Germany snubs US request to send ground troops to Syria

Given its history, Germany’s overseas military commitments have been consistently limited in scope.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Stubborn concerns. A Kurdish policeman searches a man at a checkpoint controlled by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on a highway in Hasakah province.  (AP)
Stubborn concerns. A Kurdish policeman searches a man at a checkpoint controlled by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on a highway in Hasakah province. (AP)

TUNIS - Following Germany’s refusal to deploy ground troops to Syria to backfill the drawdown of US forces, lawmakers in Paris and London provided some relief to Washington with commitments to increase their presence in the region by 10-15%.

In addition to fighting remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS), the US-led coalition’s presence in support of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is critical in deterring a Turkish assault on the territory they hold.

In December 2018, US President Donald Trump announced the complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Given what many feel is the immense debt owed to the SDF for its sacrifices in fighting ISIS, as well as the risk of that militant group resurfacing, the suggestion of leaving the Kurds isolated in Syria is politically and militarily unthinkable.

“For the [SDF] to be able to administer north-eastern Syria for the long term, it will need a patron of some sort,” said Jeffrey Martini, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. “That could be a continued US presence in the area, which deters the regime and Turkey from a large-scale ground invasion to push back the Kurds.”

The situation remains fluid, Martini pointed out, with opposing positions of the regime and the Kurds far from fixed. “The alternative formula would be if the Syrian regime and the Kurds reach an accommodation,” he said. “In that case, no US presence would be necessary to sustain the Kurdish position, although the Kurds would need to make important concessions to the regime.”

Though Britain and France have long-standing presences in Syria, Germany’s contribution has largely been limited to ancillary support. To reverse that, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey travelled to Germany in early July, telling Deutsche Presse-Agentur and Welt am Sonntag newspaper: “We want ground troops from Germany to partially replace our soldiers.” He said he expected an answer from the German government this month.

The answer came July 8, with a German government spokesman saying: “When I say the government envisages sticking to the current measures in the anti-ISIS (military) coalition, this includes no ground troops, as is well known.”

Though the increase in the military commitment of France and Britain will likely diffuse a potential diplomatic flare-up, analysts said they are sceptical of the contribution a German deployment to Syria might make.

“Germany’s contribution is mainly in training, intel, support and logistics,” said David Pollack, a fellow at the Washington Institute, “plus use of medical facilities as needed at Ramstein (a large US base in Germany) and elsewhere.

“It is small and mainly symbolic but politically important to both sides.” Pollack said. He added that he doubted the friction between Germany and the Trump administration, centring not least on Germany’s contributions to NATO, played a significant role in Berlin’s decision making. “It’s much more about internal legal and political issues, as always even before Trump,” Pollack said.

Given its history, Germany’s overseas military commitments in recent decades have been consistently limited in scope and, prior to 1994, non-existent. There is widespread public and political scepticism towards overseas military commitments, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Greens, liberal Free Democrats and Left party, urging their leader to decline the United States’ request for troops.

Concerns also exist over German troops’ readiness to engage in a mission that could extend beyond technical support for the SDF to active combat. German forces are known to be lacking in basic supplies, such as protective vests and winter clothing, and, a leaked report from last year indicated, they had resorted to painted broomsticks in place of rifles during NATO exercises.

However, the 10-15% increase promised by France and Britain will come as relief to policymakers in Washington tasked with extricating the United States from the Syrian conflict.

Nevertheless, even with an increased contribution from Italy, which is expected, plus further reinforcements from Balkan states, the fresh troops will not be enough to compensate for the United States’ planned drawdown, potentially opening a door for the resurgence of ISIS.

Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy that it was likely ISIS would “over time be able to prey upon local grievances,” as it did in before its 2014 takeover of major cities, and “reconstitute and be able to take territory.”