Military Intervention Germany Caught in the Middle on Syria

Wary of disappointing the Americans, but afraid of alienating German voters before the election, Berlin has been performing a careful balancing act on Syria. Their strategy: Delay an intervention and remain vague.


Part of the art of effective foreign policy is keeping all options open in difficult situations. Last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle discovered how quickly this can go wrong. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement in English to explain the German position on Syria to the world. If the allegations surrounding the Damascus regime's use of chemical weapons prove to be true, the statement read, "Germany will be among those calling for action to be taken."

This sounded clear, but that wasn't the intention. An hour later, the ministry issued a revised statement, citing a "translation error." Germany was no longer calling for action. The new statement announced, far less decisively, that Berlin would "consider that some consequence will have to be drawn."

Westerwelle's linguistic maneuvering is an expression of political circumstances. The poison gas attack in Syria could be very explosive for the German government in the midst of an election campaign. Three weeks before Germany's parliamentary election, Westerwelle and Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot openly support a quick American military strike against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. They are too concerned about its possible negative impact on the campaign.

On the other hand, even though the German government seriously questions the rationale for a military strike, Berlin cannot rebuff the Americans again, after Germany's abstention in the Libya conflict. This time, Washington spelled out ahead of time what the Americans expect from their allies. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice made it clear in several conversations with Merkel's foreign policy advisor, Christoph Heusgen, that although Washington doesn't expect military support from the Germans, it does want Berlin's political backing.

Merkel's Careful Delay

But how does one frame a position on a military strike in such a way that the Americans interpret it as support and voters as rejection? For Westerwelle and Merkel, the answer was to play for time and avoid clarity. The Germans first tried to delay a decision on military action. Merkel made an attempt to convince key allies to take the arduous route through the United Nations before deciding on a strike.

In a conversation last Wednesday, the German chancellor and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that London would take a draft resolution to the Security Council. But Cameron convinced Merkel that an interim report and not the final report by UN inspectors would be sufficient as the basis of the resolution.

The next day, Merkel implored US President Barack Obama to wait for the UN inspectors' report and a possible Security Council resolution. But Obama showed little inclination to comply with Merkel's request, arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin had shown no goodwill to date and was unlikely to do so in the future.

Even though Merkel shared this assessment, she wanted the debate in the Security Council to counter the opposition's charge that not all political options had been exhausted. French President François Hollande, with whom Merkel spoke by phone on the same day, supported Berlin's position.

She also spoke with Putin over the phone this weekend, and, according to German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert, both agreed the conflict should be resolved politically. On Sunday night's pre-election TV debate, Merkel said that a reaction to Syria's chemical weapons attack should be channeled through the United Nations and that Germany would not participate in a military intervention.

Fear of Alienating the USA

For foreign policy reasons, Merkel cannot afford to openly criticize the Americans. Instead, she has to dispense her views on an American attack in such a way that they are seen as criticism in Germany and support in the United States. It's a method Merkel has, to a certain degree, perfected.

Westerwelle also faces a delicate situation. The foreign minister, who has advocated a culture of military restraint, enjoys little support within his ministry for a course that is critical towards the Americans. At a conference of German ambassadors last Monday, Westerwelle received thundering applause when he said that the United States remained Germany's most important strategic partner outside the European Union. "The ambassadors wanted to make it clear to him that he should act accordingly," says a participant.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Jim in MD 09/02/2013
1. Show Time
Germany largely has stood with Russia on foreign policy over the past decade, focusing most criticism on the USA and doing deals with Russia and China. Of course, Snowden has shown that Germany is playing both sides while putting the screws to southern Europe. Will Germany lead or follow or get out of the way in global politics? My hunch is follow Russia at the expense of the West. It will prove a tough position to hold, though. 09/02/2013
2. Military Intervention: Germany Caught in the Middle on Syria
Who is on America's side over there, if the rebels win will they be American allies? Assad’s definitely not a American ally but I’m not convinced anyone on the Islamic side is the Islamic rebels will be American allies. I think the line in the sand should be that America gets involved when American interests are threatened, I don’t see American interests involved in either side of this Syria war. I see Assad who has protected Christians for a number of decades, and then I see the Islamic rebels on the other side who have been attacking Christians, I see al-Qaeda on one side, the side we would go into support, and I see it to be murky. I don’t see a clear cut American interest. Saturday, president Obama stated in a Rose Garden speech that he would seek approval from lawmakers before any force would be used against Assad’s Syrian regime. The UK House of Commons voted against military action in Syria last Thursday, effectively leaving the United States with a lack of international support for an imminent strike. Not only does international support lack, but domestic as well. A Reuters/IPSOS poll taken from taken Aug.19-23 shows that only 9% of Americans polled think the Obama Administration should intervene militarily in Syria.
wernercomplex 09/02/2013
3. Foreign Policy a Shambles
I hope Germany stay out of the unwinnable civil war in Syria. Nothing is gained by military action except more strife with the survivors and other countries i.e. Iran.
heynav 09/02/2013
4. Where do you really stand?
The Germans are always quick to claim the moral high ground buy when it comes to taking action they are even quicker to call to mind WWII. That war is over!! You are very quick to hide behind it. I wonder what would have happened if the British and French took action and marched back into the Rhineland!!
chuchu3151 09/03/2013
5. optional
So, it is really all about the USA and what they want. This is sickening. Merkel knows the voters don't want to get involved in a war but she will betray us at a drop of a hat. So she is deliberately deceiving us? Spiegel, you guys are also pretty pro war. Do you realise you are talking about life and death of people? Mothers, fathers, children and family members. How could you/ You have the power through your publication to influence public thinking.
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