Russia’s military intervention in Syria is largely absent from the current debate in Germany with the refugee crisis, and, in particular, growing domestic pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel, continuing to dominate the headlines. In this context, Merkel’s visit to Turkey on 18 October was mostly framed by the media from a domestic rather than from a foreign and security policy angle.
But the government clearly sees the link between the refugee situation in Germany and developments in the Middle East region. Ending the war in Syria therefore is a strong interest of Berlin. Angela Merkel pointed out in a government policy statement last week that Germany wanted to play its part in contributing to getting a political process going. In her speech she placed her visit to Turkey as well as recent travels of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia in this wider context.
Against this background, Moscow’s military intervention does play a role in foreign and security policy circles in parliament and in the government, as well as amongst experts. Russia’s going-it-alone strategy is considered not helpful in achieving the overall goals in Syria that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pointed out in his speech at the UN beginning of October, just after the start of the Russian intervention: to keep Syria’ territorial integrity and to restore an order in which all ethnic and religious groups can live peacefully with one another and with its neighbours. The administration believes that peace in Syria cannot be achieved through the use of military force and this view is overall shared by the opposition parties, the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and the Left Party (Die Linke). In the German discussion on the future of Syria, military means are off the table.
The German government has made it clear that Russia’s intervention was not helpful. This view is also reflected in the joint declaration adopted in early October together with France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UK and the US, in which Germany condemned Russia’s military actions that led to “further escalation and more extremism and radicalization”.
Nevertheless, on the whole, there is caution around rhetoric which seems to reflect the thinking that there is a real risk of a military logic gaining ground in the region; a risk that the German government responds to by a language of diplomacy, and efforts to gather support for a political solution. The Foreign Office is convinced that all external players – including Russia – share the above mentioned objectives in Syria, and that therefore there can be a negotiated solution despite existing differences. The view in the Foreign Office continues to be that despite Russia increasingly using military force to pursue its interests (Ukraine being always on Berlin’s mind), one should not allow Moscow to isolate itself further from the international community. This assessment is shared by Angela Merkel, who made it very clear in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 17 October that she could envisage “no solution without Russia”.
German diplomacy has, consequently, focussed on political coalition building, with Foreign Minister Steinmeier travelling to Kuwait two weeks ago, and to Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and Jordan over the past days (18-20 October 2015). The EU3+3 agreement with Iran earlier this year is seen as a success format to build on. During a speech in Tehran at the weekend, Steinmeier alluded to a positive role that Iran could play to address “some of the underlying tensions of the region that feed into these conflicts”.
This is a hope also connected to cooperation with Moscow. Russia continued to play a constructive role even during the confrontation with the EU over Crimea, and Ukraine in general, in the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal. However, Berlin is well aware of the fine line between allowing Russia to be part of a political process in Syria while keeping the pressure on Moscow in other areas, in particular on implementing the Minsk Agreement. When Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Social Democratic Party and a coalition partner in Merkel’s government, in late September suggested to make the future of sanctions against Russia part of the conversation on Syria, his move was widely criticised.
While Berlin is still among those countries that can envisage Moscow playing a constructive role in the future of Syria, this assessment is under continued review given the possibility of future Russian action in Syria, Ukraine, and possible other areas of conflict.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.