Merkel Takes Risk by Suggesting Role in Syria

Most voters and parties see little reason for Germany to involve itself in another country’s civil war.

Chancellor Angela Merkel visits German troops in Afghanistan, March 12, 2012
Chancellor Angela Merkel visits German troops in Afghanistan, March 12, 2012 (Bundesregierung/Steffen Kugler)

Chancellor Angela Merkel is taking a political risk when she hints at German support for a military intervention in Syria. German voters are notoriously pacifist and see little reason why they should be drawn into another country’s civil war.

While 60 percent of Germans polled by Stern magazine last year opposed foreign intervention in Syria altogether, Merkel’s government backed an international response to allegations of chemical weapons use there on Monday, saying, “The alleged widespread use of gas has broken a taboo. It requires consequences.”

Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister, joined the chancellery in demanding action after what he described as a “crime against civilization.” He predicted that “Germany will belong to those who support consequences.”

Germany’s NATO allies Britain, France, Turkey and the United States all called for action after Syrian opposition activists last week accused the regime of President Bashar Assad of gassing hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus. President Barack Obama told CNN on Friday that the use of chemical weapons “starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

With some 60 percent of American voters also opposed to intervention in Syria, however, Western military action is likely to be limited to air- and missile strikes, possibly to pave the way for imposing a no-fly zone as NATO did over Libya two years ago which enabled the uprising there to topple longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Germany was critical of the effort in Libya, fearing that it would involve Western powers in a protracted civil war. It warned its allies at the time that they should not expect “quick results with few casualties.” It took more than seven months of bombing before Gaddafi was deposed.

Germany was Libya’s second biggest trading partner after Italy — which also resisted military action — before the war.

The Merkel government’s refusal to support, let alone participate in, the mainly American, British and French operation appalled German internationalists like former foreign minister Joschka Fischer who told the weekly Der Spiegel at the time that it was “perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany.” He believed his nation’s standing in the world had diminished as a result.

Felix F. Seidler, a German security blogger and member of Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy, similarly laments a supposed lack of credibility on Germany’s part and even argues, “If Germany doesn’t want to completely abolish security policy, it cannot escape from an American intervention in Syria.”

Der Spiegel endorses military action for the same reason. It insists that the “moral credibility of the West” is at state.

While it deployed Patriot missile defense systems to Turkey’s border with Syria after a Turkish reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syria’s air defenses last year, Germany has repeatedly cautioned the West against involving itself in the conflict. It resisted British and French pressure to relax the conditions of a European Union arms embargo on Syria. Westerwelle warned in March that if outside powers provided the Syrian opposition with weapons, they would risk triggering an “arms race” and exacerbating “a proxy war that could push the whole region into a broader conflict.”

Western countries were reluctant to arm rebel fighters for fear of propping up a jihadist insurgency. Most of the communications equipment and weapons supplied by the United States and its allies in the region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, ended up in the hands of religious extremists who now appear the most effective fighting force in the opposition. The Sunni powers in the region have sectarian and strategic interests in supporting the largely Sunni uprising against Assad, however, who is the only Arab ally of their nemesis Iran. Support from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, a Shia group, has only deepened the sectarian nature of the conflict. The country’s minority Alawites and Christian tend to still support the regime.

With elections due in a month’s time, Germany’s opposition parties see Merkel’s newfound trigger happiness as an opportunity to draw voters from her Christian Democrat party which enjoy more than 40 percent support in most surveys.

“Given the confusion surrounding the situation in Syria, I would advise caution when it comes to the discussion over military intervention,” Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrats’ leader, told the Südwest Presse newspaper. His party trails Merkel’s in the polls by some 15 points.

Green party chairwoman Claudia Roth told Der Spiegel she had “extreme doubts that a military intervention will stop the conflict or deescalate it.”

The Greens are expected to become Germany’s third largest party after the election and favor a coalition with the Social Democrats. Having ruled out an alliance with the far-left Die Linke, the successor to former East Germany’s ruling socialist party, however, a “grand coalition” between the Christian and Social Democrats is more likely if Westerwelle’s liberals fail to cross the 5 percent election threshold.

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