The True Surprise: Germany’s Contribution to the Fight Against ISIS

Germany’s hardly-noticed contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition in the Middle East appears both substantial and politically trail-blazing. Is the government willing to take more military and political risks in unstable regions?

As the US-led multinational campaign ‘to degrade and destroy’ ISIS is underway in Iraq and Syria, the Germans too are contributing militarily - albeit indirectly - to the fight. Following a decision by Angela Merkel’s government to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Northern Iraq, over €70 million worth of military equipment will be provided, including assault rifles, machine guns, hand-held anti-tank weapons, several million rounds of ammunition, as well as body armour, trucks and field kitchens.

The vast majority of this equipment comes out of existing, decommissioned inventories of the German armed forces. The first shipment arrived in Erbil on 25 September, together with a small contingent of Bundeswehr soldiers who will instruct the Peshmerga in the use of this equipment. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has also visited Erbil to meet Kurdish leaders.

A Sign of Political Change?

In Germany, the decision has been surrounded by a debate about the future direction of the country’s foreign policy. Some see it as a departure from the country’s traditional reluctance to participate in the military handling of international crises. Others claim that confining Germany’s actions to just arming the Kurds doesn’t go far enough.

Since the formation of a new coalition government between Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats at the end last year, Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier and Defence Minister von der Leyen have led the charge in calling for a more active German foreign policy. Both ministers have hailed the arms shipments to Kurdistan as a sign of the government’s willingness to take responsibility on the international stage.

The fact that Germany is sending weapons to Kurdistan also shows that the government considers ISIS a potential threat to national security. German arms export regulations do not allow the shipment of arms into active conflict zones unless necessary to protect national security. Although Germany is the world’s third-largest arms producer, and defence export revenues rose by €1 billion in 2013, this had, thus far, been a rarely crossed line.

In Germany, however, Steinmeier and von der Leyen’s propagated shift towards a more active foreign policy and the decision to supply the Iraqi Kurds with weapons are both viewed with skepticism. According to a recent poll (conducted for ARD, Germany’s largest public broadcaster), while 56 per cent of the population seem to be in favour of Germany taking on more international responsibilities, 58 per cent are against arming the Kurds. 

In this context, it is significant to recall that whilst Germany’s isolationist policy towards the NATO-led Libya intervention in 2011 caused consternation in Western capitals, and raised questions about Germany’s loyalty to its NATO allies, domestically the move was quite popular. Many Germans felt comfortable with what Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, once termed a German ‘culture of military constraint’ as the guiding principle of the country’s foreign policy. 

However, even among those who support a more active German foreign policy, the arms shipments to Kurdistan are seen critically. Several commentators have argued that the weapons are outdated and, with the exception of the anti-tank systems, are unlikely to make a difference against ISIS forces that are equipped with modern and heavy weaponry captured from the Iraqi army. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the weapons deliveries to the Kurds are no more than a cheap and convenient way for the Bundeswehr to clear some of its decommissioned stocks. 

Influential voices are therefore now being heard in the German media arguing that confining Germany’s actions to just arming the Kurds doesn’t go far enough. Several commentators are raising the question of whether the German government should follow the example of France, Britain, Denmark and Belgium and join the growing ranks of European countries taking part in direct military operations against ISIS. So far, however, Steinmeier and von der Leyen (Chancellor Merkel herself remains remarkably quiet on the issue) have ruled out an involvement of the Luftwaffe, often arguing that German fighter jets are simply not needed. Whilst this may be true from a strictly military requirements perspective, proponents of a German involvement in air strikes claim that it would send a strong symbolic message – both confirming to allies that Germany is serious about shouldering responsibility and further strengthening the image of a unified international coalition against ISIS.

Future Strategic Impacts

Beyond this fundamental debate about the extent to which Germany should be involved in the military campaign against ISIS, there is also a discussion focusing more directly on the commitment to arm the Peshmerga. The debate centres on whether it is strategically prudent to supply weapons to people whose ambition to establish an independent Kurdish state is no secret. Critics of the German operation argue that once the fight against ISIS is over, German weapons could be used in a Kurdish campaign for independence from Iraq. The government in Berlin is attempting to defuse such fears by repeatedly stressing its commitment to the continued territorial integrity of Iraq within its current borders; and by pointing towards the so-called ‘end use declaration’ (Endverbleibserklärung), a document signed by the Kurdish leaders that stipulates that German weapons will only be used to fight ISIS.

Ultimately, however, it appears unlikely that the government is so naive as to believe that a piece of paper could stand in the way of Peshmerga forces using German weapons to fulfill the Kurdish dream of statehood. Instead, the reality is that the German government has tacitly decided to accept that it would exercise only a limited influence over how the Kurds will use the weapons. But equally, the German government has made it clear that it is not prepared to make similar leaps of faith by also arming groups fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria, such as Syrian rebels or Kurdish forces close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter continues to be banned in Germany as a designated terrorist organisation and even the suggestion of possible German support for the group could severely damage relations with Turkey.

By deciding to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga, the German government, which previously used public opinion as a justification for doing little and was risk-averse at every stage, has demonstrated a rarely shown willingness to display its influence and to take risks. As the campaign against ISIS continues, it will be interesting to see how German policy evolves and what else Germany is prepared to do. Throughout, the debate about the future direction of German foreign policy will continue. The central task for the government will be to bridge the gap between its own foreign political ambition and a skeptical, war-weary public. Regardless of the outcome of the current violence in Iraq and Syria, the fact that this debate is taking place in Germany is a welcome sign for future European security arrangements.

Tobias Borck holds an MA in Applied Security Studies at Exeter and is currently working at RUSI with a focus on Middle East issues.


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