In his first TV interview after his inauguration on May 29, French President François Hollande surprised viewers at home and abroad with his remark that a military intervention in Syria should not be excluded. Mr. Hollande’s words irritated policymakers in Washington, Moscow, and at the UN Headquarters in New York. But nowhere did they resonate more negatively than in Berlin.
The reaction underscored how seriously Germany — which is still smarting from criticism of its abstention from action on Libya — takes the debate over intervention. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle immediately spelled out his country’s perspective that a military approach on Syria is fraught with problems.
“From our point of view, there is no necessity to speculate about military options in Syria,” Mr. Westerwelle told Der Spiegel magazine. “We want to help the people of Syria, and we want to prevent a military wildfire spreading across the region.”
His objection is echoed by voices from across Germany’s political landscape. “I was very surprised by Mr. Hollande’s words, the more so as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius just recently declared there was no intention to start a ground offensive against Syria,” says Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the foreign committee in the German parliament and a party colleague of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Germany’s political opposition agrees. “I doubt very much that we would be able to control the consequences of a military strike against Syria,” says Hans-Ulrich Klose, foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats.
He says that rather than using military force, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which just sentenced the former Liberian leader Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison, should start proceedings against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Given that Hollande tied a military strike against Syria to a UN Security Council resolution, and given that council members Russia and China are highly unlikely to sanction such an operation, the German reaction might sound exaggerated. But it must be seen against the backdrop of recent history.
It was then-president Nicolas Sarkozy who in 2011 ordered French jet fighters to attack government forces in Libya even before the UN-sanctioned NATO operation designed to protect civilians from the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi had officially started. Germany abstained at the Security Council vote on Libya and categorically rejected any calls to take part in the military operation. While this decision was supported by a majority of German voters, it drew a lot of criticism from Germany’s international partners and left Chancellor Merkel’s government isolated on the world stage.
Another abstention would be extremely difficult for Germany to justify, says Markus Kaim, head of the international security program at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “Those in Germany who noisily protest against Hollande’s call for military strikes need to explain what other options there are left,” Mr. Kaim says. “The reality is the peace plan drawn up by UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan is dead, so the German government has to offer alternatives.”
Ironically, it could be the much-criticized Russian closeness to the Syrian government that protects Germany from having to make difficult decisions.
Kofi Annan called the Houla massacre, in which more than 100 people were killed last weekend, a “tipping point” in the Syrian conflict. But the event is more likely to result in intensified diplomacy than a rush to war, says Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “As long as Russia supports Assad,” he says, “not even such a mass killing will lead to an international intervention.”