Defending Iraq

Sending Arms to Conflict Zone for First Time, Germany Shows New Confidence

Bundeswehr humanitarian aid, iraq
The German Bundeswehr is currently debating about what kind of weapons to send to Kurdish fighters in Iraq.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    By agreeing to deliver weapons to Iraq’s Kurds Berlin is taking a step towards a more assertive foreign policy commensurate with its economic clout.

  • Facts


    • The Islamic State’s attack on Northern Iraq has left 1.5 million people displaced.
    • There are around 800,000 Kurds living in Germany.
    • Today German troops are present in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Horn of Africa and the Balkans.
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Germany will join in the scramble to arm Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to help them fight Islamic State militants, who have taken control of large portions of the country.

The German government had already said it would deliver protective vests, night vision goggles and humanitarian aid to the stricken region, but Foreign Minister Frank-Water Steinmeier said on Wednesday the government would also be willing to give combat equipment, including weapons.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Berlin would examine over the next week what equipment was available to send and what the Kurdish security forces needed.

“I would assume that Germany would send weapons from the former eastern bloc,” said Tim Huxley, director of the Singapore-based office of International Institute for Strategic Studies. “This is what the British and Americans have been doing already. They are not supplying their own technology made by their own industries, but stocks they have secured from eastern bloc countries.”

Germany’s announcement came after I.S. militants released a video showing the beheading of a man, believed to be the abducted U.S. journalist James Foley.

The United Kingdom, France and Italy have already agreed to send weapons, along with the United States. So far, most countries have sent over Cold War-era weapons rather than new arms, as these are what the Kurdish forces know how to use.

However, Kurdish soldiers say they are being outgunned by the Islamic militants, who have modern weapons they seized from the Iraqi army when they gained control of Mosul in June, and have asked the international community to send more modern weaponry.

Germany, which is a world leader in military training, is one of the best placed countries to train Kurdish soldiers in using newer technology.

The move will not be popular one: A poll by Forsa shows that 63 percent of Germans are against supplying weapons to the Kurds.

The move will not be a popular one: A poll by Forsa shows that 63 percent of Germans are against supplying weapons to the Kurds.

But German ministers, at a security conference in Munich earlier this year, promised that the country would be more willing to play an active role in global affairs.  Ms. von der Leyen told Die Zeit on Wednesday it was important for Germany to “set aside taboos and have an open discussion” on weapons.

Bundestag President Norbert Lammert said the decision warranted a discussion in parliament, but the government did not need its approval to proceed.

Berlin’s decision this week to arm Kurdish forces is made easier thanks to a broad international consensus that something needs to be done to prevent a collapse of Iraq. This was not the case during the last Iraq war.

German Defence Minister Von Der Leyen Humnitarian Aid Iraq
Germany’s defence minister Ursula Von Der Leyen proposed to send weapons to Iraq early on. Source: AP.


But the decision to send arms also signals a new muscularity in Germany’s attitude to international relations.

While former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave the impression of doing everything he could to avoid military involvement, Mr. Steinmeier and Ms. von der Leyen quickly made it clear they intended Germany to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, arguing that as an economic powerhouse, it cannot be a bystander in global affairs.

Still, some experts say Germany’s announcement is still a compromise. “Germany, on the one hand, wants to do something in the hope that it is in some way effective and, on the other hand, to not have to send its own troops,” said Christian Mölling, a security and defense expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Mr. Mölling said Germany is most likely to send old Bundeswehr material that the army no longer needs, including arms that date back to Cold War era.

Germany first military involvement in a conflict since World War II came in 1993, when it  sent soldiers to help monitor the no-fly zone over Bosnia. After that taboo was broken, the former center-left coalition of SPD and Greens under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder then participated in the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and sent peacekeeping troops to Kosovo. In 2001, the German parliament agreed to send troops to Afghanistan, ostensibly to help with reconstruction and training, despite strong public opposition.

However, the country has shied away from more complex conflicts. Mr. Schröder kept Germany out of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and actively opposed it at the United Nations. Berlin also abstained in the UN Security Council vote on Libya and made only a initial minimal commitment to Mali.

It remains to be seen whether the delivery of weapons to Iraq signals more robust involvement in global affairs.

“There is a phrase, one swallow does not make a summer,” said Mr. Mölling. “Just because it happens once does not mean there is a profound change of policy. It might be, but it depends on what happens next.”

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