In his speech at the Freie Universität Berlin, Peer Steinbrück (SPD) made clear he opposed any arms transfer to the Syrian opposition. As is the case with the German government, he did not offer any alternative policy options. German politicians have long warned of an escalation of the conflict, but few have come up with specific proposals what the country could do to avoid it. As Markus Kaim (SWP) argues in an interview with the newspaper Südkurier, Germans are particularly good at telling others why their ideas won’t work, while not coming forward with an alternative. But is this enough for a country that size?
Recently, critics of the German government’s (non-)policy towards Syria have become more outspoken. In an interview published on the Facebook website of the German Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik, Bernhard Stahl harshly criticizes the German government (in German only):
“When France and Great Britain recently announced a change in their policy on Syria [esp. regarding the supply of weapons to the opposition, T.B.], the Chancellor let them know that German support would not be off the table, but Germany had not yet made up its mind. After two years of war, 70.000 thousand people killed and one million refugees, Germany doesn’t have a position. That’s embarrassing.” (my translation)
At the very least, one should acknowledge that a lot of actors have already been providing weapons to the belligerents in Syria. Consequently, doing nothing is also taking a stance. One might have thought that the Europeans would try to forge an agreement with the Russians not to supply arms to any party in the conflict. Yet, to my knowledge there has been no real diplomatic effort to push for such an agreement, let alone for a UN resolution forbidding any arms tranfer to Syria (including Russian and Iranian support for Assad or Qatari weapons for parts of the opposition). The result is an unlevel playing field.
This week, John McCain gave a speech at Brookings, arguing that the only actors not receiving support are the moderates: “After all, Assad is getting weapons. Al-Nusra is getting weapons. The only forces in Syria that are not getting weapons are moderate commanders like those I met last week, who said their units desperately need ammunition and weapons to counter Assad’s tanks, artillery, and air power.”
It is very hard to imagine that Assad might be up for meaningful peace talks at a time when he appears to be winning on the ground. Thus, a so-called “political solution” is just not in the cards right now. Given this background, Anne-Marie Slaughter criticizes that Obama’s position on Syria seems to be “speak softly and throw away your stick.”
From a domestic point of view, both German and American policies are hardly surprising. After the disillusionment of the past decade, publics in both the United States and Europe remain sceptical of any Western involvement in the conflict – be it arms transfers or a no-fly zone, let alone boots on the ground. While most do not believe the conflict can be resolved politically, they also do not want their countries to engage militarily fearing this will make the situation even worse and draw Western forces into an open-ended conflict. James Joyner refers to the “reverse Pottery Barn Rule in effect here: If we didn’t break it, we don’t own it.” Yet, given the possibly far-reaching consequences of the conflict, it is hardly unlikely that we will finally “own” it anyway – in one way or the other. Not to speak of our moral responsibility.
While there are many good reasons for Western reluctance to engage militarily, another development provokes the question whether Western publics actually care about Syria after all. As I learned from people involved in humanitarian affairs, donations for Syria remain strikingly low. As Deutsche Welle (German only) reports, the German Welthungerhilfe has only received 12.000 euros since the beginning of the civil war – compared to 20 million after the Haiti earthquake.
The UNHCR has published an infographic putting the actual need into perspective. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 5 billion dollars are needed this year for food, shelter and medical care. The European Union has pledged 400 million euros.