Germany pledges to arm Kurd forces and ‘set aside taboos’ on Iraq military role

Foreign minister says it is ‘not enough to show disgust’ at murder of journalist

German minister of defence Ursula von der Leyen and German minister for foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a press conference in Berlin yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Maurizio Gambarini

German minister of defence Ursula von der Leyen and German minister for foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a press conference in Berlin yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Maurizio Gambarini

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 01:00

Berlin is ready to arm Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, the defence and foreign ministers announced yesterday.

As the Islamic State posted a video claiming to show the beheading of US journalist James Foley, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was “not enough to show disgust” at their actions.

After weeks of heated debate, he said Germany was prepared to go beyond existing promises to deliver protective vests, night-vision goggles and humanitarian aid. “This can include weapons,” Mr Steinmeier said at a press conference with German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen.

He said any shipments would be “closely co-ordinated” with EU partners and added Berlin was “aware of the risks”, namely where the weapons end up.

But Ms von der Leyen said it was crucial to halt the Islamic State campaign. “More important than the question of whether or which weapons we deliver is the readiness to set aside taboos and have an open discussion,” she told Die Zeit. “This is where we are at the moment.”

The legacy of two World Wars has left Germans wary of military deployments, with a new poll showing almost two-thirds of Germans opposed to arming Kurdish forces.

Culture of restraint

But Mr Steinmeier and Ms von der Leyen appear to be coming good on their promise at Munich’s security conference in January to adapt Germany’s culture of military restraint to reflect new responsibilities and expectations from its partners.

Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, indicated yesterday it would consider providing hand weapons and anti-tank equipment. One complicating factor, German military analysts say, is that Kurdish forces are more used to Soviet-era weapons and not the more modern German weapons in the Bundeswehr inventory.

Yesterday’s announcement represents another step in the normalisation of Germany’s on-off military engagement. Its first postwar deployment in Europe was the 1998 war with Serbia. Germany also sent troops to Afghanistan as part of the Nato campaign. But it refused to join the 2003 US-led war on Iraq and abstained from a 2011 UN Security Council vote on military action against Libya.

Though the world’s third-largest arms exporter, Berlin insists it operates a restrictive regime that rules out arms exports to crisis regions.