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Analysis: If you can’t beat them, join them

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble (c) delivers a speech ahead of a vote on a third bailout for debt-mired Greece at the Bundestag in Berlin on August 19, 2015
John MacDougall (AFP)
Having reluctantly joined anti-IS coalition, Germany may now be forced into cooperating with Assad’s forces

With a heavy heart Germany approved its military intervention in Syria, one already deemed to have limited effectiveness. But no politician is eager to discuss the ways to increase the impact of this action, knowing that the best way to do so is putting boots on the ground – and those would most likely belong to Bashar Assad's troops.

Germany itself does not intend to fight IS, but to defend other foreign forces and aid them in reconnaissance missions. But critics, who find such halfhearted intervention redundant and of questionable legality in the absence of a UN mandate, also wonder if it is worth the risk of increasing Germany's profile as a terror target.

The best strategy, a former chief of the German Bundeswehr said recently, is combining air strikes with ground troops, as the Russians do by using Syrian soldiers. Those soldiers, say others who have also raised the controversial idea, already know the layout of the land and unlike the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters Germany is training in Iraq, are already well equipped and organized.

But the first state official to mention a possible cooperation with more than a whisper, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, was quickly forced into recanting. “There will be no future with Assad,” she told broadcaster ZDF on Sunday, “but there are sections of the troops in Syria, which – like in the case of Iraq, where local troops were successfully trained - can be used also here.”

The backlash was immediate. Fellow politicians made clear that such an unthinkable alliance could not receive the support of the Bundestag, and forced officials to make clear this option isn't on the table. “There will be no cooperation with Assad and no cooperation with troops under Assad,” said the Defense Ministry spokesman.

But the strong tone maybe misleading, as some legislators and security experts suggest that the collaboration with local troops may be unavoidable. “There will not be a ceasefire without Assad's troops,” admitted Elisabeth Motschmann (CDU), member of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee.

Asked by i24news if this possibility will be considered, she said: “We don't want to cooperate with Assad, but we would probably need his forces, since everybody knows that we won't succeed only by fighting from the air.”

Germany has no intention of sending forces to fight on Syrian soil – nor should it, emphasized the politician. “This is a conflict between Muslims and they need to do this themselves. The ground troops need to come from the area.”

A formation of a regional army under the leadership of the Arab League would be a better solution, suggested also other security experts, but that would be unlikely given the turmoil in the Arab world.

“The only eligible ground troops are Assad's government forces,” stated top German diplomat and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, speaking with the daily Handelsblatt. Therefore, he suggested, one must “swallow the toad Assad until further notice.”

Germany has already proved to be willing to cooperate with regimes it previously openly disdained – case in point, Turkey. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who lead the opposition against its accession to the EU, abruptly changed her tune when it became clear Europe can't overcome the refugee crisis without Ankara.

The same shift is unlikely in the case of the Butcher of Damascus, but already some Berlin officials are trying to make the distinction between the Syrian regime and the country's institutions. “It is agreed with all partners that the state structures must be preserved in Syria. This also includes the Syrian army,” said this week a government spokesman, and Motschmann agrees: “One shouldn't compare Assad with the Syrian military.”

Martin Schäfer, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, suggested as well that including the Syrian army in the fight against IS, “which does not necessarily mean there would be an exchange of information or other form of cooperation,” could be a good sign for the desired formation of a transitional government.

Yet acting too soon might put an end to the fragile Vienna peace talk to end the Syrian civil war, warned security expert Markus Kaim. “The opposition would leave the table, if it will become evident that Assad and his troops are involved in the fight against the IS,” he told Zeit Online. Only once that agreement is achieved, he argued, Germany might collaborate with government forces. Until then, arming Kurds and moderate rebels to tackle IS would be a safer bet.

Polina Garaev is the i24news correspondent in Germany.

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