Remember yesterday when we discussed the plight of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who’d fled to the mountains to escape certain execution by the Islamic State—only to face death by dehydration? We ended the piece with a quote from a UN representative who said not stepping in would be a “catastrophe.” Well, someone is stepping in . . . and it’s us. President Obama announced last night that he had authorized “targeted airstrikes” to protect American personnel and help Iraqi (read: non Islamic State/ISIS) forces.
When announcing the strikes late Tuesday the president said:
Today I authorized two operations in Iraq—targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.
Inside Obama's Decision
So what’s prompting the commander-in-chief to act? Well the Islamic State (also now known as ISIL—yet another new acronym, this time for "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant") has closed in on the Kurdish capital of Irbil. This capital city is located within the autonomous region of Iraq known as Kurdistan (officially governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government) and operates as a base for a number U.S. officials, including military advisers and foreign workers. In fact, just last year the New York Times labeled it a “tourist boom town.” And since Iraq has heated up in recent months, Irbil has been relatively tranquil, therefore also attracting a sizable population of desperate refugees.
Anyway, when Obama says he’s acting to protect “American personnel,” this is who he means—along with any tourists/American aid or private sector workers/military advisers left in the city. Were the Islamic State to take it over, every one of these people would face considerable risk, to say the least. Thus, the airstrikes he’s authorized are designed to prevent the full capture of the city by the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL.
Concerning those poor Yazidis trapped dying on mountaintops, Obama said:
When we face a situation like we do on that mountain with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, in this case a request from the Iraqi government, and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.
'All the Warning Signs of Genocide'
Interesting to note is that Secretary of State Kerry also used the word “genocide” in describing the Islamic State militants who “bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.” While it seems like an apt if not perfect noun given the alarming slaughtering the Islamic State has conducted on minorities in Iraq, the word carries even greater significance. Why? Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, this could all be enough to trigger an obligation to act under international law to prevent said slaughter.
If all this let’s-go-into-Iraq business seems unsettlingly familiar, that's because Obama (famous for having removed American troops from Iraq) has assured us that he would not “allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq . . . American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq because there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.” Amen to that.
And while that promise of intent is a relief, this certainly isn’t: In addition to encroaching upon the capital city of Irbil, the Islamic State has captured a major dam in the region—the most important one in Iraq, in fact. If it’s breached, it could flood Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul—home to 1.5 million residents. And given their history, it's a more than just a menacing threat.