PARIS — On the Iraq crisis as well as on the others around the world, the European Union is in disarray, hiding its divisions behind a discreet veil of consensus. At an Aug. 15 emergency meeting called by France and Italy, the 28 foreign ministers congratulated themselves … for each other's stubbornness. Because a common position couldn't be agreed upon, every country is free to arm, or not, Iraq's Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
As usual, France didn't even wait for the meeting to announce it would send "sophisticated weapons" to the leaders of the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan. The latter have been complaining bitterly that they are under-equipped in armaments capable of facing the American weaponry that Islamist fighters seized from the Iraqi army.
Britain, Italy and the Czech Republic followed in the footsteps of France. Sweden, on the other hand, decided to stick to its neutral, pacifist principles. Finally, Germany appears once again divided between its desire to weigh in on world affairs and its post-World War II non-intervention heritage.
To solve this dilemma, Berlin announced the delivery of non-lethal military equipment to the Kurds. But faced with the insisting appeals of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and the threat of extermination of the religious minorities in northern Iraq, the German government finally decided to go to "the limits of what is politically and legally doable," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier explained during his visit to Iraq last weekend.
But this attitude is rooted not only in Germany’s traditional aversion to participate, even indirectly, in any war. Their concern, which Steinmeier crudely summarized, is that the weapons sent to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters might later be used to fight the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and its troops.
Since the beginning of the ISIS lightning offensive, Kurdish leaders have barely been able to contain their jubilation. The Iraqi state has never been so close to breaking apart, and as a result, Kurdistan has never been so close to independence.
Masoud Barzani has no intention of missing his chance. In early July, he announced a referendum to be held in the next few months, a move that Washington immediately condemned. Similarly, Berlin is opposed to Kurdish independence, as it would destabilize Iraq further — and with it the whole Middle East, paving the way for a war of all against all.
By delivering sophisticated weapons to the Kurds and by buying oil directly from them as the United States is doing, the West might be solving an immediate problem. But it risks creating another, thornier still.