The US decision to bomb targets of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq, announced by a visibly unhappy President Barack Obama on Thursday night, was the right thing to do. But will it be enough, or is it too little, too late?
With the terrible war between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip over the past four weeks, the world’s attention turned away from the civil war in Syria and the alarming advance of the IS extremists in Iraq.
With that came the news this week that about 10,000 to 40,000 members of the minority Yazidi sect were trapped on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, surrounded by IS fighters who want to kill them because they consider them apostates and devil worshippers.
Reports say that without food and water, and facing daily summer temperatures of 37 degrees, dozens of adults and children are dying every day on the mountain. The Iraqi government tried to drop bottled water to them from planes, but was unsuccessful.
Residents of the town of Sinjar started fleeing there last Sunday when IS took control of the city. The UN estimates that 200,000 people have fled the city, and that 147,000 have managed to reach the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, filling refugee camps. The armed forces of the Kurds, the peshmergas, are trying to open a land route between the mountain and the town of Rabia, which straddles the border with Syria, in order to give safe passage to trapped Yazidis on the mountain, but are facing difficulties as they have to go through six villages with populations sympathetic to IS.
The IS is extremely brutal, constantly posting pictures of themselves on social networks proudly displaying the chopped off heads of their victims in Iraq and Syria, which are generally Syrian and Iraqi soldiers. Their level of barbarity is such that there is no possibility of dialogue with them.
Since its control of the city of Mosul in June, the IS extremists have plotted their expansion in Iraq. On Aug. 3 they took control of the Mosul dam on the Tigris River, the largest hydroelectric power supplying Iraq Mosul with electricity. It is also battling Iraqi forces 350 km south of Mosul in an attempt to take control of the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River. Experts warn that the IS could, in an act of terror, open the gates of Mosul dam and release a wall of water about five meters high that would flood the city of Mosul and possibly reach the outskirts of Baghdad.
President Obama said that he had authorized the airstrikes to protect a small contingent of American officials in Irbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and to avoid a massacre of the Yazidis. He also ordered the airdrop of food and water good enough for 8,000 on the mountain where the refugees are trapped.
It is clear that Obama does not want to commit any ground troops to another military foray in Iraq. He ran for office in part on a pledge to get US troops out of Iraq, and that he has managed to do. But after the US invasion in 2003 and subsequent occupation for 10 years, it is unfair and selfish to believe that the US can just leave and allow Iraq to crumble upon itself. The US owes it to the Iraqis to help them stop the advance of the IS.
Unfortunately, the Iraqis currently cannot do much themselves to stop the advance of the militants because of the political disarray in Baghdad due to differences over the successor to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, which has left the government paralyzed. The US has sent 300 military advisers to help the Iraqi government, but the long delays in deliveries of American fighter jets, now only expected to begin in December, has left the Iraqi air force hamstrung in attacking targets.
The effects of the IS advancement is already causing spillovers in Lebanon, where fighting between the Lebanese Army and rebels in the town of Arsal on the border with Syria, has left 16 soldiers dead, 85 injured and dozens of rebels killed. The former Prime Minister Saad Hariri had recently flown to Saudi Arabia and got an additional donation of $1 billion from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to help Lebanese Army fight militants.
With chaos of war and instability in Syria and Gaza, the IS took opportunity to expand its control over Iraq, spreading their reign of terror and bloodshed, and destroying the rule of law in Iraq and Syria. This is danger not only to the Middle East, but to the whole world. Obama would do well to sit down and discuss a ground military strategy with the Iraqi government, the Kurds, Turkey and other regional allies on how to stop IS once and for all. Bombing them won’t ever be enough, even if it does keep Obama out of hot water with US voters and Republicans.
American leadership is needed now more than ever. Sadly for Obama, isolationism is not really an option.