What The People Saving Lives In Iraq Hope Obama Says In His ISIS Speech


Iraqi Shiite Turkmens, mostly women and children, try to board an Iraqi Army helicopter aid flight bringing in supplies to Amirli

It’s easy to forget, in the aftermath of the beheading videos that galvanized the American public and introduced many of them to ISIS, that as part of the first wave of the military response to the militant group the United States dropped more than 500 bundles of humanitarian aid as well. The targets of that aid, members of the Yazidi religious minority, have escaped from Mount Sinjar but the humanitarian crisis that the civil war in Syria spurred and ISIS made much worse is continuing undaunted.

Now, as the president prepares to use a speech on Wednesday night to convince the country that taking action against ISIS is in America’s best interest, advocates and aid organizations on the ground in the region are hoping that the U.S. doesn’t forget the humanitarian component. ThinkProgress reached out to several of them to see just what they hoped Obama would say tonight, and while some declined to comment, others were more than willing to layout what they hoped to hear.

“While the Obama administration has focused on the very real security threats throughout the region, sustainable peace cannot be achieved from 25,000 feet,” Shannon Scribner, Humanitarian Policy Manager at Oxfam America, told ThinkProgress in an email. “There is no solution to this crisis without a holistic approach to end the conflicts and human suffering in Iraq and Syria.”

Sarah Margon, the head of Human Rights Watch’s DC office, agreed in an email. “As the President lays out his strategy for dealing with ISIS, I hope it will be sufficiently comprehensive to include a plan for greater protection of civilians in Iraq and Syria, including the millions of refugees and displaced people,” she wrote. That isn’t to say that these groups think that a substantial part of tonight’s speech will focus on the humanitarian side of the crisis.

Daryl Grisgraber, the senior advocate for the Middle East and North Africa at Refugees International told ThinkProgress that she thinks organizations like hers “hope at least for a mention of the fact that there’s a very significant humanitarian crisis going on in both Iraq and Syria and that they’re connected to each other.”

And that crisis, Grisgraber added, has only gotten worse since ISIS first began capturing greater and greater amounts of territory in June, setting off the current level of alarm in Washington. “As people are displaced, you’re cramming more and more people into a smaller and smaller geographic region,” she said, pointing to the more than half a million people displaced in Northern Iraq alone. “The sheer scale of, say, trying to give all these people shelter, even if it’s just a tent pitched in a public park somewhere, is practically impossible. The situation is only going downhill at this point.”

A map of all the Iraqis currently displaced throughout the country

A map of all the Iraqis currently displaced throughout the country


While the speech isn’t due for delivery until prime time, bits and pieces of what it will contain have been leaking out for the past day. One piece of news that’s emerged is that Obama will seek Congressional authorization to provide further training and funding for the Syrian rebels attempting to both defeat Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on one side and ISIS on the other. Margon hopes that in that case the U.S. will take “a cautious approach to building partnerships, not providing support to abusive militaries or militias, and maintaining a focus on accountability for abuses committed by all sides, which down the road will be an essential component to re-establish the rule of law.”

Obama is also reportedly going to announce that he’s prepared to launch strikes against ISIS in Syria, a prospect that many analysts say would be necessary to ultimately defeat the militant group. Military action doesn’t happen in vacuum though, Grisgraber warned. “Anything that happens militarily is going to have effects on civilians — humanitarian effects,” she said. “I think that’s been proven over the past several years in both Iraq and Syria. And so in addition to paying attention to that military action, we need to pay attention the consequences its creating.”

One thing that aid groups are actually not hoping to hear is the announcement of more aid airdrops like those that benefited the Yazidi. “Airdrops have limited ability to succeed,” Grisgraber explained. Reports from early drops in Iraq actually indicated that in some cases the parachutes actually failed to deploy, highlighting the difficulty of providing assistance from overhead. “I think we need to be committed to actually either having people on the ground carrying out programs or supporting the programs that do that. .. Airdrops just aren’t going to be sufficient in terms of a large humanitarian crisis.”

For now, the crisis in Iraq is one of the best funded in the world, one of the few where the United Nations isn’t begging donors to provide more. That’s mostly thanks to a $500 million contribution that Saudi Arabia provided in June. “So what that means is that right now, there’s a little bit of a grace period,” Executive Director of EPIC Erik Gustafson told ThinkProgress during a phone call. “but that grace period is going to end,” Gustafson said, as one of the conditions of the aid was that it be spent by April. “So what I want to hear the president talk about tonight is — to be very clear about our commit to help the people in Iraq and a recognition that the clock is ticking.”

“So the U.S. is going to have to be working now at the U.N. and international donors are going to have to be working to make sure the funds are there” after April, he continued. “Because this isn’t going away, this is going to be a prolonged crisis. So what I would want to hear is not just over the next three years this is how we’re going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS. I would also want to hear this is our time for promoting Iraq’s peace and development and this is our time for addressing humanitarian needs for a crisis that could go on for years.”

“Bottom line is,” Gustafson concluded, “we’re going to keep having these vicious cycles until there’s a long-term strategy for promoting peace in Iraq and addressing the root causes of the conflict.”