Opinion: Better empty words than emptied bullets | Opinion | DW | 16.04.2018
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Opinion: Better empty words than emptied bullets

Germany has decided against military involvement in Syria's civil war, although it welcomes US-led airstrikes against the Assad regime. Marcel Fürstenau unpacks this seeming contradiction.

UN Security Council members at UN headquarters in New York

Emergency session of the UN Security Council in the wake of US-led air strikes on Syria

"Germany will not be militarily involved," Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week with regard to the potential for Western military action against the murderous Assad regime in Syria. However, Merkel's categorical "no" was clearly not a rejection of a military response from the US and allies. "We recognize and we support the fact that every effort is being made to signal that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable," she said.

Such a formulation gave at least a hint of pending US-led retaliation for an alleged Syrian chemical attack on its own people. What else could it mean to "signal," given that the dictator in Damascus has appeared immune to years of the West's powerful verbal posturing? It would not be far-fetched to assume that Merkel was aware of the airstrikes to come less than two days later.

The German military was and is not needed

Deutsche Welle Marcel Fürstenau Kommentarbild ohne Mikrofon (DW )

Marcel Fürstenau

It is equally safe to assume that the US, British and French did not need German help in destroying supposed sites for the production of the Syrian government's chemical weapons. Merkel was likely glad to have sidestepped the need to justify herself to her allies in Washington, London and Paris. Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron needed only verbal support from Berlin, and they got it. "The military response was successful and appropriate," Merkel said a few hours after the attack.

In contrast to her rather short statement against German military participation, she proceeded to fully elaborate on why she welcomed the allied military action: "To ensure the effectiveness of the international response to the use of chemical weapons and to warn the Syrian regime against further violations."

Convincing, perhaps, but a little hollow nonetheless. Germany's support for western military intervention begs the eternal question: Why does Germany remain on the sidelines? That's a question Merkel must answer.

German diplomacy could be needed

It is a familiar dilemma for Germany: when the going gets tough, it's the others who then have to back up their words with action. And yet it's good for Merkel to have wiggle room. It allows Germany to keep a back door open to a diplomatic solution, acting as an intermediary. The United Nations clearly cannot fill this role because opposing sides on the Security Council have veto power.

Watch video 00:34

Heiko Maas says Russia is needed to end Syria war

The US, Great Britain and France have little chance diplomatically against Russia-backed Syria. Assad's advantage lies in once again having Syria largely under control. Where Syria goes from here – and how, when, and with whom Syria will get rebuilt – are far more pressing questions. Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is right: There can only be a political solution and, more than anything, "whether we like it or not, this conflict cannot be solved without Russia."

The Assad question

But Maas also said that anyone who uses chemical weapons cannot be part of the solution. That should mean that Assad needs to be isolated. To actually do so would be diplomatic genius, but it is doubtful that Russia would go along. Maas probably bit off more than he can chew, but after seven years of civil war in Syria, empty words are better than empty rocket shells – chemical or otherwise.


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