Outmaneuvered Merkel Weakened by Blunder in Syria Debate
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's delay in signing a US-backed resolution against the use of chemical weapons in Syria is being portrayed as a major misstep. Now, as Washington continues its diplomatic offensive, Merkel faces a political backlash at home.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel always seems to enjoy the return journey after a political summit. Exhausted but finally able to unwind, she is full of anecdotes and happy to be on her way home.
That's how it was on Friday afternoon as Merkel returned from the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Her ride home, a German air force Airbus, had already passed over the Latvian capital of Riga when the chancellor appeared with a paper coffee cup in her hand and cheerfully began recalling her impressions of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg to the on-flight press corps. She noted that the plane was due to land in Berlin at 5 p.m. and that, after their arrival, she was looking forward to taking the evening off.
The previous evening, American diplomats had put out feelers among their German counterparts to find out if they were prepared to sign a joint declaration. They said that this would be a sternly worded appeal for a decisive international reaction to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. The idea was to support the US course on Syria, they said, but without mentioning the intended military strike.
The Germans expressed reservations, yet the Americans refused to give up. The next morning, they met again, but the Germans remained evasive. Merkel and her aides referred to a meeting due to take place the following day, Saturday, between the European Union foreign ministers and their US counterpart John Kerry in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
The goal there, the Germans argued, was to agree on a joint European position on the Syrian conflict, adding that this would be jeopardized if the large EU countries of Germany, France, Spain and Italy had already sided with the Americans at the G-20 summit.
Merkel knows what normally happens in such situations. Small European countries like Luxembourg and Austria feel marginalized by the large member states -- and they react by voicing their opposition. The Germans told the Americans that this wouldn't do the US any good and had to be prevented. Furthermore, Merkel had already made it clear to US President Barack Obama on the summit sidelines that she could not support his resolution. She said they would have to wait for the report by the chemical weapons experts.
That afternoon on the flight back to Berlin, the chancellor was nevertheless satisfied with what she had achieved. She appeared to have repelled the US proposal -- and it looked like she had the other European countries on her side. Only the British had broken ranks, but the Chancellery doesn't expect much from them anyway.
Merkel had no way of knowing that at that very minute she was probably suffering the biggest diplomatic defeat of her term in office. She had simply left too early. The Americans had used her absence to bring the other Europeans into line. Shortly after Merkel landed in Berlin, the White House posted a joint declaration regarding Syria on its website. It contained the following sentence: "We call for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world's rules."
In addition to the US, 10 other countries signed the document, including the four European G-20 members Britain, France, Spain and Italy. Only the largest EU member state was missing: Germany.
Attempting Damage Control
Merkel and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle scrambled the next day to correct the misstep. Merkel agreed Germany would sign the statement once it had been signed by all 28 EU members, which happened Saturday when EU foreign ministers issued a similar statement at talks in Vilnius calling for a "clear and strong response." She explained the delay by saying that Germany had first wanted to establish a common EU position on Syria.
On Sunday, the German chancellor once more justified her actions. "I don't believe it's right for five countries to agree on a united stance without the other 23 that can't be there, knowing that 24 hours later all 28 will be gathering around the same table," she told a campaign rally in western Germany. "That's why I said, 'Let's see to it that we have a united stance by all 28.'" The remarks were widely interpreted as criticism of Britain, France, Italy and Spain.
But the damage had already been done. It is a major embarrassment for Merkel. Europe's most experienced stateswoman allowed herself to be outsmarted by Obama. Merkel, who as a member of the conservative opposition in Germany unconditionally sided with the US during its 2003 invasion of the Iraq, now looks as if she has deliberately distanced herself from the Americans on the issue of Syria.
The opposition in Berlin, fighting an uphill battle to oust her in the September 22 general election, could hardly believe their luck. "The supposedly most powerful woman in the world didn't even have a meeting with Russia's President (Vladimir) Putin," criticized Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of Germany's left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD). "She and Guido Westerwelle are responsible for a total failure of German foreign policy," he said.
Strategies and Double Dealing
In actual fact, though, Merkel merely wanted to rekindle an initiative from this past spring: to have the International Criminal Court in The Hague investigate the regime of Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad. Berlin's strategy was to slow the pace and put the brakes on the Americans without antagonizing them in the process. Merkel felt secure in her rejection of the US resolution because she believed she had the support of EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
When Obama noticed that he was getting nowhere with the chancellor, he spoke behind her back with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta. Merkel had no idea that these two politicians would deviate from the line that had been jointly established on Friday evening. After all, just the previous evening, Italian Defense Minister Mario Mauro vehemently argued against a military strike on Damascus without a United Nations mandate.
In the days running up to the joint declaration, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino had also repeatedly underscored the need to wait for the UN inspectors' report. Spanish Prime Mister Rajoy didn't appear to be doing any saber-rattling either, especially in view of what happened to his predecessor, José María Aznar, who was voted out of office for his support of the Iraq War.
But Obama's lobbying was successful. Letta and Rajoy eventually caved in -- as did French President François Hollande. Even during the closing press conference of the G-20 summit, Hollande had stressed that France would wait for the inspectors' report. Merkel and Westerwelle rated this as the successful fruit of their diplomatic efforts. It was a spectacular miscalculation.
Winners and Losers
Consequently, the summit ended with a coup. But it didn't look at first as if Obama would manage to scrape together even a shaky coalition.
Most of the participants at the summit were undecided, skeptical or outright opponents of a military strike against Assad. Shortly before Obama flew back to Washington, he had to admit that the majority of the G-20 countries wanted a mandate from the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria. This won't happen, however, because Russia and China would veto such a measure.
But the real loser in St. Petersburg is Syria. The summit ultimately revealed that most of the 20 leading countries in the world are unwilling to intervene in the Syrian disaster. It's an unpleasant matter, of course, but what business is it of theirs? They have their own problems. The case of Syria may be regrettable -- but it is primarily a diplomatic annoyance.
Perhaps these world leaders are quietly hoping that the problem will somehow resolve itself. Even those who have signed Obama's declaration are playing for time -- and calling for the UN to play an important role. After all, the UN is the great foot-dragger of global politics. They insist that it is absolutely essential to wait for the interim report by its inspectors, although the result is already clear: On August 21, chemical weapons were used in Syria. Of that, no country in the G-20 remains in doubt.
They can be thankful for the existence of the UN Security Council, which prevents the question of who is behind this attack from even being asked. The Assad regime blames the attack on rebels fighting to overthrow him in the country's two-and-a-half-year civil war, which has claimed some 100,000 lives, according to UN estimates. The Russians, meanwhile, feel confirmed in their opposition to Obama now that China, India and Brazil have rejected the US initiative.
The Kremlin has never shared the West's enthusiasm for the Arab Spring. Russian President Vladimir Putin was always certain that the spring would be quickly followed by fall and winter. "He sees America less as an enemy than as a destabilizing factor in an already chaotic world," says Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow political think tank.
- Part 1: Merkel Weakened by Blunder in Syria Debate
- Part 2: Consequences of Intervention