BRUSSELS, Belgium — In a significant toughening of the German government's language on Syria, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said any confirmed chemical attack "must be punished."
Steffen Seibert declined to be drawn on the form of that punishment, but pointedly did not rule out the use of force.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also issued a statement saying the use of chemical weapons "would be a crime against civilisation."
"The international community must act should the deployment of such weapons be confirmed," Westerwelle said. "Germany will be among those calling for action to be taken. We are working closely with the United Nations and our allies on this."
The wording of both statements was cautious and does not explicitly back growing calls for intervention, but if Germany has swung around to support for the military option it would mark a major policy shift and big risk for Merkel ahead of the Sept. 22 parliamentary election.
German governments and public opinion have been extremely wary of engagement in military operations.
Berlin robustly opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the military's participation in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan — its first overseas since World War II — is widely unpopular.
Germany angered allies in 2011 by joining China and Russia in abstaining at the UN Security Council in a vote that led to the NATO air intervention against Muammar Gaddafi. Germany did not take part in the operation, in which Britain and France took the lead role.
Even as the rising death toll from what appears to be a poison gas attack near Damascus last week led the US, Britain and France to raise the prospect of an international military option, German political leaders were stressing the need for diplomacy.
"Outside military intervention in this terrible civil war in Syria is just not something I envisage," Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said over the weekend.
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Merkel's main challenger in the election — Social Democrat leader Peer Steinbrueck — on Monday called for a massive increase in international pressure on Syria, but expressed "extreme reluctance to fall into a military logic."