Germany's Syria Policy: The Art of the Possible

Unlike France, Germany is the other major European power that has stopped short of military intervention in Syria. Nevertheless, the country has adopted a tough diplomatic posture towards Syria and could deploy militarily if there is an international mandate.

The German government has repeatedly stated that Germany will not participate in any US-led military action against the Assad regime in response to the use of chemical weap­ons in a suburb of Damascus that left hundreds of men, women and children dead without an international mandate.[1] It would be short-sighted to attri­bute this refusal purely to Germany's general reluctance to use military force as part of its foreign policy. Indeed, Germany's policy regarding the Syrian dilemma is much more complex.

Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Wester­well have stressed that 'the use of chemical weapons cannot go un­answered by the international community'.[2] This complexity of Germany's stance on mili­tary intervention in Syria must be attributed to the multiple strate­gic, political, societal and military considerations the German govern­ment faces.

At the strategic level, the German government has clearly stated that the use of chemical weapons is a serious breach of long-stan­ding inter­national norms and practice, and must be consi­dered as a 'crime against civilization'. Minister Westerwelle stated: 'If one turns a blind eye on the use of such weapons and returns to daily business, one encourages the repeated use of such weapons'.

Accordingly, the German government is generally supportive of actions by the international community to help re-establish the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.

At the same time, however, many German policy-makers in govern­ment and parliament consider limited retaliatory air-strikes without a UN mandate as an insufficient response, as they do not appear to form part of a comprehensive strategy leading to a political solution for the Syrian conflict.

This notion results from an overlap of ideas concerning potential reactions by the international community to the use of weapons of mass destrucion and its long-term approach to ending the Syrian con­flict. Confronting this misperception, Minister Westerwelle argues: 'We must clearly distinguish, on the one hand, the international community's answer to the intolerable breach of a taboo, the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, the civil war and our continued effort for a political solution, the only option to give Syria sustaining peace and stability.'

Next, it is an established German foreign policy prin­ciple never to act militarily outside the framework of NATO, the EU or the UN. NATO, however, will not play a 'role in an international reaction to the [Syrian] regime' according to  Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Although he does 'not doubt that the regime has carried out a chemical attack', Rasmussen argues that 'it would be up to each member state to participate in a response.'

At the UN, Russia and China are paralysing the Security Council although the German government has repeatedly called upon Russia and China to change their positions. In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Merkel tried to convince him to take this opportunity to enable the international community to adopt a firm and united stand against the use of chemical weapons of mass de­struction. Foreign Minister Westerwelle, for his part, has pressed for the United Nations Security Council to adopt a united stance on the alleged use of chemical weapons during a phone call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Unfortunately, these efforts have so far lacked any observable success, yet any German military participation in a coalition of the willing without an international mandate is politically out of the question.

The ambivalence of Germany's Syria policy is also reflected by the attitude of the German public. The latest representative survey from 30 August 2013 shows - perhaps surprisingly - that a majority of 54 per cent of the German public support military action against Syria, with 42 per cent calling for military action under a UN mandate, and 12 per cent supporting military action even with­out such a mandate. On the other hand, a clear majority of 62 per cent of the German public is opposed to German parti­cipation in military action without a UN mandate, and only 31 per cent would support German engagement under a UN mandate.

With less then a month until federal elections on 22 September 2013, Angela Merkel and her Conservative-Liberal coalition govern­ment - and indeed their main political opponent, the Social-Demo­crats, led by Peer Steinbrück - must acknowledge this two-sided public attitude. They can neither appear too passive, nor too hawkish.

What Could Germany Deploy?

Should Germany join the military intervention, than the country would be able to deploy significant military assets as highlighted by Thomas Wiegold:[3]

The German Navy's high-tech reconnaissance ship Oker is already deployed close to the Syrian coast. Although the data it transmits to the Bundeswehr's Strategy Reconnaissance Command (SRC) and the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) are collected first and foremost to inform German decision-making, this may, of course, also be shared with Germany's allies should this be considered appropriate by the government. On Monday the Bundeswehr leadership announced that due to its important reconnaissance mission the Oker will also remain deployed in case of a US-led intervention.

Other German assets already deployed in the region - although with a different task and under a different mandate - include the two Patriot PAC3 'Air Defence Guided Missile Systems' stationed near the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, about 100 kilometres from the Turkish-Syrian border. As part of the NATO mission to protect Turkish territory against Syrian missile attacks, these systems could also be used to support a no-fly-zone over parts of Syria. Of course, such an ex­tended task would require a new mandate by the German Bun­destag and a relocation of the Patriot System closer to the border.

Furthermore, the German Navy could provide additional air defence capabilities to US destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, building on the experience gathered by German Frigate Hamburg, which organised the air-defence of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf between March and June 2013. Arguably, such an option would operationally be of little added value given the US Navy's own air defence capabilities, but it could be considered a symbolic contribution.

The German Air Force would even be able to directly participate in cruise missile attacks together with allied forces. It has at its disposal around 600 Taurus 'modular stand-off missile systems', which could be launched from German Tornado fighter aircrafts from a distance of up to 350 kilometres - well out of range of Syrian air defence. Of course, the deployment of Tornados close enough to the operating space would take time and, more impor­tant­ly, require a mandate by the Bundestag, which, given the above, is unlikely to find a majority among German parliamentarians.

Taking an Active Interest in Syria

In summary, due to the severity of the situation in Syria and the im­plications of this for international security, the German government is keen to be perceived by both the German public and the international community as a constructive, rational actor that acts to the best of its abilities in the political, societal, legal and military spheres of action available.

There has been real German involvement with the Syria crisis. Germany has so far provided refuge to around 5,000 Syrians and is one of the main providers of humanitarian aid in the country. It also flew the UN weapon inspectors from Lebanon to the Netherlands, with an airplane chartered at the expense of the German Federal Foreign Office. Furthermore, as co‑initiator of the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, Germany contributed 10 million euros to the fund, whose resources will be used for measures aiming to alleviate the immediate suffering of the population in opposition‑held areas who have been affected by the civil war.

Should the international community's Syria approach therefore eventually move predominantly into the diplomatic sphere, Germany's space of action will expand. A key contribution could lie in its role as a broker between its Western allies and Russia.

In the meantime, the German government should answer President Obama's call to the international community for backing limited US military action, in order to ensure the credibility and integrity of its Syria policy in particular, and its  foreign policy in general. This would not necessarly require concrete military contri­bu­tions, but a clear public policy statement.

Such a policy stance would be in line with Minister Westerwelle's statement on 26 August 2013 that 'should the use of [chemical] weapons be confirmed ... Germany will be among those who consider that some consequences will have to be drawn.'


[1]    'Syrien: "Ich mache mir allergrößte Sorgen"', Interview with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in Welt am Sonntag, 01 September 2013. and 'Syrien: Giftgasangriff verstößt gegen Völkerrecht', on, 31 August 2013.


[2]    Angela Merkel as quoted in Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, 31 August 2013. and Guido Westerwelle, 'Use of chemical weapons would be a crime against civilisation', Press Release, 26 August 2013.

[3]    Thomas Wiegold, 'Angriffspläne: Deutschland kann zum Krieg gegen Assad viel beisteuern', on Zeit Online, 28 August 2013.


Henrik Heidenkamp

Associate Fellow

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