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Out of Incirlik?

August 25, 2016

German parliamentarians are openly debating the withdrawal of German soldiers from Turkey's Incirlik air base. Now is the time for an even-tempered German government that draws clear lines, writes DW's Christoph Strack.

Türkei Incirlik
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr/Falk Bärwald

According to a defense ministry spokesperson, Incirlik is the "place to be" for Tornado jets, Germany's reconnaissance aircraft. There is apparently no better place for them. And yet the ministry has confirmed that there are other sites from which the German jets could launch their reconnaissance flights to Syria and Iraq - no more and no less was said. Incidentally, Cyprus - from where the British carry out excellent reconnaissance work - and Jordan have been mentioned; Greek air bases would certainly be an option as well.

The ministry can only do what the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, decides on. For very good historical reasons, the German Bundeswehr is a parliamentary army. Any deployment of troops requires its approval. They usually agree with a clear majority and must justify every mission to the people, soldiers and their families. That is exactly why in 2002, for example, parliamentarians wanted to visit German soldiers in Afghanistan not long after the Bundeswehr had begun its mission there.

Tornado sorties questionable

So it is more than understandable that members of parliament wanted to - and still want to - go to Incirlik. So far, Ankara has said "no." The Turkish government barred German MPs from visiting the air base after the Bundestag passed a resolution recognizing the genocide of Armenians and other minorities under Ottoman rule a century ago.

Now, it is not just members of the opposition ranting. Even Rainer Arnold, defense expert for Germany's center-left Social Democrat (SPD) junior ruling coalition partners, and Ingo Gädechens, the spokesman of the parliamentary defense committee and member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), stated in almost identical terms that if Ankara continued to deny German parliamentarians official visits to Incirlik, then the days of the Tornado sorties would be numbered. Of course, pulling out of Incirlik would be the "logical consequence." This also includes a mission that the German side, government and parliament, quickly approved after the bloody attacks in Paris last year.

Strack Christoph Kommentarbild App
DW's Christoph StrackImage: DW

And yet a strange feeling remains in light of comments made by security and defense policy makers – even some nonsensical talk of reintroducing compulsory military service. Generally, politicians specializing in security are usually deliberating professionals; seething conflicts seldom erupt.

That is why it is remarkable how much each party has politicized the issue of Incirlik in the media. If Incirlik is dumped, the planned German AWACS reconnaissance mission at the end of the year will have ended before it even began. Ultimately, the aircraft are only supposed to be active outside Iraqi and Syrian airspace. If Incirlik is abandoned, it in many ways brings into question the entire matter of Germany's presence at NATO bases in Turkey. Germany has pledged loyalty to the alliance, as has Turkey. Then it would come down to fundamental issues.

Waiting for Merkel's keynote speech on foreign policy

On September 6, Bundestag plenary sessions resume. Four days will be spent on the next national budget. Both the general debate on the Chancellery's budget and section 14, the defense ministry budget, must mention Germany's commitment in the fight against terror and German Tornado jets in Incirlik– and the significance of German parliament for the deployment of German soldiers abroad.

Right before September 6, the German Chancellor will be taking part in a two-day G20 summit in China. There she will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time since Turkey's failed coup attempt. Again, as in the meeting between the two at the Warsaw NATO summit in early July, parliamentarians should expect one thing: that Merkel speaks clearly to the Turkish president on the role of German parliament and its freedom.

And if the matter is not resolved, the Chancellor will be under extra pressure when she faces the Bundestag days later. Either way, she will have to make a special speech on foreign policy at a general debate.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C