Angela Merkel has warned that Germany cannot simply “look away” if the Assad regime deploys chemical weapons again, in the clearest signal that Berlin is considering a more active role in possible air strikes against Syria.
“The German position cannot be to say ‘no’ from the outset, no matter what happens anywhere in the world,” Ms Merkel said in a speech to parliament on Wednesday. The chancellor’s remarks were seen as a rebuke to her party’s centre-left coalition partner, which had earlier ruled out any form of German military intervention in Syria.
Speculation over a new round of western air strikes has risen in recent days, as Syrian and Russian forces prepare for a big assault on the last remaining rebel stronghold in Idlib. Last week Russian president Vladimir Putin rebuffed a plea from his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a ceasefire, and the UN has voiced fears that a large-scale attack could cause a “humanitarian nightmare”.
The US, France and Britain launched air strikes on three military sites inside Syria in April, in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians that was blamed on the Assad regime. Germany said at the time that it supported the strikes but did not take part in the operation.
The centre-left Social Democratic party, which serves as the junior partner in Ms Merkel’s coalition government, has already made clear that it wants Germany to remain on the sidelines. Andrea Nahles, the party’s leader, said on Monday: “The SPD will not support any German participation in the war in Syria, neither in government nor in parliament.”
Postwar Germany has long been reluctant to deploy military force, although that stance has been partly eroded over the past two decades. The Bundeswehr is engaged in more than a dozen missions abroad, with some 3,300 soldiers deployed. Combat operations, however, remain the exception.
Ms Merkel stopped well short of voicing support for a military operation in Syria but she urged parliament not to exclude any options from the outset. “To simply say we can look away when chemical weapons are used somewhere and international conventions are broken cannot be the answer,” she said. The chancellor added that any German response would “always be based on the constitution and [occur] within the framework of our parliamentary commitments”.
Her intervention formed part of this week’s budget debate in the German parliament. Ms Merkel hailed the 2019 budget as the fifth in a row that would record a surplus, and pointed out that Germany was now experiencing its 13th consecutive quarter of economic growth. “Germany is one of the safest countries in the world, and Germany is one of the most prosperous countries in the world,” she said.
The budget debate was dominated by non-economic issues, however, and in particular by the recent spate of far-right demonstrations in eastern Germany that were triggered by the deaths of two Germans, allegedly at the hands of migrants. Ms Merkel condemned those crimes but insisted they “could not be an excuse for inhumane demonstrations” and violence against foreigners.
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