09/09/2013 04:30 PM

World from Berlin

Germany's 'Cowardly Position' on Syria

As Western leaders scramble to find a common stance on the crisis in Syria, Berlin's back and forth on the issue has become embarrassing, the German press writes on Monday.

Washington continues to try and convince US citizens and the world that limited military action is needed in reaction to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, but resistance to the idea appears to be growing.

With Congress set to vote as early as Wednesday on authorizing limited strikes on Syria, President Barack Obama and administration officials have scheduled a media offensive for Monday that will include meetings with skeptical lawmakers and a national television address from the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry also met with his British counterpart William Hague in London, repeating US claims that it has strong evidence to prove that Syrian President Bashar Assad used poison gas against his own people, which Assad continues to deny. The only way Damascus could prevent a military strike would be to turn over these weapons within a week, Kerry said, adding that such a move was highly unlikely.

In Europe, discussion has been focused on the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg on Friday, when Germany declined to sign a joint declaration on Syria. After the German delegation left, the US and 10 other countries signed the document, including the four European G-20 members Britain, France, Spain and Italy. Germany's failure to fall into line with these countries is widely seen as a diplomatic blunder, and one that Merkel and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle rushed to correct the next day. Berlin agreed to sign a similarly worded statement calling for a "clear and strong response" to Syria on Saturday after it was agreed by foreign ministers from the EU's 28 member states in Vilnius. Merkel, who is trying to avoid scandal just two weeks ahead of national elections, explained the delay by saying that Germany had first wanted to establish a common EU position on Syria.

On Monday, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert once again defended Berlin's actions. "Germany wanted to do everything to ensure that Europe appeared to have a unified position and voice on the Syria conflict," he said. Berlin was not "in disagreement" with the content of the G-20 agreement, he added. "We had a different understanding of the right procedure."

The opposition Social Democratic Party has accused Merkel of disgracing the country on the matter. "Merkel made sure that Europe's largest country is rudderless and lacking a position on foreign policy," SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles said on Monday, calling the situation "embarrassing."

The German press on Monday also laments the situation in Syria, as well as Berlin's response, which some papers call "helpless":

Leftist daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"For fear of once again being branded a deadbeat on the global stage, the European Union has -- in its own words -- agreed on a 'clear and strong response' to the use of poison gas in Syria. The German Chancellor has referred to it as a 'signal of inestimable meaning.' These noble words give the impression that Europe has competently and decisively tackled one of the most difficult foreign policy issues in recent times. But this self-congratulatory stance stinks to high heaven."

"In plain language, nothing is going to happen -- not on the part of the European Union, nor on the part of Germany. The country's ridiculous decision only to sign the G-20 statement on Syria if other EU member states did so too was the ultimate embarrassment. Germany has taken a cowardly position, and has its tail between its legs at the very moment that leadership is required. A closer examination of Europe's response to Syria reveals that its position is nothing but hot air."

"World leaders seem to be convinced of the fact that a continuation of civil war in Syria is preferable to military escalation, the consequences of which are totally unforeseeable. European politicians lack the courage to express this truth, however, because then they would have to acknowledge their own impotence and failure."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The longer the execution of Obama's stated commitment to military action in Syria is postponed, the higher Assad's chances are of getting away with these atrocious crimes against humanity -- the use of chemical weapons on civilian men, women and children. With every passing day, the danger of the international community simply growing accustomed to the crimes is growing."

"The success of 'limited' military action against the Syrian regime has rightly been met with widespread skepticism. The fact that the democratic world has remained inactive for so long means that putting the Assad regime in its place and preparing for a new political order has become significantly more difficult. The horror scenario of the Syrian opposition being taken over by Jihadists is playing into the hands of Assad, who is positioning his government as the lesser of two evils. Even if one agrees with the former German ambassador to the US, Wolfgang Ischinger, that military intervention is the second worst option, then surely the worst option is leaving Assad unpunished. Not only would the international community be exposing Syrian civilians to further attacks with weapons of mass destruction -- the West would also have to say goodbye to the prospect of a civilized political order in Syria."

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"What the G-20 nations failed to achieve in St. Petersburg, the European Union foreign ministers managed 24 hours later in Vilnius, Lithuania. Usually chronically at odds, the ministers from the 28 member agreed on a common approach to the Syrian crisis. This is a great success."

"Europe is now united behind the United States -- at least in terms of a clear and strong response from the international community to the poison gas attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. This is an unexpectedly strong signal."

"At the same time, the Europeans are demanding the maximum political and substantive legitimacy of any reactions to the use of chemical weapons, which is also right. Their governments can only expect public understanding for a military retaliation if citizens are presented with independent evidence of the use of chemical weapons and the United Nations exhausts all of its options."

"With their demonstrative agreement, the European ministers have certainly bought themselves time, because beneath the surface smolders another conflict: What is the actual European position on military retaliation? There is no discussion, not to mention any agreement, about whether they will support this."

Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Some problems solve themselves over time, and others get bigger the longer action is delayed. So it is with the question of how (and when) the United States will respond to the use of poison gas in the Syrian civil war. Obama's hesitation means that the concerns about a US retaliatory strike are growing. The population is tired of war, and it remains uncertain whether he can convince the House of Representatives to take this course. Internationally, his tentatively adopted course is being interpreted as weak leadership that reinforces existing doubts. Strictly speaking, the declaration signed by 12 states at the G-20 summit, and then approved by EU foreign ministers the next day, is a minimum consensus. It demands a 'clear and strong response' without express reference to military means. That Berlin, along with the other EU member states, did this a day after the G-20 creates a formal dissonance, but isn't a deviation. This was actually the position on the matter taken by Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle from the outset …. Meanwhile, each passing day of domestic dispute over the issue increases doubts about America's role as an international peacekeeping power."

Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"One of the most respected and economically strong countries in the world is ducking out when it comes to the search for a way out of the Syrian disaster -- that's the impression being given. Nobody knows what the German position is. The government said there must be consequences for the Syrian leadership if it gave the order for the poison gas attack. But it doesn't say what kind of consequences. It doesn't want to take part in a military strike. And it's unknown if it would politically support such a step by the US."

"The Chancellor's embarrassing maneuvering surrounding the G-20 statement on Syria at the weekend exposed the complete aimlessness of German foreign policy. The only thing discernable in this zigzagging is Merkel's style of policymaking. Don't commit yourself too soon, wait to see where the wind's blowing from. That's a problem when the wind keeps changing. And it's annoying when, as now, her ghostly political style is revealed for everyone to see."

Kristen Allen


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