Germany has emerged as a key player in international diplomacy and crisis management in recent years. As one of the leading economic and political powers in Europe, Germany has significant influence and interests around the world. Two prominent examples of international crises where Germany has played an important role are the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
This article will provide an in-depth analysis of the German role in these two crises. It will examine Germany’s foreign policy interests and principles, its diplomatic efforts, its provision of humanitarian aid, its management of the refugee crisis, and the challenges it has faced. The Syrian and Yemeni civil wars are complex conflicts with multiple local and foreign actors involved. Germany’s approach provides insights into its broader strategies for upholding international norms, promoting stability, and protecting human rights globally.
Background on the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 during the Arab Spring protests against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Peaceful demonstrations calling for democratic reforms soon escalated into nationwide uprising and armed rebellion, as Assad responded with violent crackdowns. Opposition groups took up arms and acquired backing from various foreign powers. Over time, the conflict became a complex proxy war drawing in regional and world powers.
By 2023, the war has caused over 350,000 deaths, displaced 12 million people internally, and compelled another 5.6 million to flee the country as refugees. Although the Syrian government has regained control of most major cities with the aid of allies Russia and Iran, large portions of Syria remain under opposition rebel or Kurdish control. Occasional clashes, bombings, and strikes continue, as a peaceful resolution remains elusive.
Numerous allegations of war crimes and human rights violations have been leveled against the Syrian government, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations active in the conflict like ISIS. The use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, torture, sieges, and forced disappearances have made Syria one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. Germany has been deeply concerned by the scope of human suffering and instability emanating from Syria.
Background on the Yemeni Civil War
The ongoing civil war in Yemen erupted in 2014 when Houthi rebels captured the capital Sana’a and ousted the internationally-recognized government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. In response, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition supported by Western powers has conducted air strikes and a naval blockade against the Houthis since 2015. The Houthis have received political and material support from Iran, turning Yemen into a theater for regional power competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Over 100,000 people have lost their lives in Yemen’s civil war, which has left 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Sophisticated weaponry and repeated coalition airstrikes have contributed to mass civilian casualties. UN agencies have warned that the conflict has also produced the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with 19 million Yemenis facing food insecurity and famine. Yemen’s infrastructure and healthcare system have been decimated, undermining basic access to clean water, nutrition, sanitation, and medical treatment.
Germany has grown increasingly concerned by the toll on human life, state collapse, regional instability, and opportunities for terrorist groups created by Yemen’s complex war. It has persistently sought a peaceful settlement that can produce a united, representative and democratic Yemeni government.
Germany’s Foreign Policy Interests and Principles
Germany’s policies towards the Syrian and Yemeni crises reflect its broader foreign policy vision since World War II. The lessons of Germany’s belligerent past have made it one of the most cautious military actors today, with a strong preference for soft power, diplomacy, international institutions, multilateralism and compliance with humanitarian law. Article 26 of the 1949 German constitution explicitly prohibits offensive war and allows only defensive military force under narrow circumstances.
Germany’s core foreign policy interests include promoting global peace and stability, upholding human rights and international law, strengthening international institutions like the EU and UN, pursuing human development and democracy, supporting refugees, and expanding beneficial trade and investment worldwide. Germany prefers acting through close cooperation with allies like fellow EU members, the US and other democracies. It favors patient diplomacy over direct military intervention for resolving conflicts.
At the same time, Germany remains dedicated to acting as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs that defends human rights, upholds international norms, and promotes conflict resolution. Its Nazi past creates a special obligation to prevent genocide and severe human rights abuses. Germany will deploy combat troops abroad for peacekeeping, collective defense, and humanitarian interventions under NATO, EU or UN auspices. Germany’s strong economy, respected diplomacy, commitment to development aid, and role as a major host for refugees equip it with significant political and moral influence.
In the Syrian and Yemeni cases, Germany has sought to utilize diplomatic pressure, economic leverage, humanitarian relief, multilateral coalitions, and acceptance of refugees to uphold stability, international law, and human rights. However, Germany has also faced challenges in matching its principled foreign policy goals with effective crisis management amidst the complexity of the Syrian and Yemeni wars.
Germany’s Diplomatic Role in Syria
Germany has been extensively engaged in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war since 2011 alongside critical allies like France, Britain, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan within and outside the UN framework. It has participated prominently in initiatives like the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the EU, the ‘Group of Friends of the Syrian People’, and the UN Special Envoys for Syria. Germany has utilized its close ties and regular engagement with Russia to encourage it to pressure the Assad regime into halting bombings against civilians, allowing humanitarian access, and pursuing a negotiated political settlement.
For example, Germany strongly backed UN Security Council Resolution 2254 passed in December 2015 supporting a ceasefire and political transition in Syria. As ISSG president in 2016, Germany worked vigorously to turn the resolution into a viable peace roadmap. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted an ISSG meeting in Munich in February 2016 that produced a tentative cessation of hostilities and improved humanitarian access, though it eventually collapsed. Germany has often served as a bridge between Western powers skeptical of Russia’s strategic goals in Syria and Russia itself. It continues to endorse international negotiations like the Geneva peace talks as the best path for winding down the violence and producing free elections and constitutional reform in Syria.
However, Germany has grown frustrated by the limits of diplomacy absent military pressure over time. Russia and Iran’s ongoing military aid to the Assad regime has reduced its incentive to make meaningful concessions. Germany is also constrained by unwillingness to directly arm moderate Syrian rebel groups itself or deepen its own military involvement, forcing it to rely on diplomacy and the pressure applied by allies. It continues to explore ways to build diplomatic leverage and secure even modest incremental progress given the intractable positions of the warring sides.
Germany’s Support for Syrian Refugees
Germany has emerged as a leader within the EU in accepting and integrating Syrian refugees. Since 2011, Germany has offered refugee protection to over 800,000 Syrians fleeing war and human rights abuses. Beginning in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted relatively open asylum policies, arguing that managing the refugee crisis was a moral obligation that also benefited Germany by addressing its aging demographics and shortage of skilled labor. While facing domestic criticism, Merkel has cited Germany’s Nazi legacy and commitment to human rights as reasons for exceptional hospitality towards Syrian refugees.
Germany has mobilized substantial resources to house, educate, train and integrate Syrian refugees, spending over $20 billion by 2017. It is the only EU country to have an open door policy for Syrian refugees with no upper limit on asylum applications. Germany has provided free language and integration classes, vocational training, access to healthcare and social welfare benefits, and programs to help refugees enter Germany’s job market and universities. Leading foundations and volunteer networks have complemented government efforts to help refugees assimilate into German society.
Germany’s liberal refugee policies have aimed both to provide concrete humanitarian relief and also to demonstrate moral leadership in hopes of spurring more burden-sharing across the EU and resettlement in countries beyond. While its open borders policy has been controversial domestically, Germany has sought to make a robust case to its citizens that generosity towards refugees stems from both self-interest and universal rights. Germany continues to press for EU agreements to fairly distribute asylum-seekers regionally and expand safe and legal channels for refugees.
Germany’s Provision of Humanitarian Aid in Syria
Germany has been one of the top state donors of humanitarian assistance in response to the Syrian crisis. Between 2012-2020, it gave over $3.2 billion in humanitarian aid for the regional Syria response through UN agencies, NGOs, and the EU. It is consistently one of the largest donors to the UN Regional Refugee and Resilience (3RP) plans for coping with Syrian displacement in neighboring states. Germany has provided extensive funding for food, healthcare, water, sanitation, education, shelter, psychosocial needs, and cash assistance for vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Within Syria, Germany has backed UN appeals for ceasefires to allow aid access and donated hundreds of millions of euros to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It has given major grants to the World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and German NGOs like German Caritas to address pressing needs among conflict-affected populations in Syria. However, Germany has insisted that humanitarian relief alone cannot solve the Syrian crisis absent a viable peace process and political transition. It continues to explore ways to deliver more EU humanitarian aid across borders and conflict lines within Syria itself while upholding humanitarian principles of neutrality.
Challenges Faced by Germany in Syria
Germany has struggled to significantly shape the Syrian civil war’s trajectory despite its formidable economic resources and diplomatic influence. Its moral outrage and massive asylum efforts have not compelled the Syrian regime and its backers to halt bombings, lift sieges of civilians, or make meaningful concessions at the negotiating table. Russia has exploited Germany’s unwillingness to directly pressure the Assad regime through deeper military intervention.
Domestically, the massive influx of Syrian refugees has fueled rising xenophobia and support for far-right parties, like Alternative for Germany, challenging Germany’s political establishment. Regional partners have criticized Germany for encouraging more refugees without sufficiently consulting neighboring states. Germany’s push for greater burden-sharing across the EU has faltered amid resistance from Central/Eastern European states unwilling to accept higher asylum intakes.
Germany has also been unable to convince allies like the US to more forcefully assert influence over allies like Turkey that have undercut stability in Syria through cross-border attacks on Kurdish groups. It continues to walk a delicate line between the imperatives of principled humanitarianism and realist assessments of its limited leverage over the Assad regime and external powers active in Syria’s war. Germany remains committed to alleviating suffering in Syria, but has yet to translate its resources into conflict breakthroughs.
Germany’s Diplomatic Role in Yemen
Germany has actively supported UN-led efforts to mediate an end to the Yemeni civil war and relieve suffering among civilians continuously since 2014. It backed UN Security Council Resolution 2216 in 2015 that sanctioned the Houthi movement and demanded they surrender arms and withdraw from Sana’a and other cities. Germany has provided expert personnel and technical assistance to the UN Special Envoys for Yemen charged with facilitating negotiations between political factions and implementing transitional power-sharing.
Germany participated closely in the 2016 failed UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait. It endorsed the resulting roadmap agreement outlining confidences-building steps like prisoner releases before launching constitutional negotiations and elections. Germany has utilized its amicable ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the former Yemeni government to encourage them to make necessary compromises at U.N. talks. It has also supported Oman’s local mediation initiatives aimed at fostering Yemeni national reconciliation.
However, Germany has grown frustrated with repeated ceasefire violations by the Saudi-led coalition, Houthis, and terrorist groups that derail conflict resolution. It has critiqued the Saudi-led blockade’s humanitarian impact and called for broader access at Hodeidah port, though Germany maintains arms exports and ties to Saudi Arabia. Alongside Norway and the EU, Germany has urged the UN Security Council to pressure parties to honor ceasefires and facilitate humanitarian aid flows. But it lacks leverage over core belligerents sufficient to stop obstructions that have dragged Yemen towards famine.
Germany’s Humanitarian Aid for Yemen
Alongside diplomacy, Germany has positioned itself as a leading humanitarian donor in Yemen. Between 2015 and 2020, Germany provided over $800 million in humanitarian assistance to UN relief efforts for civilians impacted by violence, hunger, poverty and cholera in Yemen. This includes support for UNICEF, the World Food Program, the World Health Organization, and German NGOs active in Yemen like Care, Caritas, and Doctors without Borders. Germany has encouraged UN agencies to expand critical food programs, water/sanitation services, healthcare access, and cash transfers to vulnerable Yemenis.
Germany served as a top contributor to the 2019 UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, giving $192 million. It has provided emergency financial assistance to the World Food Program to prevent famine conditions amidst funding shortfalls. In 2020, Germany also donated 10 million euros to support the UN’s underfunded Yemen COVID-19 preparedness and response plan. It continues to leverage its close Saudi ties to try to sustain Riyadh’s financial support for UN relief programs in Yemen while nudging for expanded humanitarian access.
Challenges Faced by Germany in Yemen
However, Germany confronts profound obstacles in meaningfully contributing to resolving the Yemeni civil war or alleviating its severe humanitarian consequences. Its diplomatic heft with Saudi Arabia and financial largesse have not compelled Saudi military restraint or flexible negotiating stances. Germany’s coalition government has faced rising pressure to halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns, limiting its leverage over Riyadh. Its suggestions for confidences-building measures like prisoner swaps, ceasefire monitoring, and partial rebel withdrawals from ports/cities have made little headway.
Germany maintains amicable ties with Iran, but minimal direct influence over its strategic calculus in arming Houthi rebels as leverage against Saudi Arabia. It can critique the flaws of the Saudi blockade and conduct occasional port inspections, but lacks the military or economic clout to substantially change coalition strategy. German diplomats have struggled to deter ongoing Houthi attacks on Saudi territory and maritime vessels that risk regional escalation. Within Yemen, Germany lacks long-term connections with diverse political groups that could facilitate durable power-sharing arrangements.
Alleviating humanitarian suffering also remains beyond Germany’s unilateral means given conditions of war, blockades, water scarcity, currency collapse, food insecurity, disease outbreaks, and infrastructure damage across Yemen. Despite raising alarms about famine risks, Germany alone has been unable to mobilize sufficient global support to meet Yemen’s overwhelming humanitarian needs. As in Syria, Germany’s principled foreign policy vision faces daunting challenges in navigating complex civil wars inflamed by bitter geopolitical rivalries.
The protracted Syrian and Yemeni civil wars represent extremely thorny challenges that have tested the limits of German foreign policy influence. Despite its economic clout, moral advocacy, humanitarian generosity and peacemaking efforts, Germany has achieved minimal concrete progress towards ending these conflicts or even restraining their violence against civilians. However, Germany remains dedicated to upholding international law, defending human rights, mitigating humanitarian catastrophes, and promoting negotiated settlements.
Germany’s roles in Syria and Yemen offer broader lessons about the difficulties middle powers face in winding down intractable proxy conflicts fueled by the military intervention of stronger states like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US. While the pragmatic impact of its principled foreign policy has been mixed, Germany continues to fill vital diplomatic, economic and humanitarian niches within the international community’s flawed crisis management frameworks for Syria and Yemen. Its efforts provide glimmers of moral leadership amidst the unchecked violence and geopolitical cynicism marring both civil wars.
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