Why Germany’s decision to join the fight against Islamic State is so significant – and misguided

Germany’s parliament has voted to join the military campaign against Islamic State in Syria. Ahead of the decision, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier argued that his country could no longer “get by” without fighting IS.

The German parliament agreed, voting by an overwhelming majority to deploy Tornado reconnaissance jets, aerial refuelling tanker aircraft and a naval frigate as well as up to 1,200 troops in the fight. This €134m effort is unlikely to be decisive, but it is symbolically and militarily significant. German jets will help the French warplanes pick their targets on the ground – not just play a defensive role. This expression of military solidarity with France is to some degree surprising. Berlin has long maintained a culture of military moderation. Meanwhile, Germany has a rather pressing problem with right-wing extremism at home.

A reluctant power?

For a long time, the Federal Republic did not send soldiers abroad on combat operations. The idea of seeing German jackboots marching over the globe was just too controversial. Only in 1994 did the German Constitutional Court confirm the constitutionality of “out of area” missions. Until then, the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, had only supported disaster management. Ironically, it was the red and green coalition of 1998, Germany’s most “leftwing” government to date, that sent the Bundeswehr into its first combat mission since World War II. Under Gerhard Schröder, the German air force participated in NATO’s controversial 1999 bombing campaign in Yugoslavia and later sent ground troops, too. A few years later, Germany entered Operation Enduring Freedomagainst the Taliban. Schröder wanted to show that the reunited Germany had overcome the stigma of Nazi geopolitics and was now a “normal” power that would use its military just like any other European state. And yet, after Afghanistan, Germany reverted to a more cautious security policy. Berlin kept out of Iraq in 2003 and abstained from Libya in 2011. And until now, it has kept well clear of the fight against Islamic State, limiting its role to training missions and arms exports. 

The reasons for staying out of Iraq may well have been motivated by domestic politics. Gerhard Schröder had been re-elected just six months earlier on an anti-war platform. But in doing so he inadvertently sharpened Germany’s profile as a power of moderation – despite the ongoing war effort in Afghanistan. Angela Merkel inherited the war in Afghanistan from her predecessor in 2005 but tried to keep the Bundeswehr out of combat missions that were likely to endanger its troops or civilians. Germany’s response to France’s call for assistance under the EU’s so-called “solidarity clause” has made it clear that Merkel has changed tack. She has enrolled the Bundeswehr in a bombing campaign that is likely to cause civilian losses.

Wrong target? 

The decision to enter the conflict in Syria is also surprising because, unlike France, Russia, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US, Germany has not recently witnessed a successful act of Islamist terrorism against its own citizens on its own territory. While there have allegedly been a number of failed attempts, the only successful act on German soil cost the lives of two US soldiers who were heading to Afghanistan from Frankfurt airport in March 2011. Germany has been haunted by right-wing extremism, though. Xenophobic street movement Pegida continues to attract large crowds to its protests and the new right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany is now the third strongest party in some polls. Newspapers Die Zeit and Tagesspiegel say 156 peoplehave died in Germany since 1990 as a result of right-wing extremist attacks – although government estimates are much lower.

In 2011, a right-wing terror cell was uncovered that had been in operation between 2000 and 2006. It had killed nine migrants and one policewoman and carried out a bombing in Cologne that left 22 injured. And 2015 in particular has seen a new wave of right-wing violence, mainly against refugees. There were 53 arson attacks against asylum seekers’ homes in 2015 and an assassination attempt against a pro-refugee mayoral candidate. Currently, the German government spends just €30.5m annually on the prevention of domestic extremism. Yet it is willing to commit an annual €134m to the military mission against Islamic State. Evidently, Germany is taking its responsibilities towards France very seriously. Steinmeier has insisted that his government must offer “solidarity rather than just compassion” to France in the wake of the attacks that took place in Paris on November 13. This, it seems, is the priority above troubles at home. But Angela Merkel’s first “proper” military conflict is likely to leave the country less secure. Given that the war against IS is being waged without a clear exit strategy, the question of mission creep looms large over Germany and its allies. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen is already warning of a “long and dangerous mission”. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that she may well be right.

(1) Ian Klinke is researcher and lecturer in political geography, University of Oxford 

First published on The Conversation under creative commons 

Photo: Wir. Dienen. Deutschland under creative commons

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