Geopolitics

Syria: Obama's Delay Could Spell Trouble For Tough-Talking France

French President Hollande has been in step with U.S. calls to strike Syria. Now with Obama's request for a Congressional vote, France is left flapping in the wind.

A French Rafale fighter jet
A French Rafale fighter jet
Yves-Michel Riols and Thomas Wieder

PARIS – U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to seek the green light of Congress before any intervention against Bashar al-Assad's regime could spell trouble for the French government.

Last week's ramping up of accusations — both by Paris and Washington — against the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons seemed to indicate that strikes against military installations inside Syria were imminent.

And yet despite intense consultations between the two countries, Obama's announcement on Saturday caught Paris off-guard. It also risks leaving President François Hollande isolated in his willingness to quickly "punish" the Syrian regime, as he indicated in a Le Monde interview on Friday. This isolation is even more striking considering that France had become the White House's most important ally on Syria after the British House of Commons' surprise rejection of any UK involvement in a military action.

At the Élysée Palace, presidential aides are trying to minimize their embarrassment by underlining the fact that Obama informed Hollande of his decision to ask the Congress' approval during their phone conversation on Saturday. The 40-minute call took place just before Obama's speech.

One official close to the French president insisted that in this conversation — the second in two days between Obama and Hollande — "they both reaffirmed their growing determination to act, given the convincing elements of information they have about the existing production of chemical weapons in Syria." French officials also point out that Hollande told Obama that he had called Parliament for an extraordinary session on Wednesday to address the situation.

"Not backpedalling"

However, Foreign Ministry officials did not hide the fact that they were disconcerted by Obama's announcement. A source close to Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, "It's not necessarily what one could have expected, considering the vigor of John Kerry's speech," referring to the Secretary of State's scathing words on Friday to denounce the "crime against humanity" committed by the Syrian forces on Aug. 21.

The source added, "We understood then that the American decision to intervene had been taken."

Still, both the Presidency and the Foreign Ministry consider that the situation has not fundamentally changed. A diplomat pointed out: "Obama didn't say no, but rather explained that he needs the political legitimacy of the Congress to intervene. That's understandable given the state of public opinion in the U.S. and the scars left by 10 years of American commitment in the Middle East. If we must wait, we will. This is not backpedalling. The decision in principle to act together to punish the use of chemical weapons is not in question."

On the other hand, if the American Congress follows the path of Britain's House of Commons and rejects participating in a military intervention, France will have to completely re-examine its strategy. The Foreign Ministry source admitted that "going there alone would make no sense."

In other words, the climate has indeed changed over just a few days. After a notably tough speech made to French ambassadors on Aug. 27, the pro-intervention stance of Hollande and his aides now has given way to a certain skittishness about the fate of the international coalition that had been lining up against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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