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US re-engagement in Iraq

By Peter Coates - posted Tuesday, 12 August 2014


The US does some positive things in the world that congenital cynicism about US foreign policy should not dismiss. The most recent major issue is the US response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invasion of Iraq and increasingly desperate requests from the Iraqi Government that the US become re-involved. US humanitarian airdrops on Iraq in the last few days have gained support around the world, most notably from the UK, France and Australia. Even China and Russia, who both have major internal problems with Islamic terrorism, have been muted in their usual criticism of US initiatives.

Cynics should have some sympathy for the Chrisitian and Yazidi civilians who began to be killed in increasing numbers in northern Iraq in early August 2014. They had no protection from ISIS terrorists firing explosives into the towns of Quwasi, Khana Sor and Sinjar located near the Sinjar mountains. See this highly detailed map. These civilians, include up to 40,000 Yazidis, have fled up into the barren Sinjar mountains with ISIS terrorists surrounding them. The terrorists also threaten the Kurdish held city of Irbil.

On August 8, 2014, in a surprisingly neutral article for the usually anti-American Guardian, the Guardian reported President Obama's announcement of a policy of US air-supply of refuges and airstrikes against the terrorists:

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Obama's orders to his military commanders…included permission to take action against forces threatening…the thousands of Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar [and] the cities of Irbil and Baghdad…Tens of thousands of Yazidis have been trapped in the mountains since the Islamic State overran Sinjar. The militants issued an ultimatum to the Yazidis, telling them they must convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, flee or face death.

On Saturday evening Australian time Obama announced that US aircraft had conducted precise airstrikes against ISIS terrorists outside Irbil to prevent these terrorists invading Irbil. Obama reported the destruction of terrorist weapons. Kurds continued to defend their city, Irbil, with US and Iraqi central government help. Obama also reported that:

Our humanitarian effort continues to help the men, women and children stranded on Mount Sinjar. American forces have so far conducted two successful airdrops -- delivering thousands of meals and gallons of water…American aircraft are positioned to strike [ISIS] terrorists around the mountain to help forces in Iraq break the siege and rescue those who are trapped there.

On Saturday the US Navy released this video of a US airstrike by carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornets against ISIS artillery pieces near Irbil. It indicates how precise the targeting has become. Drones are also active in reconnaissance and airstrikes against the terrorists in Iraq. The risk that terrorist forces will intentionally mix with civilian populations and use them as human shields is there.

Also on Saturday Tony Abbott made available two Australian C-130 Hercules aircraft to drop supplies onto the refugees within the next few days. The Hercules have already been based nearby at Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates with around 500 Australian servicemen under Operation ACCORDION.

When military aircraft are providing assistance the distinction between military and humanitarian action is fuzzy. The same air forces can feed refugees and also protect them from terrorists who want to kill them. Another complication is mission creep and a drift towards "no end in sight". When Obama leaves office in 2016-17 he doesn't want to be remembered for prolonging the US involvement in Iraq.

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How can the US say now say no to a Shiite majority Iraqi government that is always needy? How can most Sunnis in Iraq who want peace avoid being tarred with the terrorist brush of ISIS that misrepresents them? The third major group in Iraq, the Kurds, have shown an unexpectedly poor performance in holding back ISIS, hence the need for this US intervention. In this many sided civil war the smallest minorities, including the Yazidis and Christians, are the most vulnerable.

Russia and China have blocked humanitarian interventions in recent years. Russia is committed to its guerrilla war in Ukraine so is unavailable to assist. Russia is also without a tradition of providing humanitarian aid outside its borders. A risk exists that Russia might shift from its relatively neutral response to this new US involvement in Iraq by stepping up aggressive Russian actions in Ukraine. Russia, of course, is a major oil and gas exporter which may actually profit from instability in the oil rich Middle East due to possible increases in world oil and gas prices. China, for its part, lacks the necessary air-sea power projection to help the refugees and also has little tradition of being an international aid provider outside its own borders.

In this situation of potential genocide democracies are forced to show leadership by default. It is the democracies who have the resources, experience and humanitarian tradition to help the defenceless minorities of Iraq.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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