Military Morality

Proposal to Arm Kurds Sparks Foreign Policy Debate in Germany

The Kurds have managed to retake Iraq's Mosul Dam without German weapons. Source: Reuters
The Kurds have managed to retake Iraq's Mosul Dam without German weapons.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Sending weapons might be a break in postwar-German foreign policy, but inaction could aid the advance of militants in Iraq and Syria.

  • Facts


    • Kurds in northern Iraq are battling militants known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS).
    • The German government at first wanted to send non-combat equipment, but changed course to prevent what it saw as a new genocide.
    • When Germany withdrew from Afghanistan, it shipped weapons home or scrapped them rather than give them to Afghan forces.
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After the German government said last week it was prepared to send weapons to Kurdish forces in Iraq, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition and the opposition have been squabbling over involvement of Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their coalition partners the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) say they’re ready to discuss arms shipments to Iraqi Kurds during a special parliamentary session this week. But the final decision would rest with Ms. Merkel because no German troops would be deployed, said Christine Lambrecht, the SPD parliamentary whip.

The opposition parties, the former Communist Left and environmental Green parties, however, are pushing for a vote in the Bundestag. Weapons exports, like dispatching troops, must be approved by parliament, said Jürgen Trittin, a Green party politician and foreign policy expert.

The government said last Wednesday it would decide within a week whether to send weapons to Kurds in their fight against advancing Islamic State militants.

The move is seen by many as a break in German postwar foreign policy. The country has shied from direct involvement in military conflicts since World War II and opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. While Germany exports arms commercially under strict guidelines, it mostly refrains from sending weapons into war zones.

The country did take part in international military operation in Afghanistan, but decided against leaving weapons and equipment behind for use by the allied Afghani army. During its withdrawal, German tanks, howitzers and assault weapons were shipped to back to Germany or scrapped. When the Afghans, for example, asked for infantry combat vehicles to be left, Berlin declined. The government said it feared the equipment could fall into the wrong hands.

“Do we only want to protect the Kurdish area or disable IS as a political factor? Then we must also develop a strategy for Syria.”

Markus Kaim, German Institute for International and Security Affairs

The parliament’s defense committee chairman, Hans-Peter Bartels of the Social Democrats, however, said this wouldn’t be the first time Germany would be delivering military equipment into a crisis region. Germany outfitted the Lebanese navy with boats and coastal radar, he said.

“The exceptional thing about this current fundamental decision is that it’s short-term emergency help,” Mr. Bartels told Handelsblatt. “The help that we can now provide would come too late in three months.”

Markus Kaim, a security expert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said the German military had previously delivered arms to other countries. The novelty of arming Kurdish fighters might be in “passing on weapons to non-state players,” he said.

So far it’s unclear whether the German government would demand contracts for the transfer of weapons as it usually does, and whether there would be stipulations to prevent recipients from passing weapons to unauthorized parties.

Mr. Kaim criticized the government for not properly justifying its decision.

“We are discussing once again only about the instruments of a deployment, without having a recognizable idea of its goal,” he said. “Do we only want to protect the Kurdish area or disable IS as a political factor? Then we must also develop a strategy for Syria.”

The writer is the parliamentary correspondent for Handelsblatt. He can be reached at

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