By Kamil Szubart
On April 14, 2018, the US, British, and French military launched a precision strike on the Assad Regime’s chemical weapons facilities nearby Damascus and Homs. The strike was an answer by Western allies to the alleged chlorine gas attack in Douma, about 10 miles east of the Syrian capital Damascus, carried out by the Assad regime’s forces on April 7, 2018. According to the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 40 civilians died in this attack, and almost 500 people sought medical treatment.
This missile strike was twice the size of the US attack in April 2017. Nevertheless, the British and French contribution to the operation was mostly symbolic. The British deployed only four Tornado GR4 jet fighters, armed with Storm Shadow missiles, from the Akrotiri RAF Base in Cyprus. However, the deployment showed the willingness of both Britain and France to respond to the severe violation of international law committed by the Assad Regime. It was also the first well-coordinated military operation against other state carried out by European NATO countries since the 2011 military intervention in Libya.
The German chancellor’s position on Syria is being criticized both from both right and left.
But, separating itself from Britain and France, Germany remained on the sidelines of this military action in Syria—why?
Rhetoric, But No Hardware
Germany and its newly-elected-but-very-familiar Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to back Germany’s allies with rhetoric but not with missiles. At the press conference after the meeting with Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen in Berlin on April 12, 2018, the Chancellor ruled out Germany’s engagement in a possible military operation against the Assad regime.
Merkel condemned the Douma chemical attack, iterated that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, and said it is necessary to formulate a united position by the West in response to this barbaric attack against innocent people. She added that the West should send a strong signal to the regime in Damascus and that Germany supports its allies—but she stressed that Germany will not be militarily involved. And she avoided specifying how her country would help allies in military action in Syria.
In the aftermath of the US-led raid in Syria, spokesman for the German Federal Government Steffan Seibert continued the rhetoric, stating that Germany backed the air strikes by the US, France, and Britain as a “necessary and appropriate” action to warn Syria against further use of chemical weapons. Merkel added, “We support the fact that our American, British, and French allies have taken responsibility in this way as permanent members of the UN Security Council.”
Why the German Reluctance?
German foreign policy toward Syria refers to the UN Security Council and the actions taken by OPCW to provide clear evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad Regime, and German leaders prefer to use diplomatic measures instead of military action. Insisting on the deep involvement of the UN is also related to Germany’s efforts to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2019-2020 (the final decision will be taken by the UN General Assembly on June 6, 2018).
Germany’s diplomatic position in this case is nothing new as it relates to its general approach toward military engagement abroad, especially in overseas missions known as “out-of-area” missions carried out by the German Armed Forces outside of NATO and EU territories.
Since Reunification in 1990, Germany has largely evaded engagement in combat operations conducted by other NATO countries. This trend was not changed by Germany’s involvement in the 1999 Allied Force operation against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis. Later, both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent “Global War on Terror” compelled Germany to act in solidarity with the US. Germany supported the invocation of NATO’s Article 5 (for the first time in the organization’s history) on September 12, 2001. Berlin then approved the deployment of its troops to Afghanistan but it opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion, which strained bilateral relations between Germany and the US.
The next crucial moment for Germany took place when European NATO countries, backed by the US, launched a military operation against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011. At that time, Germany, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), abstained on Resolution 1973 to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. This decision subsequently marginalized Germany and undermined its role as a main solicitor of the rule of law and of human rights, placing the country with China and Russia, which also voted against the resolution.
Merkel Under Fire
The German chancellor’s position on Syria is being criticized both from both right and left. The Greens, the anti-immigrant and populist AfD, and post-communists from Die Linke have all attacked Merkel and her government and its rhetorical support for the strikes. They argue that the combat operation against the Assad Regime was carried out before releasing clear proof of Assad regime’s responsibility for the attack in Douma.
On the other hand, liberals from the Free Democratic Parties rubbish Chancellor Merkel for ruling out Germany’s military engagement in the operation, even though Germany could provide logistical support to the allies (as Germany is one of the biggest logistical hubs for the US in the world). The heavy fire has even come from a former defense minister in the previous Merkel government, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who called Merkel “a grandmaster of dialectics.”
Merkel’s Fear & Goals
Since the end of the World War II, German foreign policy has been driven by multilateral diplomacy and international law. On the one hand, Germany knows that the use of the chemical agent in Douma is the violation of international law and that Syria ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013. On the other hand, it is aware that the use of military power against other countries without the UN Security Council authorization would violate international law and the UN charter. Thus, Germany prefers to emphasize the role of the UN in finding a solution to the Syrian conflict, which helps to explain Germany’s absence during the Syria strike and in carrying out special obligations to the US, Britain, and France as permanent members of the UNSC.
Alongside the UN, Germany would like to strengthen the role of the EU in resolving the conflict in Syria. Berlin is developing special relations with France and, ahead of Brexit and the potential absence of Britain, looks forward to launching an EU roadmap for Syria.
There is also a domestic factor to the reticence. Since the 2015 migration crisis, about 600,000 Syrians have sought political asylum in Germany. Most of the refugees are anti-Assad and consequently could show their disappointment in the federal government’s position. Moreover, Merkel is afraid of a possible military confrontation in Syria between the US and Russia, sparked by US-led attacks on Assad’s facilities. Such as result could drag Germany into a military confrontation between Russia and NATO, a potential world war.
Finally, Chancellor Merkel has struggled to steady her relations with President Donald Trump, trying to hide her contempt for his policies and rhetoric, especially Trump’s “Twitter diplomacy.” There are constant tensions between both leaders, even though German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and US Defense Secretary James Mattis seem to understand each other quite well.
Dropping a few cruise missiles—Germany’s Taurus KEPD 350 missiles are comparable to the US JASSM missiles—could have helped Merkel gain Trump’s trust. When it comes to getting back into Trump’s good books, Merkel attempted to retrieve the situation during a trip to Washington on April 27, 2018. However, both politicians were occupied with questions about import duties on steel and aluminum and the Iran nuclear agreement.
INSCT Research and Practice Associate Kamil Szubart was a 2017 visiting fellow at INSCT, via the Kosciuszko Foundation. He works as an analyst for the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznan, Poland, where he is responsible for German foreign and security policy, transatlantic relations, Islamic threats in German-native-speaking countries and topics related to NATO, CSDP, OSCE, and the UN. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation examining US-German relations in the field of international security since 9/11.