Germany, France & Syria: Berlin’s calculated solidarity

Supporting France militarily is calculated to help Germany’s interest and better position it in international bargaining over a ceasefire and transition in Syria. 

ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
(c) ECFR / Sophia Becker
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With a vote of 445 against 145, on 4 December the German Bundestag cleared the way for the country’s participation in the fight against Islamic State. Up to 1200 troops will be deployed “to support France, Iraq, and the international alliance in their fight against IS”, as it is worded in the motion introduced by the Federal Government. German armed forces now have a mandate to support the alliance with reconnaissance capabilities, in air refuelling, and naval protection of the French aircraft carrier group in the Mediterranean until the end of 2016. Furthermore, Germany will upgrade its current commitments to support the French anti-terror mission in Mali as part of Berlin’s solidarity with France.

The decision was prepared over a short period of time after the EU’s defence ministers meeting on 17 November, four days after the terror attacks in Paris, had declared their solidarity with and support for France based on article 42.7 of the EU treaties.  It was a matter of just over two weeks before it came before the Bundestag. This fast-track approach was subject to criticism from opposition parliamentarians, who referenced the extensive debate scheduled for a comparable vote in the British House of Commons two days earlier.

Angela Merkel and her government wanted to send a clear signal of solidarity and commitment to rule out any second guessing on the seriousness of the political statements

But in the eyes of the governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, this decision was time sensitive. Angela Merkel and her government wanted to send a clear signal of solidarity and commitment to rule out any second guessing on the seriousness of the political statements made in solidarity with France after the terror attacks. In fact, Berlin had a couple of reasons important to German policy makers to respond swiftly to the situation, most of them having to do with the state of the EU.

In all likelihood, the most important reason for Berlin’s determination was and is to underscore the essential role of the Franco-German alliance as the one cooperative vehicle of Germany’s interests in shaping the EU. France has been an indispensable partner in the process leading to the Minsk agreement and, in spite of differing preferences, Paris and Berlin have cooperated more closely than meets the eye on resolving the Greek crisis. In a politically fragmented EU, the bilateralism of the two countries serves as one of the few sources of consensus building among member states.

To both countries, article 42 of the EU treaties has special meaning. It was France who started the process which ultimately led to the inclusion of a military solidarity clause when it decided to revitalise the largely dormant Western European Union in the mid-1980s. From early on, Germany had shown interest and support, sharing with the French the view that integration should be extended over time to include security and defence. Paris and Berlin, against the British view, were then the principal drivers of the gradual approximation of WEU and EU, which ended in the absorption of this alliance by the European Union. Article 42.7 incorporated WEU’s article 5 into EU primary law, though tying it more directly to the UN charter and putting it into the context to other collective security commitments such as NATO than was the case in the original treaty.

Clearly, the refugee crisis has to be seen as another important driver of the scope and timing of the German decision. First, while it is demanding solidarity from other member states on the relocation of refugees and on the funding and equipment of the EU border control instruments, Germany would have harmed its own approach by not responding swiftly to the French appeal. Second, only direct and significant support would give Berlin a say in the scale and direction of the larger military engagement of France and other European countries in the region which has become the principal point of departure of migration into Germany.

The linkage between the two factors seems essential to Berlin. After all, solidarity with France does not signal a change in the German view of the war in Syria. Berlin’s political class remains sceptical of defeating ISIS by air strikes. In the German view, the campaign has successfully contained ISIS but not eroded its basis in spite of months of quite heavy bombardments. Berlin policy makers see the need to complement and follow up with troops on the ground, which could physically take control over territory now held by ISIS. Because no external actor is willing to send ground forces (Germany would certainly not be willing to), the war between the Assad regime and the opposition needs to end, which from Berlin’s perspective requires some agreement with Russia. Also, the potential of the Kurds and other minorities will have to be mobilised, which requires a policy change and support of Turkey. Thirdly, support will be needed on the Iraqi side, where ISIS controls important parts of the Sunni settlement areas outside of Baghdad. This will require not only understanding and cooperation from Iraq’s government, but also understanding and support from Iran. Out of these considerations Germany had been very supportive of the Vienna initiative and the Transition Plan agreed under the guidance of the foreign ministers of the United States and Russia. The German military engagement alongside France is meant to strengthen that process, as Norbert Röttgen, Chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, underlined in the debate. If Syria was left to Assad and Putin, there would not be a diplomatic solution, he warned.

Because of such a reading of the situation, Germany is supportive of the engagement of France. French policy makers appear to share a number of the German views, including the part on the role of Russia. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier has repeatedly stressed he would have wished that Vienna had been a European initiative. With France taking a lead role on the side of the Europeans, this wish could at least become partially true.

Supporting France militarily is thus calculated to help Germany’s interest and better position it in international bargaining over a ceasefire and transition in Syria. It should allow Berlin to weigh in on a fragile process, whose result could greatly affect Germany’s biggest domestic challenge for 2016: facing another million refugees after a year in which over 1 million people sought asylum in the country.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow