It is a peculiar irony that we should only learn about the existence of the Yazidis of Iraq when they are on the brink of annihilation. In the last couple of days, this secretive, and, to our minds, exotic faith – its veneration of an emanation of God they call the Peacock Angel has struck the popular imagination – has come to our attention because its adherents face genocide in the literal and legalistic sense of the destruction of a people, in whole or in part. That in turn warrants signatories to the Genocide Convention – including the US and the UK – to intervene to stop it.
This is the most important context for President Obama's decision to authorise US airstrikes in Iraq and for the British government's humanitarian flights. On the grounds of preventing genocide alone, the US action is not only justified, but just.
Of course it is not only the Yazidis who face destruction at the hands of Isis, or the Islamic State – and we should not forget that hundreds of Yazidi women have been taken by their forces. In terms of numbers, most of its victims are other Muslims. But the ancient Christian communities of Nineveh face annihilation too, and they predate Islam by centuries, reputedly from apostolic times. Indeed, opposite Mosul there are the remains of Old Testament Nineveh to which Jonah was sent. Previous generations would have been instantly alert to the cultural and religious significance of the region.
The fall of Qaraqosh, the oldest Christian city in Iraq, this week has completed the rout of Christians from their ancient heartland. It is worth recalling that prior to the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces in 2003 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq; by this year, their numbers had fallen to 400,000; quite how many remain is anyone's guess. It is the dismal legacy of a conflict and its aftermath that was initiated on moral ground by the US and British governments.
Many, probably most, of our readers will have opposed Britain's entry into the Iraq war, certainly after the discovery that we entered into it on the basis of a falsehood. But it is precisely because of our participation in that conflict that we now have an obligation to intervene once again, to try to put right some part of the unintended consequences of our intervention. As Colin Powell observed, it's the (popular US homewear store) Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. In that sense, the US, and Britain, own the sectarian, fragmented, corrupt and lawless state that Iraq has become, even if most blame for its divisions lies with prime minister Nouri al Maliki. To put it plainly: it would be right for Britain to engage in military as well as humanitarian intervention in Iraq.
Tackling the Islamic State is a complex matter. Its territory spans Syria as well as Iraq, and there its forces have been fighting the Assad regime. Yet its actions in Syria have only discredited the opponents of President Assad; even other Islamists have been repelled by its barbarity. If its forces were, miraculously, to be destroyed, it would be to the benefit of Syria as well as Iraq.
Certainly, there must be limits to US and British intervention. President Obama is right to disclaim any intention to deploy ground troops – and equally right to keep all his options open. There are already ground troops in Iraq – the spectacularly unimpressive Iraqi army and the more competent but under-equipped Kurdish forces. But supported by US targeted airstrikes, specifically against Islamic State convoys, their chances could be transformed. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past. Any regime we help to install, or restore, must be inclusive and respectful of minorities. But the immediate danger is from the jihadists of the Islamic State. They must be stopped. The argument is not whether to do so but when and how.