European States Scale up their Involvement in Iraq but at What Price?

By Barbara Gianessi, MEDEA Institute

After several weeks of hesitation the European Union has agreed to endorse the decision by some Member States of a greater involvement in the Iraqi conflict. During an emergency meeting, held on August 15th in Brussels, the twenty-eight European foreign ministers released a joint declaration welcoming any effort to provide weapons to the Kurdish fighters, currently engaged in an intense confrontation with the Islamic State’s militants in the North of Iraq [1]. France and the United Kingdom have already started delivering some military supplies to the Kurdish forces, while Italy and the Czech Republic are still examining ways to assist. Germany is also working toward supplying the military in northern Iraq, but mainly with transport and non-lethal supplies.


© Reuters, Ari Jalal, Kurdish Peshmerga troops participate in a security deployment against Islamic State militants.

This decision marks a shift from the previous wait-and-see policy of European countries that in the past few weeks seemed to consider the deepening crisis in Iraq mainly an American problem [2]. Several elements might explain why the EU was reluctant to take action on the Iraqi crisis. First of all, European decision-makers still bear the burden of Western invasion of Iraq in 2003, an intervention that not only represented a deeply divisive moment for the international community, but that also ended up further exacerbating the sectarianism in Iraq. Secondly, the EU is well aware of the complexity of the Iraqi scenario, which at the moment is deeply intertwined with the Syrian civil war, an ongoing conflict that has exposed the international community unwillingness, or incapacity, to elaborate a shared solution. Now in control of roughly a third of Syria and large areas of Iraq, the Islamic State has been seizing territory from rival Islamist groups. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, the Islamic State in Syria experienced its fastest expansion to date, recruiting around 6,300 new fighters in July. Finally, it must be noted that the IS surge in Iraq has been made possible possible also thanks to the alliance with local Sunni groups, whose political grievances have remained unheard during the administration of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

al abadi

© AP, Karim Kadim. Iraqi lawmaker Haidar al-Abadi was appointed to become Iraq’s prime minister

Key to accelerating the EU States’ reaction was this month assault against religious minorities, notably the Yazidis, an ancient but relatively small religion that the Islamic State group views as heretic. According to the UN up to 20,000 Yazidis are trapped in the mountains in northern Iraq, while hundreds have been killed or abducted and many more are still menaced by the IS [3]. Furthermore, the European countries are seriously concerned by the reports claiming that about 1,700 radical Muslim from France, Britain and Germany are believed to have joined the IS, posing a potential threat for the EU territory [4]. In fact, just a few months ago, in May, four people were killed in an attack to the Brussels’ Jewish Museum, allegedly perpetrated by a radical French Islamist who fought in Syria.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour

© Reuters. Displaced Yazidi people flee from violence in Iraq

The European initiative comes as the political future of Iraq still hangs in the balance. On the military front, the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, on Monday recaptured the strategically important Mosul dam with the help of US air strikes. On August 8th Washington decided to re-engage in Iraq with what is now still considered a limited aerial intervention. On Tuesday the Iraqi forces also launched an offensive to drive the Islamic State fighters out of Tikrit, the hometown of the executed dictator Saddam Hussein, and have now demanded that the US expand its bombing campaign. On the political front Maliki, who had lost both internal and international support, on August 14th agreed to step down and the EU foreign ministers called on his successor, the Shiite Haider al-Abadi, to form an inclusive government. Al-Abadi now has twenty days to put together a cabinet, but responding to the endless demands of Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis, who feel they were sidelined by al-Maliki, will be no easy task.

The threat of Islamist spillovers in Europe and the reports on IS atrocities against Iraqi religious minorities convinced the EU states to directly engage in this complex scenario. With the central government in a political quagmire, the Peshmerga appeared to the international community as the most reliable ally in the area to oppose the IS advance in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, the EU and the international community must accept that the decision to arm the Kurdish fighters could lead to unpredictable results, maybe even to the dismemberment of Iraq. In fact, the Kurds’ success in confronting the Sunni extremists undoubtedly gives to the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region leverage to demand full independence from Baghdad. The Peshmerga have already secured their influence in the Kirkuk area and on other disputed territories and they will most likely refuse any solution to the Iraqi crisis that will not take into account this new reality[5]. While European governments are preparing to scale up their involvement in Iraq, they should be ready to accept the long term consequences of their initiative.


[1] Council Conclusion on Iraq |http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/144311.pdf

[2] Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/seeing-iraq-horror-europe-reconsiders-reluctance/2014/08/15/4479292c-2447-11e4-8b10-7db129976abb_story.html

[3] Al Jazeera English | http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2014/08/un-warns-potential-yazidi-massacre-iraq-2014813155345166217.html

[4] Usa Today | http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/08/15/europe-reconsiders-iraq/14097377/?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=usatoday-newstopstories

[5] Al Monitor | http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/iraq-new-prime-minister-difficult-mission.html#ixzz3Av7ad1z