Merkel vs SPD

Syria intervention becomes Merkel’s latest coalition headache

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
How much poison gas would it take to topple a German government? Source: DPA.

Just months after a conservative revolt over asylum policy brought Angela Merkel’s government to the brink of collapse, the German chancellor is now facing a challenge from the Social Democratic Party, the center-left junior partner in her governing coalition, on how Berlin should respond to events unfolding in Syria.

To make matters worse this dispute is compounded with calls from the Social Democrats for Ms. Merkel to fire the controversial boss of Germany’s domestic intelligence service over his supposed sympathies with the far right.

Both issues are unrelated but once again threaten to test the solidity of the chancellor’s three-way coalition. She has little room to maneuver on either topic.

As the US and its Western allies mull retaliatory strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he uses chemical weapons against civilians in the last rebel strongholds, Germany is unsure how to react. Should Germany take part in a military operation in the war-torn country? Or should Berlin watch from the sidelines, as it has previously done?

On Wednesday, Ms. Merkel answered with a resounding maybe. “The German position can’t be to simply say ‘no,’ no matter what happens anywhere in the world,” the chancellor told lawmakers in the Bundestag. “Just looking away can’t be the answer.”

The chancellor was cautiously backing her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who according to media reports had been considering options, including sending German jets to Syria alongside American fighter planes.

‘Credible deterrence’

Ms. von der Leyen, a member of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, was less restrained Wednesday. The international community must enforce the worldwide ban on chemical weapons, the defense minister told the Bundestag. “I am fully aware that this requires diplomacy first and foremost,” she said, emphasizing that the military option was “credible deterrence” rather than retaliation.

Such rhetoric marks a significant departure from the answer Berlin gave the last time the West launched airstrikes against Syria, as recently as April. Then, Ms. Merkel unequivocally ruled out taking part in military action. This was in keeping with Germany’s post-war reluctance to take part in military operations abroad.

But Ms. Merkel’s latest about-face puts her CDU on a collision course with the SPD. Party leader Andrea Nahles categorically ruled out Berlin’s involvement in military strikes. “There’s a good reason why international law does not recognize a right to retaliate,” she said. Unless the United Nations backs a military intervention, “we Social Democrats won’t support a violent attack in Syria,” she added.

But with Russia in the UN Security Council, the UN is unlikely to greenlight international airstrikes against Syria. Moscow has been the main backer of Syria’s embattled regime throughout the seven-year conflict.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the most prominent Social Democrat in the cabinet, tried walking a finer line. He said Germany would reach a decision “in line with our constitutional principles” after a discussion in parliament. He is due to receive his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Berlin Friday. “Efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria has top priority,” Mr. Maas said.

Trust evaporating fast

It is unlikely, however, that he will so much as try and coax Mr. Lavrov into not vetoing airstrikes against Damascus. A report from a parliamentary advisory panel found Monday that Germany would violate its own constitution if it took part in a retaliatory military operation.

Whether Ms. Merkel will win over the Social Democrats remains unclear. Trust between the CDU and the SPD is evaporating fast as an unrelated issue is driving a wedge between the coalition partners: On Thursday, the chorus demanding the dismissal of top domestic spy Hans-Georg Maassen grew louder.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Merkel and Maassen, president of BfV, federal domestic intelligence service, leave BfV’s headquarters following their meeting in Cologne
Hans-Georg Maassen’s prospects are looking increasingly dim. Source: Reuters.

“For the SPD party leadership, it’s absolutely clear that Maassen has got go,” said SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil. “Merkel needs to act now.” He was echoing similar demands from the party’s more hawkish youth group. Mr. Maassen has faced calls to resign from the domestic intelligence agency after he downplayed the neo-Nazi riots that rocked eastern Germany last month and sowed doubts about media coverage of the events.

Up until now, Ms. Merkel’s conservatives supported him. His boss, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, threw his weight behind him after a much-anticipated appearance before parliament Wednesday. But come Thursday, Mr. Maassen faced even more scrutiny after media reported he shared classified information with far-right politicians. Though Mr. Maassen denies the allegation, a cabinet crisis meeting on the affair was slated for Thursday between Ms. Merkel, Mr. Seehofer and Ms. Nahles — but it may be delayed until Tuesday.

Political analysts are doubtful that the SPD would walk out of the coalition over the Syria strikes or the Maassen controversy. With its ratings in the doldrums, the party stands to lose considerably if a snap election was held. But, at the same time, the Social Democrats are desperate to save the credibility they have left. One thing is certain: The mood within Ms. Merkel’s coalition is not likely to improve anytime soon.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: hauteville@handelsblatt.com.

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