A New Assertiveness? Germany wades into the Syrian conflict with vote for anti-ISIS military mission

Karin Johnston

Karin L. Johnston

Dr. Karin L. Johnston is a political scientist specializing in international relations, comparative politics, foreign policy analysis, transatlantic relations, and German foreign and security policy. She teaches Comparative European Politics at the School of International Service, American University, in Washington, DC, and has taught courses in International Relations. She has worked in academe, nonprofit organizations, and policy research institutes in Washington, DC, including as Senior Research Associate in the Foreign Policy Program at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS).

Dr. Johnston has written policy analyses on a number of topics, including media and politics in Germany and the United States, United Nations reform, the role of religion in politics, German and U.S. public diplomacy, and U.S.-German-French relations. She has also published on public opinion and foreign policy, specifically, on German public opinion regarding the Bosnia crisis and the 2003 Iraq war. She is currently writing a book examining the German foreign policy decision-making process on out of area operations and the interaction and cooperation between military and civilian components in multilateral peace and stability operations.

Dr. Johnston received a PhD from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, where she also worked as an assistant in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. Fluent in German, Dr. Johnston studied Politics and History at the University of Tübingen and was a Mercator Fellow at the NRW School of Governance, the University of Duisburg-Essen, in 2014.

She is a former fellow of the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program and past president of the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association. She is a member of Women in International Security Studies (WIIS), the International Studies Association, the American Political Science Association, and the International Association for the Study of German Politics.


Three weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the German Bundestag approved a military deployment to provide protection, reconnaissance, and logistics to the military campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS. The swiftness of the decision is in startling contrast to the earlier reluctance of the German federal government to commit significant resources beyond the support being given to the Peshmerga forces in Iraq. An examination of the process and politics of the decision highlights elements of modification of Germany’s policies regarding out-of-area deployments, but these are situated within a process that sets the outer parameters of what is politically sustainable. The question is whether the events of last week signal a turning point in German foreign and security policy and in German willingness to participate in more robust military missions. The answer, again, lies somewhere in between.

The Government’s Mandate

The terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 and the French government’s direct request for German assistance following the EU’s formal invocation of the mutual defense clause of the EU Treaty on 17 November were central to the German government’s decision to deploy German forces to assist the international coalition against ISIS. Chancellor Angela Merkel promised France Germany’s solidarity and “any support” that was required. In the weeks that followed the attacks, the chancellor met with defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and interior minister Thomas de Maizière, followed by meetings with the governing party coalition leadership in the CDU/CSU and SPD. The outlines of the mandate were finalized and presented to the federal cabinet on 1 December 2015.

In the mandate, the legal and constitutional basis for the deployment of German armed forces is supported at four levels:

  • German Basic Law: The deployment is set within a multilateral system of collective security as reflected in Article 24 (2) of the Basic Law;
  • International Law: The deployment’s support of France, Iraq, and the international alliance in their fight against ISIS rests on the right of self-defense as outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter;
  • United Nations Resolutions: The UN Security Council’s passing of three resolutions—2170 (2014), 2199 (12 February 2015), and 2249 (20 November 2015)—establishes the “terrorist organization” ISIS as a threat to world peace and to international security. In particular, the mandate noted that Resolution 2249 calls on the international community to take “all necessary measures, in compliance of international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law” to halt and prevent terrorist acts in the areas in which ISIS is active.
  • EU Treaty of Lisbon: For the first time, France invoked Article 42 (7) of the Lisbon Treaty that states that if “a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.”

The goal of the mission is to contain ISIS and help stabilize Iraq while working with the international alliance within the framework of the Vienna talks to reach a political-diplomatic solution that can lead to the cessation of conflict in Syria and the region. The mission is to support the international alliance but primarily French forces: six RECCE-Tornado reconnaissance jets, one frigate to protect the French aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle” in the eastern Mediterranean, refueling aircraft for French fighter jets, and satellite surveillance capabilities. The mandate, with a set period of twelve months, will provide up to 1,200 soldiers; the budget is set at €134 million. Importantly, the mandate states that the deployed forces have the right to use force in the implementation of their duties. It should also be noted that the German contribution is not limited to the Syrian mission. The Merkel government has announced it will expand the number of soldiers in its missions in Mali (650, which will require a Bundestag vote) and Iraq and will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

The Bundestag Debate

The CDU/CSU and SPD coalition government expedited the procedure and set a rapid pace. In a highly unusual action, it shifted the weekly Wednesday cabinet meeting back one day so that the required 48 hour period between the first and second readings in the plenary could be observed, with the roll call vote set for Friday, 4 December 2015 after the third and final reading.

The plenary debate on 2 December was short (only 77 minutes), heated, and personal. The opposition parties, the Left Party and the Green Party, heaped criticism on the government’s proposed action. The lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan were clearly being ignored; war can only lead to more violence and more civilian deaths. There was no exit strategy nor any clear notion of what the mission would lead to. Critically, Germany’s participation would only increase the threat of terrorist acts in Germany. And with no Chapter VII mandate, the mission was not legally defensible. While the Left Party categorically rejected any use of military force, the Greens were split in their support. Many supported the mission in principle but believed it lacked serious planning and a plausible strategy and required further debate. Green parliamentary faction co-chair Anton Hofreiter charged the government with “actionism”: doing something so that it appears that you are doing something.

The federal government’s response focused on several key points. SPD and CDU/CSU leaders emphasized the mission was a support mission with no ground troops. Furthermore, the mission was legal and legitimate, based as it was on the UN’s clear assertion of ISIS’ threat to world peace, the call for the international community to “use all means” to fight it, and the right of self-defense as stated in Chapter 51 and invoked by France and Iraq. The SPD’s Rolf Mützenich argued that international circumstances, specifically the question of Assad’s future, had prevented passage of a Chapter VII resolution. The Vienna talks aimed to resolve this and to find a political solution for Syria. In the meantime, however, the ISIS threat had to be dealt with and UN Security Council’s Resolution 2249 was sufficient and fulfilled all necessary legal requirements for this response.

Furthermore, if Germany refused to act, it would be even harder to demand solidarity from other European states on other issues. As to the accelerated pace of the decision-making procedure, the government’s response was: why not? As Thomas Oppermann (SPD) argued, there was no need to delay the vote. The details of the mission were straightforward enough, and when necessary the Bundestag can decide quickly. As to the more serious charge of increasing the likelihood of terrorist attacks in Germany, coalition party leaders were quick to note that as a western nation Germany had long been a target, and it had already contributed to efforts to train and arm the Peshmerga in Iraq. The mission would not change the calculus of risk.

The reality of the size of the CDU/CSU-SPD Grand Coalition’s parliamentary majority led one journalist to ask what the acrimony, hypocrisy, and rhetorical bluster were all about if there was never any doubt about the outcome. Indeed, the Grand Coalition controls roughly 80 percent of parliamentary seats—503 out of 630 seats in Bundestag, leaving only 127 for the Left Party and the Greens—which virtually assures the government of passage of much of its legislative and political agenda. In the end, the motion to establish the Syrian mission passed with a vote of 445 in favor, 145 against, with seven abstentions. The vote reflected party political differences on the issue: the yes votes came overwhelmingly from CDU/CSU and SPD, the no votes from the Left Party and Greens (28 of them from the SPD).

Government Motivations

One question to raise here is “why now?” Germany had not been willing to increase its contributions in the past, so what motivated the German government to act as decisively as it did? Of course, solidarity with France in the wake of the Paris attacks and the French government’s invocation of the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 42(7) remains the prime motivation, but there are others. One is Germany’s own security interests, both internally and externally. Another is concern about preserving European security and long-term stability. The growing number of crises facing Europe and the disturbing increase in anti-European, anti-EU sentiment, seen in many populist right-wing parties throughout Europe, pose significant challenges for European leaders. The ability of Europe to function effectively to address these concerns depends still to a great extent on French-German cooperation. This might very well explain the lack of significant opposition within the SPD party.

Shifting Foreign Policy Views?

What other observations can be drawn about the Syrian mission and vote? One important point is the German federal government’s argument, as stated in the mandate, that the action undertaken against ISIS is in keeping with the right of self-defense as stated in Article 51 of the UN Charter and that Resolution 2249 encompasses this right of self-defense. There is no reference to Chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows for sanctions ranging from economic measures to an arms embargo, and if necessary, military force. With the exception of the Kosovo intervention in 1999, the federal government has held to the strictest legal interpretation for out-of-area operations, namely, that German participation is only possible with a UN Security Council mandate. The German government’s argument that UNSC Resolution 2249 provided sufficient international legal authority to deploy German armed forces appears to challenge this seemingly inviolable political precondition. Arguably, the requirement for a UN mandate will remain central to any debate on German armed forces deployment, not least because the German public also demands this, but this shift may signal the acceptance of some flexibility when the situation is deemed urgent enough and the ability to acquire a Chapter VII mandate is uncertain.

The reemergence of a debate about use of the term “war” (shades of the Afghanistan mission) also has been part of the debate on Syria. The German government was at pains to explain why ISIS was not a “state” and thus Germany was not at “war,” presumably in an effort to avoid the use of the word “Kriegseinsatz,” or combat mission, to describe the Syrian deployment (“the Syrian mission is not a Kriegseinsatz, because ISIS is not a state” argued von der Leyen). Critics charged the government with making the same mistake as they had made in Afghanistan; and the head of the Bundeswehr Union (Bundeswehrverband) was quick to reply that for the Bundeswehr, Syria was indeed “a war.” As in Afghanistan, circumstances will most likely necessitate a shift in this rhetoric. The aversion to using the word “war” is understandable given the German public’s deep-seated skepticism about the utility of military force in resolving political conflicts, but the ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll published on 4 December showed that a majority of 58 percent of Germans support the Syrian mission. Notably, a majority of those favoring the mission (59 percent) support precisely those measures the government has planned (reconnaissance and refueling capabilities), with measurably less support for German participation in air strikes (34 percent) or sending ground troops (22 percent).

Finally, the speed of decision-making process and the fast-tracking of the Syrian mission vote is worth discussion. There is a long-standing criticism about German policy decision-making on out-of-area operations held primarily by Germany’s NATO allies, i.e., that the need to secure parliamentary approval causes delays in responding to urgent international conflicts and holds Germany’s partners hostage to German domestic political dynamics. A June 2015 report by the Rühe Commission—tasked by the Bundestag with recommending measures to reform the Bundestag’s constitutive right of approval of deployment of armed forces—showed that such views of the Bundestag are misguided. Not only did the Commission find no reason to impinge on parliament’s right of approval, it found no real issue with the Bundestag’s length of decision-making. Specifically, it noted that none of the Bundestag’s 138 procedural votes on mandates and mandate extensions since the 1994 Constitutional Court decision upholding the constitutionality of out-of-area missions have been rejected. Of the 100 procedural votes taken after the passage of the Parliamentary Participation Act in 2005, 96 were formally debated in the plenary. Of these mandates and mandate extensions, the parliamentary process from the first reading to the final vote took nine days or less; after 23 days, 94 of the 96 proceedings were finalized. The Syrian mission mandate—from submission to final vote—took four days, showing the Bundestag is capable of responding quickly if deemed necessary. In urgent cases where speed was essential, the Bundestag was able to call a session and vote within one day. The expedited procedure also had a very pragmatic side to it. While the governing coalition cited the need to assist the French as quickly as possible, critics noted that both coalition parties had scheduled party congresses the following week. Unsurprisingly, party leaders (particularly the SPD) wanted the Syrian vote resolved before having to face their party base.


As German officials stressed, the Federal Republic’s contribution to the fight against ISIS must be seen within the broader efforts of the international community, of responding militarily to the ISIS threat while pushing for a political and diplomatic solution. In some ways, Germany’s commitment to expanding its contributions to the fight against ISIS is a turning point. The federal government’s claim that its Syrian mission is fully supported by international law despite the absence of a UN Chapter VII mandate is a break with earlier legal arguments. This does not mean the German government will no longer insist on the necessity of a UN mandate for action, but it appears as if the parameters for what constitutes an international legal legitimation for action may have shifted some. Future decisions will still be shaped by domestic political constraints, such as the rejection of fielding ground troops, and guided by fundamental principles in German foreign policy—a commitment to multilateralism and a rejection of “going it alone,” a deep aversion to the use of military force, and an emphasis on non-military aspects of security and defense policy. German policymakers will remain sensitive to the limits of public support. Germans have supported sending military forces abroad, but there remains an uneasy balance between the public’s recognition of Germany’s international role and its instinctive mistrust of using military force to resolve political conflict. Public opposition won’t necessarily determine policy, but the culture of reticence on military matters will continue to shape German leaders’ perceptions of what is politically feasible with regard to its military commitments. The challenge for German policymakers is finding a path between the demands of governance in a globalized world and domestic political constraints regarding the efficacy of military force.

Dr. Karin L. Johnston teaches at the School of International Service, the American University, in Washington DC. Her research has focused on foreign policy analysis, U.S.-European relations, public opinion, and German foreign and security policy.



Bundestag Press Office, “Deutsche Beteiligung am Syrien-Einsatz,” available at:

“Bundestagsdebatte zum Syrien-Einsatz: Es sollte wehtun,” Die Zeit, 4 December 2015, available at:

“Bundeswehreinsatz in Syrien, Aus Liebe zu Frankreich,” Die Zeit, 27 November 2015, available at:

“Kampf gegen den IS, Bundestag schickt bis zu 1200 Soldaten in Syrien-Einsatz,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
4 December 2015, available at: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/kampf-gegen-den-terror/abstimmung-`ueber-bundeswehreinsatz-gegen-is-13947964.html

German Bundestag, Plenarprotokoll 18/144, 4 December 2015.

Rühe Commission Report, Unterrichtung durch die Kommission zur Überprüfung und Sicherung der
Parlamentsrechte bei der Mandatierung von Auslandseinsätzen der Bundeswehr, Deutscher Bundestag Drucksache 18/5000, June 2015.

Rühe Commission Report, Appendix 25, “Zur parliamentarischen Praxis der Beratung von Anträgen auf
Zustimmung zu bewaffneten Einsätzen der Streitkräfte, June 2015.

“Bundeswehr-Einsatz gegen den IS: auf ungewisser Mission,” Spiegelonline, 1 December 2015, available at:

“Krieg gegen IS: Bundeswehr in Syrien – darf Deutschland das?” Spiegelonline, 27 November 2015, available at:

“Mehrheit für Syrien-Einsatz,” ARD-DeutschlandTrend, Tagesschau.de, available at:

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.