Throughout the rapidly unfolding crisis in Iraq over the past few months, President Barack Obama has repeatedly said it’s a problem that has to be solved by Iraq. He has said there is no U.S. military solution that would help the situation.
But on Thursday, Obama was dragged back into a war he thought he had ended. In authorizing the use of U.S. military strikes against targets of the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Obama became the fourth consecutive U.S. president to authorise military action in the country independent of his predecessor.
The promise of ending U.S. involvement in the longstanding affair in the Iraq was one of the main reasons Obama rose to power in 2008, a fact he openly acknowledged when speaking from the White House briefing room Thursday night.
“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that,” Obama said from the White House’s state dining room.
“I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. 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.”
For the past two months, Obama has been even reluctant to use airstrikes in Iraq as the U.S. has pressured Iraq to form a new, inclusive government. But a trio of factors had changed Obama’s calculus and forced an escalation in U.S. military involvement now, as well as humanitarian aid missions, according to senior U.S. officials.
In recent days, the situation on the battlefield has worsened, as ISIS insurgents have made sweeping advances toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil. At the same time, the insurgents have created an urgent humanitarian situation on Mount Sinjar, trapping tens of thousands of Iraqis who belong to the Yazidi religion and other religious minorities. U.S. officials up to the president used the word “genocide” to describe the phenomenon of what could happen on Mount Sinjar.
Most significantly, Americans in some Iraqi regions have now been directly threatened by ISIS’ advances. There are about 150 U.S. military advisers in Erbil, as well as several U.S. diplomats.
“Obama was hugely (and understandably) reluctant to authorise the use of force in Iraq — he considered ending the war there one of his chief accomplishments as President,” said geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group.
“But there wasn’t much choice, as ISIS forces proved far more capable than US intelligence had assessed … and the country now teeters on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe that would make the war in Syria pale in comparison.”
Senior U.S. officials said ISIS gains in battles last Saturday and Wednesday “changed the dynamic” in Iraq and forced Obama’s hand. One official said those advances “threatened Erbil” and American personnel in the city.
On Saturday night, ISIS launched an offensive spanning hundreds of kilometers in northern Iraq, which an official called “swift,” “effective,” and with “tremendous military proficiency.” That led to what one official referred to as a “historic” effort of coordination between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi air force. But ISIS, which officials repeatedly referred to as an incredibly proficient military organisation, launched another offensive Wednesday night that set the stage for advances toward Erbil.
ISIS also created the need for humanitarian intervention, which one official called a “unique and urgent humanitarian challenge.” In his statement from the White House on Thursday night, Obama said he was taking action to “prevent a potential act of genocide.”
In a particularly biting statement following Obama’s speech, Secretary of State John Kerry warned the current situation in bears “all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” saying the current situation precipitated by ISIS could not make the stakes for Iraq’s future more clear.
“For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it. ISIL is not fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq. ISIL is fighting to divide and destroy Iraq — and ISIL is offering nothing to anyone except chaos, nihilism, and ruthless thuggery,” Kerry said.
“With a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, there’s not a minute to waste. The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die. We will continue to coordinate with our allies in the region and the international community to assist Iraqis to confront ISIL’s brutal ideology which poses a severe threat to Iraq, the region, and the United States.”
So on Thursday evening in Iraq, one C-17 and two C-130 aircraft were escorted by F-18 fighter pilots to deliver bundles of fresh drinking water and 8,000 ready-to-eat meals to the Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar. The operation, the Defence Department stressed, did not require U.S. ground forces.
During his statement from the White House, Obama said again that U.S. ground forces would not be returning to Iraq. There’s no American military solution to the situation in Iraq, he said — putting special emphasis on the word “American.”
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