Slippery Slope Are German Ground Troops Inevitable in Syria?

Germany has approved the deployment of reconnaissance planes, a frigate and support personnel to support the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Experts say IS can't be defeated with air strikes alone. Will Germany ultimately be forced to send in ground troops?

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen with Bundeswehr KSK elite forces: A debate is growing in Germany over the possible need for ground troops in Syria.
Christian Thiel/ DER SPIEGEL

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen with Bundeswehr KSK elite forces: A debate is growing in Germany over the possible need for ground troops in Syria.

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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier did not hold back last Wednesday. Standing at the lectern in German parliament, Steinmeier blasted the pacifist Left Party for rejecting the planned deployment of German armed forces against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. "A simple and categorical no to any military confrontation with Islamic State does not make any contribution toward security in Syria," the Social Democratic politician said. "The IS cancer" must be eliminated, he admonished.

The remarks had members of the political opposition scratching their heads. Was this not the same German foreign minister who, until only recently, had warned against any military adventures in the Middle East? As recently as the beginning of September, when France announced it would participate in the United States-led air strikes against IS, Steinmeier said, "It is unacceptable that important partners -- partners who we need -- are now playing the military card."

But in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, these concerns apparently no longer apply. Now, Berlin is having to justify a combat mission that is being conducted not out of military logic, but out of solidarity with France.

Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, officially approved the mandate on Friday. The country will deploy six Tornado reconnaissance jets, the frigate Augsburg, refueling aircraft and 1,200 military personnel to the region in support of the €134 million mission.

'You Cannot Win From the Air Alone'

In Berlin, the government is seeking to assuage its critics while at the same time playing down the dangers -- the greatest being that Germany could ultimately be pulled into a ground war. In Berlin, government officials say any speculation about ground troops is "imprudent." That, though, sounds more like an effort to choke off discussion than like a convincing argument. After all, nobody in Berlin believes that IS can be defeated from the air alone. And it's not just Berlin. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn says: "All experts are saying that you cannot win the battle against IS from the air alone."

The German government is thus focusing on local Syrian fighters. But the experts in Berlin are also noting in off-the-record conversations that there is little faith that these forces will be able to reconquer much of the country.

"At the moment, we have to focus on making sure that the West's strategy works out," says Harald Kujat, a retired four-star German general. "If it isn't successful, then the West will be faced with the question of whether it wants to send in ground troops." The former NATO general sees parallels to the Balkans mission of the 1990s in the current situation. "We would have to send 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers under the leadership of the USA or NATO into the country," he says.

The Bundeswehr's planned anti-Islamic State deployment in Syria

The Bundeswehr's planned anti-Islamic State deployment in Syria

German government officials are playing down the possibility of ground forces. "We have said very clearly that we aren't speaking at the moment about ground troops, that we are not talking about other forms of engagement," Peter Altmaier, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, said on German publish television in an interview on Sunday night. And in an interview published over the weekend, deputy chancellor and center-left Social Democratic Party boss Sigmar Gabriel told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper he doubted Germany would send ground troops to Syria. "That would require a clear UN mandate," he said. "And even if that were the case, we would seriously have to ask ourselves whether we are the right ones. That's precisely what the Islamists are hoping for -- that the Americans and Europeans will send ground troops so that they can continue with their mendacious propaganda campaign claming that this is a Western war against Muslims. The truth is that the IS itself is primarily enslaving and murdering Muslims."

Ground Troop Perils

So far, the Western military alliance has been reserved in the battle against IS. But at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels last Tuesday, a few representatives even raised the question of whether NATO should declare war against IS. Most of the ministers present opposed the move.

But the current deployment is also dangerous, even if it only envisions providing support to the air campaign -- as the case of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian fighter pilot shot down over Syria at the end of last year, shows. He was captured by IS, locked in an metal cage and burned alive.

German Tornado reconnaissance jets are to be deployed in Syria as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition. Many experts say the war cannot be won through air strikes alone.

German Tornado reconnaissance jets are to be deployed in Syria as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition. Many experts say the war cannot be won through air strikes alone.

The risk of being taken prisoner -- whether due to a technical defect or to being shot down by surface-to-air missiles -- is one that will plague German air force pilots from the first day of their deployment. But what would happen then? Should the worst come to pass, there are doubts that the German military would be in a position to send in special forces to liberate their own pilots. Officials instead want to rely on US troops to handle the job should such a situation arise.

Former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung disagrees. "We can handle that ourselves," he says. "The Bundeswehr successfully carried out these kinds of rescue operations in Afghanistan." The implications, though, are clear: German boots on Syrian ground.

Germans Skeptical of Ground Troops

German participation in a ground force would be very likely in the event of a cease-fire in Syria. "I could imagine a German deployment on Syrian soil within the framework of a peace agreement with Syria and within the scope of a United Nations resolution backing this peace," says Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesperson for conservatives in parliament. For that to happen, however, the political process initiated in Vienna would have to find success. The plan taking shape in the Austrian capital envisions the Assad regime and the diverse opposition groups agreeing to a cease-fire and an interim government within six months. Assad has already communicated to UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura who his representative for the talks will be. The Syrian opposition is meeting in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to agree on a representative of their own.

Should an agreement be reached, Germany would no longer be able to avoid the question of ground troops -- even if Islamic State weren't yet defeated. The Vienna document expressly excludes Islamic State from the cease-fire agreement. Were Germany to back away from sending troops, the US and France would not likely show much understanding -- particularly given how often Steinmeier and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen have spoken in recent years about wanting Germany to take on a greater role in the international community.

The latest polls indicate that the majority of Germans (58 percent) support sending Tornado reconnaissance jets and tanker aircraft to Syria. But when asked whether they support German fighter pilots bombing IS targets, only 20 percent expressed their support. When asked if they supported sending in ground troops, a meager 13 percent approved.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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broremann 12/08/2015
1. world war 3
2015 The year of two thousand and fifteen, has not been a good year for world peace. and brotherhood of man. I despair of our lack of empathy with children killed by well- meaning bombs dropped by nations who look for peace through violence. I recall from history books a king named Croesus everything he touched turned into gold and he died amidst plenty. State sponsored violence spawn terror and and newer versions of ISIS will not go away, and we cannot understand that there will be no peace before the whole world is a ruin if do not come to our senses and stop feeding terror`s voracious appetite.
kh-niko 12/09/2015
2. The Award.
The problem of national identity is expressed or manifested through the right to use military force to protect the public interest. 2 years ago Germany was helping Iraq Peshmerga when supplied to humanitarian aid and weapons. Now the government, Angela Merkel received the right of the Parliament for the use of military force in Syria. At the same time, the UK government obtained the right to use the aircraft in Syria from its national parliament. Besides Turkey, the real ground operation does not make one anti-IS. Therefore, in 1200 the introduction of German soldiers will be make a big difference. Germany has a lot of experience in the modern part of the coalition war in the East, in Afghanistan, where German troops controlled northern Afghanistan. Military and political necessity forces the Germans to strengthen the military pressure with the coalition and the German Defence Minister Ursula von de Leyen prepared operation of the Bundeswehr. Now the flow of refugees from Syria to Europe via Turkey and Greece fell, but last year was a great flow from the Ukraine. If the war ends in Syria, the refugees will be back. When Angela Merkel TIME magazine awarded the title as a person having the biggest and most important influence on the world situation in 2015 she headed the fourth Economy in the world and the economy is growing and has a positive trend.
Chris15 12/09/2015
3. Slippery Slope
This slope is indeed getting more and more slippery. And remember, slopes normally go downhill! After the government has taken the first step in this military adventure, the German people will sooner or later be confronted with their government's and the Bundestag's next step: deployment of troops on the ground. The first step is already as silly as silly can be. What do German troops want in Syria? Whether in the air above the country or on the ground, both is equally stupid and will certainly not help to solve any problems with terrorism. The only thing which will certainly come out of it, will be even more terrorism. The CDU/SPD politicians stated that there is a UN mandate for going to war, which is a gross lie (everybody can read the relevant UN resolution on the UN's homepage). They stated in the Bundestag debate that they would only deploy a few airplanes for reconnaissance and one ship. Now they are already talking about troops on the ground. Why meddle in other people's affairs? The Syrians have to solve their own problems, the Muslims have to figure out their own way of religious tolerance or intolerance in their own countries. All these meddling politicians should rather make sure that they solve the problems Europe has; to mention only a few: Greece, Frontex - keeping the European borders safe, migration to Europe, terrorism in Europe, Brexit, the Euro, the highly indebted countries in Europe and so on. There is so much to be done here. Solving our own problems and making Europe safe and politically stable is the best prevention against terrorism. Deploy our own troops in our own states against terrorism here. The problems of the Middle East have never ever become better by meddling European or US militarists. The opposite: who created terrorism in Iraq in the first place? The USA and Great Britain and other willing nations with their 2003 war. As a result, Syria and other Muslim countries are now overrun by those terrorists. What will happen when more and more troops from even more countries interfere in Syria? The terrorists will move to Libya or any other failed state- there are lots of them. Do the European and American politicians really believe they can send troops to all the failed states in this world? What all of them should do instead and at once: stop delivering weapons into the whole of the Middle East and to all failed states.
bob.jenning 12/10/2015
4. No Choice but the right choice
At some point troops will be required to put an end to this ISIL plague that seems to be spreading throughout the world. Evidently these people have no understanding of peace and letting people live in freedom and sadly enough the countries of the world will need to unit to completely eradicate this group from the world stage.
bkother 12/10/2015
Without ground troops there isn`t any chance to build freedom in Syria and Iraq. An other Question is: Are the people there accepting that?
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