Why Germany Didn’t Join the Syria Strikes

Pleasing both sides of the Syria debate.

Photographer: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has mockingly remarked that the German government's decision to back the U.S., British and French strikes in Syria with rhetoric but not with missiles "has shown once again that it's a grandmaster of dialectics." U.S. President Donald Trump may snort in agreement. But Chancellor Angela Merkel's Hegelian approach to geopolitics makes more sense than her Western allies' willingness to rattle their weapons. 

Merkel's statement on Saturday morning's strike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's supposed chemicals weapons installations is one of unequivocal support. It also hints at an excuse for Germany's decision not to participate directly in the raid: The U.S., the U.K. and France, unlike Germany, are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — nations with the ultimate responsibility of making sure international rules are followed. It's a subtle abrogation of global leadership ambition in a situation where Germany cannot lead. Saturday's strike, after all, was a direct result of U.S. President Donald Trump's incautious tweet last week, in which he promised that the missiles were "coming." It was after that outburst that the Trump administration sought to enlist allies' help (though French President Emmanuel Macron needed no prodding); Trump badly needed followers, especially since he wasn't going to ask Congress for authorization to take action.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May couldn't refuse: Trump had backed her all the way in the aftermath of the attempted poisoning of a former Russian double agent, and May had to be seen as both grateful and consistent, given that Assad is accused of using chemical weapons. Macron didn't have to get on board, but he's cultivating a relationship with Trump that's better than any other European leaders. And Macron wants to be seen as a foreign policy leader.

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