Yesterday, the Obama administration finally began talking about a military operation to rescue the Yazidis stuck on Mount Sinjar, besieged by ISIS forces intent on slaughtering the tens of thousands displaced from their homes. The Pentagon then leaked that the military had in fact landed special forces on Mount Sinjar to determine whether a rescue operation could be made soon enough to make a difference. Late last night, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that a rescue operation would be unnecessary:
Special operations forces sent to Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq have concluded there are far fewer refugees stranded there, making a rescue mission to help them off the mountain less likely.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made the announcement at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland Wednesday night. NPR’s David Welna, who was traveling with Hagel, reports:
“They estimate that about a thousand [Yazidi refugees] have been leaving a day and that only several thousand of them are left on the mountain, and that those who are left there have sufficient provisions to remain there for now. So they seemed to conclude that those who are there will be able to make their way off the mountain without a rescue effort made.” …
While an evacuation might not happen, the U.S. “will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed and will protect U.S. personnel and facilities,” according to a statement from the Pentagon press office.
The Pentagon’s sunny assessment also concluded that the ISIS siege has been broken by the US airstrikes around Mount Sinjar:
Defense Department officials said late Wednesday that United States airstrikes and Kurdish fighters had broken the Islamic militants’ siege of Mount Sinjar, allowing thousands of the Yazidis trapped there to escape. …
The speed with which the Obama administration announced that the siege had been broken may cause some consternation overseas, given the increasingly dire descriptions from aid agencies about the crisis on Mount Sinjar. The United Nations on Wednesday announced its highest level of emergency for the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.
The Yazidis and the Kurds would concur that this is too optimistic by half. According to the Washington Post, those “several thousand” that remain are the least likely to be able to get themselves off the mountain — including many children:
Kurdish officials and Yazidi refugees said Thursday that thousands of desperate Yazidis remain trapped on a mountain in northwestern Iraq, even as the Pentagon appeared to back away from launching a rescue mission to save them.
Those who are still stranded on the barren, rocky slopes of Mount Sinjar are mostly the elderly, sick and very young, who were too weak to continue the grueling trek to safety in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region and were left behind by their relatives, the officials and Yazidis said.
The governor of the Kurdistan’s Dahuk province, where most of the Yazidis have fled, said he was told on Wednesday to prepare to receive 15,000 Yazidis who were to be airlifted from the mountain by the U.S. military. Although it is impossible to confirm whether there are that many Yazidis in need of rescue, Farhad Atruchi said he believes that a large number remain trapped and are unable to leave because they are too weak to make the journey.
Some of them are children. Others are too old or sick to continue the long walk to safety and were left behind by relatives fleeing the Aug. 3 onslaught against the town of Sinjar by fighters with the extremist Islamic State.
“For me, this is not correct,” he said of an assessment by the U.S. military that most of the Yazidis appeared now to have escaped. “I don’t know the exact number, whether it is 10,000 or 15,000 or 5,000, but they are there.”
The rescue was always going to be a difficult project no matter what. An airlift was highly impractical, especially under fire. It would have taken hundreds of sorties by helicopter to get the people off the mountain by air, even if everything went perfectly. Opening up a ground corridor to move that many people would have needed a substantial number of boots on the ground, including combat operations as ISIS would have attacked in force. That could have been accomplished by Peshmerga forces on the ground with American logistical support, but even that would have been risking US forces in the kind of combat situation that the administration wants to avoid.
Have the Yazidis really been able to escape the trap all by themselves? Or are we looking for a way out? After all, even the slaughter of “several thousand” civilians is still a genocide; Saddam Hussein killed 5,000 in Halabja in what has always been considered a genocidal attack on the Kurds. If they have been left there to die when the possibility of rescue remains (a substantially large if on both counts), then the US will eventually have to answer for it.