Would France and Germany be willing to rely on the army of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to help in the fight against Islamic State?
Not at all, both countries insisted this week, following ambiguous statements from top government ministers.
With Germany about to commit troops to support France in its fight against Islamic State, the two countries are being forced to clarify their position on the Syrian leader and his army.
On Monday, a German defense ministry spokesman reiterated the official government position of “no cooperation with Assad and also no cooperation with troops under Assad,” following ambiguous comments from Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday.
Ms. von der Leyen had seemed to suggest that the West should train Syrian government forces to fight Islamic State.
“There’s no future with Assad, that’s clear,” Ms. von der Leyen told German public television on Sunday. “But there are troop contingents in Syria that one can take, as in the case of Iraq where local forces have been successfully trained.”
On Monday the defense ministry spokesman, Jens Flosdorff, said that the minister’s comments reflected the fact that Berlin wants to avoid the complete collapse of the Syrian state.
The debate comes as Germany’s cabinet signed off on the military deployment in a meeting Tuesday morning.
Speaking shortly before Germany’s cabinet approved the deployment of Tornado reconnaissance jets, refueling aircraft, a frigate and up to 1,200 military personnel to the region, Ms. von der Leyen again sought to clarify her position and defended the plans.
“The top line is: there will be no cooperation with Assad and no cooperation with troops under his command,” she told ARD television.
However, that did not exclude the possibility of including some of the regime’s fighters in the future. “We must avoid the collapse of the state of Syria,” she said. “But let me be clear – there will be no future with Assad.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday dismissed the possibility of working with the Syrian army as long as Mr. Assad was in power. “If we achieve a political transition and it’s no longer Bashar in charge of the Syrian army, there could be joint actions against terrorism. But under Bashar it’s not possible,” he said on Monday.
“You cannot achieve every goal at the same time. If the primary goal is to fight Islamic State, then we have to bite the bullet, that's Assad, for the time being.”
That followed remarks last week which seemed to countenance working with Syrian army troops when he said that “regime forces” could potentially join the fight against IS. He then had to clarify that he was referring to a post-Assad regime.
Following the terror attacks in Paris of November 13, France has intensified its air strikes on IS targets in Syria. The German cabinet on Tuesday signed off on the deployment of 1,200 military personnel to support the French campaign. On Wednesday, the British parliament is to vote on whether to launch its own air strikes on the terrorist group.
Although the West’s focus is firmly on Islamic State, ultimately it still wants to see Mr. Assad leave power. The brutal crushing of Syrians’ attempt at an Arabic Spring has led to an ongoing civil war, with up to 250,000 people killed and 4 million people fleeing the country, with many more millions internally displaced.
And while neither France nor Germany will cooperate with the Syrian president, going forward they want to preserve the Syrian state as a bulwark against the terrorist organization’s expansion. Islamic State controls territory in both Syria and Iraq, and aims to expand its so-called caliphate in the region.
For now it remains unclear how Syria’s state structures can be preserved without dealing with the very forces that have inflicted terrible damage on the country, now in its fifth year of civil war.
Germany views the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as a cautionary tale. Washington removed Saddam Hussein from power and dissolved the military. Many unemployed Iraqi soldiers ended up joining the Sunni insurgency and later went on to help found Islamic State.
Russia’s unilateral military intervention has further complicated the situation, bolstering Mr. Assad’s control over the remnants of the Syrian state. In an interview with Handelsblatt last week, Ms. von der Leyen admitted that “we have to live with the Syrian president in the short-term,” though “he cannot be part of a long-term solution.”
Peace talks in Vienna aimed at ending the Syrian war have avoided the divisive question of Mr. Assad’s future. According to Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, the Western powers need to prioritize their goals and put the removal of Mr. Assad on the back burner for the time being.
“You cannot achieve every goal at the same time,” Mr. Ischinger told Handelsblatt. “If the primary goal is to fight Islamic State, then we have to bite the bullet, that’s Assad, for the time being.”
Mr. Assad’s military is the only force currently on the ground in Syria that can effectively confront Islamic State, Mr. Ischinger said. According to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, however, Syrian government forces are focused on fighting the moderate opposition rather than IS.
“The Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army and moderate rebel groups must finally stop wearing themselves out in a three-way war, instead of fighting ISIS,” Mr. Steinmeier told Bild am Sonntag, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State. “We now have to bring together everyone who’s against ISIS.”
The Western powers have ruled out sending their own ground troops to fight Islamic State, focusing instead on the air war. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany agreed to send Tornado reconnaissance jets to help France target Islamic State positions, refueling aircraft to service allied warplanes, and a warship to provide security for the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Following the German cabinet’s sign-off on the deployment, parliament will hold a vote on the deployment on Wednesday.
The mission will include 1,200 military personnel at an estimated cost of €134 million ($142 million) in the coming year. The Bundeswehr mission will be restricted to 12 months initially, the normal mandate given for army deployments. In a separate move, Germany will also send another 650 troops to Mali to support France, which is leading a peace-keeping mission in its former African colony.
Though the German forces in Syria will fulfill a non-combat role, the draft resolution allows them to use force in self-defense and to protect allied forces.
The draft resolution states that the “direct participation in the fight against IS represents an intensification of our security policy engagement in the region.”
The opposition Green Party has made its support conditional on whether or not coalition forces cooperate with Mr. Assad.
“We cannot allow Assad’s murder brigades to be our ground troops in Syria,” said Green Party leader Cem Özdemir.
The opposition far-left Left Party has rejected the military deployment as a violation of international law, arguing that it lacks an adequate U.N. resolution.
Rainer Arnold, a defense expert for the center-left Social Democrats, junior partners in the ruling coalition in Berlin, disagreed. The mission is covered by U.N. Resolution 2249, which calls on the international community to take “all necessary measures” against terrorism, and is justified as self-defense in response to the Paris attacks, Mr. Arnold said.
Furthermore, he argued, France activated the European Union’s collective defense clause, Article 42.7. And the German troops will be participating in a broad international coalition of 60 nations.
The decision to get more deeply involved in the fight against IS is causing concern in Germany. A poll carried out by YouGov found that, 71 percent of Germans believe the mission will increase the threat of terror attacks on the country, while 18 percent think there is no increased threat.
At the same time, 45 percent back the deployment while 39 percent are against it.
André Wüstner, head of the German Armed Forces Association, said on Tuesday that he expected the fight against IS to take many years. “I assume that this battle, if it is carried out seriously, will last more than 10 years,” he told the ARD channel. “IS is not only present in Iraq and Syria, but also across the whole of North Africa to Mali,” he said, adding that the problem could not be dealt with by military means alone.
Mr. Wüstner said that he was concerned that the mission in Syria did not have a clearly defined purpose. “It requires clear goals and a strategy. And in this respect we are still waiting on answers.”