syria mission

Trial and Terror

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) nimmt am 04.12.2015 an der Sitzung des Bundestags in Berlin teil. Der Bundestag entscheidet über den geplanten Einsatz der Bundeswehr gegen die Terrormiliz Islamischer Staat (IS) in Syrien. Bis zu 1200 Soldaten sollen zunächst bis Ende 2016 mit Aufklärungsflügen und einer Fregatte den Kampf gegen den IS-Terror unterstützen. Foto: Kay Nietfeld/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Tough choices for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In the past, facing conflict, Germany has tended to pacifism but the mood is changing.

  • Facts


    • On Friday, the German Bundestag approved a plan to join the military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria: 445 voted for and 146 against a plan to send 1,200 German military personnel, six jets, a naval frigate and refueling aircraft.
    • The deployment falls short of committing Germany to airstrikes and direct combat in the conflict.
    • Germany has tended to pacifism but in a recent poll, 58 percent favored limited military engagement.
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Whether it was a question of Germany participating in missions in Afghanistan, Iraq or Mali, or Russia’s advance into Ukraine, Chancellor Angela Merkel always sought to avoid the word “war.”

Now for the first time during her term in office, Angela Merkel is sending German soldiers into an ongoing combat mission.

This is not the first German military action, but it is Merkel’s first war.

Up till now, Merkel’s policy arsenal didn't include military options.

Here again she is breaking with the past, not only in terms of her chancellorship but also that of the country itself.

Because this war is especially dangerous and unpredictable: It is a mission where not only the goal is unclear, but also the path.

German participation has not arisen out of inner impetus or conviction; it is not being enforced by a world power, but by sheer helplessness. The Middle East is falling apart, terrorism is coming to Europe, and the European Union seems to be paralyzed. And on the villains of yesterday are pinned today’s hopes for the future.

Circles close to Merkel say that the decision to support France in the fight against IS by increasing German military activity in Mali and participating in reconnaissance for air raids in Syria is something new.

But the chancellor’s fundamental reservations about military missions are said not to have disappeared into thin air.

So far, Merkel’s policy arsenal hasn’t included a military option, so what’s changed now?

Over the last 10 years, Merkel has governed in harmony with the deep pacifist tendency of the German people. She never publicly explained this approach and only among close circles did she voice skepticism: just look at what came out of western intervention in the Arab world, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya: many deaths, much anger, little peace and even less stability.

Now, when Ms. Merkel speaks about problems in the world, she sometimes pulls out a map and shows how close Turkey and Syria are to each other, or Europe and Africa. She talks about geopolitics and about diplomacy, about discussion and European unity as values in themselves. Vladimir Putin once told her to take a look at the time required to get the western partners together at the table in Geneva, and how long it takes him to gather his allies.

European unity is fragile and difficult to maintain, but it is the most powerful weapon against autocratic systems and their pseudo-efficiency.

More seldom does Ms. Merkel speak of submarines, frigates and air raids. The military doesn’t play a predominant role in her thinking, and so far it hasn’t been part of the arsenal of her policies. Over the course of her term in office, strict anti-interventionism has become an unspoken doctrine. Merkel’s deep-seated doubts and the instinctive antipathy of Germans toward the use of military force gave rise in past years to a “culture of restraint.”

No new, risky missions, but rather withdrawal from Afghanistan and non-participation in the Libya intervention remain the chancellor’s most striking decisions with regard to security policy, even if the German military did join the mission to stabilize the situation in Mali in 2013. With Germany’s entry into the military struggle against IS, the pacifist phase of Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship has come to an end.

Because anti-interventionism has become so self-evident on Ms. Merkel’s watch, the memory of the short interventionist phase in German governmental policy – a sort of digression from the “German path” – has almost been forgotten. At the beginning of the new century, it almost seemed as if, ten years after reunification, the Federal Republic had decided fulfill its international responsibilities by military means as well if the necessity arose.

Paradoxically, it was not a government led by the conservation CDU and CSU, but the center-left and green coalition under Gerhard Schröder that, in the spring of 1999, sent the German military on a combat mission – to Kosovo – for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic.

It was massive pressure by the United States that led to this. The Americans also turned German involvement into a test regarding the readiness to assume responsibilities by a German government that was viewed with skepticism. The country passed the test.

Less than two years later, after the attacks on September 11, the center-left and green party coalition also followed the USA into the Afghan War. The aim was to expel al-Qaeda terror from Afghanistan; the shock of the terrorist attacks was met with a military response in which Germany, as a close friend and NATO partner, was expected to participate. After that, German security was being defended in the Hindu Kush.

As the head of the opposition, Ms. Merkel once led the advocates of a war in Iraq.

The decisions in favor of the use of German soldiers against Serbia and in Afghanistan seemed at that time like the beginning of a new, difficult normalcy. The widespread conflicts in domestic politics under which the decision were taken made it clear how difficult it would be to counteract the inherent pacifism of German society with a policy of military co-responsibility.

It was likewise the American government – even before Angela Merkel – that assured that the new German readiness to intervene militarily turned into only a short episode. George Bush’s war against Iraq was the military “adventure” that Gerhard Schröder had already warned against when he assured the USA of “absolute solidarity” in the fight against Islamist terrorism. In 2002, the center-left and green party governmental coalition stood in opposition to the looming Iraq war – and the ambitious head of the opposition, Angela Merkel, led the German advocates of a war in Iraq.

For Ms. Merkel, America had always been a symbol of yearning and the most clear-cut political alternative to the loathed GDR. A sense of solidarity led to loyal support; this and her reflex against the centrist left and green party drove her into the camp of the military adventurers. It was above all the Green Party’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer who warned early on against the danger of a large-scale conflagration in the Middle East.

Now none other than Angela Merkel is having to send German troops to check this fire. What a bitter irony!

The world has changed: The United States has become smaller, Germany has become bigger, and ever since the outbreak of the financial and euro crises, Europe has been suffering from a dirty little secret – the grande nation of France, considered the bulwark of a strong Europe, is in fact grievously weakened.

The profound aversion of the German population against the Iraq War and its disastrous consequences led Chancellor Merkel onto the path of military restraint.

The fact that she is now digressing from it is also because the world has changed since then: The United States has become smaller, Germany has become bigger, and ever since the outbreak of the financial and euro crises, Europe has been suffering from a dirty little secret – the grande nation of France, considered the bulwark of a strong Europe, is in fact grievously weakened. And it has now been deeply wounded by terrorist attacks. It is Islamist terrorism and the obligation to demonstrate solidarity with France that are now bringing to the fore an allegiance that earlier was summoned forth by American strength.

When in past years, someone in Ms. Merkel’s party was interested in foreign policy, she enjoyed confronting the aspirant with a mind-game: How would you position Germany if there were no USA? Ms. Merkel delighted in watching that theoretical task quickly turn into a tricky tangle most of the time. But she herself was caught by surprise when it turned out to be her own challenge.

The first time that this new constellation made itself fully felt was when Merkel became the chief negotiator for the West during the Ukraine crisis.

From the chancellor’s point of view, one of her greatest successes in foreign policy was to prevent weapons from being delivered to Ukraine at the beginning of this year. This was not only a rejection of the method favored by the United States but also an emancipation of Europe  – more nolens as volens, as Ms. Merkel came to realize.

For her part, she argued that one can’t always criticize the USA but never manage to accomplish anything oneself.

This expectation that Europe itself must step actively onto the stage of global politics meant that the alliance with France became an increasingly important constant in Ms. Merkel’s actions. And at the same time, France itself was becoming a bigger and bigger problem within Europe.

The Germans had always made themselves somewhat smaller than they actually were, and so the French could make themselves a little bit larger; for a long time, Europe functioned with this unspoken assignment of roles.

Now Germany has become stronger and stronger, France weaker and weaker.

When last year the issue of the Grexit arose, for Merkel the primary consideration involved France more than Greece: the French government had made it clear that it would consider a Grexit to be a grave violation of its interests.


Tornado fighter DPA
A new direction for foreign policy? Source: DPA


Now after the Paris attacks, Merkel finds herself in a situation similar to that of Mr. Schröder after 9/11.

Admittedly, the chancellor has let it be known for some time that she considers it impossible to achieve victory over IS without at least some military engagement. And the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters was something that had never occurred before. But that was still an extremely indirect involvement.

Now Tornado aircraft are supposed to seek out the targets for French bombs, which means that German pilots could be shot down. Government circles acknowledge that the attacks on 13/11 in the French capital were a “trigger.”

Just as after 9/11, the attack on a friendly country was considered as equivalent to an attack on the Germans’ own country, and not just in terms of sentiment: France cited provisions in the European Union treaty. The question being voiced by all parties in the governmental coalition is: What should we have said – Let off some steam, François, first of all we want to discuss things for two weeks? So once again Germany finds itself in a war about which everyone is in agreement that it has one purpose above all: to stabilize France and thereby Europe.

In the final analysis, Merkel’s decision is a paradoxical consequence of the crisis in European solidarity. Precisely because more and more European countries are coming to interpret Europe as a profit-generating community for satisfying national interests, Merkel did not want to disappoint the French expectation of solidarity. Otherwise there would have been a further, perhaps the most spectacular precedent for the demise of European solidarity. And how would it have then been possible to motivate the French to take in a few more refugees?

So Merkel’s European creed and the growing international weight of Germany have brought her anti-interventionism to an end. With her transformation into a refugee chancellor, Angela Merkel had actually engendered a fair amount of political astonishment. Now she has added a new surprise: the crisis chancellor has turned into a chancellor who not only speaks about war, but now also herself stands behind a quite risky mission.

In 2001, Germany was a follower, driven by solidarity. Today because of its new foreign-policy role alone, it is compelled to assume military responsibility as well. In other words: we have to join in. But just as in the case of Afghanistan, the necessity for getting involved is far from guaranteeing a successful mission.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:




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