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Von der Leyen talks 'IS' strategy in Turkey

Udo Bauer, Incirlik / groJanuary 21, 2016

The German army has been flying reconnaissance missions over Syria and Iraq for the anti-"IS" coalition. The defense minister has lauded Germany's role, despite open questions, reports DW's Udo Bauer from Incirlik.

Türkei Ursula von der Leyen trifft Ismet Yilmaz in Incirlik
Image: Reuters/T. Schwarz

Incirlik is enormous. The NATO base in southern Turkey has two runways and is like a city in itself. It's where Turkish, US and, more recently, German soldiers live and work. The German minister pays them a visit and asks for on-site details on how the German contribution to the anti-"IS" coalition's fight against the terrorist group works. Right at the beginning, she praises the Bundeswehr for the quick, accurate and conscientious manner in which it goes about its work.

After all, the six reconnaissance Tornado jets have flown nearly 40 missions over Syria and Iraq in 14 days. They always fly in pairs: two planes in the morning and two in the afternoon. They provide real time or slightly delayed images of "IS" positions and troops so that aircraft from other nations can bomb them later.

Turkish counterpart does not speak of 'IS'

Turkish Defense Minister Ismat Yilmaz is present during German Defense Minister Ursula on der Leyen's visit. Pleasantries are exchanged, respects are payed to the other country's victims of terrorism and the aim to fight terrorism is voiced. Yet there is one small but important difference between them. Yilmaz does not use the word IS. He prefers to use phrases like, "We want to fight terrorism – no matter what name it bears." By that, he means that Turkey views the Kurdish PKK as an enemy.

The German delegation does not comment on this. It just mentions how glad it is that Turkey has been boosting support measures in the fight against "IS." For a long time now, Turkey had made the fight against PKK militia a priority. Only after two terrorist attacks in Turkey's major cities did the country feel compelled to rethink the situation.

Deutschland Türkei Ursula von der Leyen mit Soldaten in Incirlik
Defense Minister von der Leyen (left) inspects equipment at the Incirlik baseImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

Trust is good, but control is better

According to the parliamentary mandate, Germany cannot completely trust its Turkish allies. Therefore, arrangements have been made to prevent German aerial images from being used by Turkish forces to find and attack Kurdish positions. Two German officers filter the mission orders and results before they are passed on to the Allies and guarantee, as stated in the presentation, that "faithfulness to the mandate" is guaranteed.

One of the two is referred to as the "Red Card Holder" who can stop everything. Really? Tobias Lindner, member of German parliament for the Green Party, and member of the delegation accompanying the minister, hears this and still needs to ask many questions, like, "Who exactly orders the German flights and who has access to the data?"

Deutschland Türkei Ursula von der Leyen in Incirlik Tornado
German Tornado reconnaissance aircraft are being used to photograph 'IS' positionsImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

Can't get images of murdered Jordanian pilot out of their heads

Something else urgently needs to be addressed. Although the German missions over "IS" territory have more or less been depicted as a three hour walk in the park, they are still dangerous. The Commodore of the combat wing, Colonel Michael Krah, openly admits it.

Infografik gestorbene Syrien seit 2011 Englisch

The images of the executed Jordanian pilots last year, "still bother the crews a great deal. They cannot get the images out of their heads." "IS" is indeed in possession of weapons with a range of over 3,000 meters, which is the minimum altitude at which the German Tornado jets fly. But hitting one is, "very unlikely; it is theoretical."

Let us hope that the theory does not turn into practice. Even a well-meaning parliamentarian could not bear the thought of a German pilot falling into the hands of an "IS" assassin.