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Middle East

EU fears Gaza conflict could spread

Fearing the Gaza crisis could spread across the Middle East, EU foreign and defense ministers have jointly called for an end to the violence between Israel and Hamas. However, they found less common ground on Syria.

The ministers' meeting had a double message for Israel and Hamas: rocket fire from Gaza must stop, and Israel should restrain itself in exercising its right to self defense.

But that message had different nuances among the individual ministers. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said it was important to separate cause and effect. "If a cease-fire is to bring sustainable peace, then it's important that the rocket attacks from Gaza stop. That's the key for any further developments," he said.

But his Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, said a cease-fire alone would not bring anything without further efforts. "The escalation of violence is in the interest of no one. But we must go further than that. It is increasingly urgent to get a peace process worthy of the name going. Otherwise we'll face one crisis after another in the coming years, and it's going to get increasingly worse," he said.

'Morsi is not Mubarak'

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (photo:EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET)

Westerwelle said the first step in Gaza had to be a cease-fire

Meeting in Brussels on Monday, the foreign ministers also applauded Egypt's mediation efforts as Cairo maintains ties to both sides of the conflict. Westerwelle said he hoped the Egyptian government would be able to exert its influence on Hamas and curb the arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.

Bildt cautioned that the new, democratically elected government in Cairo, had to take into account the anti-Israeli sentiment among the Egyptian population. "Mr. Morsi is not Mr. Mubarak," he said, adding that it was clear that Israel could not simply rely on Egypt.

German Patriot rockets for Turkey?

The EU is worried that the crisis could spread across the entire region, should the conflict combine with the Syrian civil war and perhaps even the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Egypt, with its young democracy, could also be drawn into the crisis, as could NATO member Turkey which feels increasingly threatened by the war in Syria.

Fot its part, NATO has said it would stand with Turkey. "We have all plans in place to defend and protect Turkey," said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the meeting. Part of these plans is a possible deployment of Patriot defense missiles, though Rasmussen stressed the defensive aspect of any such move. "It would be a purely defensive measure and deployment would take place on Turkish territory," he said.

The only NATO members to own the latest version of the Patriot missiles are the US, Germany and the Netherlands. And Turkey would be able to count on Germany, said Germany's Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

"For 45 years, Germany has benefitted from the alliance's solidarity. Should a partner in the alliance now ask for such support, it goes without saying that we will be open to that," he said, explaining that the German government would get a mandate for such a case from parliament.

Dealing with Syria's opposition

Supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, however, remains a no-go for Germany's Westerwelle, who said the debate on lifting the arms embargo was not something "to be held today." His French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, last week spoke in favor of arms supplies on condition that the opposition should manage a unified approach. Paris has already recognized the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Patriot missile defense battery (photo:Ariel Schalit/AP/dapd).

German Patriot defense missiles could be stationed in Turkey

The different opposition groups have now joined forces and formed a unified platform. That move, however, is not enough for Westerwelle; he wants to make sure the unity will last. "It's not just about overcoming the regime, which is responsible for many brutalities, but also about enabling a real democratic new beginning in Syria. And that includes religious tolerance," he said.

So far, the EU has failed to find a common approach on the issue. Instead of leaving the task to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, both Westerwelle and Fabius have separately visited the Middle East in recent weeks, giving the impression that the EU has not managed to find a common policy on the issue.

Mission to Mali?

The defense ministers also talked about a possible non-combat training mission for Mali. Islamists have taken control of the north of the country and the EU worries that the region could become a safe haven for Islamist terrorist.

But a military mission to retake the area is out of the question for the EU. This part of the job is to be left to the troops of the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS, under a UN mandate. But even then, the German defense minister could imagine that Germany and Europe would have a role to play.

"Germany can and will take part in such a mission, if there's a clear division between the training by the EU and Germany on the one hand, and the African's military mission on the other," said de Maiziere. The EU also has signaled the possibility of financial aid.

A condition for both would be that Mali's government manages to re-establish democratic conditions in the country as soon as possible. Westerwelle stressed it was "crucial that we don't just look at the military side of things, but that we have the political element at the heart of all our efforts."

The EU is expected to make a decision on Mali in December.

DW.DE