The European Union is once again proving that its voice is not unified and this is especially in situations that require quick action and speedy decisions. While Iraq is literally falling apart this time around, EU members have not even managed to organize a full-fledged emergency meeting to discuss what shape Europe’s action should take. French and Italian foreign ministers, Laurent Fabius and Federica Mogherini, have called for the EU28 to organize such a round table, writing in a letter addressed to Catherine Ashton that “faced with the tragedy on its doorstop, Europe cannot remain inactive”. Indeed, should Turkey’s accession to the European Union take place one day, the EU would share a direct border with Iraq. Nonetheless, Italian and French foreign ministers lack the support of Europe’s number one economy as Germany is still observing and elaborating while probably hoping that things will somehow sort out in the end.
After years of Kurds’ pleads to the U.S. government to supply them with weapons, Washington kept on refusing this request until recently out of fear that Kurds would sell their weapons to the Iraqi government. Following the failed mission launched by George W. Bush Jr. in 2003, the American desire has been to keep Iraq united – which goes exactly contrary to the crisis that is currently unfolding in the country. The game has now changed and Kurdish peshmerga fighters must face militants and jihadists of the Islamic state (ISIS). Washington started to understand that helping out Kurds might be the only way to keep Yazadi and Christian communities relatively safe. As a result, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf has recently announced that the U.S. has started supplying weapons directly to the Kurdish troops.
In Europe, Germany is very reluctant to send weapons to Iraqi Kurds despite the American leadership. The official statement of the German foreign ministry reaffirmed that this was not a “viable option”. Instead, the ministry focuses on humanitarian aid, which is now worth almost 6 million euros and targets mainly refugees throughout the country. Voices within the German debate on Iraq are mixed. While some claim that the decision not to supply weapons is a right one as it draws on the 1998 rule forbidding exports of weapons if human rights are threatened, others seek to remind German politicians of the country’s importance in the military business. In fact, Germany is the world’s third-biggest exporter of weapons and in the past supplied guns to such ‘problematic’ countries as Qatar or Saudi Arabia, whereby the former is well-known for re-supplying those weapons and money to jihadist groups elsewhere. It may also be worth remembering that the chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein used against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s were to a great extent provided by German trade programs. However, the current conflict is not confined to Iraqi borders anymore but it rather involves the whole region.
The EU meeting on August 12 did not yield any significant results on the matter of weapon supplies. While traditionally not being able to find a consensus concerning the supply of guns during conflicts, Brussels has at least admitted that it had no right to forbid particular Member States to do so if they decided to go ahead with arms supplies to Iraqi Kurds. Europe’s dilemma is justifiable and its efforts to find a consensus appear to be an insurmountable task. On the one hand, there is the concern that supplying Kurds with guns could potentially create “a really big army” which could naturally prompt to fight for the Kurdish cause in neighbouring Turkey and Iran. On the other hand, not helping Kurds could create a humanitarian catastrophe with hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees struggling to survive in the inhospitable desert.
The EU loves positioning itself as a moral and ethical role model especially when it comes to dealing with foreign affairs. Understandably, it is afraid of the possible responsibility it would have to assume if the Kurds used their weapons to activate their fellow compatriots just outside the Iraqi borders to build their own state. In this light, EU’s recent decision to postpone supplies of weapons after Brussels had discussed this option with Turkey and Iraq may seem justifiable. But is the EU ready to assume its responsibility for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Christians, and Yazadis if it decides not to supply weapons? Is it better to play on the morality note and let Kurds die in the hands of unmerciful jihadists?
In 1994, the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi people took place because Europe was too occupied with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It took place also because the Hutus were supplied by weapons, and also because the conflict was perceived to be too far away to really matter to the West. Is the Ukrainian crisis going to overshadow the pending genocide in Iraq just because the former conflict is happening in its vicinity and thus matters much more to Europe? Let’s hope that the EU has really learned its Rwandan lesson.