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Berlin's Take on Syria: Not as Clear as Expected

By Elizabeth Pond

Berlin holds up an intriguing mirror to America's Syria policy. Chancellor Angela Merkel, like President Barack Obama, has been snatched from shame by the diplomatic judo of the past two weeks. And divided opinion in Germany spreads across the same wide pro and con spectrum that the chattering classes occupy in the United States.

The one major difference is that Germans tend to see the re-entry of sulky Russian President Vladimir Putin into global politics as a positive, and possibly stabilizing, move. Americans, on the contrary, take it for granted that this month's seizure of the Middle East narrative by Russia is negative and freezes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in place as the executor of the agreement to destroy his 1000 tons of chemical weapons.

First, to Merkel's rescue in the run-up to next Sunday's general election. She may be Europe's most powerful woman and Germany's second-most popular politician, but her government looked isolated a fortnight ago. America's other major European allies had backed President Obama's declared intent to strike Syria as punishment for his killing of 1400 rebels and civilians with chemical weapons last month. Germany, in a blend of happenstance and aversion to military intervention, had not signed the common declaration.

Had this become a hot topic in this year's otherwise bland campaign, a voter defection of one or two percent at uneasiness over German exclusion from the transatlantic consensus might have followed. In turn, this shift could have left Merkel unable to leverage her 40 percent conservative base into a coalition majority. Instead, this issue was quickly forgotten in the rush to the US-Russian deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons .

Nor is this gain for Merkel merely tactical. Germany's expertise will be in great demand in dismantling Syria's chemical weapons. The new German government (probably under Chancellor Merkel) will be at the center of the whole operation in the kind of non-war security task that Germans prefer. Specifically, Germany's discreet detoxification of Soviet chemical and biological field weapons as Soviet divisions withdrew from Germany and Central Europe when the cold war ended 20 years ago offers a precedent for cooperation between Russian and German specialists now. The Russian president who welcomed German help then was named Yeltsin, not Putin. But the memory of trust (and of the absence of German gloating at the Soviet retreat) remains.

Among German foreign-policy professionals, diplomats who have been inculcated in the importance of laying the groundwork for any policy are privately dismayed by Obama's lurches and public agonizing about Syria policy—and by the uncertainty created by Congress and the American public's withholding of support for any punitive strike on Syria. Critics say Obama built traps for himself in declaring the use of chemical weapons as a red line and in seeking Congressional approval for military action. In addition, they fault him for not sending a representative over the past weekend to explain Washington's new policy to the regular monthly meeting in Istanbul of Western backers and the increasingly bitter moderate elements among the rebels.

The result has been, critics conclude, an acceleration of American decline as the guarantor of world order and a risk that Obama could now lose his authority and become a lame duck for the next three years.

At the other end of the spectrum, some German academics, like their American colleagues, point to the diplomatic skill of creative ambiguity. They see a window of opportunity in the very fluidity and unexpectedness of recent developments. In Putin's new engagement, they detect a desire to break out of being ignored as a second-class power. They think Putin now discerns some common interests with the West in keeping Syria's huge chemical weapons stocks out of the hands of the jihadists—including Chechen insurgents who are training in Syria to fight Russian rule in the North Caucasus—that now dominate the Syrian rebels.

In the United States, Assistant Professor of Political Science Phil Arena at SUNY Buffalo, contends that Obama's dithering may have in fact helped persuade Assad to admit that he had chemical weapons, sign the treaty banning these weapons, and produce a map of his holdings within a week. "The most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the United States couldn’t be appeased," no matter what they did. As Max Fisher commented in the Washington Post, "It's easy to imagine both Putin and Assad concluding that because Obama was uncertain, he was also persuadable. And that gave them a big incentive to try to persuade him."

Josef Janning, Mercator Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, makes the same case. He urges the West to rethink "the whole system of incentives and disincentives" in an era when the British and American publics (like German and other continental European publics long before the Anglo-Saxons) have become disillusioned with the results of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. He argues that the chemical weapons inspection in Syria should lead to a ceasefire to protect the inspectors—and this could actually lead to a final effort to end the vicious civil war there with a political settlement.

Nicholas Burns, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who is now teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard, offers a hybrid view. He first faults the bad workmanship of the Obama administration in recent weeks, but then concludes, "there is more good than bad in this deal...[T]he chemical weapons agreement may end up weakening Assad, not strengthening him.... Like Saddam and Qadafi before him, Assad will soon discover the public humiliation of being forced by the outside world to give up an important symbol of his government’s military power. This could translate into a loss of face for Assad personally. And in practical terms, Assad will lose some of his power to intimidate and to be feared.... Moscow will come under tremendous international pressure to hold Assad’s feet to the fire. "

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might even have similar ideas. As recently as two weeks ago he was still scolding Western powers for alleging that Assad had fired chemical weapons as a "pretext" to attack Syria. Yet on Tuesday he suddenly told the Spanish broadcaster Telemundo that it is time for “heroic leniency” and Iran should choose diplomacy over militarism.

Stay tuned.

*****

*****

EP is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification.

[Photo courtesy of Michael Solita]

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