Participation Polemics

Obama's War on Islamic State Divides Germans

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Anti-Islamic State protestors outside the White House.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is not willing to fully participate in President Obama’s plan to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, leaving the United States without strong support from one of its biggest European allies.

  • Facts


    • Ruling coalition politicians have suggested Germany could provide aerial surveillance to aid in U.S. air strikes on IS militants.
    • The Left Party believes that Chancellor Angela Merkel made extensive commitments to Washington at the recent NATO summit in Wales.
    • The Green Party favors German military involvement, but only under certain conditions, such as a mission under a broader U.N. umbrella.
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Only a few hours after U.S. President Barack Obama last week announced his intention to destroy the terrorist organization Islamic State, or IS, with an international military alliance, some Christian Democrats politicians in Berlin’s coalition government were already advocating that the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, play a role in U.S. air strikes against IS. Members of the Left Party reacted with outrage, and the Social Democrats also opposed the idea. The Green Party, on the other hand, signaled its support.

Karl-Georg Wellmann, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, and an expert on foreign policy, noted that Germany could hardly deny a request by the United States for military assistance.

“I believe the deployment of German soldiers for aerial intelligence in the context of surveillance flights is possible,” Mr. Wellmann told Berlin newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel”. The international coalition against IS should now discuss “what kind of military support is needed,” he added.

Philipp Mißfelder, the foreign policy spokesman for the CDU’s parliamentary group, made a similar remark on the ARD television network’s “Morgenmagazin” program. “We shouldn’t overestimate our capabilities, but if it were a matter of air surveillance or a question of flyover rights here in Germany, I’m clearly of the opinion that we should support the Americans,” he said.

Mr. Mißfelder also didn’t rule out a German role in the training of moderate Syrian rebels. “This fight (against IS) is something that brings us all together, and we should be glad that America has now assumed the leadership position,” he stressed.

President Obama has announced an expansion of air strikes on the radical Islamist militant group IS. He also aims to support the Iraqi military and moderate Syrian rebels in their fight against IS extremists by providing military training and weapons.

The CDU’s ideas have been met with vigorous resistance from some members of the government coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, and the opposition Left Party. Hans-Peter Bartels, a social democrat and chairman of the defense committee in the German parliament, the Bundestag, ruled out direct German involvement in the U.S. air strikes.

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U.S. airman 1st Class Jacob Manuel tests the functionality of the front landing gear panel prior to an in-air refueling mission over Iraq. AFP PHOTO/US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.


“We very much welcome the U.S.’s announcement of air strikes against the IS jihadists in Iraq and Syria,” the Social Democrats’s politician said. But, he added, a German combat mission in Iraq or Syria was “not on the table,” nor had any of the allies called for such military involvement. According to Mr. Bartels, Berlin’s role will remain limited to arms shipments to the Kurds and planned humanitarian assistance for the victims of IS attacks.

For Mr. Bartels, it is understandable that the British want to participate in the air strikes. “Iraq used to be under British rule and they have a close relationship with the region,” he explained. Germany’s involvement in foreign conflicts, on the other hand, cannot be the same everywhere, and the German government is now focusing on resolving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

This is important, as Mr. Bartels noted, so that Russia can be brought back on board within the United Nations. Moscow is currently blocking a U.N. mandate in the fight against IS by refusing to cooperate in the U.N. Security Council.

Members of the Left Party reacted much more stridently to the CDU proposals, saying that statements coming from the coalition fueled the suspicion Chancellor Merkel had “made extensive commitments” at the NATO summit in Wales.

She had already wanted to participate in the last Iraq war, in 2003, Left Party Chairman Bernd Riexinger told Handelsblatt Online. “I insist that Merkel openly states her position now. She needs to reveal what sort of adventure she has dragged Germany into, acting essentially on her own.”

Mr. Riexinger also threatened to publicly resist possible German involvement in a third Iraq war. A German combat mission would be “playing with fire,” he said. “Then we’ll take to the streets. And then there will be a new peace movement. The majority doesn’t want to be part of a war coalition.”

Stefan Liebich, the foreign policy expert with the Left Party’s parliamentary group, sharply criticized Mr. Obama. In his speech on the fight against the Islamic State, the U.S. president had “proposed an erroneous and helpless strategy,” Mr. Liebich told Handelsblatt Online.

“Under his proposal, the United Nations is assigned a secondary role. Instead, he is relying on a coalition of the willing once again.”

The Green Party is prepared to support German involvement in U.S. air strikes under certain conditions. “IS is a threat to peace, which cannot be opposed without military means,” the foreign policy spokesman for the Green Party parliamentary group, Omid Nouripour, told Handelsblatt Online.

“I would see a German role as a possibility if there were a political strategy to fight IS under a U.N. umbrella.” However, he added, the German government has “shamefully” failed to exploit its political influence in Iraq until now. In addition, said Mr. Nouripour, CDU foreign policy expert Mißfelder had “unfortunately remained silent” on some other issues when he proposed German military involvement.

How a campaign by the secular Syrian opposition, which is expected to simultaneously fight Syrian President Bashar Assad and IS, can succeed remains a mystery. In addition, President Obama has not touched on IS’s support from Western allies Turkey and Saudia Arabia.

“Germany doesn’t want to be involved in an adventure like this,” Mr. Liebich of the Left Party said.

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No German nor British participation in U.S. air strikes in Syria. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) and his British counterpart Philip Hammond address a news conference after talks in Berlin on Thursday. Source: AFP/Tobias Schwarz


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD weighed in on the debate in the afternoon, saying that Germany and Great Britain would not participate in the U.S. air strikes in Syria. He noted that Germany had not been asked to participate, nor would it do so. After meeting with Mr. Steinmeier, his British counterpart Philip Hammond made a similar statement.

After hesitating to become involved for so long, in his speech Mr. Obama indicated a policy shift in Washington’s approach against the self-appointed jihadists. The United States will lead the fight, with the support of a broad alliance of partners in Europe and the Middle East, the president said.

Mr. Obama also sought to prepare Americans for a lengthy mission, saying: “It will take time to eradicate a cancer such as IS.” In the past, the U.S. president had repeatedly stressed that he had ended the “stupid war” in Iraq inherited from his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, and that he would also end combat operations in Afghanistan.

The Syrian opposition supports the plans. “We have long called for this action and have warned time and again of the growing threat of this extremist group,” said the chairman of the National Syrian Coalition (NSC), Hadi al-Bahra. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is aligned with the coalition, could win the conflict, he added, but it would need support to form a reliable and well-trained army.

The Syrian leadership has criticized Mr. Obama’s plans. State-run news agency SANA has written Washington has declared war on some of the terrorists, but the United States also intended to arm another group – a reference to U.S. support for moderate Syrian rebel groups, which the regime in Damascus also characterizes as terrorists.

This article was translated by Christopher Sultan. The author is a political editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Online. Mr. Neuerer has covered German politics for several German publications and broadcasters. He has studied cultural theory and history at Berlin’s Humboldt University. 

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