On August 7, President Obama announced from the White House that, in light of the plight of the Yezidi refugees on Sinjar Mountain, and the advance of ISIS onto the Ninewa Plain toward Erbil, he has authorized American airstrikes specifically in support of humanitarian relief operations for the Yezidi refugees, and to protect American personnel at the Consulate in Erbil as well as the Embassy in Baghdad. He stressed that any airstrikes would only happen if those conditions were met, and further stressed that there will be no further American boots on the ground. He reiterated the position that “there can be no American military solution,” and that only an Iraqi political reconciliation could stop what is happening.
The Kurds claimed that the US launched airstrikes on August 7, but the State Department has denied any such strikes occurred. It is possible that the strikes being reported were Turkish, as BAS News reported that eight Turkish aircraft from Dyarbikar Airbase that had been monitoring the situation near Gweir and Makhmour had been tapped to begin bombing Thursday night.
As of mid-June, the USS George HW Bush has been on standby in the Persian Gulf to provide air support over Iraq. On August 8, the first sorties from the George Bush hit ISIS artillery that had been engaging Peshmerga forces near Erbil.
The Institute for the Study of War reported on August 6 that Red Crescent aircraft dropped supplies to refugees around Sinjar Mountain, along with 40 tons from Barzani Foundation and Human Rights Commission. It has not been sufficient, and people are already dying of thirst and malnutrition. At least 70 people have died of starvation already, and the real numbers are likely higher.
While relief flights and targeted airstrikes might blunt the death toll, they are stopgap measures at best. There is only one route up or down Sinjar Mountain, and that is presently controlled by ISIS. Furthermore, from a purely historical perspective, air power has never solved a crisis by itself. The President’s remarks have been quite clear that US policy is not, in fact, the resolution of the crisis. But air strikes will not open the route for the refugees all by themselves.
The President’s remarks highlighted two issues with the administration’s approach. The President said, “”I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home.” These remarks appear to place the President’s political position higher on the decision-making tree than the actual reality of the situation on the ground, and the necessities that may arise from what commitment has already been made. While the commitment to the use of force has been made, it should be expected that the will to follow up as the situation develops will not be there.
He also said, “there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.” This statement suggests dangerous naiveté concerning the realities of the situation on the ground. Anyone familiar with tribal societies in the Middle East can see that centuries of blood feuds are being built right now. Even if ISIS is defeated and Iraq survives as a country (assuming that it really is one country at the moment, which is debatable), the bad blood between the Shi’a and those Sunni tribes who have allied with ISIS against Maliki will remain. Grudges don’t get forgotten in the Middle East. They just simmer, until the time comes to shed the other tribe’s blood again.
While the situation may be improved over the short term, and just about any step to hurt ISIS can only be considered a good thing, it remains to be seen if this is anything more than putting a band-aid on an amputation.