In early July, James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, came to Berlin to discuss possible extension of the Bundeswehr’s involvement in fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. In an interview with German media he said: "We want ground troops from Germany to partially replace our soldiers," Jeffrey said. He noted that primarily their presence is required for non-combat support of the Syrian Kurds but combat should not be ruled out since ground troops would need to be prepared to defend themselves. He also said that he expected a response from the German government before the end of the month.
This was a bit strange because it is the Bundestag, which is authorized to take decisions in such cases. But the German legislators have gone on a summer recess and will gather only in September. Nevertheless, the response came soon. On July 8, the German government's spokesperson Steffen Seibert said that Berlin “intends to continue with its ongoing measures in the framework of the anti-IS coalition.” That means the presence of Germany’s Tornado reconnaissance aircraft and the air taker but no ground troops in Syria, he said.
It is quite clear why Germany so quickly rejected the U.S. request. The Bundestag would have never adopted the initiative to send ground troops to Syria due to a number of reasons. Firstly, it repeatedly raises a tricky question about legitimacy of Germany’s participation in the operation in Syria. Of course, Germany is trying to ground it referring to a number of international legal norms. But these explanations are quite shaky and it seems like in Berlin they do not strongly believe them either. Secondly, the support of the Kurdish organizations in Syria may lead to an aggravation in relations with Ankara. This, in turn, can cause problems within Germany, where the Turkish community is strong. Thirdly, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which is the partner of CDU/CSU in the ruling coalition, unequivocally stated that it would not support such a decision.
According to Daniela de Ridder, who represents the SPD faction in the Bundestag, the controversial international legal status of the operation in Syria used to cause serious differences within the party before and as for the possibility of sending ground troops it is even more controversial. That is why the Social Democrats decided to take an explicitly negative position, she explained. In a different situation, the SPD might have agreed with the CDU/CSU bloc, which did not mind complying with the Americans' request. But now, when the Social Democrats are already in a state of complete disorganization after the resignation of their leader, Andrea Nahles, they don’t want any extra shocks.
Thus, Germany said “no” to the Americans. However, the reservation Berlin made saying that the German Air Force could continue its participation in the operation in Syria after October 31, makes this “no” sound not so decisively. This becomes even more obvious if we take a retrospective look at the whole story.
Jeffrey's visit to Berlin was not unexpected. The United States and Germany have been in talks on sending additional forces to Syria at least since February. In May, Spiegel wrote that after secret talks on the "sidelines" of the Munich Security Conference Berlin alluded to its readiness to take part in defending the "security zone" in the Kurdish areas in Syria.
The magazine also wrote that sending the German ground troops was not on the agenda - Washington understood how difficult it would be for Berlin to adopt that initiative in the Bundestag. Therefore, it concerned only Germany’s participation in covering the "security zone" from the air, which is actually meant the extension of the current mission. In June, when he visited the German military at the Al-Azraq airbase in Jordan, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (by the way, he is a representative of the SPD,) did not rule out that the Bundeswehr forces would continue their participation in the operation.
Currently, the SPD, represented by its acting parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich, says that it considers the German commitments on fighting the IS to be fulfilled and will not support the extension of the mission. But it is difficult to say if the Social Democrats will be of the same opinion in autumn. After all, when the results of the last elections to the Bundestag were announced, they decisively declared that there would go into opposition. However they have been in the government for more than a year.
Despite the fact that the SPD has recently lost the support of many voters, it still considers itself responsible for the fate of the country and the continuous development of its foreign policy, which can play a crucial role. After all, it was the SPD that used to vote for sending the Bundeswehr forces to Syria and Iraq to conduct operations against the IS. By autumn the SPD and the CDU/CSU may come to a compromise on the Syrian issue. This compromise may imply that Germany still refuses to send ground troops to Syria but the mandate of the German armed forces in Syria will be extended and even expanded.
It is likely that this is exactly what the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement was trying to get from Berlin, following the principle: "ask for more, you will get as much as you need."