Policy-Shaping Power in the Middle East (II)


DAMASCUS/BERLIN (Own report) - Today, Thursday, the first group of Bundeswehr soldiers will be leaving to go to war against the "Islamic State" (IS or Daesh). Participation in this war, which, according to government advisors will promote Germany to a "policy-shaping power in the Middle East," will assure Berlin reinforced integration into the most important command headquarters of the western war coalition against the IS/Daesh. It will also provide the German government more influence in the international power struggle over the reorganization of the Middle East. The establishment of an international protectorate is one of the issues. The first negotiations between the government of President Bashar al Assad, the Syrian opposition, and insurgent militias are due to begin at the beginning of January. Currently, opponents of the Syrian government and insurgent militias are in Riyadh to prepare for these negotiations, with the German government's approbation. Even though jihadist holy warriors are taking part in the Riyadh talks of the opposition, the northern Syrian Kurdish forces, which play a central role in the war against the IS/Daesh were among those not invited by the Saudi leadership.

On the Path to War

Today, Thursday, the first group of Bundeswehr soldiers will be leaving for the new German military mission in Syria and Iraq. About 40 members of the Air Force's 51st "Immelmann" Wing will be given a send-off from Jagel, located in northern Germany's Schleswig Holstein, along with two RECCE Tornados. At the same time, an Airbus in-flight-refueling transporter will be taking off from the military section of the Cologne-Bonn Airport headed to the Syrian-Iraqi combat zone. Its destination is Turkey's Incirlik Air Force base. Last Sunday, the frigate "Augsburg" passed through the Suez Canal and, together with the French aircraft carrier "Charles de Gaulle," is on its way to the Persian Gulf. However, concrete operations are scheduled to begin in January, when up to 1,200 German troops are scheduled to have completed their redeployment into the war against the "Islamic State" (IS/Daesh).

Command Headquarters

Coinciding with this repositioning of troops, the German military will reinforce its ties to all relevant command headquarters of the western war coalition in the operation against the IS/Daesh. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida, USA is the highest command center. All units of the western war coalition on mission locally are commanded from the US Camp Arifjan base in Kuwait. The number of German liaison personnel will now be increased in both installations. German troops will also be integrated into the Qatar-based Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), charged with coordinating the aerial operations against IS/Daesh. Of significance is the fact that these combat operations being carried out over Syrian territory by the western coalition have no legitimacy under international law. German government officials had been openly admitting this fact, up until early this fall. Whereas, all of the above-mentioned headquarters are under US command - which is carrying out the majority of the missions - for the first time, the naval operations will come under French command. Monday, Rear Admiral René-Jean Crignola took command of the Task Force 50 of the US Navy, which is participating in the operation in the war on the IS/Daesh.[1]

Under Pressure to Act

Whereas Germany now sinks further into the conflict - beyond equipping and training missions it has been providing to the North Iraqi militias ("Peschmerga") for over a year,[2] - other than defeating IS/Daesh, the political objectives are still largely undefined. For Iraq, the secession of the Kurdish-speaking region in the north of the country is looming. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[3]) Since Russia's intervention, the western countries have come under pressure to act in Syria. In the meantime, because of Moscow's military support, President Bashar al Assad's overthrow no longer seems to be the sole option. Besides, time is running out for the western-supported insurgents. The rebel militias' retreat from Homs, which began yesterday, Wednesday, indicates that Assad's government can again regain ground. Therefore, the West must also admit that there is no way of avoiding a negotiated settlement between the government and the insurgents. However, there are numerous unresolved issues, including who will be represented at the talks, as well as whether - and in what form - Syria will continue to exist.

A Common Line

The question of which insurgents will participate in the negotiations is currently hotly debated. Yesterday, a three-day conference was opened in Saudi Arabia, convening more than one hundred groups of the Syrian opposition and insurgent militias, to attempt to find convergence of the widely contrasting standpoints, thereby laying the groundwork for negotiations with the government. German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised the conference in advance. "I hope that in Riyadh the Syrian opposition will successfully agree on a common line for the negotiations with the government in Damascus for a transitional government, even if that may mean making some difficult compromises."[4]

Militant Jihadist

The Riyadh conference, in fact, is very contested among the non-Islamist spectrum of Syria's opposition. For the first time, Saudi Arabia has also invited government opponents, who had remained in Syria and who - contrary to the exiled opposition - had clearly chosen peaceful demonstrations, resolutely rejected the militarization of the protests, even though largely ignored by the West. Kurdish speaking forces in northern Syria are among those excluded, because Riyadh's partner, Ankara, does not tolerate them, according to observers. Christian and Sunni allies of the Kurdish militias were also not invited. The well-known Syrian human rights activist, Haytham Manna, also turned down the invitation to come to Riyadh, choosing instead to participate in a parallel meeting, organized by Kurdish forces excluded by Saudi Arabia. Manna warns that the meeting in Riyadh includes "people who support an Islamic emirate."[5] The Saudi leadership refrained from inviting IS/Daesh and the al Qaeda offshoot, al Nusra, while, Salafist jihadist militias, such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are taking part in the talks. Both cooperate with al Nusra. A German court has recently classified Ahrar al-Sham as "militant jihadist" in a trial of four German residents, who had supplied uniforms to that militia.[6]

International Protectorate

The long-term perspective of the Syrian nation remains unclear. Consensus may be reached that President Assad could participate in the negotiations initially, but should not play a long-term political role. In Berlin, some even put Syria's continued existence in question, openly. In case operations work out as planned, it is unclear what would happen "with the regions, once the IS is driven out," an expert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) says and asks: "Should they simply be returned to the Syrian regime, are they planting the seeds of a Kurdish state or will they be placed under an international protectorate for protection of the civilian population?"[7]

"Don't Leave it up to the USA"

It is, however, clear that Berlin is hoping to play a leading role in the reorganization of the region. With its participation in the war against IS/Daesh, Germany has emerged as a "policy-shaping power in the Middle East," a German government advisor declared last week.[8] Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, is also calling for strengthening Berlin's position in the region. The EU "should not leave the initiative of ending the war in Syria up to the USA and Russia, as was done in previous decades," but should "become massively engaged in the problem at its door step," the diplomat declared.[9] The Bundeswehr's most recent participation in a war is motivated by Berlin's desire to play a greater role in global policy.

More on this question under Policy-Shaping Power in the Middle East (I).

[1] France Takes Command of NAVCENT Task Force 50. www.navy.mil 07.12.2015.
[2] See From Kurdistan to Alawitestan and Der zwanzigjährige Krieg.
[3] See Policy-Shaping Power in the Middle East (I).
[4] Außenminister Steinmeier zur Konferenz der syrischen Opposition in Riad. www.auswaertiges-amt.de 08.12.2015.
[5] Angus McDowall: "A Saudi-Turkish wish-list": Syrian opposition talks in Saudi Arabia fall short of a fully inclusive meeting. uk.businessinsider.com 08.12.2015.
[6] Matthias Stelzer: Ausrüstung von der Alb für den Terror in Syrien. www.swp.de 09.12.2015.
[7], [8] "Deutschland wird zur Gestaltungsmacht im Nahen Osten". www.zeit.de 02.12.2015.
[9] Interview mit Wolfgang Ischinger: "Syrien-Einsatz ist kein Abenteuer". www.bmvg.de 07.12.2015.