Britain, France Challenge German Policy in Syria

Germany resists British and French demands to allow weapons supplies into Syria.

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, attends an event in London, England, March 7
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, attends an event in London, England, March 7 (FCO)

France and the United Kingdom pushed their NATO ally Germany on Tuesday to lift a European arms embargo on Syria where opposition forces have battled the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for two years but failed to dislodge it.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, argued that the embargo, which prohibits the supply of weapons to both loyalist and rebel forces in Syria, “doesn’t work in the face of reality” which is that “the opposition is bombarded by others who are getting weapons while they are not.”

Western nations suspect that Iran and possibly Russia continue to provide weapons to the Syrian government. But opposition forces are likely armed by foreign powers as well, notably Persian Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia which would welcome Assad’s fall as he is the only Arab ally of their regional nemesis Iran.

Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague told lawmakers last week that his government was expanding its “technical assistance” to Syrian opposition forces, including the supply of armored vehicles and body armor.

Prime Minister David Cameron said in Parliament on Tuesday that he hoped other European countries would agree to a change in the weapons sanctions “if and when a further change becomes necessary.” He added, “if we can’t” find consensus, “then it’s not out of the question we might have to do things in our own way.”

Without unanimous support from European Union members to either renew or amend the ban in three months’ time, the embargo lapses.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle argued against loosening the sanctions regime earlier this month. “Delivering weapons always involves the danger of an arms race and slipping into a proxy war that could push the whole region into a broader conflict,” he told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Syria already appears the proxy war in a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey which support the largely Sunni uprising in the country and Shia Iran.

Germany’s reluctance to deepen Europe’s engagement in the conflict also reflects its changing foreign policy. Whereas the country almost instinctively lined up behind American and European foreign policy proposals during the second half of the twentieth century, its reemergence as the continent’s central power has given it the strategic comfort to pursue a more realistic approach.

Perhaps the first serious German breach of Atlantic unity was in 2003 when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder criticized the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. At the time, France and Germany were still united — against the United Kingdom and the United States.

By 2011, the French role had changed. With Britain, it pushed aggressively for military intervention in Libya where opposition forces tried to topple the dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi. Air support from mainly France, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Qatar enabled the rebels to succeed.

Germany, Libya’s second biggest trading partner, had warned its allies that they should not expect “quick results with few casualties” and said it feared being drawn into a protracted civil war in Libya. It did not contribute to the effort at all.

Miguel Nunes Silva explained what had changed at the Atlantic Sentinel in the wake of the North African operation.

Whereas during the Pax Americana of the last twenty years, France and Germany together cooperated to assert themselves vis-à-vis the United States, the recent economic downturn across the Atlantic and the imbalance between the development of Germany and that of the rest of Europe has considerably changed the equation. Berlin no longer has a clear interest in further bankrolling Atlantic adventures which bring it no benefit and among the European Union’s three largest powers, it stands as primus inter pares.

Not everyone in Germany agrees. Former Green party foreign minister Joschka Fischer complained in Der Spiegel at the time about “the lack of fundamental convictions” on the part of the incumbent administration. He described Germany’s role in Libya as “perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany.”

Our supreme interest should be holding tight to our anchoring as part of the West. In doing so, something that is paramount — and, indeed, essential — is finishing the process of European unification.

Left-wing opposition parties are also critical of what they see as a less idealist German foreign policy that “even” includes arms exports “to regions in conflict and to areas where human rights aren’t respected,” said Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück late last year. He will challenge conservative leader Angela Merkel for the chancellorship in the fall.

Der Spiegel has dubbed these weapons sales part of a “Merkel Doctrine” — the strengthening of the defense capabilities of partner countries outside Europe to enable them to maintain peace and security without the need for Western intervention. According to the magazine, it also gives Germany an excuse not to involve itself directly in overseas military operations.

In the chancellor’s opinion, it is better and less dangerous to provide military support to one side in a given conflict.

In Syria, Germany’s calculation seems to be that it stands nothing to gain from supporting either side — and it doesn’t. If the increasingly radicalized rebels manage to defeat Assad’s forces after all, they are likely to impose a majority Sunni government on the country that may not be far more susceptible to Western interests than the incumbent president’s is. British and French appeals to “humanitarian intervention,” to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people caught in the crossfire of the conflict, appear to fall on deaf ears in Berlin.

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