US-Russia Stalemate Merkel Must Take the Initiative on Syria
The US and Russia are at loggerheads on Syria, yet both Moscow and Washington have a common interest in preventing the use of chemical weapons. German Chancellor Angela Merkel must get off the sidelines and take action to find a political solution.
The television pictures of slaughtered Syrian children are just as hard to bear for politicians as they are for ordinary citizens. The endless killing, the despair, the hopelessness of the refugees in the camps -- all this leaves us with a feeling of impotent rage. The horrific gas attack cannot remain without consequences; the global community must respond. But a responsible foreign policy has to be more than simply acting for the sake of acting. The motive for military action cannot simply be to relieve the burden of public pressure, the wish to clear one's conscience. The millions of Syrians who are suffering so dreadfully in this civil war deserve more from us.
Syria must be a top priority at the G-20 Summit that begins on Thursday. The summit offers a last chance to break the spiral of violence and to finally renew efforts at a genuine attempt to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. It is up to Germany to persuade the two leading players, the United States and Russia, to sit down at one table and thus ensure the proper, concerted involvement of the United Nations Security Council. However, considerable doubts exist as to whether German foreign policy is capable of achieving this. It has lost clout in Washington and its channels of communication with Moscow are barely functioning.
Preparations for military action against Assad and his regime are well advanced, and Congress is unlikely to deny President Obama its support for a limited strike. But even the staunchest hardliners are not comfortable with this. Everyone knows that the United States is caught in a terrible dilemma. President Obama is taking action in order to salvage his credibility. The fact that he has hesitated for so long shows that he is keenly aware of the dilemma: Namely that there is no evidence that the planned strike will improve the situation in Syria.
By No Means Certain
A few days ago, the International Crisis Group again summarized the main arguments against American military intervention. The military goals of an attack are as unclear as the political goals. The conflict threatens to escalate and spread to other countries. And it is by no means certain that Assad will go down as the loser. If he and his regime survive the attacks without significant damage, he will appear stronger in the eyes of many. The most decisive point, however, is that the attacks will do nothing to prevent the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions. Of course we cannot simply shrug our shoulders at the criminal use of poison gas against innocent civilians and children, but dropping bombs and deploying cruise missiles cannot be the answer. At a time when the suffering of so many innocent people is grieving us so deeply, we cannot adapt a strategy that would harm them further.
The international community can only fulfil its responsibility to Syria by earnestly striving to achieve a political solution to the conflict. Let me make it quite clear: A two-day bombing campaign is not dangerous for Assad. What would really threaten his position is if the United States and Russia were to reconcile their differences and mend the split in the UN Security Council.
A year ago, US Senator Richard Lugar proposed to the Russian government that the two countries set up a security initiative with the goal of securing and destroying Syrian chemical weapons. Lugar rightly saw that this was in the interest of both Russia and the United States. Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, revisited this proposal two weeks ago when he stated that the members of the UN Security Council should launch a concerted effort to control those chemical weapons.
Germany Has a Role to Play
Despite all the disagreements, the US and Russia may have over the Syrian conflict, neither one can benefit from lowered inhibitions to using chemical weapons -- nor can any other country in the world. Just as terrifying is the thought that the terrorists of tomorrow will be equipped with mustard gas and sarin gas from Syrian stockpiles.
Moscow holds the key to ensuring a common stance among the international community. To date, President Putin has hindered a concerted approach. This is where Germany could play a role. Since the era of détente policy, Germany has often played the role of keeping channels of communication open with Russia and of seeking areas of common interest despite all differences of opinion. Unfortunately, these channels of communication between Berlin and Moscow are no longer as robust as they once were. This is partly due to a hardening of Russia's position; one sometimes gets the impression that President Putin enjoys provoking the West in any way he can. But it is also a result of Angela Merkel's short-sighted foreign policy, which seems to be directed purely at increasing her popularity at home and lacks any creative ambition.
Instead of standing idly on the sidelines, Mrs. Merkel should take advantage of the summit in St. Petersburg and seize the initiative of finding a political solution. As proposed by Peer Steinbruck, such a solution must include UN experts conducting an immediate and thorough investigation into the August 21 gas attack; it must include the UN Security Council unequivocally calling on Syria to swiftly ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and place its weapons stockpiles under international supervision. It is likewise particularly important that a further Syrian Conference take place with the aim of achieving a political solution to the crisis. In addition to parties to the conflict within Syria, regional actors, including Iran, must be made part of that effort.