Why The U.S. Is Acting To Prevent Atrocities In Iraq, Ignoring Others

Iraqis from the Yazidi community arriving in Erbil in northern Iraq
Iraqis from the Yazidi community arriving in Erbil in northern Iraq

President Barack Obama on Thursday night announced that the United States would soon begin a humanitarian airdrop of food to a stranded minority in Iraq, threatening airstrikes should militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) advance closer to where U.S. personnel are stationed. Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, civilians are likely wondering why their four year-long struggle has not seen the same rapid response as the escalating crisis in Iraq.

Oubai Shahbandar serves as the communications adviser to the opposition Syrian Coalition’s Washington, DC office. “It’s been one of depression,” he said, when ThinkProgress asked about the reaction among Syrians to Obama’s announcement. There’s a “level of frustration” both inside of Syria and among the Syrian diaspora, he continued, as Obama used the word “genocide” to describe the threat against the minority Yazidi community in Iraq.

“At the same time, while we heard condemnation and horror at the photos and the evidence from military defector ‘Caesar’ showing an industrial and systemic effort to eradicate tens of thousands of Syrian civilians, rows and rows of emaciated bodies,” Shahbandar said, “we didn’t hear a single viewpoint that declared this effort by the Assad regime ‘genocide,’ despite the eerie parallels.” Last week, Caesar — the pseudonym of a former member of the regime — made the rounds in Washington, displaying the vast array of photos he had collected documenting torture and potential crimes against humanity at the hands of the Syrian regime.

The dismay that Syrians are feeling are likely similar to other groups around the world — from the Hazara in Afghanistan to the Rohingya in Myanmar — who have yearned for intervention from the international community, only to see another besieged group leapfrog over them in American priority. In the case of Iraq, though, there are a number of reasons why the White House finds it easier to launch a humanitarian intervention there than elsewhere:

1. The Iraqis invited us.

The biggest reason why the United States is more comfortable in launching this humanitarian intervention than normal is the fact that the Iraqi government has invited the U.S. in. Under international law, this is huge, as states have the inherent right to ask for help from other states in providing for their own defense. Within the United Nations Charter, this can be seen in Article 51 — which lays out the right to self-defense — as well as the fact that the U.S.’ actions don’t go against the article that forbids the use of force. Iraq’s invitation also means that the U.S. can argue that it is acting under the second pillar of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P). Though the doctrine is more known for promising to intervene in the case a leader ignores or outright infringes on the security of his people, the second pillar calls for the international community to respond swiftly to cries for help.

Iraq’s request is even bigger from a military planning perspective. Across the border in Syria, the U.S. would not only have to face down ISIS — which has been trying to eradicate that border — but the defense of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. While likely not quite as vaunted as they’ve been made out to be, Syria’s defenses remain relatively formidable and would mean risking American lives to carry out any attack. With the Hazara ethnic group in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the U.S. also is working with the state to launch military actions, neither government has invited the U.S. to take action specifically in defense of the minority as Iraq has.

2. Minorities have been targeted specifically.

ISIS’ “campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in his statement on the situation in Iraq last night. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide,” Obama said in announcing the mission. Christians have been swept out of Mosul and the Yazidi have spent the last week perched precariously on a mountain with little food or water, leading to the death of at least 40 children. In Iraq, it’s easy to for the administration to draw a line between good and evil, in this case the oppressed minorities who have been forced to flee their homes on one side and ISIS’ forces on the other.

This isn’t the case in Syria, where one of the Assad regimes primary arguments for survival is the protection of minorities. Assad himself is an Alawite, along with most of his inner circle, and has been banking on support from other minority groups within Syria for support. In addition, there’s the matter of the complex web of alliances and enmities among those fighting in Syria that doesn’t yet exist in Iraq, where the lines are slightly clearer. So though the number of dead in Syria has reached the hundreds of thousands, including those who died from the Syrian government’s blockade and starvation tactics, the plight of the Yazidi is more within the ability of the U.S. to alleviate.

3. Congress doesn’t seem to be fighting back.

Last year, the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack that killed thousands of Syrians, crossing a red-line that Obama had previously laid down. In response, the Obama administration began laying out the case for launching airstrikes against positions in Syria, arguing that international norms and the word of the U.S. needed to be upheld. Congress, however, was quick to slam the brakes on that effort, arguing that their authorization was necessary before any new U.S. force could commence. The vote count soon slid heavily against Obama, with only the deal between the U.S. and Russia to remove Assad’s weapons salvaging the situation. In contrast, Congress has yet to protest the actions, with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) saying that Obama’s proceeding with airstrikes “is appropriate.”

4. Americans are in danger.

Though the plight of the Yazidi is getting top billing in the press, the main reason that Obama gave for authorizing airstrikes in Iraq was the protection of U.S. personnel from ISIS’ advance. “In recent days, these terrorists have continued to move across Iraq, and have neared the city of Erbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces,” Obama said. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.”

At least 700 of the Americans in Iraq, however, are only recent additions to the U.S. presence in the country. Following ISIS’ initial surge, the president announced that additional military advisers and security staff for the U.S. embassy would be deployed to the country in June. In addition, some of the personnel stationed at Erbil had already been moved from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in what the White House at the time called a “temporary relocation.” Senior administration officials told reporters on Thursday night that there were currently no plans to evacuate U.S. personnel from Erbil.


Shahbandar is holding out hope that the administration will heed the opposition’s call to extend the airstrikes against ISIS into Syria instead of keeping them limited to Iraq. “Our message to the White House is that if you want a sustainable strategy that ensures that ISIS doesn’t spread further in Iraq, you need to hit them in Syria,” he said. “And if you hit them in Syria you need a ground game, which means someone on the ground that have been rising up against ISIS for the past few months,” he continued, calling taking the fight to ISIS in Syria a “win-win.”

But administration officials have already sought to quash such a possibility. “This was not an authorization of a broad-based counterterrorism campaign against ISIL,” one official said on Thursday night, using the government’s preferred name for ISIS. Calling the operation “geographically limited” to Iraq, the official noted that while the U.S. has been the largest provider of humanitarian aid for displaced Syrians “we have not seen a viable military option that is as clear and distinct as what we’re doing to assist the Yazidis today and going forward in the days ahead.”