According to media reports, two Patriot missile batteries and a contingent of up to 170 soldiers may soon be making their way to the Syrian border as part of a limited though symbolic NATO operation. The troops acting on behalf of the alliance won’t just be American or British—but German.
This week, Turkey formally requested NATO support in defending it from attack by the Syrian military. A U.S. commitment would call for an American troop presence close to the civil war in Syria, potentially exacerbating the tensions between President Obama on Congress over the Benghazi attack and the Israeli assault on Gaza. It has thus fallen to other NATO allies—including the reluctant but increasingly powerful Germany—to do the job. Is this operation, which comes in the wake of controversial arms sales to illiberal regimes, a harbinger of a more active German military presence in the region?
Germany’s role in the Middle East has been complicated—usually taking one loud step back and one quiet step forward. A liberal government refused to go to war in Iraq and a conservative government abstained from the operation to topple Qaddafi in Libya. Yet there has been broad support for other multilateral operations: sending ships to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden, sending troops as part of a UN-mandated buffer zone in southern Lebanon, and maintaining the third-largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan. While Chancellor Merkel has yet to weigh in on direct intervention in Syria, the most recent move to assist Turkey would be yet another bold step forward as Germany reasserts itself not only as a NATO ally, but also as an independent power.
Over the past few decades, Germany has been busy shedding its post-war inhibitions regarding the use of military force. It has consistently sent troops to support UN peace building operations around the world and after the country’s recent decision to move away from a “citizen’s army” to an all-volunteer force, the Bundeswehr will have an even greater capability to project force abroad. It has also recently become the third-largest supplier of arms in the world by volume—overtaking both the United Kingdom and France and Chancellor Merkel has sought to expand arms sales to both Israel and Arab countries and Israel in recent years.
But these changes have also awakened opposition in Germany. In 1980, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said that Saudi Arabia was his country’s “most important partner” in an attempt to garner support for a large sale of Leopard tanks and combat planes. He succeeded in relaxing a long-standing German ban on the sale of weapons to countries in “areas of tension,” but ultimately failed to push the deal in the face of significant opposition in the Bundestag.
In the past year, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has also encountered substantial opposition to its proposed sale of 200 modern Leopard battle tanks to Qatar for $2.5 billion, 600 tanks to Saudi Arabia for $12.6 billion, and nearly half a billion in recent sales to Algeria. It is questionable whether such deals will survive so soon after protests in Bahrain were subdued with Saudi backing. The Green Party in Germany even filed a complaint with the country’s constitutional court against Merkel’s government last year to expose the issue in public.
Opposition to these deals has been louder at home than from allies in the region like Israel. There has long been an understanding between Israel and major arms suppliers to the region like the United States: they won’t oppose sales to Arab states, as long as they get advanced technology in return. Germany, too, has been adept at playing this game. Jerusalem and Berlin have struck a balance over the continued sale of Dolphin submarines to Israel and the Leopold tank to Saudi Arabia. This does not always work out, however, as a potential German submarine deal with Egypt has raised serious concerns from Israel.
Germany’s important relationship with Israel is also not without its complications. The long-standing partnership is deep-rooted, fueled both by cultural heritage and memories of the tragic history of the Holocaust. As described by Merkel in a speech in front of the Israeli Knesset in 2008, “every German government and every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security.” Arms sales and defense arrangements with Israel have been kept under the radar, but have nonetheless triggered a strongly negative response. Author and Nobel laureate Günther Grass’ provocative poem early this year criticized Germany's sale of nuclear-capable submarines and the silence over Israel's nuclear arsenal: “we—as Germans burdened enough—Could be the suppliers to a crime.”
These tensions will likely play out vis-a-vis the operation in Turkey as well. Just before the war in Iraq, the Turkish government sought NATO assistance in protecting its territory from Iraqi reprisals. In an election year, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder refused to help. The currentMerkel government seems less concerned with domestic opposition and is now prepared to provide assistance in a much more uncertain “area of tension.” It remains to be seen, however, whether she will be able to garner the necessary support for the Bundestag to approve the mission.
The move to support Turkey with two Patriot missile batteries could also be seen as part of a larger strategy to nudge Turkey closer to the European Union. The Turkish population in Germany is one of the largest in Europe and trade between the two has increased significantly in recent years. But barriers continue to exist as Turkey is not yet a full member of the EU and its status has long been subject to heated debate in Europe’s capitals. It would be a true feat if Germany could use its leading role in Europe to expand membership to a Muslim country.
It seems clear that Germany is determined to play a more prominent role on the world stage. A few years ago, former defense secretary Robert Gates called on our European allies to spend more on collective defense. This seems unlikely as the eurozone slowly recovers from its debt crisis. But Germany, at least, appears to be testing the waters of international security once again—though on its own terms.
Is Berlin now taking up the mantle of leadership in matters of international security? Hardly. Has it already started to shift away from the Atlantic alliance? Perhaps. But in an era of steep U.S. defense cuts and rising uncertainty in the Middle East, a more confident and assertive ally may be just what is needed.
Parke Nicholson is assistant director at the Center for the National Interest and was a Robert Bosch Foundation fellow in Germany from 2010–2011.