BARCELONA, Spain – As countries around the world take on stepped-up roles in a US-led coalition that carried out the second air raids on Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria on Wednesday, Spain remains a reluctant partner.
The country that stepped up to the plate when Washington was desperately looking for partners for its controversial Iraq invasion in 2003, is much more cautious now about the role it wants to play in a coalition of some 40 nations fighting to defeat the IS armies in Iraq and Syria.
Madrid’s reluctance, some analysts say, is because Spaniards do not want to hear about taking on a role in any Middle East conflict, after suffering a terrorist attack in March 2004 for signing up to the Iraq invasion.
“Nobody in Spain wants to hear talk about Iraq,” Spanish political analyst Manuel Martorell told Rudaw.
“The fiasco of the war in Iraq and the big repercussion it had on the political situation in Spain -- causing the fall of (Jose Maria) Aznar´s government -- is a heavy burden that many Spanish organizations cannot forget,” he said.
Aznar, prime minister at the time, is still widely loathed in Spain for being talked into the US-led coalition, at a time when Washington was largely unsuccessful in getting European and other countries to back an invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein but unleashed forces that are tearing the country apart today.
In March 2004, three days before Spain’s general elections in which Aznar was widely accepted as the front runner, a terrorist attack on commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people and wounded 1,800. The bombings were seen as a consequence of Aznar’s Partido Popular government’s decision to join the anti-Saddam coalition, resulting in the party’s surprising defeat at the polls.
The same party is in power again, but is more cautious now.
“The anti-American feeling in Spain is very high,” Martorell noted, saying that many Spaniards remain suspicious every time the US is involved in action in the Middle East. “People here automatically think this is about going in for oil,” he added.
“Otherwise, how is it possible to understand that there have been practically no demonstrations in Spain against the kidnappings, sale and sexual slavery of hundreds of Yezidi women in Iraq (by IS) in one of the most serious attacks against the dignity of women known in contemporary history?” he questioned.
“I am convinced that this incomprehensible attitude is directly related to the new armed intervention of the US in Iraq,” he said, noting the US air raids on the IS in Iraq for more than a month, and the first air strikes in Syria on Tuesday.
Five Arab nations were part of the coalition that carried out Tuesday’s air raids on IS targets in Syria, the same day that Turkey announced it was going from idle into high gear in cooperating with the alliance. A second series of air raids followed on Wednesday, the Pentagon announced.
Madrid had announced that Spain would not get directly involved militarily in Iraq and Syria. It said its contribution would remain limited to providing transport assistance, bases, equipment and weapons for the Iraqi government.
Last week, Spain announced that from January it will station a battery of Patriot surface-to-air missiles and send 130 servicemen to Turkey as part of NATO operations "to protect civilians from possible attacks from the air and ballistic missile strikes on the southern border" of Turkey with Iraq and Syria.
“The fear of the jihadist threat on our borders is the only thing that concerns the Spanish government,” Martorell said. He accused the government of “not understanding that the threat is global and that the jihadist movement has a huge capacity of internalization at this moment.”
Spain is among European countries that have expressed alarm at the number of citizens secretly slipping off to “jihads” in Syria and Iraq, and looking to modify laws that would criminalize those who go fight in armed conflicts.
The Spanish Interior Ministry has identified more than 50 Spanish citizens who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the IS. Government fear the return of citizens with bomb-making and weapons skills.
Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said recently that jihadists posted “a direct threat to the security of all nations... especially significant for Spain,” given the 2004 train bombings and the fact that Spain forms “the southern border of Europe.”
But with international pressure rising, Spain may be forced to take on a more active role. The El Pais newspaper reported Wednesday that Garcia-Margallo would be travelling to Iraq in the coming days.
Kurdish-Spanish political analyst and author Yashmina Shawki listed several reasons for Spain’s reluctance for a more direct role in the war against IS.
“First, the bad economic situation of Spain; second, the popular feelings against any military intervention abroad, after Spain’s involvement in Iraq in 2003; third, the terrorist attacks in 2004 and the realization of our vulnerability to Islamic terrorism; and lastly, Spain’s porous borders and its proximity to North Africa,” she told Rudaw.
“Earlier this month, the Spanish security forces arrested 45 suspected jihadists. The close relationship with Morocco and other countries in the Maghreb makes our borders very permeable to the arrival of Islamic extremists,” she said, noting that young Spaniards of Arab origin were being recruited in large numbers for jihad.
Early last month, a 14-year old Muslim girl from the Spanish enclave of Melilla was arrested together with another 19-year-old female as they were trying to cross into Morocco to get to jihads in Syria and Iraq.
In contrast to Spain’s present role, neighbouring France has been taking part in the air strikes in Iraq. Britain, meanwhile, has sent reconnaissance flights over Iraq and Germany, which does not export arms to war zones, made an exception last month when it sent weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga forces that are in the frontlines of the war.
But the greater involvement by some European countries has come at a price.
This month, the IS beheaded a US journalist and a British aid worker, while threatening to kill another Briton involved in aid.
On Monday, a French national was kidnapped in Algeria by a group professing alliance to IS, and warning the man would be killed unless France stops its role in the bombardments.
IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani has made a call for supporters around the world to attack citizens of Western states with active roles in the war, naming the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Australia as legitimate targets.