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Careful approach

Sven Pöhle / cmkAugust 28, 2013

Germany's Western allies are openly considering a military strike against Syria. But Berlin's Syria policy is focused on humanitarian aid and the search for a political solution.

Image: AP

The German government has responded carefully to the recent developments in Syria. But like many other Western politicians, Chancellor Angela Merkel harbors hardly any doubts that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its own people. Through her spokesman, she said any possible use of poison gas should not go without consequences.

"If such an act should be confirmed, than the world community must act," said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "At that time, Germany will belong to those who call for the appropriate consequences."

But both the chancellor and the foreign minister were deliberately unclear as to what those possible "consequences" could be. They were just as vague as to whether, and in what form, Germany would take part in these consequences.

Policy of restraint

The statements by Germany's top politicians were hard to beat for their ambiguity, criticized André Bank, a political scientist at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg.

"A truly independent attitude does not exist in Germany's Syrian policies," said Bank. In principle, however, Germany has positioned itself on the side of its Western allies who are currently openly discussing a military intervention in Syria.

The US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson (R) and the cruiser USS Bunker Hill (L) (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Saber rattling or serious preparation? The US is increasing its naval presence off the Syrian coastImage: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

Looking at the recent past gives cause for the wary German behavior: Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's refusal to participate in the Iraq war a decade ago contributed to his victory in the 2002 election, but strained relations with Western allies, in particular the US.

In 2011, Berlin was out of tune with its NATO partners. During the discussion on military intervention in Libya, Germany abstained in the UN Security Council vote and was thus grouped with fellow abstainers China and Russia - against close allies the US, France and Britain.

In the case of Syria, Germany seems to want to avoid this outcome. For this reason, Germany's Syria policies have strongly aligned with the policies of other European countries, said Bank. However, in comparison to France and the UK, Germany has been to some extent more moderate, as for example with the question of arming the Syrian rebels.

Earlier this year at the urging of France and Britain, the European Union lifted its arms embargo against Syria. While Germany has supported ​​strong collective sanctions against the Assad regime, Berlin has rejected supplying weapons to the rebels. Germany has, however, supported the rebels with non-military equipment such as protective vests and humanitarian aid.

Looking for a political solution

German politicians across party lines have emphasized their interest in a political solution - and not just recently, mere weeks before the general election. "Given the increasingly dramatic humanitarian situation in Syria, there is an urgent need to develop a common position on the UN Security Council," said Philip Missfelder, the foreign policy spokesman of the Christian Democratic Union parliamentary group.

This solution, however, seems far off. The veto powers Russia and China have so far consistently prevented a resolution on Syria. Both countries are concerned that this could lead to the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Members of Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Haitham Maleh (L) , Abdul al Karim Bakkar (2ndL) Farah al Atassi (2ndR) and Abdul Rahman Battra (R) give a press conference, on July 4, 2013 in Istanbul, to announce taht Syria's main political opposition will attempt to nominate a new leader to unify a fractured coalition. AFP PHOTO/ OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Syria's National Coalition is planning for the post-Assad periodImage: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

But a Syria without Assad is the aim of German foreign policy. "From the beginning of the uprising, Germany has worked for a new political and economic start for Syria," said Missfelder. "The goal has always been to provide for the future of Syria following the end of the Assad regime."

For this reason, Germany supported the Syrian opposition early on in the conflict. The German government has recognized the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella organization of Syrian opposition groups, as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people," and Germany is part of the Friends of Syria group, in which the EU, the US and many Arab states have coordinated their aid for the Syrian opposition.

Together with the United Arab Emirates, Germany is also involved in Syria's economic reconstruction. The two countries have set up a relief fund with which the opposition is to fund projects such as the reconstruction of infrastructure or the water supply.

Humanitarian help necessary

Syria's National Coalition has opened a liaison office in Berlin in order to help German non-governmental organizations better coordinate their support for the Syrian opposition. In addition, it will serve as a first stop for new arrivals from Syria. The German government said in March that it was ready to take in up to 5,000 Syrian refugees.

Germany's support also includes on-site assistance. Since 2012, the federal government has contributed 193.33 million euros ($258.8 million) for humanitarian aid and relief projects in Syria and its neighboring countries. "That's peanuts when faced with the escalation of the conflict and refugee numbers," criticized André Bank. Nearly 1.9 million Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. There, Germany has been supporting in particular the UN agencies and NGOs in their refugee aid projects.

Avoiding military involvement

A Patriot anti-missle system stands ready for practice. (Photo by Deutsche Bundeswehr/Getty Images)
German Patriot missiles stand ready along the border in TurkeyImage: Deutsche Bundeswehr/Getty Images

But although humanitarian aid and the desire for a political solution remain at the forefront of German policies, military support has not been completely excluded.

If there is a military strike, Germany would "certainly not be among the first to take part," said Bank. "Indirectly, however, there are ways to participate."

In the Turkish-Syrian border region, Germany has stationed some of its Patriot missiles. They would come into play should Syria attack Turkey from the southeast. The German navy has a number of ships in the Mediterranean, which could help with reconnaissance in the event of a Syrian intervention. And, similar to the France-led intervention in Mali launched in January, fighter jets and bombers belonging to the allies could find support from German refueling airplanes.