Why have the British and other NATO governments been so tardy in response to the growing sectarian disaster in Iraq? It is not as if events have come as a sudden surprise.
It is two months since the well-armed, brutal and fanatical ISIL captured Mosul and nearby oilfields, and declared an Islamic State covering vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, and began to systematically butcher Christians and other religious minorities including the Yazidis in Iraq.
Indeed, when David Cameron made a statement to the House of Commons on 11 June, a number of MPs, including myself, highlighted the growing terrorist threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both in Syria and in Iraq. In his responses, Cameron seemed very concerned about radicalised British people “going to Syria and being trained, with the risk that they will come back here or to other parts of Europe and carry out terrorist offences” describing it as “one of the most serious security challenges that we face”. But he was very non-specific about what action our government and its allies would take to end the crisis.
Perhaps Cameron feels bruised by the disaster in Libya. Perhaps he has been waiting for the dithering Obama. Thousands protest about Gaza, where 2,000 have died, but there is sadly little or no public pressure to act in the far greater disaster of Syria, where 150,000 have been killed and millions forced from their homes.
The belated decision by the Obama administration to intervene in Iraq with airdrops of food and water to the beleaguered Yazidis and air strikes to stop ISIL jihadist terrorists advancing into the Kurdistan Region is welcome and necessary but insufficient. The Kurdistan Regional Government will need serious, long-term logistical, military and air power support. The KRG are today providing a safe haven for Christians, and other minorities. That safe haven is now under attack. The Kurdistan Region needs more than words of solidarity or humanitarian assistance.
The former Foreign Secretary William Hague was a minister in John Major’s Conservative government, which to its eternal credit 23 years ago in 1991 used military intervention to impose a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds from the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein. We would not have millions of Iraqi Kurds and other minorities living in peace, prosperity and democracy today without the intervention taken by Major and continued by the Labour government of Tony Blair to protect them from Saddam.
When I asked William Hague on 16 June “If the Kurdistan Regional Government requests assistance, should we not give such a request sympathetic consideration?” the then Foreign Secretary told me: “I am not saying that there will never be any circumstances in the world in which we may need to make a military intervention—far from it. We have had no such request from Kurdistan. Indeed, the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government have acquitted themselves well in recent days, and they have been an important part of bringing about stability in the northern areas of Iraq. We have not received such a request, and we do not envisage such a request at the moment.”
It is time the British government stopped prevaricating and made a clear, firm decision to support the secular democrats of the Kurdistan Region who have now requested NATO assistance and military equipment from the UK and our NATO partners. Indeed, the KRG representative in the UK, Bayan Abdul Rahman, made public that request when she appeared before the foreign affairs select committee last month.
The US and UK position up to now has been greatly influenced by a reluctance to annoy the sectarian Shia-dominated Maliki government. The official position of the UK is in favour of a “unified state in Iraq.” But unless ISIL are stopped and defeated there will be no state of Iraq. Nor a state of Syria, and probably no state of Lebanon too.
The facts on the ground mean that a state of Iraq will continue only if there is the loosest possible confederation based on respect and autonomy. The Kurdish people are highly appreciative of the role of the Major and Blair governments in protecting them and in removing Saddam Hussein. We should be doing far more to support the democratic, pluralistic Kurdistan Region today.
The Prime Minister may feel unable to act now following his defeat and mishandling of the Syria debate last August. He should get over it and urgently recall Parliament. I hope we can then, with opposition support, achieve a massive vote for UK military intervention alongside our US and NATO partners to defend and protect our democratic and secular Kurdish friends and to stop the genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities by ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Mike Gapes is Labour MP for Ilford South and a member, and former chair, of the foreign affairs select committee