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Syria

German restraint slows EU action in Syria

The EU wants to help the Syrian opposition, but can't agree on what measures it should enact. While Britain and France want to send military trainers, Germany continues to call for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

For nearly two years, a large part of the Syrian population has been fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But the president is still firmly in power. Only last week, he confirmed in an interview with the British "Sunday Times" that he was not prepared to resign, which remains one of the Syrian opposition's central demands. The armed conflict between rebels and government troops long ago reached a state of civil war. More than 70,000 people have been killed and millions are on the run. Despite numerous diplomatic initiatives from home and abroad, no end to the conflict is in sight.

Support for which rebels?

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army's Tahrir al Sham brigade
(Photo: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

Germany is reluctant to supply military help without a clear idea of where it will go

According to the German news magazine "Der Spiegel," Britain, and possibly France, now want to send military trainers to the rebels in Syria. To support Assad's opponents, the EU foreign ministers had decided back in February to alter their arms embargo against the country. Accordingly, "non-lethal" equipment may be supplied and "technical support" provided. Evidently this also encompasses the training of armed fighters. "Der Spiegel" reported that the German government for the moment is refusing to participate in a training mission.

Elmar Brok, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, agreed with Berlin's reluctance. "We do not know who is running what in the opposition," he said. "We do not want to allow Islamists to come to power in Syria, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar."

Germany is not alone with this view in the European Union, and instead is pursuing a somewhat different strategy than that of Britain and France.

"So far, a consensus has prevailed in the European Union that an arms embargo is a good way keep the conflict in Syria from escalating," said Markus Kaim, security policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "This consensus now no longer exists."

While some countries are continuing to strive for a political solution, others are gradually moving away from it and are considering arms shipments. "It is less a question of whether we foment conflict, rather the question of how we can end it as quickly as possible - even with a military intervention," Kaim said.

Foreign policy continuation

Members of the Free Syrian Army walk through rubble and damaged buildings
(Photo: Reuters/Aref Heretani)

So far, more than 70,000 have been killed in the Syrian conflict

In contrast to the UK and France, the German government is not giving any signal that it judges the situation in Syria any differently than before. "The prevailing view is that a political solution is possible, which would ultimately render a military solution obsolete," Kaim said.

Germany position on Syria is a continuation of its foreign policy culture of restraint, which also played a role in Berlin's abstention in the Libya mission. In March 2011, when the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 to support the Libyan rebels against Moammar Gadhafi's regime, Germany abstained - while France, Britain and the United States voted for the resolution, and thus brought about the establishment of a no-fly zone.

"The reference to a culture of restraint reflects the foreign policy identity of the former West Germany before 1990," Kaim said. "But the circumstances have changed: today we no longer have to deal with conflicts such as the Cold War, but generally with very different internal conflicts."

Kaim added that Germany - especially in view of its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council - always emphasizes its desire to take responsibility but then holds back on major decisions and does not fulfill the expectations it had raised.

On the other hand, Brok said he saw "nothing wrong" with the German policy of restraint - and stressed that Germany must play its part in supporting the moderate forces in Syria. He does not support military trainers, but continued diplomacy, "We must convince Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop promoting the Islamist forces, and convince Russia to take a harder line against Syria."

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