Only a few years ago, President Bashar al-Assad was firmly in control of Syria. Many Western countries cooperated with his regime and promoted business ties with the country. Germany was no exception.
The German embassy in Damascus has been shut since January 2012, and development cooperation with the Syrian government was cancelled in May 2011. Since then, sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime have also been tightened.
All this happened because of the ongoing war in Syria and Assad's brutal suppression of the opposition movement. But Germany was happy to work together with the dictator in a number of areas after he came to office in 2000.
In October of the same year, Gerhard Schröder became the first German chancellor to visit Syria and after settling a dispute over old debts, Germany's development cooperation with Syria was reactivated in 2001. Priority areas of communication were security and geostrategic aspects of the relationship.
Secret service cooperation
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the fight against terrorism became the main item on the agenda. In 2002, Frank-Walter Steinmeier - later Germany's foreign minister, but then Schröder's head of the chancellery office - rubberstamped the cooperation between Germany's security forces and Syrian military intelligence, even though Foreign Ministry documents proved that Syria engaged in systematic torture.
That same year, German-Syrian citizen Mohammed Zammar was interrogated by German officers while in Syrian custody. In exchange for the information they obtained, two Syrian spies were freed from German custody. As a consequence, the German government was accused of deliberately bypassing international torture bans.
German companies like Siemens and IT firm Trovicor delivered surveillance technology to Syria that made it possible for the government to conduct blanket scans of Internet and phone networks in the country.
Key role in Middle East
German politicians distanced themselves from Damascus after US President George W. Bush described Syria as a "rogue state," accusing the Syrian leadership of supporting radical Islamists, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Hamas in Gaza. Syria's alliance with Iran - part of Bush's "Axis of Evil" - did not please the president either.
But precisely because of its relations to Iran and its geostrategic position on the map, Syria is considered a key player in the Middle East peace process. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said there could be no solution to the Middle East conflict without Syria.
This analysis was also behind Steinmeier's policy when he took over the Foreign Ministry. He described his attempt to bring Israel's Arab neighbors to the negotiating table over the conflict as a "regional approach." In 2006, he was received in Damascus with full honors, having canceled a previous trip because of Assad's anti-Israeli remarks.
Sebastian Sons, Syria analyst at the German Orient Institute, says Israel's security was always Germany's priority. "And on that point, Bashar al-Assad, just like Hosni Mubarak, was always a reliable partner," he said. That's why criticism of the regime, if there was any, was always very quiet.
Bringing change through trade
A year after Steinmeier's visit to Damascus, Germany approved two-year aid packages worth some 44 million euros ($59 million). The German government was hoping to gradually force political reform through economic cooperation. "Assad used this fallacy to his own advantage," said Sons. Though there was some economic liberalization, it did not lead the regime to loosen its grip on power.
Germany's exports to Syria rose from 378 million euros in 2000 to 656 million euros in 2010, though these represent a very small fraction of Germany's total exports - less than 1 percent in 2010. After the outbreak of the conflict there, the value sank to 205 million euros in 2012.
These exports also included some chemicals that could be used to manufacture the poison nerve gas sarin, a fact the Economy Ministry admitted earlier this week following an official information request from the socialist Left Party. According to the ministry's statement, both Schröder's government and Chancellor Angela Merkel's first government coalition with the Social Democrats approved the delivery of 111 tons of chemicals between 2002 and 2006. These products are known as "dual use," and so require government approval to be exported.
The relevant approvals "were granted after careful assessment and potential use in connection with chemical weapons," the ministry statement said. "In all these cases, it was plausibly shown that the goods would be used for civilian purposes." Merkel said that "according to all the information available to her, "the chemicals had been used for civilian purposes." She added that Schröder's government had also conducted very strict assessments.
"It's perfectly fine to have placed hopes in the young Assad and developed economic ties," said Jan van Aken, a spokesman and Member of Parliament for the Left Party. But it was not understandable to have looked the other way with chemicals, when it came to doing "business with dictators who are supposed to ensure stability."
"The whole world knew then that Syria had a major poison gas program," he said.
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