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The Syria dilemma

Anne Allmeling / cdFebruary 2, 2013

No end is in sight to a Syrian civil war that so far has taken the lives of 60,000 people. Nor is the prospect for an international agreement toward intervention likely. So what can Germany actually do?

In a blast of white smoke, a soldier fires a weapon from his shoulder against a background of green grass and blue sky. (Photo:Narciso Contreras/AP/dapd).
Image: AP

Some observers predicted a quick end to Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. Yet nearly two years since the revolt began, Assad is still sitting comfortably in presidential chair. Meanwhile, Syrians' day-to-day lives worsen daily.

Assad doesn't need to worry about fending off a foreign military intervention, though. The UN Security Council remains at odds on the issue. And, as Russia and China have veto rights on the Council, there's little pressure other members can put on Syria under the UN's auspices.

Imported money and weapons

The ongoing fighting between government troops and rebels have been catastrophic for the country. Syria's civil war has taken the lives of 60,000 people, with more than 2 million having fled their homes, cities or the country entirely.

Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, are now the temporary homes of 600,000 Syrian refugees. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Syrians are now leaving the country on a daily basis, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

White tents barely stand out against a hazy sky and the sandy ground as refugees mill aimlessly about. (Photo: Karen Leigh, DW)
Observers of refugee camps, such as the Zataari camp in Jordan, have warned of a lack of medical access and foodImage: DW/K. Leigh

Government troops as well as rebel fighters are now receiving foreign support in the form of money and weapons. With outside actors mixed into the conflict, the Syrian civil conflict is morphing into something of a proxy war. Iran has allied itself with Damascus, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are hoping rebel forces can keep government troops at bay. In spite of extensive sanctions, supplies of weapons appear to be secure for both sides - one of the primary reasons the situation in Syria appears so hopeless.

With is gaze fixed firmly on Germany, Robert Schütte of the Cologne-based NGO Genocide Alert argued in favor of a new arms export policy.

"It's very short-sighted to export weapons to regions that are involved in armed conflict," he said. "When the weapons get there, it's then very difficult to keep them under control. It doesn't take long for such weapons to be delivered to other conflict regions."

Arms export reform?

Schütte's fears were confirmed after the fall of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Foreign mercenaries who had been employed by Gadhafi for years and who were originally from the Sahel region - a 1,000-kilometer swath of desert that runs east-west through the African continent - plundered the country's well-stocked weapons depots after Gadhafi's fall. They then returned to their own home countries, weapons in tow.

Many of those weapons ended up in the hands of terrorists and strengthened the organization known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - one of the groups responsible for current acts of terror in Mali.

Rolf Mützenich, the foreign policy spokesman for Germany's opposition Social Democratic Party, said he would like to see more restrictive laws enacted to prevent such arms transfers.

"We have to control our arms exports much more stringently and, in situations where we aren't sure what'll happen to those weapons, refrain from those exports," he said, adding that such actions serve as an important preventative measure.

In order to prevent situations such as in Syria from cropping up in the first place, though, Schütte said more effort should be invested in reforming the security services so that they serve the people. Implicit is the idea that under certain conditions countries - and their security forces - can ultimately become a security threat to themselves.

"When police or military forces are trained in the Congo or Mali, for example, they should also receive human rights and political 'armor' and should know how to compose themselves when dealing with civilians," Schütte said.

The goal is to reform governmental security sectors so that both the requirements of the citizens and of the state are fulfilled simultaneously, thereby underscoring democratic principles.

In the smoke and dust and of a destroyed gas station, confused and angry men attempt to rescue others from the rubble and assess the damage. (Photo: REUTERS/Zain Karam)
Residents and members of the Free Syrian Army put out a fire caused by a jet shelling near AleppoImage: Reuters

No UN mandate

In Syria, a reform of arms exports policies or of Syrian security forces is no longer tenable. Also complicating matters is the tight international framework that Germany and its international partners are operating within.

"We have no military attack by Syria on any third-party country, which means there's no self-defense in terms of international law, and on the other hand there's also no mandate from the Security Council," said Claus Kress, a professor of German and international criminal law at the University of Cologne. "In purely legal terms, the question that would present itself here is whether in an extreme emergency or an impending disaster a one-off deal could be negotiated without a Security Council mandate," he said. "And that's very controversial."

Schütte, however, said Germany could still take action.

"It doesn't have to be of a military nature," he said. "It would be an important step if Germany were to utilize its intelligence resources to secure legally binding materials and evidence that - when the crisis in Syria is over - could then be used to bring perpetrators and those responsible to trial."