Ursula von der Leyen

'We Must Brace Ourselves for a Long Fight'

vonderleyen Marko Priske for HB
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Intervening in foreign wars is unpopular in Germany, but not taking action to support allies could have consequences too, the defense minister said.

  • Facts


    • On Thursday Germany confirmed that it would send reconnaissance jets to help the French military campaign against IS in Syria.
    • In Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to convince Parliament to authorize airstrikes in Syria.
    • On Thursday, French President François Hollande met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an attempts to form an alliance against the IS.
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This week Germany announced that it would join the fight against the Islamic State by providing France with military support for its air strikes, which it has stepped up following the terror attacks in Paris earlier this month.

Berlin plans to send Tornado reconnaissance warplanes to support the French attacks on strategic IS sites in Syria, pending the German parliament’s approval.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that Berlin would also send a Navy frigate to escort a French warship off the Syrian coast, in addition to  airborne refueling operations. This follows an announcement on Wednesday that Germany would deploy 650 more troops to Mali to relieve the French-led mission there.

In a statement, French President Francois Hollande’s office said that Thursday’s decision was a “very major contribution, showing Germany’s will to play a front-line role in the fight against the mutual curse” of IS.

The support come as Germany increasingly finds itself under the threat of possible terrorist attacks. Berlin police on Thursday night arrested two men suspected of planning a terror attack in Germany, and raided a mosque in west Berlin after getting a tip, which turned out to be false, that weapons and explosives could be hidden there. Last week, a soccer match between the Netherlands and Germany was called off in Hanover.

Ms. von der Leyen is a member of the center-right Christian Democrats and has been regarded as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is a trained physician and served as family and then labor minister before being named defense minister in 2013.

In an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt, Ms. von der Leyen discussed Germany’s role in the fight against IS, and argued that despite intervention in Syria being unpopular in Germany,  the European Union’s biggest and most prosperous country could not sit on the sidelines as partner nations are attacked.


Minister, at France’s request, Germany is joining the fight against the Islamic State. What exactly will the German army’s contribution be?

Germany has put together a strong set of measures to support France. It includes high-value reconnaissance capabilities, but also in-flight refueling and protection for the French aircraft carriers near the Syrian coast – all designed to reinforce France in its fight against IS.

IS has a fundamental hatred of our way of life. It wants to spread fear and horror and will not negotiate.

The United States alone has some 150 fighter jets stationed in the region and France more than 30. Why does the alliance still need German Tornado jets?

German Tornados can provide excellent pictures of terrain like almost no other system worldwide. The cameras, which are equipped with special sensor technology, can even detect changes in the surface of the earth — for instance, where mines might have been laid a day earlier. We need up-to-the-minute, precise intelligence — about where IS fighters are, where the opposition is and where new streams of refugees are on the move. In a complex conflict like the one in Syria, there can never be enough reconnaissance. That is why Germany is providing Tornado jets and special satellites.

But surely the United States has sufficient reconnaissance capability. Are the allies really dependent on German satellite reconnaissance?

Between us, France and Germany have one of the best satellite reconnaissance systems in the world. It can capture big areas precisely and in any weather conditions. Even at night and through thick cloud cover, it delivers razor-sharp pictures. And with this operation in particular, reconnaissance is crucial. Because we have a dual task — not just to fight IS but also to protect the population.

What are the frigate and the tanker aircraft for?

The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle off the Syrian coast is a central base from which to carry out French air strikes on the Islamic State. Germany is providing France with a frigate to protect this carrier. That frees up the French, because it’s one job they don’t have to take care of themselves. Germany could also contribute a special aircraft. The German Airbus tanker has had plenty of practice with in-flight fueling of French Rafale and Mirage jets. Aircraft like that are few and far between.


airbus tanker refueling Reuters
An Airbus tanker refuelling jets. Source: Reuters


Up to now, there has been precious little enthusiasm in Germany for military involvement in Syria. Will you receive a mandate from the Bundestag?

We will request this from parliament, and the decision will be made by the German Bundestag.

You also want to increase training operations in northern Iraq and provide up to 650 soldiers for the United Nations mission in Mali. Why are we getting so involved in Mali?

Mali is a central component of a much bigger, fragile region. The country cannot be allowed to plunge into chaos. Mali’s survival depends on sustaining the peace treaty and the reconciliation process between the different ethnic groups that are being overseen by the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. We want to become more closely involved and the cabinet will agree on the required mandate by mid-December.

In the north of Mali, soldiers will support Dutch units. How does that free up France?

France is not the main player in the U.N. mission. But France has its own mission in place in the same area. The more stable the north of Mali is, the fewer French military personnel are needed there. The U.N. peacekeeping mission is operating under-strength and needs much more reconnaissance capacity for the huge area it has to monitor. So the German contribution — for example, in the form of Luna reconnaissance drones — is most welcome.

We have just had the terror attack in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and the U.N. mission in northern Mali has been the target of repeated attacks. Do we have to get used to the idea of German soldiers dying again?

Mali is a dangerous mission. We do everything we can for the security of our soldiers. But if we look at the world situation nowadays, and the responsibility which comes with Germany being the biggest and economically strongest country in the European Union, then we have to get involved in demanding operations. Just like our partners are doing.

You said shortly after taking office that indifference was not an option for a country like Germany. Was it clear to you how prescient those words would prove to be in such a short time?

Early in 2014 nobody could have anticipated the situation we have today. But it was a good thing that the federal president, the foreign minister and I initiated a debate at about the same time. We discussed all the questions and came up with ideas we were able to apply to real crises just a few months later.

Many citizens are critical of the idea of German soldiers being involved in overseas operations.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism — at least initially. But now people see just how serious the situation is in Iraq, Syria and Mali. Attacks in Paris, Tunisia and on the Russian passenger jet have left their mark. Everyone can see that the problems will come to us if we don’t address them early on. If we want to fight terror and the causes of migration, we have to start on-site, including – but not just – with military action.

Germany is focusing strongly on training local soldiers. Is that just a comfortable alternative to using our own troops?

The training is highly sophisticated and must take place in dangerous regions. It requires perseverance and professionalism. Experience has taught us that the West can achieve quick success by using its own troops in a conflict. But the problems come back to haunt us, often worse than before, because no process of construction and reconciliation ensues in the country itself. That’s why we should train local troops that have a vital interest in stabilizing or liberating their country in the long-term. No Western troops could have shown more bravery than the Kurds, whose families live just a few kilometers behind the front.

The Kurdish Peshmerga were able to drive Islamic State fighters back from Kurdish territory. But to defeat IS you will need assistance from the government in Baghdad and from Sunni allies, as well as Syria.

Other partners are involved in the training of government troops in Baghdad. It will be most difficult with the Sunnis. The peace process in Vienna is essential for this. Up to now only foreign powers have been negotiating there. But beginning in January, the Syrian opposition and the regime in Damascus will join the process. Whether we like it or not, we have to reach a minimal consensus about whom we want to fight, and whom we want to protect. One strength of the Islamic State up to now has also been derived from disunity among its enemies. And at the end of the day, there has to be a lasting compromise between the different groups, accompanied by economic reconstruction.

A few things have changed recently. France now sees IS as the main problem, rather than the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And Russia is also concentrating its bombardment on IS territory. Is this a lowest common denominator in the making?

At least we can feel a growing desire on the part of everyone involved to end the suffering of these oppressed regions and concentrate on the fight against IS. The fact that Russia and the United States are back in serious negotiations in Vienna is progress indeed. And it is even more impressive that Iran and Saudi Arabia are sitting at the same negotiating table – for hours on end. That makes me quietly optimistic.

But the future of Mr. Assad remains highly controversial.

The negotiating partners in Vienna recently submitted an agenda for further discussions and shrewdly have not scheduled the most critical issue – that being Mr. Assad — at the beginning of the process. That is a sign that a common search for solutions is taking place. Everyone knows that we have to live with the Syrian president in the short-term. If the country is to rediscover peace after his brutal dictatorship, he cannot be part of a long-term solution. A possible transition government could represent a kind of bridge.

One of the most important players in the conflict is Turkey. How reliable do you consider President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on Tuesday?

Both sides have to take a step back. In the meantime, there is also a growing awareness in Turkey that the fight against IS has to be much more intense – as IS is on the rampage in their country. The numerous discussions between Turkey and the European Union about refugees is creating a new common basis.

Do you still have confidence in Mr. Erdogan in these matters?

There are common interests. We share bitter experiences with foreign fighters. With Russia too, by the way, because there are thousands from the northern Caucasus fighting on the side of Islamic State.

The conflict cannot be solved without Moscow. Will the lifting of E.U. sanctions against Russia be the price for President Vladimir Putin’s cooperation?

The only requirement for lifting sanctions is progress toward peace in Ukraine. The Minsk II process will dictate that, not the Syrian issue.

French President François Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck and Pope Francis have been talking about a new world war since the attacks in Paris. Do you see it that way too?

I can understand President Hollande’s choice of words in reaction to the terrible events. The fight against the IS phenomenon will keep us busy for years. At the same time, it is important that we remain calm and not get carried away with warlike rhetoric.

New York, Madrid, London, Ankara, Sinai, Paris: The series of devastating attacks is long, and you could get the impression that we are engaged in a global war against Islamist terrorism.

The threat is indeed global. And by now everyone understands that the fight against Islamic terror concerns us all – not least because of fighters who return home to Western nations. But we associate war with states that militarily attack each other, posing an ever-present threat to their respective societies and economies. There is no disputing the great menace that terrorism poses – but it is different from our traditional understanding of the word “war.”

Isn’t IS more than just a terror organization?

We must not make the mistake of underestimating it. From asymmetrical warfare, we are familiar with the phenomenon of an opponent that constantly changes its appearance, like a chameleon. That makes it unpredictable, and it can cause maximum damage with the help of just a few suicide bombers. Unlike in traditional conflicts, the will to survive is not the central motivation for IS fighters. It has a fundamental hatred of our way of life. It wants to spread fear and horror and will not negotiate.

We are dealing with an opponent practicing an archaic ideology from the Middle Ages, but one that also uses all elements of hybrid warfare in a higly professional way. That is apparent from its military operations, but even more so from its sophisticated, cyber-based propaganda and its targeted fomentation of tensions in society. Reportedly, two of the attackers in Paris had been repeatedly registered as refugees beforehand — and this perfidiously links the fear of terror to the ongoing dispute about refugee policies. That is exactly what IS wants.

What is IS’s motivation for the attacks in Europe? Is it about revenge or intimidation?

When we initially formed the alliance against terror, the main goal of IS was to conquer more and more land and set up a state-like caliphate between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers reaching right into North Africa. This advance was halted in Iraq. Now we are seeing an expansion that includes attacks in our countries.

Because IS has come under pressure in its core territory?

Islamic State urgently needs military or terror-based successes to recruit new members. But recently they have suffered crushing defeats in Iraq and Syria — defeats that we speak far too little of here. They did not succeed in overcoming the Kurds, nor did they succeed in eliminating the Yazidis. On the contrary, the Kurds have won back territory, like the strategically important city of Sinjar. And the Iraqi army liberated Tikrit and is advancing on IS from the south, albeit slowly. And in Syria, the pressure is also growing — both from the coalition against terror and troops of the Assad regime, supported by Russia.


Vonderleyen Steinmeier Reuters
Ms. von der Leyen briefs the press on Thursday, flanked by foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Source: Reuters


As IS weakens in Syria and Iraq, does it become more dangerous for the rest of the world?

Unfortunately, the attacks in Europe are not a sign of weakness. Many attackers have been trained in Syria and Iraq. We have to take IS seriously and brace ourselves for a long fight. But there is no reason to be intimidated. We have seen it repeatedly: IS can be defeated.

With the canceling of the international soccer game in Hanover, the fear of terrorism has now reached us. Just how great is the risk of terrorism facing Germany?

The interior minister has very clearly stated that Germany is a target and there is no absolute security. In the statement claiming responsibility for Paris, the two “crusader nations,” France and Germany, are deliberately mentioned. The security services are prepared and alert.

Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser fears a drop in company investment and a negative impact on the European economy. Is that an exaggeration?

The situation is serious, but we must be mentally strong, we can’t allow ourselves to be intimidated in any area. Naturally, IS is trying to hit us where we are most vulnerable, in our open society. It wasn’t by chance that the attackers hit a soccer game, a concert hall, restaurants – all of those symbolize our way of life. But our openness is our strength, our political power of persuasion is based on this, our appeal in the world and our economic success. That is why we must defend these assets.

Would it be better if those warning of the dangers keep quiet?

No, not at all. Our strength is precisely spirited debate, diversity of opinions, to question and argue. It is only that which enables us to filter out truths and the right path – even amid a sea of propaganda. The threat also helps us to learn again to appreciate the value of living in security and liberty.

Not letting ourselves be intimidated is easier said than done. Do you have sympathy for the fact that citizens and business people are influenced by the fear of terrorism all the same?

Great sympathy. It is important to express worry. By discussing the phenomenon, getting the facts straight, we gain in security and sovereignty. That is why it is good that we are now discussing all the facets of terrorism, its causes and its consequences. That establishes orientation.


Rising and Falling Fears-01


The German political scientist, Herfried Münkler, speaks of the “heroic calm,” which is now demanded of us.

Our security services are alert but we have the unique power of a pluralistic society and economic strength. I am firmly convinced that we have the longer staying power!

Should companies take safeguards against attacks?

The state is responsible for basic protection. But companies must take their own protection seriously. That also applies particularly to IT equipment – it’s not only IS that is capable of highly modern cyber attacks.

Do our security services really function that well? Even after Paris, missed opportunities were made known, such as the exchange of information about the terrorists.

Every successful attack reveals gaps; we must learn from every case. The problem is that the terrorists only have to be “successful” once, we often learn nothing about attacks that were prevented. Prevention is the most effective protection, but it is invisible.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has brought up the idea of deploying the Bundeswehr inside Germany. Do you think that would be useful?

For one thing, we have broad range of options, such as providing administrative assistance to other governmental agencies in housing the refugees. At the moment, there are, tops, barely 9,000 soldiers, both men and women, engaged. They are, however, not allowed to carry out public authority tasks that are exclusively reserved for the police, such as arresting anyone. For another, the Bundeswehr could be deployed at any time domestically in the event of catastrophic proportions.

Could soldiers then be used instead of police to evacuate stadiums, and protect train stations and airports?

In the event of an attack of those proportions, yes.

Are we engaged in a phantom debate?

I find it justifiable in the current circumstances to once again assess the situation. The legal situation offers a plethora of possibilities. Moreover, the federal and state police have special units that are excellently equipped and trained.

France didn’t ask NATO for assistance but instead the European Union. Does that present an opportunity to overcome the reluctance there has been so far about a common defense policy?

The occasion is bitter, but France’s decision is an important step. Article 42/7 of the Lisbon Treaty obligates the member states to offer “aid and assistance by all the means in their power.” There is great scope for more common defense policies within the European treaties. In addition, the E.U. has a set of instruments that acts politically, militarily and economically. Particularly in such complex situations as in Syria, we need a diversity of means.

We have seen it repeatedly: IS can be defeated.

Immediately after the attacks, the chancellor promised France “any and all support.” Did you already have an inkling at the time what was in store for you as defense minister?

Already the day after the attack, I called my French counterpart. It was clear to all Europeans that a new measure of solidarity was now demanded. Three days later, of course, France invoked Article 42/7 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Does the common fight against IS offer the chance to remind ourselves of the original idea of a united Europe after all the disunity over refugee policy?

We Europeans are opening up a new chapter with the mutual assistance clause being invoked for the first time. Europe finds its strength in what we have in common, that also applies to its security policy.

But Germany is standing pretty much alone with its refugee crisis.

Solidarity isn’t a one-way street. Just as we all benefit from the common market, just as we stand at each other’s side in the fight against terror, so must we come to a solution based on solidarity over the issue of refugees.

Many are afraid that the threat of a radicalization by Islamists in France as in Germany will increase with the huge numbers of refugees. Do you share this concern?

The refugees, no matter what faith, are fleeing terror and dictatorship. Nothing could be worse than to be generally suspicious of all refugees. The IS would already have scored a great victory if it were able to divide Europe with a quarrel over the refugees. Terrorists have many ways to get into a country. They don’t need the refugee route to do it. For that reason, we have to be level-headed in our debates.


Border Bavaria refugees DPA
Border Bavaria refugees DPA Source: DPA


But the debate is being conducted between two extremes. For some, every refugee is a potential terrorist; for others, every refugee is a potential skilled worker.

Both are wrong.

We are facing a huge task of integration these people. Are we talking about that too little?

Not all will be allowed to stay or want to. But in contrast to 25 years ago, we have a broad consensus in the mean time about what we need for integration to work. We are in agreement that people should learn the language immediately, that children must go to school and there should be open access to jobs. The flip side is also now consensus. Everyone must abide by the rules that apply here. We have in the meantime learned in Germany how integration can succeed, which will make the huge task enormously easier for us.

Many citizens are not so optimistic.

That I understand. But the debate over quotas for refugees, which is something different than setting upper limits, will show the people that we are working with all our power in a variety of areas to reduce the numbers. The quotas entail firm agreements for the allocation in Europe and an agreement with Turkey that will offer the millions of refugees shelter close to their homeland. Quotas also mean that we are destroying the inhuman business model of the traffickers.

There have been efforts to do that for quite some time, which have failed. 

Quotas are a step in the right direction. With them we are creating order again. There just isn’t a simple solution.

The chancellor said, “We can do it.”

She’s right about that.

Minister, thank you for the interview.


This interview was conducted by Handelsblatt editor in chief, Sven Afhüppe, security correspondent Till Hoppe and Berlin bureau chief, Thomas Sigmund. To contact them: afhueppe@handelsblatt.com, hoppe@handelsblatt.com, sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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