Berlin - German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced a lashing on Monday, two weeks before elections, for a "foolhardy zigzag" response to a US drive to punish the Syrian regime for an alleged chemical attack.
Fierce opposition fire forced Merkel onto the defensive after Germany initially snubbed a Washington-backed call by 11 G20 members for a "strong" response Friday, only to then back it a day later.
"A total collapse of German foreign policy," blasted Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who are battling to unseat Merkel in the 22 September polls, in the daily Berliner Zeitung.
Claudia Roth, his counterpart from the SPD's allies, the ecologist Greens, was quoted by Handelsblatt business daily as describing it as a "foolhardy zigzag course" under the headline "The German About-Face".
The recent flare-up in the Syrian crisis puts Merkel on the spot, as she seeks to reassure allies that Germany is a reliable partner without spooking history-scarred voters.
Berlin has ruled out joining any US-led military strike and has said it would back "consequences" against the Syrian regime if it is confirmed that the regime was behind the chemical attacks.
However it did not specify what those consequences would be.
When Merkel left the summit, Europe's top economy was the sole EU signature among the G20's membership missing from the Syria statement, which influential Die Zeit newspaper called "the low point of Merkel's chancellorship".
Merkel justified Germany's delay out of concern for a united EU stance, saying it was not right for five big EU states to back a position when the 23 others were not even at the G20 table, especially as EU foreign ministers were due to meet 24 hours later.
According to Spiegel Online, Merkel left the Russian gathering before Britain, France, Spain and Italy signed on to the US-led statement, apparently without her knowledge.
After EU foreign ministers met on Saturday in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where they also held talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Germany announced it had backed the statement.
Merkel's comment at a western German campaign rally on Sunday about having waited in order to achieve "a united stance by all 28" appeared an indirect criticism of its four EU peers for ploughing ahead.
Her spokesperson Steffen Seibert denied on Monday it was a failure, trumpeting the "great success" of the 28-member bloc calling for a "clear and strong" response on Syria but stopping short of endorsing military action.
He also rejected that Merkel had been in the dark about the G20 plans of the four EU countries. "The German attitude was clearly represented in Saint Petersburg. We knew the others' position," he told reporters.
But SPD foreign policy spokesperson Gernot Erler was sceptical and put the initial reluctance down to election tactics.
"The government hesitated in signing the paper out of election tactic considerations and thereby has again taken its own special path," he told the Berliner Zeitung.
Germany, shamed by its World War II aggression, stepped lightly on the world stage for decades after, with a mostly anti-war electorate, and refused to send troops abroad.
Although it has since joined missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan and led Europe's anti-euro crisis battle, Berlin disappointed Nato allies in 2011 by refusing to back the Libya campaign, abstaining alongside China and Russia.
News weekly Spiegel Online saw no repetition of the Libya fallout when Germany was left isolated, having to rebuild bridges with the US and EU partners Britain and France.
"While the Libya abstention by the government lingers still today, the current hesitation shouldn't have enduring foreign political consequences," it said.
"It remains however an embarrassing mishap for Merkel - and overshadows her swing into the final election campaign period," it added.
Top selling Bild daily scoffed that, while the US was to do the "dirty work", Europe's strongest player was "watching from the sofa" and handing out "points for moral performance".
According to a Berlin-based Western diplomat, Merkel hung back in Saint Petersburg for fear of displeasing Syria's key ally, Russia. "The lack of European commitment is worrying," the diplomat said.