Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border, 13 August. Photo: Getty
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Leader: We have a responsibility to protect the Yazidis of Iraq

The UK government has been right to contribute humanitarian aid and to refuse to rule out military involvement if the situation deteriorates.

For months, almost unchecked, the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as Isis) have advanced across Iraq and Syria. With modern weaponry and medieval savagery – stonings, beheadings, crucifixions – they have conquered an area larger than the United Kingdom. In this self-declared caliphate, all those who do not subscribe to the group’s extreme Salafist ideology face a choice between conversion or death.

It took the threat of genocide for the west to intervene. Haunted by the memory of Rwanda and Srebrenica – and by Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds – the international community retains a special horror of this crime. Barack Obama, who withdrew US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, was right to deploy air strikes against Isis to safeguard the 40,000 Yazidis sheltering in terror on the desolate Mount Sinjar. The doctrine of “responsibility to protect” may be selectively enforced but that is preferable to it being disregarded entirely.

Within a day of the beginning of the offensive, at least 20,000 Yazidis had managed to flee to safety. The air strikes and the arming of the Kurdish peshmerga (“those who face death”) have also allowed some territory to be retaken from Isis. In Iraq’s present state, these are worthwhile gains.

The UK government has been right to contribute humanitarian aid and to refuse to rule out military involvement if the situation deteriorates. There is a case for parliament to be recalled to debate the appropriate response. Downing Street may protest that military action is not under consideration, unlike in the case of Syria last year, but it is precisely to determine whether this is the right stance that MPs deserve to be consulted. Meanwhile, the UK should follow the example of France and open its borders to those fleeing persecution in Iraq. The Conservatives must not allow their aspiration to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year to override Britain’s humanitarian obligations.

The ironies of the present situation run deep: the US is now firing on its own military equipment, which was looted by Isis from the hapless Iraqi army; a president who was elected on a pledge to end armed involvement has been forced to intervene again; and the country that the west invaded in 2003 to rid it of jihadists is now overrun by them.

It was the intervention in 2003, which we opposed, that led to many of the current woes. The hasty overthrow of the Ba’athist regime allowed sectarian hatreds suppressed under Saddam to surface. The subsequent dismantlement of the state and the Iraqi army created the conditions for them to flourish. For eight years, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who in effect has been deposed, sowed the seeds of Sunni hatred through crudely discriminatory policies, depriving the government and its institutions of national legitimacy. When confronted by Isis in Iraq’s northern capital, Mosul, the splintered and unmotivated army, which outnumbered the jihadists by 40 to one, crumbled in just three days.

The result is that the country is in danger of regressing to a Hobbesian state of nature. As the historian John Bew writes on page 22, the rise of Isis is less a symptom of jihadist strength than it is of governmental weakness. When Leviathan is absent, new monsters rush to fill the vacuum.

The immediate priority remains to prevent Isis from achieving its genocidal ambitions. This will involve a sustained military commitment but Mr Obama is right to reject Republican demands for a more ambitious and ex­tensive offensive against the group. As the Iraqi ambassador to Britain, Faik Nerweyi, warned at a meeting in the Commons last month, the jihadists are too well integrated with the local population to be evicted by US force from Mosul and other strongholds. Any wide-ranging assault would result in Sunni civilian deaths that could strengthen support for Isis.

The precondition for the defeat of the jihadists is the formation of an inclusive government, capable of commanding support from all ethnic and religious groups. This administration, along with the regional superpowers of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, must then devise a strategy to defeat Isis.

Recent history, in the shape of the western actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, shows how interventions can lead to the gravest of unintended consequences. An all-out confrontation with Isis would satisfy the moral injunction for “something to be done” but it would not be accompanied by any reasonable guarantee of success. If Isis is to be defeated, the fightback must be led from within the Middle East, not from without. 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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The murder of fearless journalist Pavel Sheremet must be solved - but Ukraine needs more

Sheremet was blown up as he drove to host a morning radio programme

On 20th of July Kiev was shaken by the news of the assassination of the respected Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet. Outside the ex-Soviet republics he was hardly known. Yet the murder is one that the West should reflect on, as it could do much to aggravate the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. 

Sheremet was one of the most significant and high profile investigative journalists of his generation. His career as an archetypal  examiner of the post-Soviet regimes in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia bought him fame and notoriety in the region. From 1997 onwards Sheremet became a name for fearless and non-partisan interrogation, both in print and as also as TV presenter. He paid the price early on when he was incarcerated by the Belarus government, then stripped of his Belarusian nationality and deported. Such is the way of things in the region.

Taking up residence in Kiev, Sheremet became immersed in interrogating the political life of Ukraine. He wrote for the Ukrayinska Pravda publication and also helped to develop a journalism school. Under these auspices he was a participant of a congress, "The dialogue between Ukraine and Russia", in April 2014. He reported on beginnings of the Euromaidan uprising. He warned of the rise of the concept  of "Novorossia" and suggested that Ukraine needed to reset its current status and stand up to Russian pressure. After the Russian occupation of Crimea his blame for the Ukrainian government was ferocious. He alleged that that they "left their soldiers face to face the [Russian] aggressor and had given up the Crimean peninsula with no attempt to defend it." These, he said "are going to be the most disgraceful pages of Ukrainian history."

Sheremet was blown up at 7.45am on 20 July as he drove to host a morning radio programme.

Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists. Fifty of them have been murdered since Ukraine achieved independence. However, this murder is different from the others. Firstly, both the Ukrainian President and the Interior minister immediately sought assistance from FBI and EU investigators. For once it seems that the Ukrainian government is serious about solving this crime. Secondly, this IED type assassination had all the trappings of a professional operation. To blow a car up in rush hour Kiev needs a surveillance team and sophisticated explosive expertise. 

Where to lay the blame? Pavel Sheremet had plenty of enemies, including those in power in Belarus, Russia and the militias in Ukraine (his last blog warned of a possible coup by the militias). But Ukraine needs assistance beyond investigators from the FBI and the EU. It needs more financial help to support credible investigative journalism.   

The murder of Pavel Sheremet was an attack on the already fragile Ukrainian civil society, a country on the doorstep of the EU. The fear is that the latest murder might well be the beginning of worse to come.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.