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 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.
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.
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.