Europe struggles to find consensus on arming Iraq’s Kurds


German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen visiting Afghanistan in July. (Thomas Peter/AP)

More than some other European governments, German politicians have a tendency to strike a pacifist, moral pose in the realm of foreign policy, and the country often shows a military restraint that reflects its burdened history. Nevertheless, Germany was the world's third-largest arms exporter in 2013 — a place in the rankings that does not really match its perception of itself.

Political Berlin seems to have few substantial objections to sending weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country with a notorious security apparatus and draconian religious laws and that crushed the 2011 protest movement in neighboring Bahrain. German politicians also had a hard time finding explanations when allegations surfaced that Franco-German weapons had been used in northern Syria by al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Such claims are hard to prove. Nevertheless, Berlin found itself trapped in a contradiction -- unwilling to stop its exports, but equally reluctant to directly arm combatants as the United States does. On Tuesday, however, the German Defense Ministry made a sudden turn in saying it was "examining" whether it should deliver military equipment to Iraq's armed forces.

The German statement does not mention the Kurdish pesh merga fighters, but Spiegel Online has reported that the deliveries would be intended for the Iraqi Kurds, as well. The supplies would include material such as armored vehicles, mine-detection equipment, helmets, body armor and medical supplies — but no lethal weapons. "This step is already significant given the broader history of German arms export policy," said Mark Bromley, an expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel — who is not a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party — has furthermore announced that he is "thinking about" delivering weapons to Iraq. Such careful formulations are common in the German political discourse, but might indicate a larger underlying debate about arming the Iraqi Kurds.

The German discussion comes amid a proliferation of European voices calling for arms deliveries to Kurdish fighters in Iraq. Bloomberg reported Tuesday that momentum has grown for an emergency meeting of E.U. foreign ministers to discuss the matter. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the French public radio station France Info earlier: “There is an evident imbalance between this horrible group [the Islamic State] which has sophisticated weapons and the Kurdish pesh mergas, who are courageous but don’t have these weapons." A similar debate about airstrikes can be observed in Britain, which is already involved in the humanitarian rescue operation in northern Iraq.

Arms deliveries and military interventions have previously led to disagreements between European countries. In 2011, Germany abstained during a U.N. vote on intervention in Libya, angering its European partners. For that reason, the growing consensus among European leaders could be significant. "Today's remarks are quite a surprise amid the current discussion about a more restrictive arms exports policy," said Jan Grebe, a German researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion.

"If Germany decides to arm the Kurds, this would be a watershed moment. Germany has so far refrained from delivering such aid to militants," said journalist Thomas Wiegold, a leading authority on Germany's defense industry. In the past, Germany had always refused to deliver arms to rebel groups such as those fighting in Libya or Syria, although it did earlier approve the delivery of arms to Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan, however, is a semi-autonomous region within Iraq, which makes it difficult for foreign governments to directly negotiate arms deliveries. Direct support would also contradict E.U. guidelines that rule out deliveries to warring parties that belong neither to the European Union nor NATO.

According to Oliver Bräuner of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the ongoing discussion about the case of the Iraqi Kurds is part of "two competing and contradictory debates that are currently taking place. Some would like to restrict German arms exports as part of a desire to not repeat historical mistakes. But others would prefer it if Germany played a more active role in solving global conflicts." The German public is largely opposed to military adventures of any kind, and when President Joachim Gauck said in June that it was sometimes necessary to take up arms to fight for human rights, his statement was seen as quite courageous.

In 2010, one of Gauck's predecessors, Horst Koehler, resigned after drawing criticism when he said that German military operations were sometimes necessary "to safeguard our interests, for example free trade routes." That statement came amid Merkel's careful but steadily increasing use of German arms exports to strengthen allied states in crisis-affected regions in recent years. But German moralizing on weapons sales runs deep: In June, Gabriel, the vice chancellor, said he wanted to curb German arms exports to prevent them from reaching the wrong hands.

Such a decision would stand in contrast to the general European trend. The amount of licensed-weapons exports definitely used for military purposes has grown massively in recent decades. From 1998 to 2012, the value of such exports increased about eight-fold, reaching nearly 40 billion euros ($53 billion). But although the arms industry employs 80,000 Germans, the economic success has come at a price: Some of the most reliable customers in this kind of business are countries with repressive regimes.

While German arms exports are usually approved quietly, French presidents have openly advertised their lethal innovations in the past. In 2007, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi for five lavish days in Paris with the aim of securing  an arms deal worth as much as $5.86 billion. Only four years later, France and other countries attacked Libya in an attempt to topple Gaddafi.

That intervention was supposed to be swift and easy. But Libya has turned into a mess, a fractured conflict-zone that has shocked many leaders in Europe. And it will likely shadow the European debate taking place now on weapons deliveries to the Iraqi Kurds.

British Royal Air Force Tornados touch down in Cyprus on their way to carry out surveillance operations for aid deliveries to refugees trapped on the mountains of northern Iraq. (Reuters)
Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs and is based in Europe.

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