It’s not what you think, or at least not what Laurent Fabius meant. No doubt some will see his quip about “the holiday period” as a reference to our own vacationing President, but the context of his remarks on Iraq and ISIS actually cut the opposite direction. While the US conducts airstrikes and mulls options for more effective military intervention to rescue the Yazidis threatened with genocide, the French Foreign Minister was calling out other Western nations to awaken from their stupor — and he may have struck a nerve:
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, back from a weekend trip to Iraq, urged his European counterparts to consider supplying soldiers in Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan with weapons.
The equipment, he said, would help Kurds contain the advance of Islamist militants calling themselves the Islamic State, who have taken over large swaths of Iraq and neighboring Syria in recent months.
“There is an evident imbalance between this horrible terrorist group which has highly sophisticated weapons, and Peshmergas, the Kurdish fighters, who are extremely courageous but don’t have the same equipment,” Mr. Fabius said on France Info radio. “I know it is the holiday period in our Western countries, but when people are dying, you must come back from vacation.”
Several European countries, including France, the U.K. and Italy, have contributed to humanitarian missions in Iraq aimed at supporting Christian and Yazidi civilians who face slaughter by the Islamic State’s puritanical fighters.
But no European country has proposed sending troops to Iraq or joining the U.S. in conducting airstrikes against Islamist insurgents—a hangover from the previous Iraq war, when some European leaders were lambasted by their voters for participating.
In the literal sense, Fabius wants Western leaders in Europe to get back to work ASAP from their traditional August holiday to address this crisis before it’s too late. But Fabius’ remarks apply in a more allegorical sense, too. European leaders got stung for their participation in the 2003 Iraq war, and that has pushed them to ignore the collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the rise of ISIS. Much like the Obama administration over the last three years, Europe has been content to pretend that the war in Iraq was over, and that any issues still active there were within the competence of Baghdad to resolve.
Over the last several months, though, it has become apparent that ISIS is a threat far beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, and that communities which should fall within the concern of the West — especially the ancient Christian communities that long precede Islam — were on the verge of annihilation. The Kurds on which the West relied for integration and stability appear to be next, and without some significant help in materiel and logistics may not last much longer. Europe, like the US, has mostly been on vacation while these developments snowballed into the genocidal insanity now on display.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the US and France have responded more realistically than others, at least in terms of supplying the Peshmerga with ammunition and competitive arms. The US has also launched airstrikes, with not too much effectiveness, while our NATO partners dither on whether to contribute to those efforts. However, the EU may finally be waking up, at least a little:
The European Union failed on Tuesday to agree on a joint position on supplying weapons to Iraqi Kurds battling Islamic State militants, but said individual members could send arms in coordination with Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani asked the international community on Sunday to provide the Kurds with weapons to help them fight the militants, whose dramatic push through the north has startled world powers.
EU ambassadors, holding an extraordinary meeting to discuss the crises in Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza, gave the green light for individual governments to send arms under set conditions.
“The (ambassadors) noted the urgent request by the Kurdish regional authorities to certain member states for military support and underlined the need to consider this request in close coordination with the Iraqi authorities,” a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Diplomats said some EU states opposed sending arms, meaning there was no EU-wide agreement to do so, but that they could not prevent other countries from doing so, if they wished.
The UK’s parliament and government, though, still wants to stay on the sidelines a little while longer. The Obama administration has been working the phones to get more NATO countries to follow France’s lead, with some success. The WSJ report mentions that Turkey has agreed to get tougher on terrorism, and today’s Washington Post notes the belated efforts of the Erdogan government:
Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet. …
Alarmed by the growing might of the Islamic State, Turkey has started cracking down. Working with the United States and European governments, Turkish officials have enacted new safeguards to detain foreign fighters trying to get into Syria and launched a military offensive aimed at curtailing the smuggling of weapons and supplies across the border.
But in a region engulfed by a broadening conflict, Turkey is also reaping what it sowed. It is engaging in border shootouts with rebels it once tactically aided. It is confronting spillover violence, a cutoff in its trade routes and a spreading wave of fear in Turkish towns as the Islamic State wins over defectors from rival opposition groups.
And despite the new measures, the Islamic State is still slipping through Turkish nets — raising doubts about international efforts to put a stranglehold on a radical Sunni group known for public crucifixions and the beheading of enemies.
Turkey may be belatedly returning from vacation in an allegorical sense, too, but this headache won’t go away by just closing borders and cutting off access to goods and services. The Yazidis and the Kurds will not be saved by pretending that the entire problem is Iraqi disunity, either. Fabius has a better grasp on that than most of his continental colleagues, which is why his remarks are aimed at them, rather than across the pond.
Update: Just to underscore this, White House adviser Ben Rhodes conceded that the administration has a military operation to rescue the Yazidis under serious consideration. Just don’t call it “combat,” even if combat occurs:
Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Martha’s Vineyard that President Obama would probably receive recommendations in the next several days about how to mount a rescue operation to help the refugees, who are stranded on a mountaintop surrounded by Sunni militants. He said those recommendations could include the use of American ground troops.
But he drew a distinction between the use of American forces to help a humanitarian mission and the use of troops in the battle against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, something he said the president had rejected before and continued to oppose.
“What he’s ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” Mr. Rhodes said. He added, using an alternative name for the militant group, that the deployment of ground troops to assist a rescue was “different than reintroducing U.S. forces in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL.”
He acknowledged that any ground troops in Iraq would face dangers, even if they were there to help the refugees find a safe way off the mountain. He said that like American forces anywhere, the troops would have the ability to defend themselves if they came under fire.
That confirms this morning’s Wall Street Journal report. If they want to rescue the Yazidis, though, they’d better hurry it up — and they’d better expect combat to erupt during the mission, too.
Update: I edited the paragraph after the first excerpt to make my point more clear.