Fresh Debate As Germany Mulls Joining Airstrikes in the Event of Another Chemical Attack in Syria

By James Carstensen | September 12, 2018 | 7:03 PM EDT

A German airforce Typhoon fighter jet flies at an annual Bundeswehr open day in Wunstorf, Germany on June 7, 2018. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – Amid growing concerns about a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Idlib province, Germany appears to be mulling participation in any retaliatory U.S.-led airstrikes, in a reversal of its traditionally hesitant stance on military engagement.

“It cannot be the German position to simply say ‘No,’ no matter what happens in the world,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a lower house of parliament session here on Wednesday.

Last April, when Britain and France joined the U.S. in bombing three Syrian government facilities following a chemical weapons attack, Merkel ruled out German participation. She said Wednesday that Germany could not always reject military intervention.

“The international community, including us, must do everything to prevent chemical weapons being used,” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told parliament on Wednesday.

The debate comes amid rising tensions as Assad regime forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have been massing around the borders of Idlib, a last remaining stronghold of rebels – including members of the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham terrorist group (formerly known as Al-Nusra Front).

U.S. Security Adviser Jon Bolton warned on Monday that another chemical weapons attack in Syria would draw a “much stronger” U.S. response than previous ones. U.S. officials believe Assad has already given approval for the use of chlorine gas in Idlib.

Germany has been loath to engage in military deployments in the light of its history of aggression in the first half of last century. However, the risk of the further use of outlawed chemical weapons has renewed debate on the topic.

Germany is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but has limited its participation to support roles, such as reconnaissance and refueling.

Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), told local media that Germany should not rule out “preventing a new, horrific gas attack with a massive effect on the civilian population.”

Retaliation for the use of chemical weapons could deter future use, he said.

But Sahra Wagenknecht, head of the Linke (Left) party said the fact the government was even considering the idea was a “scandal.”

“The escalation of the situation in Idlib is appalling, but the bloodshed cannot be stopped with more bombs,” she said in a statement posted on Facebook on Monday.

The ISIS-linked terror attacks in Paris in 2015 prompted Merkel’s decision to contribute militarily to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign.

Matthew Crosston, associate professor of security and global studies at American Public University, agreed that the threat of further CW attacks could again prompt Germany to become more involved.

Global Security Review editor Joshua Stowell said another CW attack in Syria “would merit a much larger response, as the previous two responses [punitive airstrikes launched in April 2017 and April 2018] would have failed to deter another attack.”

“This would potentially signal to other actors that the benefits outweigh the consequences when it comes to using chemical weapons, even against their own people,” he said via email.

Stowell said failing to participate would lend credibility to President Trump’s claims that Germany is reneging on its defense commitments.

“For Germany, Europe's largest economy, to sit out another military response to Syrian use of chemical weapons would mean the appearance of degradation of German credibility as a true global player, and as de-facto leader in Europe,” he said.

Stowell said Germany’s center-left may find that its stance on military issues has the unintended consequence of making the country more, rather than less, dependent on the U.S.

“As much as the Social Democrats want to rebuff Trump's critical rhetoric and focus on social issues, the fact remains that they desperately need to increase their defense spending and combat readiness. If they don't, they will become more dependent on the U.S. and NATO.”

Possible German military deployment in Syria would also potentially impact relations with Russia, the Assad regime’s main military backer.

“Politically, there is always the risk that relations with Russia will take a hit,” Stowell said, although he suggested that Moscow’s reaction would likely be tempered by the fact any German contribution would be limited.

He pointed to reports last May saying that only four of the Bundeswehr’s 128 Typhoon fighter jets were combat-ready.

Crosston also felt that confrontation with Russia was unlikely.

“Russia has shown several times in Syria, with America, that as long as America does not purposely try to kill Russians, it will tolerate American actions against Assad,” he said.

“[Russia] has better relations with Germany, so it is safe to presume it would offer the same unofficial terms to them.”

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