BERLIN — Guided by its catastrophic history of warmaking, modern Germany has long been reluctant to send troops to foreign conflicts. But the country has not held back on supplying the world with weapons: It is the globe’s fifth-largest arms exporter.
Now, however, events both at home and abroad are forcing the country to reckon anew whether that role needs to be reconsidered.
After Turkey began an assault on Kurdish militia Jan. 20, German news wires reported this week that German-made Leopard-2 tanks may have been used in the offensive, which displaced an estimated 5,000 people and killed at least two dozen civilians in Syria's northwest Afrin region, according to U.N. reports. The revelation prompted calls, particularly from Germany’s left parties, for an end to arms sales to Turkey.
Even before the report was released, Germany’s political parties had been wrangling over their role in supplying weapons to the Middle East. In their preliminary talks to renew a coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Social Democratic Party won a major victory — a ban on arms exports to countries involved in the war in Yemen.
The Social Democrats have long been pushing for tighter restrictions to countries fueling the conflict in Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and which includes Egypt and several Gulf states, has been trying to crush Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for years, resulting in one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Civil society groups have pointed to German-made patrol boats that may have been used in Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen, where 90 percent of all goods are imported, and as many as 8 million people are facing starvation, according to the United Nations.
“The war in Yemen is so atrocious that we, as the Federal Republic of Germany, must show our partners that this can’t go on,” said Rolf Mützenich, a deputy of the Social Democrats who has advocated for more restrictions on Germany’s arms exports for years.
Mützenich says Germany should not only stop delivering weapons to countries involved in the Yemen conflict directly but also to “transfer” countries such as the United Kingdom, France and South Africa, which import arms — or components to build arms — from Germany, only to export them to countries involved in the Yemen war.
As it stands, the ban’s language is sweeping but ambiguous, stating, “The federal government will no longer permit exports to countries involved in the war in Yemen, effective immediately.”
The ban is part of a preliminary deal intended to form the framework for Germany’s coalition government, but even Merkel’s own party is divided on critical details — whether it applies to existing contracts, whether it includes transfer countries such as the United Kingdom and France, and whether it’ll encompass all weapons, or only some.
“The sentence can’t stand as is,” said Florian Hahn, an MP and member of Merkel’s more conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union. “Otherwise it will trigger irritation among Germany’s international partners and a lot of damage for Germany.”
Michael Brand, another member of the Christian Demcorats, Merkel’s party, said he will defend the statement in forthcoming coalition talks but refused to comment on details. “We won’t let ourselves be forced to act in the interests of a country that’s playing with highly explosive weapons,” he said. “That’s why you’ll find the statement again in the final coalition treaty.”
For Germany, arms exports have long been a key instrument for security and foreign policy. In 2012, Merkel outlined what the German magazine Der Spiegel called “a tectonic shift’ in Germany’s general foreign policy. She told a room full of diplomats and international security experts: “If Germany shies away from military intervention, then it's generally not enough to send other countries and organizations words of encouragement. We must also provide the necessary means to those nations that are prepared to get involved. I’ll say it clearly: This includes arms exports.” She added that this policy would have to align with human rights.
As part of that strategy, Germany has sent arms to a long list of countries. Germany gave 50 armored vehicles to Jordan in 2016 to help the country fight terrorism as part of a multimillion-dollar defense aid package. The initiative also included defense aid for Tunisia, Mali and Niger, among others. In 2014, Germany supplied weapons to Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State militant group in northern Iraq. In the third quarter of 2016 and 2017, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Egypt quintupled.
Arms deals with Turkey go back much further. In the ’80s and ’90s, Germany exported more than 400 tanks to the Turkish military, declaring them part of “German NATO defense aid,” under the condition that they be used only for self-defense from armed attacks.
Turkey says it has acted to defend the country against a militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that has fought a long insurgency against the Turkish state. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey as well as the United States. Turkey’s latest offensive in Syria has targeted PKK-linked militias. But the militias have also been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State and are supported by the United States.
But the debate about whether Turkey is acting in self-defense — or suppressing Kurdish groups seeking greater autonomy — also goes back decades. “Even in the 1980s and 1990s, it was apparent to the government that Turkey could use the tanks against Kurds,” said Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
In 2005, when Turkey started receiving an additional 354 upgraded tanks from Germany, the self-defense condition fell away entirely, according to Der Spiegel. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but, Wezeman said, “we should of course wonder to what extent export revenue, jobs and the lobby from the arms industry plays a role in these decisions.”
In 2017, the German government approved 6.24 billion euros in arms exports, according to the German daily Handelsblatt. The top eight export countries include three countries directly involved in the conflict in Yemen: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.”
German weapons manufacturers employed roughly 55,000 people in 2015, according to data collected by the Hans-Boeckler Foundation. Even though Germany is the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter and the second-largest supplier of arms to Turkey, it’s well behind an even bigger exporter — the United States, which has supplied nearly three times as many weapons to Turkey between 1950 and 2016, according to SIPRI.
On Thursday, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a statement that the government would freeze the decision about whether to grant Turkey’s request for more modernized tanks until a new government has been formed.
Gabriel’s statement comes at a time when relations between Germany and Turkey could hardly be more strained. The countries’ leaders have feuded over Germany’s large Turkish minority, which includes dissidents, Berlin’s criticism over civil rights abuses in Turkey, and German journalists who’ve been imprisoned without charge or trial, one for over 11 months.
Despite Germany’s role as a major arms supplier to Turkey, there are limits to its leverage, said Andrew Feinstein, an expert on the global arms trade. “Even if Germany decided to stop selling weapons to Turkey now, they've got decades worth of German weaponry to use in these sorts of assaults against the Kurds,” Feinstein said.