Germany to arm Kurds against Islamic State in test of stronger global role

Nearly two-thirds of Germans disagree with Chancellor Merkel's decision. Merkel counters that Germany cannot afford to ignore the threat that IS poses.

MIGUEL VIDAL/REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen here with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy during a visit to Spain Monday, is pushing Germany to exercise a role in foreign policy more commensurate with its growing global clout.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a backlash at home as Germany flexes a more muscular foreign policy, most recently with a controversial decision to arm Kurdish forces in Iraq.

The decision to bolster Kurds fighting the self-declared Islamic State (IS) is opposed by nearly two-thirds of Germans. And while Ms. Merkel has been a master at tapping the public mood, even when that has meant U-turns on issues from energy to the minimum wage, she is now pushing Germany to be more assertive, both because of its growing world clout and because international crises have erupted so close to home.

“Germany is basically being forced to take on a new role in Europe,” says Toby Matthiesen, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “The European Union cannot have a foreign policy if Germany does not have a foreign policy, or if its foreign policy tries to keep involvement in international affairs as limited as possible.”

Germany was deeply opposed to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and abstained in a 2011 UN Security Council vote on military intervention in Libya, frustrating its British and French allies.

But when the crisis in Ukraine erupted, Ms. Merkel stood out as the most influential leader in Europe pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down, despite a public weary of aligning absolutely with the “West” and with significant trade relations at stake.

Merkel has weighed in on joining the battle against IS as well, essentially saying Sunday that Germany cannot ignore it.

"We decided to deliver weapons in an exceptional case not seen before, where Islamic militia conduct a genocide for all to see," Merkel said to public broadcaster ARD Sunday. "When we get asked to deliver a limited amount of weapons and munitions, we can't simply say that they won't get them from us. The fighters of the Kurdish Regional Government are the ones who managed to stop the whole thing together with the Americans and others. It's no option for us to simply stand aside."

The statement seems to bolster others from German leaders earlier this year that their country must begin to engage in military matters in the world. Until now, such action has been limited, including deploying to Serbia in the late 1990s and to Afghanistan after 9/11.

Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said at a Jan. 31 security conference in Munich that “indifference is not an option for Germany.” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, said at the same event that “Germany is really too big to just comment from the sidelines.”

Germany’s decision is in line with the public mood across the European Union, whose foreign ministers backed the arms deliveries to Kurds and where leaders have warned publics about the threat that the IS represents. France’s President François Hollande called the international situation” the worst we’ve seen since 2001,” referring to 9/11.

But the stand is a risky one for Merkel. According to a Forsa poll published last week, 63 percent of Germans said they were against supplying the weapons. Much of the concern is that they could end up in the wrong hands.

Germany is the third-largest arms exporter in the world. Although it does not, technically, send weapons to any side engaged in armed conflict, debate has grown about arming dodgy regimes, says Christian Mölling, research fellow in the international security division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. “The public opinion is that it is not a good thing to sell weapons at all,” he says, and that if Germany does, it should only be to NATO allies.

German leaders could decide as early as this week what weapons it will send to Iraq. Under pressure from Germany’s opposition, politicians will debate the issue on Sept. 1.

Given IS atrocities, including the shocking execution of American journalist James Foley, public opinion could coalesce behind Merkel on the arms issue. Indeed, after months of hesitation, 70 percent of Germans in August said in an Infratest dimap poll that they agreed with the EU’s tough sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

Germans, in fact, could be slowly accepting the role that Europe's powerhouse must play in the world.

“Until March of this year, which was the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, all problems have been far away from us,” says Mr. Mölling. But this is not the case with Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, or the Israel-Palestinean conflict. “The typical German reflex is to try to shy away from everything and close your eyes and it will go away. The public starts realizing this is no longer possible.”

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