German politicians from both ends of the political spectrum expressed surprise Wednesday at French President François Hollande's statement that he would not rule out international military intervention in Syria.
Hollande made the comments on French television Tuesday night, adding that such intervention, as was the case with Libya in 2011, would require a mandate from the United Nations.
"It is not possible to allow Bashar Assad to massacre his own people," Hollande said.
But politicians in Berlin indicated that Hollande had taken things too far. "As far as the German government is concerned, there is no cause for speculation over military options," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And we want to avoid a wildfire in the region." Instead, the international community should make a unified effort to increase political pressure on Assad's regime, he said.
Above all this means that those who have been shielding Syria should withdraw their support, Westerwelle added. He was likely referring to Syrian allies Russia and China, who have resisted taking action against the Assad regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday, and the topic of Syria is expected to be on the agenda. Berlin wants to avoid another uncomfortable vote in the United Nations Security Council, like the one taken over creating a no-fly zone in Libya, in which Germany was seen to side with Russia and China by abstaining.
Pressure has been mounting on Syria this week from the international community following news of a massacre of 108 people over the weekend in the Syrian town of Houla. The majority of those killed were women and children, and UN officials said Tuesday that most were not killed by artillery fire, but were summarily executed, probably by the shabiha militia supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hollande's remarks came on the same day France and several other European countries, including Germany, joined the US, Australia and Canada in expelling their Syrian ambassadors. Japan announced it is sending home the Syrian envoy to Tokyo on Wednesday.
"The statements by Mr. Hollande really surprised me, particularly since French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently said that no one was considering a ground offensive," said Ruprecht Polenz, head of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition party, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
Foreign policy spokesman for the FDP Rainer Stinner suggested that Hollande's move had a lot to do with domestic concerns as the country's parliamentary election approaches. "Hollande is campaigning and wants to distinguish himself in foreign policy," he said.
Even the opposition center-left Social Democrats, who celebrated Hollande's recent election to the French presidency, seemed put off by his remarks. "I have serious doubts about whether or not the effects of a military strike could be kept under control," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, who sits on the parliamentary committee for foreign affairs.
French activist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was influential in former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's support for intervention in Libya last year, wrote an open letter to several European papers Wednesday, calling on the new French president to "take the initiative in Syria." In Berlin, Hollande's comments were viewed as a response to Lévy's letter.
Washington, on the other hand, showed caution Tuesday in talking about Syria, and President Barack Obama dismissed calls by his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to take a more direct course of action in the country.
"We do not believe that further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage."