Chemical attack, US response could affect European elections

AP News
Posted: Apr 10, 2017 7:38 AM
Chemical attack, US response could affect European elections

BERLIN (AP) — Images of Syrian children killed in last week's chemical attack have revived debate in Europe about what can be done to end the bloodshed on its doorstep, potentially setting the tone for foreign policy debates in two of the continent's major upcoming elections.

Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany's center-left Social Democrats, said Sunday that finding a solution to the war in Syria must become the international community's top priority.

"The bombardment by the United States in reaction to the poison gas attack threatens to spark a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russian super powers," Schulz warned in an op-ed for German daily Die Welt.

He called for Europe to take "an active role" in resolving the conflict. "Otherwise we will face further murder and misery in Syria in the coming years."

Schulz, who is hoping to unseat long-time German leader Angela Merkel in September's general election, dismissed the idea of armed intervention in Syria, however.

"We need a diplomatic solution to the conflict, not bombs or a further escalation," he said.

That view — echoing Germany's post-World War II pacifism — was reflected in a poll published Sunday by weekly Bild am Sonntag.

The representative survey of 500 people conducted April 7 by the Emnid polling firm found only 26 percent of Germans supported the U.S. missile strike against the Syrian government air base from where the chemical attack is believed to have been launched. Some 59 percent of respondents opposed the U.S. strike, while 15 percent were undecided. The margin of error was 3 percent.

Even before the chemical attack, questions over Germany's military role in the world were driving a wedge between Merkel's center-right Union bloc and the Social Democrats, who have governed the country together since 2013; While Social Democrats have rejected U.S. President Donald Trump's demand that Germany increase its military spending, Merkel has indicated that she is prepared to do so.

Meanwhile, the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which was surging in the polls last year, faces a credibility problem. Having slammed Merkel's government for taking in more than a million refugees — 600,000 of them Syrians — in recent years, the party has failed to propose a solution to the Syria conflict.

With Moscow seen as propping up the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Alternative for Germany's perceived proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin is under fresh scrutiny. And though it celebrated Trump's victory in last year's U.S. election, the party's praise for him has dried up since the U.S. missile strike.

The nationalist dilemma is even more acute for Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, who unlike her German counterparts stands a realistic chance of gaining power in upcoming presidential election.

Le Pen, who has expressed approval of both Putin and Trump in the past, chose to distance herself from the U.S. president Friday, telling France-2 television that she was "surprised" by the American missile strikes.

The National Front leader, who advocates Trump-style anti-immigrant and protectionist policies, said she had been under the impression Trump would not make the U.S. "the world's policeman, and that's exactly what he did yesterday."

France's former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running as an independent centrist, has come out strongly against the idea of restoring a dialogue with Assad, a view that could cement his lead over Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential vote on April 23.

Macron called for a "coordinated action at the international level in retaliation against Bashar Assad's regime," though he insisted that such action should take place under a U.N. mandate.

Hawkish voices in Germany also appeared inclined to side with Trump on Syria. Despite persistent wariness over the U.S. president's foreign policy, there was grudging acknowledgement that he had acted swiftly where his predecessor, Barack Obama, had dithered four years earlier.

"In view of the course taken by the U.S. president so far it's difficult to find good things to say about Donald Trump. Still, by ordering the bombing of the (Syrian) military base from where the terrible gassing of innocent civilians was launched, he did the right thing," said former German defense minister Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, an ally of Merkel's.


Corbet contributed from Paris.