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Syria

Germany: spectator or player on Syria crisis?

Berlin has welcomed the proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. But the German government's influence on events in Syria remains very limited.

"The movement in the last few hours has made the chances for a political solution in Syria much better," said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, while Chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed support for the diplomatic initiative that is slowly taking shape.

According to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, Bashar al-Assad's regime is willing to give up its chemical weapons arsenal, and so possibly avert a western military strike against Syria. That came after Russia took up a statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry and suggested that Syrian chemical weapons be put under international control.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) and and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (L) walk to a press conference on September 9, 2013 following a meeting in Moscow. (Photo credit: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Walid al-Muallim, right, promised that Syria would give up its chemical weapons

German politicians from various parties have always hoped for a diplomatic solution, which now seems possible because both Russia and China, whose UN Security Council vetoes had prevented sanctions against Syria before, have backed the new diplomatic initiative.

Player or spectator?

"German foreign policy has certainly contributed to finding this common line in the past few days," claimed Rainer Stinner, a member of the German parliament's foreign policy committee. He said that Germany's intensive diplomatic relations with Russia had contributed to finding this solution. The aim had been to convince Moscow not to ally itself with a regime that may have used chemical weapons, Stinner, of the Free Democratic Party, said.

Jan van Aken, of Germany's socialist Left party, has a very different view of Germany's role in the Syria conflict so far. "The German government is a spectator - and a bad spectator at that," he said, adding that Merkel had chosen a zig-zag course on the Syria question, and that she lacks any will to intervene in the country at all.

The long shadow of the Libyan abstention

Thomas Jäger, professor for international politics at the University of Cologne, thinks that Germany's influence in Syria is very limited, and that Merkel's government made no decisive contribution either on the Security Council, or in various diplomatic negotiations. "To that extent, Germany positioned itself according to its own capabilities," he said.

Merkel's government shaped its Syria policy very much in cooperation with its western partners, but would not commit itself to any further action - just as it did when Germany's western allies openly discussed a military strike against Assad following his suspected use of chemical weapons.

Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa

Merkel has taken a 'zig-zag' course on Syria, say critics

One of the reasons for Germany's reluctance over Syria lies in the recent past. In 2011, Berlin abstained from the UN Security Council vote on military intervention in Libya, which left Germany on the same side as Russia and China, and western allies were keenly aware Germany also voted "No" to participation in the Iraq war of 2003.

Instead, Germany's Syria policy has focused more on providing humanitarian aid for refugees. In June, Merkel announced that Germany would increase its aid for displaced Syrians by 200 million euros ($265 million) - on top of the 190 million euros it had pledged already. Germany is also planning to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees for two years - they are set to arrive in the coming days and weeks.

Taking part in the destruction of chemical weapons?

Jäger thinks that the main challenge is to implement the diplomatic initiative currently being mooted. "Whether the government can play a role here will depend on what services and capabilities we can offer the process," he said.

Westerwelle called on Damascus to immediately sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention and allow international inspectors to monitor the situation on the ground. He added that those responsible for the suspected chemical attack of August 21 must be found and brought before the International Criminal Court if necessary.

The foreign minister went on to suggest that Germany could help destroy Assad's chemical weapons. Oliver Meier, disarmament specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said Germany certainly had the expertise in this area. But he predicted it could be some time before it will come to that.

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