meet his counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in the wake of messages exchanged on social media where both politicians had stated their expectations in clear wordings.

Under such a heated atmosphere, prevalent even before Maas’ plane touched down at capital Ankara's Esenboğa Airport, everyone was concerned about what would happen once the two would shake hands and begin deliberations behind closed doors? And was Maas perhaps right after all?

A one-day snapshot of bi-lateral affairs

Straight talk from the German side: the fight against the so-called IS (Daesh) must remain a priority, the cease-fire should be observed and probably be prolonged and Turkey should not remain indefinitely on Syrian territory and the repatriation of refugees should only take place voluntarily.

The Turkish side had, in particular, demanded that Germany refrain from, all but in name, supporting the People's Protection Units (YPG), which according to Ankara is an off-shoot of the PKK terrorist group. It also demanded a greater show of support for Turkey as a NATO ally in its fight against terrorism across its southern border, which is of course at the same time a NATO border.

The gist of the Turkish position is that Turkey, with the support of Russia, now engages in exactly guaranteeing the safe zone corridor that Ankara had proposed eight years ago yet was sidelined by both the U.S. and German administrations at the time as impractical without an air patrol control mechanism.

Now that Turkey went ahead to defend what Ankara calls her legitimate rights, many say that it is hardly plausible why its allies, the European countries, in particular, do not seem to understand the dangerous situation across the Turkish border.

Interestingly enough, in the press conference after Saturday's meeting, it became clear that the actual issue of a safe zone was discussed in much more detail during that very media gathering, than in the foreign ministers' meeting. So what could be the real underlying current, the real dynamics Turkey is not satisfied with when it comes to a view with Turkey-Germany and Turkey-Europe relations?

The wider picture

It would have been a feature of the talks held between both foreign ministers because there is one underlying obstacle that makes a solid bilateral approach rather complicated. Turkey demands, and very rightfully so, that the European leaders and public finally understand that the YPG is no boys scout movement but a terrorist organization. Same as the PKK, which uses European territory for their illegal fundraising and laundering activities. Its support networks, often disguised in the form of "cultural associations," paint a picture that Ankara is targeting Kurdish civilians and that Turkey is fighting a war against the Kurds at home and abroad.

Nothing could be further removed from the truth. The Turkish offensive, as is unfolding over the past weeks, is aimed at re-establishing peace and clearing a 30-kilometer wide corridor from dangerous individuals and factions. This, in turn, will make a terrorist incursion into Turkish territory impossible and will hopefully help erase the PKK from the region along Turkey’s southern borders.

However, as long as PKK money laundering and human trafficking continue overseas, it is a justified fight that can never be fully completed. Hence, besides Maas’ rebuttal of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal making waves in Berlin, observers now hope that more will be done to a) better understand Turkey’s anti-terror strategy and b) treat the PKK and their support networks as nothing but what they are – terrorists who are intent on creating a dictatorship exactly along the lines of what Daesh had had in mind. Their ideology might differ but terrorists are ultimately terrorists.

So was Maas right?

Yes and no. Let us first elaborate on the former. A foreign minister is in charge of foreign policies and should a fellow cabinet colleague wish to enter that domain it must be discussed in private first. There are of course many intertwined policymaking issues that involve both diplomatic and defense portfolios, correct. But when a highly charged issue like the safe zone in Syria is on the table coordination within the government is key.

But then again, what Kramp-Karrenbauer finally managed to achieve is a debate that began in earnest among German decisionmakers and the public alike how the situation in Syria (and neighboring Iraq for that matter) could ever be sorted, leading to permanent stability and a return of peace.

Her timing was not perfect and the channels she used were not either. But exactly what has happened now is a healthy process even if it has started many years too late: How to finally better understand that Turkey as a NATO ally is safeguarding not simply her own southern borders but NATO’s southern flank and thus Europe as a whole, too. Then there are the issues of a humanitarian crisis and how to end terrorism. However, as long as terrorists roam free and find money and logistical support overseas it will not end.

Germany and Turkey, Ankara and Berlin should talk to each other much more often. Then chances are that one day solidarity prevails and by re-establishing peace across Turkey's southern border the threat of terrorism, both to Turkey and Europe will become much less of an issue.

*Political analyst, journalist based in London

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