-- if Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) advance towards Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, location of a U.S. Consulate and one of two joint operations centers where U.S. military advisors are currently based;
-- if ISIS forces threaten U.S. forces or personnel anywhere in Iraq, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil; and
-- “if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there.”
The specificity in the president’s late-night announcement from the White House was striking because there was no reference to the possibility of strikes should ISIS continue to advance elsewhere in Iraq, for instance – other than Erbil or the proximity of the embassy in Baghdad – and not threaten Americans.
The same message came from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “The U.S. military will also remain ready to conduct targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq fighting to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect Iraqi civilians trapped there,” he said in a statement.
“In addition, we are prepared to conduct airstrikes to protect American personnel against ISIL terrorist convoys should they approach Erbil.”
Iraq’s government has been appealing unsuccessfully for months for the U.S. to carry out airstrikes against ISIS. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce said recently requests for drone strikes against ISIS camps were first made a full year ago.
The al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist group, which also controls territory in Syria, captured the Iraqi city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in early January, and then since early June has seized control of substantial pieces of territory north and west of Baghdad, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. It subsequently declared a “caliphate” in areas it controls in both countries.
Although Obama deployed 300 military advisers in June to assist the Iraqis and several hundred personnel to provide extra protection for the embassy in Baghdad, only now has he decided to authorize airstrikes, and only under the three narrowly-focused conditions.
“We are not launching a sustained campaign against ISIL here, because our belief is the best way to deal with the threat of ISIL is for the Iraqis to do so,” a senior administration official told reporters late Thursday.
The administration has made clear its view that the solution to Iraq’s crisis lies in the formation of a new and inclusive national government – rather than one seen to favor the Shi’ite majority at the expense of Sunnis, Kurds and others.
Obama reiterated that stance on Thursday night, speaking of the need for Iraqi leaders to “forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.”
The second mission Obama said he was authorizing was a humanitarian one, which he tied directly to the urgent situation facing large numbers of civilians, mostly members of the Yazidi minority, who fled ISIS’ advance last weekend and are stranded on Mount Sinjar, west of Mosul.
The U.N. on Thursday put their number at up to 50,000, of whom at least half are children, and dozens are reported to have died of dehydration.
Since the capture of Sinjar, ISIS forces have advanced further, capturing a number of other towns and villages in Ninawa province including Qaraqosh, a major Christian town 20 miles from Mosul, reportedly prompted as many as 100,000 people to flee towards the Kurdish autonomous region nearby.
Obama said ISIS fighters had “called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide. So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.”
He implied that those fears of genocide had tipped the scales, prompting his decision to take measures in this case which he has not taken in others – such as in Syria after the chemical weapons attack a year ago.
“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world,” he said. “So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. 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.”
The Pentagon announced that a first airdrop took place overnight – 72 bundles of supplies were dropped from one Boeing C-17 Globemaster military transporter and two C-130 Hercules aircraft, escorted by two F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes from an undisclosed airbase “within Central Command.”
(Central Command’s area of responsibility stretches from Pakistan to Egypt, incorporating Central Asia and the entire Middle East, apart from Israel and the Palestinian territories.)
The bundles dropped by the planes, flying at low altitude and over the drop area for less than 15 minutes, included 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat, it said.
The Pentagon said no ground forces were required during the supply mission. It did not report any airstrikes having yet taken place.