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Europe Is Still Pondering What to Do in Iraq

Should the European Union respond to the Kurdish plea for support? France says: definitely, Germany says no way.
Image via AP

For years, Kurdish officials in Iraq have been pleading with the US government to supply them with weapons. Washington has refused these pleas for just as long, insisting it would only sell to the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The aim was to keep Iraq united, and a stronger, better-equipped Kurdish army could have led to the independence of a semi-autonomous Kurdistan in the north.

The game has now changed with militant fighters of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) bringing chaos to the region and overpowering the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. As State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told CNN today, the US has now started providing arms and ammunition directly to the Kurdish troops.


In the meantime, the European Union is still debating its position, measuring the pros and cons of sending arms, and — as often happens — its stance is not united. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for an emergency meeting of his European counterparts today after returning from a trip to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. “Faced with the tragedy on its doorstep, Europe cannot remain inactive,” he wrote in a letter to European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton. Italy seems to be taking a similar stance with Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini calling for a “unified European position” to stop the Islamic State offensive.

The German government is continuing its recent practice of watching on and hoping things will just play out okay. A foreign ministry spokesperson said on Monday in Berlin that supplying weapons to the Kurds is not a viable option. The ministry is instead focusing on humanitarian aid, with the foreign minister raising the total financial aid for refugees in Iraq to $5.9 million over the weekend.

If the Kurdish army won the war thanks to international weapons supplies, “we’d have to deal with a very big army, that would make its neighboring states like Iran and Turkey very nervous.

Green MP and Middle East expert Omid Nouripour agrees that the current German stance of not providing weapons to troubled regions is the right decision and should be upheld. Germany implemented a rule in 1998 stating that no weapons can be exported if there’s a threat of human rights violations or aggravating an ongoing crisis. Nouripour also stated that supplying weapons to the Kurds would be unwise, even in the face of the current Islamic State threat, as it might lead to further conflict with Turkey and Iran. If the Kurdish army won the war thanks to international weapons supplies, “we’d have to deal with a very big army, that would make its neighboring states like Iran and Turkey very nervous,” Nouripour told German radio station DeutschlandradioKultur.


Yet Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, director of WADI, an Iraqi-German non-governmental organization, calls this utter nonsense. Germany is the world’s third-largest weapon exporter and has in the past supplied weapons to both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and, as he told VICE News, the latter is known to support jihadist groups with money and weapons. Thus Germany is already indirectly providing all the “wrong” people with weapons, Osten-Sacken said, adding that maybe it’s time they started providing them to the “right” side as well.

Osten-Sacken also points out that in the case of the Kurds the chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein used against them in the 1980s were mostly provided though German trade programs. So for the Germans to now claim they cannot provide the weapons to support the Kurdish militia fighting for their survival is just utterly hypocritical. In this case, technically one cannot even speak of exporting weapons, since Kurdish President Massoud Barzani isn’t looking to buy them.

That the US is finally providing weapons is an important step, Osten-Sacken said, because after the failure of Iraqi troops to stop the onslaught of the Islamic State fighters, Kurdish militias are now the only power responsible for the fate of the Yazidi and Christian population in the region. If the Islamic State were to break though to Kurdistan, the next humanitarian crisis is just waiting to happen — with millions of Kurds having to flee their homes. The Islamic State militants consider the Kurds as infidels.


The Islamic State can only be stopped with violence and the Kurds won’t manage to do that by themselves.

“The Islamic State can only be stopped with violence and the Kurds won’t manage to do that by themselves,” Osten-Sacken continued. “This conflict is not confined to Iraq, it involves the entire region. Islamic State fighters are also in Lebanon, Jordan is threatened, the only reason Islamic State is this strong is because of the political failure in Syria. In order to beat Islamic State and find a long-term political solution one must focus on the entire region.”

He also urged the European countries to develop a unified strategy for dealing with the approximately 10 million refugees in the region relieving Jordan, Lebanon and other countries in the region who cannot deal with the number of refugees in their overflowing camps.

Markus Kaim, director of the Berlin foundation Wissenschaft und Politik is also taking a critical stance: “We see now that it was a huge mistake to not support the Syrian opposition, that was fighting ISIS in Syria at the time,” he told German radio station NDR. “If we compare this situation to the one we have now in Iraq that leads to one conclusion, which is to support the Kurds militarily. Whether that should be done with supplying weapons, or by providing training or other measures, that remains to be decided.” Kaim described Kurdish fighters as “the ground troops of the West in the fight against the Islamic militants.”

By refusing to provide military support, Kaim says, Germany risks the accusation of not following up its word with actions. No one could deny that the Islamic State is destabilizing Iraq and the entire Middle East. “This is a political task, not just a humanitarian one. And the German government will have to ask itself in the face of this analysis what it has contributed.”

Follow Chris Köver on Twitter: @ckoever