Military Relaunch

Shaped by Holocaust, Germany Weighs Lifting Ban to Prevent Iraq Genocide

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Fearing genocide in Iraq, Germany weighs lifting historic taboo against sending arms to military conflict zones.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Germany’s constitution restricts its possibilities for active combat in wars abroad.
    • Germany does not see itself as a primary actor in the Middle East but politicians, galvanized by fera of genocide, are considering how to support the Yazidi in Iraq.
    • The German taboo on war has been eroded, gradually and reluctantly, in conflicts from the Balkans to Afghanistan.
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    Audio

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A soldier rests on an armoured infantry Marder tank of the German armed forces, Bundeswehr, at the exercise area in in Stetten, near Munich. Germany says it may send armored vehicles to Iraq.  REUTERS/Miro Kuzmanovic (GERMANY)
A soldier rests on an armoured infantry Marder tank of the German armed forces, Bundeswehr, at the exercise area in in Stetten, near Munich. Germany says it may send armored vehicles to Iraq. REUTERS/Miro Kuzmanovic (GERMANY)

 

A bipartisan group of political leaders in Germany are considering support for the Yazidi ethnic minority in northern Iraq, who are being attacked by Islamic State forces.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, said on Tuesday that she is looking at providing support for the Iraqi army. She ruled out the delivery of weapons but is weighing other options such as armored vehicles, protective vests and night vision equipment.

The statements by Ms. Von der Leyen, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Party, were echoed across the government. Germany is  ruled by a coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, which has opposed overt military involvement because of the country’s long-held post-war passivism.

But given the escalating violence in northern Iraq, Germany is considering dropping its categorical stance to prevent a new genocide in Iraq, Ms. Von der Leyen said. With the situation so grave for the Yazidis, even Social Democrats appear open to redrawing the line on German military involvement.

Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Social Democrats and Germany’s vice chancellor and minister for economic affairs, said, “depending on how the situation develops, Germany will have to consider all options.”

The Yazidi minority in northern Iraq is being pursued by extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, forces and the United Nations has said they face genocide.

Any change in policy would also have implications for Germany’s partners in Europe. But although politicians are questioning policy in Iraq, there are no indicators that they will provide lethal weapons.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat foreign minister, said, “I am willing to go to the limits of what is politically and legally possible, given the dramatic situation.”

The politicians’ considerations may suggest a shift in the decades’ long taboo against active military engagement in conflict. Years after the end of the Second World War, German governments remain ambivalent about active engagement in conflicts and the constitution limits how far the Bundeswehr, Germany’s army, can fight and for what.

The stance has slowly been eroded in conflicts from the Balkans to Afghanistan. But each engagement has seen widespread questioning of the ethics of war by Germans who are deeply aware of the consequences of conflict.

Germany sent forces to Kosovo on the grounds that this could prevent genocide; in Afghanistan, its soldiers were mainly involved in peacekeeping and development rather than conflict.

Now, the policy forged by a European holocaust may be recast due to the threat of genocide in the Middle East.

Opposition to war remains deep-rooted in Germany, the conflict in Iraq may be causing opinion to shift.

 

Von der Leyen, Merkel reuters

 

“From a humanitarian point of view, intervention in Iraq with non-lethal weapons is justified,” said Professor Günter Meyer who leads a research institute focusing on the Arab world for Mainz University.

“Given the situation in Iraq and military losses the Kurds have already suffered, I think that the German government’s stance – wanting to prevent genocide which is already unfolding in the region – is credible.” The threat is very real, he said, citing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS threat to forcibly convert people in the region to Sunni Islam.

“Notwithstanding the humanitarian justification, there are of course economic interests in the region for the West, including Germany,” Professor Meyer said. The United States and France have oil giants operating there – Chevron, Exxon and Total. “For Germany the economic interests lie more in plant construction and the supply of consumer goods for the booming Kurdish market. So Germany has an interest in the political stability of the region,” he said.

The United Kingdom, Italy and France have already offered to support the Yazidi in Iraq. But in Germany, some politicians’ views on intervention are tempered by a sense that it is the United States rather than Germany which plays a dominant role in the Middle East. Mr. Gabriel attributed the current conflict to the Iraq war in 2003 and reinforced his party’s decision to stay out of the war.

“In essence, and this was acknowledged by Germany, the United States hold the responsibility for the region,” Professor Meyer said.

Observers agreed that politicians are considering their options but will probably not provide weaponry. “I think it is highly unlikely that lethal weapons will be delivered to the Kurds,” Professor Meyer said.

International observers questioned the policy. “It’s highly hypocritical of the German government to provide the vehicles but not the bullets,” said Peter Neumann, a professor for war studies at Kings College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

“Weapons are clearly needed, that’s not the question, and if Germany does not supply them, someone else will have to,” he said. He called Germany’s stance an abdication of responsibility, keeping its hands clean while providing limited means of war.

In Germany the trend has been away from war, with conscription to the German army phased out in 2011. This shift to a professional armed force has meant the reduction in the number of soldiers in the standing army from 240,000 to 181,339 this year. Should Germany begin to reconsider its involvement in conflict, this could change its recruitment requirements.

Any change in policy would also have implications for Germany’s partners in Europe. But although politicians are questioning policy in Iraq, there are no indicators that they will provide lethal weapons.

“Discussion of genocide is the only argument that pushes politicians to this sort of agreement across all parties and the only way you could justify any intervention,” said Professor Neumann. He added that the other European countries do not have the kind of constitutional restrictions that Germany faces on involvement in war.

Another German legal expert also commented that according to the United Nations, armed intervention in another country is only justifiable in self-defense or with a mandate from the UN Security Council.

While fears of genocide are now causing German politicians to question a historic defense policy, it is very unlikely to draw them into active combat.

 

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