Hopes of a co-ordinated European response to the crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan were dealt a blow yesterday when France announced it would send arms to help defend encircled Yazidis from attack.
Paris broke ranks with EU partners to announce immediate assistance in the battle to aid the religious minority, surrounded on Mount Sinjar near the border with Syria by jihadist Islamic State militants (formerly known as Isis).
While Paris joined US efforts in the region, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton promised a foreign ministers’ meeting this week or next. Berlin, meanwhile, is locked in a debate over the best response.
“In order to respond to the urgent needs expressed by the Kurdistan regional authorities, the president has decided, in agreement with Baghdad, to deliver arms in the coming hours,” the Élysée Palace said yesterday in a statement.
Britain stepped up its engagement in the crisis yesterday, announcing it would help transport Soviet-era ammunition from eastern European countries to the region.
But German political leaders are in a quandary. Social Democratic (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel, the deputy chancellor, has described the attack by Islamic State militants as “an attempt at genocide”, but has declined to rule in or rule out sending German arms to assist Kurdish fighters or the Iraqi army.
In recent weeks Mr Gabriel has come under attack, as economics minister, for withholding arms export permits for German companies. Mr Gabriel has defended his approach, demanding a debate about Germany’s booming arms industry.
Overtaken by events, his SPD colleague and foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has warned that the “existential threat” in Iraq requires a coherent, robust EU response.
"I am in favour of going to limits of what is politically and legally possible," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.
“The people who take up arms to defend defenceless people have our full support.”
His remarks were seen as expressing a willingness to find ways around German rules that ban arms exports to conflict zones. But his apparent readiness to act was subsequently undermined by the SPD’s coalition partner.
German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, a senior figure in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), agreed that Germany must play a role in the international effort to fight the Islamic State, but said this would stop short of providing arms.
Instead, she said, Berlin was ready to deliver armoured vehicles, bullet-proof vests, helmets, booby-trap detectors and medical supplies.
“If it is a question of preventing genocide, it is our duty to intensively discuss what can be done,” Ms von der Leyen said.
The Islamic State campaign presents a practical dilemma to German politicians, in recent months engaged in a theoretical debate about Germany’s engagement in world crisis zones.
In January, German president Joachim Gauck said it was no longer credible for Germany to use its history as a reason to stay out of conflict zones.
Rather than “close its eyes to threats or flee danger”, he told the Munich Security Conference, Germany was obligated to make a contribution to global stability by “defending universal values”.
Both the defence and foreign ministers concurred with his analysis in separate Munich speeches. Ms von der Leyen said Germany was ready to “expand its international responsibility”, while Mr Steinmeier said Germany’s culture of military restraint should not be “misunderstood as a principle of keeping out”.
Courage of convictions
Now Berlin officials can either embrace the courage of their new convictions or fall back on a decades-old instinct to, in times of world crisis, declare first what contribution Germany is not prepared to make.
The debate has divided opinion across the political spectrum, right into opposition benches. When Gregor Gysi, Left Party floor leader in the Bundestag, demanded Berlin help arm the effort against the Islamic State, he was silenced by senior party figures.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, on her summer holiday, has so far declined to comment publicly on how far she is ready to go. She knows military engagement remains a divisive issue in Germany.
A poll in January showed 45 per cent of Germans felt they already did too much in the world, while just 20 per cent said Germany should engage more.