A U.S. lawmaker who has taken a leading role in trying to protect religious minorities in the Middle East says the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is a fight for civilization itself that needs broader support from all nations.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry told VOA's Kurdish Service in an interview that Sunni Arab nations in particular must cooperate with the United States and its Western partners in working to contain IS and to resolve the "horrific" refugee situation in the region.
Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, sponsored last month's U.S. congressional resolution declaring as genocide the Islamic State group's campaign of violence against Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities.
The resolution passed unanimously, 393-0, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fortenberry said it "puts the full weight and authority of the United States government in declaring the reality of what has happened: a systematic attempt to exterminate entire groups of people based upon their faith."
The congressman said the United States is continuing its extensive support for humanitarian aid to help those fleeing Islamic State terror, but there also must be a broader effort to create conditions for security, stability and political reform in the areas ravaged by IS. The Sunni Arab world must play a more robust role in reform efforts, he added.
Looking to the future, Fortenberry said U.S. military forces devoted to fighting Islamic State may increase, but no one should expect to see thousands of American troops arriving in the region. "This is a responsibility of the Middle East itself," he added.
Wiping out Islamic State, which he described as a gang of "8th-century barbarians," is separate from the task of stabilizing war-torn Syria, Fortenberry said. Although removing President Hafez al-Assad from power is an absolute goal of many many opposition groups in Syria, the congressman noted: "To simply demand that Assad go, and create a vacuum, could make the circumstances worse. To 'protect' Assad and his brutality is unconscionable. So you have to have a transition period here."
The United States and its partners must address all aspects of the refugees' flight from Syria, Fortenberry told VOA's Kurdish Service:
“The United States shouldn’t do this alone, nor can we do it alone. It's particularly incumbent in the Middle East on Sunni Arab nations to fight for values, to fight for the protection of innocent life, to fight for the principles of civilization, and stability and order itself," he said.
Fortenberry estimated the United States is currently spending about $1 billion a year to help regional governments - Iraq's Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad, as well as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon - care for refugees.
Protecting civilians' lives and respecting human dignity is a complicated task in areas where Islamic State has mounted systematic efforts to exterminate religious minorities, Fortenberry said. Looking forward, he proposes a system of "safe havens" where returning refugees can begin to re-establish stable societies.
"If we don't do this, and the Middle East is emptied of people simply because there is security and cultural conflict, then there is no chance in the future" to heal the wounds that extremists have caused, the congressman said. "That's why this proposal is so important. It not only meets the needs of the humanitarian crisis, but it creates long-term conditions for stability," said Fortenberry.