German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her government’s taboo-breaking decision to send arms to Kurds fighting Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq, telling parliament yesterday that the group posed a major security threat to Germany and Europe.
A day after Berlin announced it would send anti-tank rockets, assault rifles and hand grenades to the Kurds, Merkel said Germany had a responsibility to intervene in the conflict to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, citing evidence of ethnic cleansing by Islamic State fighters.
“We have the opportunity to save lives and stop the further spread of mass murder in Iraq,” Merkel said. “We have the chance to prevent terrorists from creating another safe haven for themselves. We must take this chance.”
“The far-reaching destabilisation of an entire region affects Germany and Europe,” Merkel said in a speech to the Bundestag lower house, noting that the Islamist group controlled an area in Iraq and Syria that was half the size of Germany.
“Ladies and gentlemen, when terrorists take control of a vast territory to give themselves and other fanatics a base for their acts of terror, then the danger rises for us, then our security interests are affected,” she added.
Germany, weighed down by its Nazi past, has shied away from direct involvement in military missions for much of the post-war era.
And even in those conflicts where German troops have been involved, such as Afghanistan, politicians have tended to describe the missions as humanitarian, rebuilding exercises rather than war.
Recent polls show that two in three Germans believe the government should not be sending weapons to Kurdish fighters despite reports of atrocities committed by IS insurgents.
Critics fear the arms could end up in the hands of jihadists.
Others worry that Germany, which has not experienced a major attack on its own soil, could become a target itself if it intervenes.
But Merkel noted in her speech that more than 400 Germans and hundreds of other Europeans had travelled to the region to join the fight alongside Islamic State, sometimes referred to as ISIS.
These fighters could return home at any time, she said, and therefore already represented a direct threat to Germany.
“We must fear these fighters could return one day” and mount attacks in European cities, she said. “The enormous suffering of many people cries to the heavens and our own security interests are threatened.”
“We faced a choice: not to take any risks, not to deliver (arms) and to accept the spread of terror; or to support those who are desperately but courageously fighting the barbarous terror of ISIS with limited resources,” Merkel said. “We are aware of the risks of this support, of course we considered them. But we also asked ourselves about the acute risks from ISIS if we do not deliver arms.”
Germany has already shipped humanitarian aid and defensive equipment, such as helmets and body armour, to Iraqi Kurds.
On Sunday, the government released a new list which includes 16,000 G3 and G36 assault rifles, 30 Milan anti-tank missile systems, 240 rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) and 10,000 hand grenades.
As well as weapons, Germany plans to send other items such as tents, helmets and radio equipment. The first deliveries will be able to equip about 4,000 soldiers by the end of September.
The equipment, which has been taken out of German army reserves, is valued at â¬70mn ($ 92mn). A total of â¬50mn euros in humanitarian assistance has also been earmarked.
Meanwhile the Bundeswehr army plans to bring a small group of Kurdish peshmerga fighters to southern Germany for a week’s training with the equipment.
Merkel said Germany was also prepared to take in additional Iraqi refugees, without specifying a number.
The move comes three years after Germany came under sharp criticism from its allies and some critics at home for siding with China and Russia in refusing to back military intervention in Libya in a United Nations vote.
Stung by that criticism, members of Merkel’s new “grand coalition” government, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, spoke out earlier this year about the need for Germany to assume more responsibility in foreign affairs.
Since then, Berlin has played an active role in mediating in the Ukraine crisis and pushing for European sanctions against Russia. The decision to send arms to Iraq represents yet another step in the direction of a more active foreign policy.
“What is new is that in an acute crisis situation, German arms are being delivered in order to influence the crisis, to help a partner and to prevent danger. This hasn’t happened before,” Volker Perthes, the head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Reuters. “It is clear that something is changing in Germany.”