BRUSSELS - Over good food and drink, the dinner Tuesday of all of NATO's foreign ministers was meant to be an informal exchange of the different points of view on the Middle East. But before the main course had been served most of the ministers had lost their appetite: The alliance’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, let loose on Syria and the conflict with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz in such vigorous terms that one participant said he thought he heard “the drums of war.”
Multiple sources confirmed to the Süddeutsche Zeitung that Rasmussen declared that NATO could not “stick its head in the sand” regarding Syria, also in light of the importance of the Strait of Hormuz for oil shipments to the West.
Everybody at the table understood what he was referring to: NATO had to prepare to intervene militarily in Syria if need be. Politically that would mean a radical change from its present course, which has been to exclude the possibility of alliance engagement in Syria. Rasmussen was supported by Turkey and Great Britain’s foreign ministers as well as U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
No wonder then that a few hours before the U.S. Senate voted nearly unanimously to explore “options” as to how the United States could prevent Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from using his air force against his own people. The Defense Department is to make suggestions for ways to implement a no-fly zone over Syria. That Washington would prefer NATO's involvement – as was done during the Libya war – “is obvious,” according to a source.
Rasmussen launched into the political shift by asking two questions: What would NATO do if the Syrian army started using chemical weapons? And what if Iran were to block the Strait of Hormuz? At which point France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made the comment that one should avoid asking questions “that are not acute.”
The first question had already unleashed strong and contentious debate about Syria in which German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and colleagues from countries including the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Poland sided against Rasmussen.
Unlike the United States or Rasmussen, many European foreign ministers don’t buy into U.S. intelligence information that Syria may be preparing to use chemical weapons. European intelligence services, including the German one which has an excellent Middle East network, say they have no information to this effect.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had warned after a meeting with NATO colleagues in Brussels to take all reports about such weapons in Syria with a grain of salt. Over the past few years, Russia had followed up on a number of rumors and reports and many had proven to be either completely wrong or only half-true.
However, jointly with Rasmussen, the foreign ministers did warn Syria on Tuesday against using weapons of mass destruction, saying that if the country was to do it, it would face consequences from the international community. A minister from a small country said, however, that the warning wasn’t referring to NATO but to the United Nations.
For his part, Westerwelle was brusque when asked if military engagement in Syria was in the cards if it crossed his “red line,” saying that political solutions were the answer.
If the dinner with the foreign ministers brought no common agreement on the issue, it did reveal at least two opposing camps: One, in league with the United States, Turkey, Britain, and the NATO Secretary General, is considering direct or indirect military intervention. France leans in that direction as well. The other camp, to which Germany belongs, refuses to consider military intervention -- one of the reasons being that they fear that in so doing they might be helping people to power in Damascus who are even more dangerous than the present regime and who would on taking power then also have access to the chemical weapons.
But there’s another reason for the vehement disagreement with Rasmussen on the part of Germany and the Netherlands: fear of opposition in their parliaments in the case they were to ask for approval to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles positioned in Turkey if lawmakers sensed even a whiff of possibility that NATO was considering military engagement in Syria.
That would make the Patriots – of which there are two German batteries – part of a military offensive and not, as they have been presented so far, weapons to be used exclusively to defend Turkey. Right now, it is not known if the missiles will be used. In any case, the order to the alliance’s military leadership to work out an operations plan – even if it is just a back-up plan -- for Syria requires the agreement of all 28 member countries.
And at the dinner for the ministers, they were far from agreement.