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Analysis: Iran, Syria divide Germany

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent

BERLIN, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The German government is not united on questions concerning its Middle East policy, it surfaced last week, after the country's foreign minister came under fire for inviting his Syrian counterpart to Berlin.

It's no secret that German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't overly happy that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. While Steinmeier posed for a photo-op with Moallem at the Foreign Ministry, Merkel, who used to run the show last year when it comes to foreign policy issues, neither commented, nor did her foreign policy adviser receive Moallem or anyone from his staff.

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Merkel's party colleagues of the center-right Christian Democratic Union even lashed out at Steinmeier, a center-left Social Democrat, for what they regard as a diplomatic solo attempt.

The CDU's foreign policy spokesman, Eckart von Klaeden, said it didn't make sense to "keep rolling out the red carpet" for Syria. Another conservative said Steinmeier was responsible for keeping the foreign policy course together and criticized him for the solo attempt.

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Last week Merkel criticized Syria for not doing enough to end Lebanon's political crisis. Lebanon has been without a leader since November because of a power struggle between Western-backed groups and the Hezbollah-led factions supported by Syria. International observers fear the country will slip into civil war.

"We expect Syria to play a constructive role in Lebanon's presidential election," Merkel said. "I don't see this happening sufficiently at the moment."

Steinmeier has in the past repeatedly tried to get Syria engaged, and, defending Moallem's invitation, said Thursday he would continue this course because of Syria's importance in the Middle East.

"Syria is a country that can be a spoiler," Steinmeier said. "Therefore, my advice is to keep trying to convince it that a destructive role isn't necessarily in its own interest. ... Containment and isolation won't succeed, and I'm not sure that some Arab states would permit it."

Merkel's and Steinmeier's spokesmen in their regular news conferences Friday in Berlin stressed the chancellor and her foreign minister were united in their desire to press Syria to play a more constructive role in Lebanon, but added that the ways to achieve that goal may be multifaceted.

"Of course there can be differential assessments of the question whether to receive a visitor at a certain time or whether to receive him at all," Merkel spokesman Thomas Steg said in a reference to the Moallem visit.

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French President Nicholas Sarkozy, breaking with the decision of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, has recently tried to convince Syria to do more for Middle East peace by courting Damascus -- the attempt failed massively, and both countries are back to severed ties.

And there is another Middle East issue that both leaders disagree over.

The German Foreign Ministry has been pushing for a meeting involving Steinmeier and his counterparts from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that is to take place in Berlin Tuesday. Some conservatives have criticized the meeting, saying it would only drive a wedge among the six parties as it might result in diverging opinions.

The United States and Merkel want a third round of sanctions, but it is not clear whether Steinmeier -- taking into account the latest U.S. intelligence assessment that somewhat cleared Iran of running a secret nuclear program -- would unconditionally back tougher sanctions. Steinmeier on Thursday nevertheless said the meeting was intended to show "unity" between the six governments.

The latest bickering reflects the changing climate in Berlin. Last year the Group of Eight and European Union presidencies forced Merkel and Steinmeier, as well as the CDU and SPD as a whole, to demonstrate political unity, said Jan Techau, a foreign policy analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank.

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"That period is over now," Techau told United Press International Friday in a telephone interview. "Last year, Merkel got most of the credit for foreign policy. Steinmeier now has to prepare for higher offices, and he has to sharpen his profile."

Three crucial German state elections are coming, and together they are somewhat of a "small federal election," Techau said.

Steinmeier, of course, is the SPD's most hopeful candidate for the office of the chancellor, which is up for grabs in the national elections scheduled for 2009.

The competition between the two parties is rooted in their history of being political rivals for decades -- the unlikely team-up of center-left and center-right that formed after the 2005 elections was poised to yield disagreements.

Both parties have recently bickered over dealing with China. Merkel has also sharpened the tone toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Steinmeier is known to be a supporter of close ties between Berlin and Moscow.

Techau, the German expert, said it makes sense to talk to governments you don't agree with.

"After all, that's what constitutes diplomacy."

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