It could become Germany’s biggest military deployment.
The Bundeswehr plans to send a force of 1,200 to support the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. The defense ministry confirmed to Handelsblatt that this will be the figure that the cabinet is preparing to sign off on this week.
The government last Thursday decided to support the international coalition against IS. The troops will be stationed outside Syria and operate Tornado reconnaissance jets, tanker aircraft for aerial refueling, satellite surveillance and a naval frigate that Germany is sending to the region.
The cabinet will make its final decision on Tuesday, after which the debate in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, can begin.
German law requires parliamentary approval for any military deployment.
Rainer Arnold, the defense spokesman for the Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has demanded the government announce concrete plans as soon as possible.
“The defense ministry must give parliament a detailed account of these plans by Wednesday, at the latest,” Mr. Arnold told Handelsblatt.
Mr. Arnold said that Berlin’s contribution will give important support to Germany’s partners.
After the terror attacks of November 13, Paris appealed to its European partners for support in its battle against Islamic State. The terrorist group, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, controls parts of Syria and Iraq. While the West has backed rebel groups trying to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the terrorist attacks have resulted in a refocus on IS targets.
While Germany has not so far committed to direct military action, it is hoping to provide support to France, an E.U. partner and NATO ally.
“The attack in Paris is also an attack against us and against the E.U., and we have to counter-attack together.”
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said last week that Germany would also send 650 troops to Mali to help relieve France, which is enforcing a fragile peace in its former African colony.
Germany’s Tornado planes have been fitted with state-of-the-art surveillance systems. Digital cameras and infrared scanners can deliver data and high definition images in real time in any weather. This allows the German jets to provide other nations with target data for air strikes in Syria.
The Tornados have an exceptional range, up to 3,900 kilometers. Modern control technology allows the planes to fly at altitudes of just 30 to 60 meters.
“The military technology that we’re bringing in here is needed,” Mr. Arnold of the SPD said, adding that NATO’s reconnaissance capacity and aerial refueling resources are limited.
Harald Kujat, former chief of staff of the German armed forces, said that Berlin’s decision to get involved in the Syria campaign marked a demonstration of solidarity.
“We’re offering reconnaissance aircraft which are serving a direct need of the French forces,” he told the Handelsblatt, “not like in earlier cases, where we offered medical evacuation services that nobody needed.”
Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and former German ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, urged the federal government to clearly define the terms of its deployment.
“Under the mandate that the parliament gives the Bundeswehr, it must be clear that it’s a combat deployment,” he told Handelsblatt, “which may also require extensive armed engagement.”
If, for example, a reconnaissance jet were to be shot down, he said, the pilots would have to be rescued by the Bundeswehr, using armed force.
Mr. Ischinger, too, sees the Syria deployment as an act of solidarity, but said there must be stronger reasons than that for sending troops into combat.
“I feel that it’s vital that the government doesn’t simply justify the deployment in terms of solidarity with France,” he said.
“In 2001 when we sent the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan, the political justification was to support the Americans. That’s not enough.”
He argued that a German military deployment should only be made when German security is at stake. He says that in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany, like all European Union members, is on a war footing.
“The central point is the right to self defense, and that’s a claim that the whole E.U. can make,” he said. “The attack in Paris is also an attack against us and against the E.U., and we have to counter-attack together.”
If the French went out and risked life and limb alone, Mr. Ischinger argued, it would also affect German tactical interests. He also said he believed that Germany should be prepared to act even without a United Nations mandate.
According to Mr. Ischinger, it’s important that within the military alliance, roles and objectives are clearly defined. “Is it just about driving back Islamic State, or is it setting up civilian safe-zones, or reaching a ceasefire through military means?”
He said that the various parties in Syria’s civil war will only sit down at the negotiating table when none of them believe they can reach their goals through armed combat.
Mr. Ischinger said that to defeat Islamic State, it may be necessary to cooperate with Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, first; and once IS is out of the picture, deal with Syria’s future government. At this stage, he said, the only boots on the ground in the war against IS are Mr. Assad’s troops.
“For a new political beginning, the Syrian army and state apparatus must to a large extent be retained, just without Assad at the top,” said Mr. Ischinger.
Deploying Bundeswehr troops in Syria is hugely controversial in Germany.
The opposition Greens want to make their approval dependent on whether or not the Western coalition cooperates with the Syrian Army.
“We cannot allow Assad’s murder brigades to be our ground troops in Syria,” said party leader Cem Özdemir.
The far left Die Linke vehemently opposes the deployment. That’s hardly surprising. It was the only party in the German parliament to consistently oppose the country’s involvement in Afghanistan.