Analysis |

Why the West Intervenes in Iraq but Not Syria

Large numbers of Christians have been targeted by militants in both Iraq and Syria, but the West only seems concerned with the situation in Iraq. The war on terror lies at the heart of its choices.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
An F/A-18C Hornet coming from Iraq lands on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 in the Persian Gulf.
An F/A-18C Hornet coming from Iraq lands on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 in the Persian Gulf.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to bomb the areas of Iraq under control of the Islamic State was, as usual, too late.

After a quarter of Iraq’s Christians fled to the semiautonomous Kurdish enclave or to the mountains surrounding their villages in northern Iraq, and with the Yazidi minority on the verge of extinction, American assistance would be better focused on humanitarian needs like water, food and medicine for the isolated refugees, and less on air strikes.

The ones on the ground fighting Islamic State forces are the Kurds, who have the assistance of the Iraqi air force.

This is not the first time that Iraq’s 14 official Christian denominations have been pursued and expelled. Iraq’s history is full of anti-Christian massacres, with a periodic bloodbath so horrifying that it becomes a symbol. Such was the Simele massacre of 1933, during which 60 Assyrian villages were destroyed.

After the Iraq War and under American occupation, more than 65 churches were demolished, thousands of Christians slaughtered by Sunni and Shi’ite extremists, and the country’s Christian population fell from 1.2 million to less than half a million today.

But in the same way that in Syria and Lebanon the West can’t and/or doesn’t want to interfere in what it terms “local ethnic disputes,” so too in Iraq. The butchering of Christians has been and still is considered “collateral damage” of the war, and there doesn’t seem to be much to do other than condemn it and demand that the Iraqi government respects minority rights.

Indeed, so long as harassment of Iraqi Christians was part of unofficial government policy, the West preferred to look away with its comfortable support of the principles of nonintervention and granting administrative independence. But from the moment that members of the Islamic State seized control of Mosul two months ago, and then began to invade other cities in northwestern Iraq, the oppression of Christians has become a strategic issue.

Ever since the Ottoman Empire, “concern” for religious minorities has served as an excuse for military, political and economic intervention by Christian powers, which ultimately ended with them, and the minorities under their auspices, being granted special privileges.

This concern has been replaced by a more direct and accurate explanation – the war on terror, the campaign against Islamic extremist groups, and, no less important, “preserving state unity” – whether in Iraq or Syria – to prevent it from disintegrating into ungovernable cantons.

But this policy is so inconsistent that one could doubt whether it really exists. Syria, for example, was deliberately excluded from this approach, out of fear of a regional conflict and intervention by Russia, Iran and even Israel (had Hezbollah chosen to open a new front against it).

The fact that more than half a million Syrian Christians had fled that country after Christians had been murdered or pillaged by rebel militias – even before the Islamic State (then still called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) began targeting them – didn’t seem to bother the West too much.

So why interfere in Iraq but not Syria? For one thing, Iraq is only nominally controlled by a central government as it is. The Kurdish zone acts as an independent state; the Sunni district in western Iraq has disassociated itself from the government and cooperates with the Islamic State against the Iraqi military; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is busy struggling to form a coalition that will help him remain in power; and the Iraqi army is concentrated mainly in the capital, Baghdad, to protect it from being taken over by the Islamic State, after failing to prevent the takeover of Mosul.

But the primary reason is that, in contrast to Syria, there is no international coalition opposing an attack on Iraq.

Iran, for example, is interested in replacing Maliki and is prepared to send troops to aid in the war against the Sunni extremists. Russia won’t object to an attack on the Islamic State’s strongholds, and the Shi’ite majority, like the Kurdish minority, is looking forward to such an attack.

Paradoxically, the Islamic State has created some strange coalitions – such as the one between the Iraqi Kurds, those in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose fighters are now responsible for establishing a safe passage for refugees from Iraq to Syria.

These three Kurdish groups were enemies during the war in Syria, when the Syrian Kurds declared an independent province but refused to hook up with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region under President Masoud Barzani. The Iraqi Kurds, who are receiving massive American arms shipments and advisers, suffered several defeats when they were forced to withdraw from towns under their control, but they have changed their strategy and launched an attack on the Islamic State.

The U.S. support of the Kurds seemingly contradicts the official American policy of preserving state unity, but given the reality that has emerged, its principles have been replaced by military tactics.

These circumstances strengthen the position of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is considered a partner in the war against the Islamic radicals. Today, it’s hard to find a Western leader calling for his removal. All that’s left to do is wait for a decision by the West – primarily the Americans – to declare that the Syrian regime is no longer a target, and that the war on terror is now the top priority.

A family fleeing the violence in Mosul waits at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Erbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region, June 11, 2014.Credit: Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, about the ongoing situation in Iraq.Credit: AFP
Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, January 2014. Credit: AP

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