BRUSSELS, Belgium – France’s decision this week to arm Kurdish fighters in the battle against Islamic militants marked a turning point in Europe’s wavering stance on Iraq, with an EU emergency meeting on Friday seeking to forge a unified response to the Sunni insurgents’ advance.
The 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion created a bitter rift across the European Union and the bloc has since been loath to get involved in the country, but the militants in Iraq and Syria who threaten to reshape the Middle East have raised the stakes by drawing more than 1,500 European radicals to their ranks.
After weeks of near-silence during which Europeans apparently considered Iraq an exclusively American problem, the imminent plight of refugees and the threat of Islamic State militants overrunning yet more of the country prompted the 28-nation bloc to cut short a holiday weekend and convene an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers.
“There is a tremendous sense of urgency . that the situation in Iraq is getting out of hand with risks to the European Union, and risks at the security level,” said a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the meeting with foreign ministers.
The militants’ advances bring danger closer to European shores, with officials saying about 1,700 radical Muslims from France, Britain and Germany alone are believed to have joined them.
“The present military success of the Islamic State is having a lot of attraction on many young people, even inside Europe, who find this quite thrilling and are quite eager to join forces,” a senior EU official said Thursday, who briefed reporters ahead of the ministers’ meeting on condition of anonymity.
France accounts for the largest group of European fighters – estimated this week around 900 – “recruited by the Islamic State and taken to the battle lines,” said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
“All countries that believe in liberty, in human rights – all these countries are a target. Given the barbarity that we are facing, we must act with principle, values and determination,” Cazeneuve said Wednesday.
A radical French Islamist who had fought in Syria is suspected of killing four people at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May.
The IS group swiftly advanced across northern and western Iraq in June, routing the Iraqi military and taking the country’s second-largest city, Mosul. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.5 million have been displaced. This month’s plight of thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority, who fled from advancing IS militants and were trapped on a forbidding mountain range, was the key to pushing Europe toward taking action.
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France said Wednesday it will step up humanitarian aid and send arms to the Kurdish forces, Britain announced it would send Chinook helicopters for the relief operations and Germany pledged to deliver non-lethal military aid such as body armour and armoured vehicles. Further humanitarian aid for the displaced is planned, and Britain and Germany haven’t ruled out sending arms.
At the meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers were set to decide a joint Iraq policy regarding humanitarian aid and arms deliveries, specifically on whether European weaponry can be sent directly to Kurdish forces or would have to go through the government in Baghdad to avoid undermining its authority.
Back in June, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the U.S. had a “special responsibility” toward Iraq, giving no indication that Germany was inclined to get involved. Even while acknowledging the need for action, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel echoed that sentiment Tuesday.
“Everything we’re experiencing there right now didn’t just fall out of the sky,” Gabriel said. “I think it’s appropriate for the Americans to meet their responsibilities there.”
But Gabriel’s pointed reminder came on the heels of a meeting with the Yazidi community in Germany, and the government’s reluctance has crumbled when faced with images of Iraqi families trapped between a parched mountainside and armed insurgents.
“The cynicism, the brutality, the slaughtering of people, the decapitations – all that speaks to the fact that we have to react to an extraordinary situation there,” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told ZDF television late Wednesday.
Many European officials say they fear that sending weapons will further destabilize Iraq, as Kurds in the north press for more autonomy. But failing to act is no longer a viable option for either the U.S. or Europe, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Georgetown University expert on European politics who has written about the post-2003 trans-Atlantic split.
“You have a single mountain with 40,000 people on it that are getting picked off by people that are evil,” he said. “There’s not time to dither. You don’t have the luxury of endless meetings,” Anderson said.
In Europe, there could be a sense – or fear – that the price will be a unified Iraq with unknowable consequences, Anderson said.
“You’re strengthening the centrifugal forces within the country,” he said. “You can be worried about that and you can reconcile it. … Sometimes there’s no returning to the status quo ante bellum.”
Hinnant reported from Paris. Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.