Parallels between Afghanistan and Syria: “Germany always does ‘too little, too late'”

Originally published on August 16, 2021, in German by WELT. The original can be found here

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

Bastian Matteo Scianna works for the Historical Institute of the University of Potsdam and is co-author of “Blutige Enthaltung: Deutschlands Rolle im Syrienkrieg” – a book about German foreign policy in Syria.

WELT: Recently, propaganda images circulated again of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad strolling through the streets of Damascus with his wife and eating shawarma. Is everything peace and harmony in Syria?

Bastian Matteo Scianna: No, not at all. The situation is dire. According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 13 million Syrians are in need, and 6 million people need immediate help. The economy is completely at a standstill. The only sector that is booming is the drug trade.

Dr Bastian Matteo Scianna. Source: archive Dr Bastian Matteo Scianna

WELT: That sounds like a narco-state.

Scianna: Syria is well on its way to become one. The trade in the amphetamine Captagon is constantly increasing. The drugs seized overseas from Syria are valued at $ 3.4 billion. By comparison, exports in olive oil, Syria’s largest legal export product, are worth $ 122 million.

WELT: State-organized drug trafficking – how bad is the situation for the Assad regime?

Scianna: After ten years of civil war there is little threat from a military point of view. But economically all the more so. And discontent among the Syrian population is growing.

WELT: Your book is titled: “Blutige Enthaltung: Deutschlands Rolle im Syrienkrieg”. A title with a critical undertone which implies a long list of mistakes made by the German federal government.

Scianna: Long and complicated indeed. Let’s think back to the “Arab Spring” which started in 2011. That involved a strategic change in the situation in the Middle East with many difficult decisions. Optimism prevailed in Germany: Assad will fall, Syria will become democratic. However, the West as a whole has done too little to achieve this. After the Assad regime used poison gas in 2013, then U.S. President Barack Obama threatened with retaliation. But in the end there was no real punishment.

WELT: Ultimately, just empty threats.

Scianna: You could say that.

WELT: Wasn’t the refugee crisis of 2015 Germany’s biggest mistake?

Scianna: Yes, not recognizing and underestimating an approaching refugee flow across the Balkans to Europe. At the time, Germany was very active and committed to helping refugees locally on the ground and was one of the largest financial contributors. But the overall picture of an impending crisis was not seen. German politics was overall reactive and gasped after the events.

WELT: What do you mean by that?

Scianna: Of the bigger European countries, Germany has always done the least. But rhetorically it was loudest about what others should have done. Let’s view it from a higher level. How did the West in general react to the conflicts of the “Arab Spring”? What have the interventions yielded after 10 years? Which countries have become democracies? And where have there been developments that counteract the status quo like in Egypt or caused chaos like in Libya? You have to think carefully of what you can achieve with interventions and how to deal with these crises in the future.

WELT: The learning capacity of Germany, the EU and the U.S. seems limited when we look at what is happening in Afghanistan now.

Scianna: Afghanistan shows that interventions in the Middle East are very difficult. They rarely bring the promised and desired results. It usually takes much longer and is costly in terms of human lives and financial costs. The end results in the medium term are very meager and criticism is loud.

WELT: How can one do better?

Scianna: You should always consider what the political goals are and what costs you are willing to accept. It should not be forgotten that failure to really intervene, like in Syria, also has consequences. People in Germany believe they can always sweep these consequences under the rug. In Syria, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah eventually decided the war militarily, shaping the conflict and the region in their own style.

WELT: Syria is left to the opponents of foreign policy. However you do it – whether active or passive – it always seems wrong.

Scianna: You have to start from the assumption that in foreign and security policy there are never optimal solutions that please everyone. This is particularly the case with interventions in the Middle East. You need an overall strategic view of the situation: how important is this or that country to the security of the European Union? How much human suffering are you willing to accept? And then you have to act. In Germany in particular, however, external communication is often only morally charged. One then demands “political solutions”.

WELT: When it comes to Syria and Afghanistan – should we not speak of a total failure of German and European politics?

Scianna: That depends. Is it a failure that one of the biggest humanitarian crises is taking place in Syria, and perhaps also Afghanistan? I would agree with you. However, if you’re sitting in the Chancellery and don’t consider either country to be of direct importance, it is different. Regardless of whether there is a civil war or a dictator in power in Syria, for Germany it is not a strategically important country with key trade routes and resources that could shake the world economy. Then doing nothing is an acceptable option – despite the threat of terrorism.

WELT: But doing nothing brought nearly a million Syrians to Germany. Just as many can now flee Afghanistan. Is the federal government not aware of the consequences of its policies?

Scianna: It’s a difficult trade-off. As head of government, would you rather have a certain number of refugees enter? Or do they go to this country, provide years of reconstruction aid and military peacekeeping, only to eventually see everything go up in smoke?

Source: Getty Images/John Moore

WELT: It must have been obvious to any politician that a withdrawal of troops would trigger the flight of hundreds of thousands of people.

Scianna: Again, it is a question about the alternative course of action. Should Germany remain alone in Afghanistan while the other European allies withdraw?

WELT: You would think Germany would have more influence over the U.S. and within the European Union.

Bastian Matteo Scianna: You see, German foreign and security policy is based on solidarity with alliances and a high degree of restraint in military operations. Domestically, however, it is being sold as if German involvement would bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. This creates high expectations that often end in disappointment. In fact, what Germany does is always “too little, too late”.

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.