The United States on Friday morning announced that it had launched the first in a series of promised airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), recommitting the U.S. — though at a much smaller scale — to another military conflict in Iraq.
President Obama late Thursday night announced that his administration had determined that the strikes would come, if it appeared that U.S. military advisers positioned in Iraq were under threat from ISIS’ continuing advance. The Pentagon on Friday confirmed that the first such bombing had commenced as ISIS’ forces moved towards Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. ISIS has been pushing closer and closer to the area in recent days, taking over Iraq’s largest dam in the process.
Since beginning their all-out assault against the Iraqi government last fall, ISIS has proved far more resilient than many expected. First they managed to capture and hold the city of Fallujah, the city that saw some of the worst fighting during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Then in June, the group and the loose coalition of Sunni militants allied with them swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, sending the Iraqi security forces fleeing. Though it appeared for a time that Kurdish peshmerga, the local security forces, would be able to hold back ISIS’ advance, this weekend saw the first large-scale defeat of the fighters, leaving ISIS that much closer to controlling all of northern Iraq and fulfilling their dream of forming a new caliphate in the region.
Earlier this summer, President Obama informed Congress that he was deploying several hundred U.S. military personnel to Iraq to advise the Iraqis on how best to halt ISIS’ conquest. In addition to providing extra training, the American troops would be also protecting the U.S. embassy and searching for potential airstrike targets should Obama greenlight military action against ISIS as he had previously threatened. “We’re laying down a marker here,” a senior U.S. official said on Thursday night of the new campaign against ISIS’ positions. “Just their presence…and the potential threat they pose could lead us to take action if targets present themselves.” With the first strike against ISIS artillery positions outside of Erbil, the targeting appears to have become much easier.
Meanwhile, ISIS has been systematically targeting both Shiites, who are a majority in Iraq overall but a minority in the north, and minority religious groups writ large. Though female genital mutilation can’t be counted among the atrocities they’ve committed, the fact is that their actions have caused a massive refugee crisis in the region to become even worse. At least ten thousand Christians were forced to abandon their homes in Mosul, despite their families living there for centuries. And most recently members of the Yazidi faith, a small monotheistic religion with the majority of its practitioners living in Iraq, have been forced to escape into the neighboring mountains or face death.
The Yazidi sheltering on Mount Sinjar — whose number may be up to 30,000 — had for days been without food or water before Turkey and the United Nations were able to begin evacuation. As the second part of the U.S. military’s new mission in Iraq, President Obama authorized a set of humanitarian air drops to provide aid to the Yazidi. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,” Obama said in announcing the mission. “That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
But now, aid might not be the only thing dropped in defense of the Yazidi. “I’ve therefore authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there,” Obama continued. But the president was quick to deny that this was the beginning of a wider war against ISIS in Iraq. “As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he said. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”