Throughout the crisis in Iraq and Syria and the sweep of ISIS across both, Barack Obama has remained adamant about one thing — that nothing happening there will move him to put American “boots on the ground” again in Iraq. The ineffectiveness of US air strikes in relieving the trapped Yazidis and stopping the ISIS genocide on Mount Sinjar may finallt have Obama backing away from that pledge. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the administration has begun to consider a military intervention to rescue the Yazidis, one that could put American forces into combat with ISIS for the first time (via Daniel Doherty):
The U.S. is weighing a military mission in Iraq to rescue thousands of Yazidi refugees, a move that risks putting American forces in direct confrontation with Sunni fighters for the Islamic State.
The proposal is still under development and hasn’t been approved by President Barack Obama. U.S. officials said the rescue mission is one of many options the U.S. military is weighing after dropping food and water to dying refugees over the past six days.
“People are looking at ways to do something more than just drop water and supplies,” one senior U.S. official said. “You can only do that for so long.”
It’s one thing to mull the options. It’s another to give the order. Any review of the situation and the solutions to the acute crises with the Yazidis would have to include an armed intervention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the US will decide to do it. The rhetoric from the White House has been in total opposition to that very idea from the beginning. Just yesterday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Marines explicitly that there would be no boots on the ground:
“This is not a combat, boots-on-the-ground operation,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a talk Tuesday afternoon with U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif. “But, short of that, there are some things that we can continue to do—and we are doing.”
No rescue operation is likely to take place until the U.S. military gets a better understanding of the scope of the crisis. American officials don’t know how many refugees are trapped in the mountains. Estimates range from several thousand to as many as 35,000 people.
In an earlier post, I noted that the Pentagon had boosted its presence of military advisers in Irbil by 130, more than three times its previous roster. Hagel mentioned this yesterday too, promising that their analysis would be brought back to the Pentagon “very shortly.” The previous team had already completed its analysis weeks ago, to which the Obama administration has not yet responded. While Hagel was denying that the new deployment of military advisers was a combat force, his actual language hedged quite a bit on the future — leaving plenty of wiggle room for change of heart, as the more complete quote from ABC makes a little more clear:
Hagel described the new team in Erbil as not going beyond the parameters President Obama has laid out for the earlier teams sent to Baghdad. He said the assessment team was “not a combat boots on the ground operation. As the president has made very clear, we are not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat missions dimensions that we once were in in Iraq.”
“We’re not going to have that kind of operation, but short of that there are some things that we are going to continue to do and we are doing,” said Hagel.
“In any of the same combat missions dimensions”? That’s quite a bit different than saying “no boots on the ground ever.” The previous mission dimension was a full-scale invasion and occupation. Even the most hawkish of US hawks don’t foresee that as a realistic option, nor would it be necessary. However, if the US wants to stop the genocide on Mount Sinjar and roll back ISIS away from key territory — Kurdistan for one, and perhaps the very dangerous Mosul Dam for another — it will take more than a few water drops and supply airlifts, punctuated by occasional air strikes.
However, there would be no turning back from that decision by Obama, either. He not only would have to authorize combat operations in Iraq, which would make hash of his many claims over the last three years to have “ended the war,” he will have to prepare the country for that redeployment and reopening of hostilities. That would mean being honest about the collapse of Iraq and the role the US withdrawal had in it, and the need to stay engaged not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, where the same scenario is about to unfold as soon as we leave. With that in mind, don’t expect any US military intervention on Mount Sinjar or anywhere else in Iraq. The costs to Obama are simply too high.