Iraq Airstrikes Will Continue; Maliki Steps Aside

President Barack Obama

President Obama at a brief press conference at Martha's Vineyard on Thursday

Iraq Airstrikes Will Continue; Maliki Steps Aside
| published August 15, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Truth and accuracy still play a part in reporting international tensions, war and humanitarian crisis as events unfold. But in an age of social media and nearly instantaneous access to information and data, first-hand, on the ground intelligence can still trump news reports based on a few seconds of digital video, a dozen digital images captured with phones, or posts on Facebook.

No recent example of this could be clearer than the tragic events of the last seven weeks in Gaza, and along the borders between Israel and the those areas under the control of Hamas, where daily and nightly news reports of rocket and missile attacks generate competing narratives and sometimes diametrically-opposed reports: a rocket smashes into a shelter or school operated by the United Nations, with dozens killed and hundreds wounded; both sides blame the other for the horror. Likewise, a dozen attempts to broker and maintain a truce or ceasefire have been violated, and likewise, with both sides in the combat accusing the other of failing to give peace a chance.

Now, the rapid advance of ISIS forces across a wide swath of territory—from northern and northeastern Syria, across much of northern Iraq, to the border checkpoints with Jordan, and to within shooting distances of Kurdish strongholds—has challenged the stability of an already fractious region. And ISIS swift advance had threatened to unravel the tenuous stability of the wider Middle East, and it has very nearly undermined the toil and blood of thousands of Americans and untold thousands of Iraqis in the aftermath of a long war.

ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) began its rapid advance in the spring, emerging from the lawlessness of Syria’s long civil war, sweeping across Iraq, taking control of cities and towns along the way, and seizing control of oil facilities and military outposts along the way. Ahead of its advance, an Iraqi army—trained and equipped by the United States—beat a hasty, retreat, dropping weapons, abandoning Jeeps and tanks, and even shedding uniforms. In some towns, the Iraqi forces outnumbered ISIS militants by a margin of ten-to-one, which makes their profound unwillingness to fight even more breathtaking. ISIS extremists then collected the guns and weapons, seized the tanks and armored vehicles, and became a powerful fighting force which now challenges the stability of the region.

In its wake, ISIS has engaged in genocide, executing all soldiers or police it is able to capture, killing some civilians unwilling to immediately convert to its brand of radical Sunni doctrine, murdering others summarily simply because those civilians are different. ISIS’s two preferred methods of mass murder: bullets to the back of heads as victims kneel along a hastily excavated burial ditch; beheadings, which are captured using digital video devices or smart phones. Ethnic and religious differences are grounds for immediate execution, and such was the case in the areas around Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee towns and villages, many of them seeking safety on Mount Sinjar.

For over a week, a narrative formed around the crisis. Trapped atop the mountain (in actuality, a small mountain range, with its highest peak rising 4449 feet above sea level), the Yazidis sought refuge from the ISIS militants encircling the area. ISIS forces, heavily armed and well-equipped, began shelling several towns and villages, forcing thousands to flee. Yazidis, and some local Christians, fled towns on both the north and south side of the Sinjar Mountains, moving en masse from Quwasi and Khana Sor of the north side of the range, from Kurkurkan and Jaddala along the southern foothills, from Bara, near the border with Syria, and from Sinjar, the largest of the cities in the region.

By some estimates, between 20,000 and 40,000 Yazidis were trapped along the mountain range as of earlier this week. The U.S., United Kingdom and Iraqi forces began a massive airlift campaign, dropping in bottled water, meals-ready-to-eat, and even tents, as thousands on the ground suffered from heat and dehydration. The U.S. also began airstrikes, targeted to specifically displace ISIS positions around the mountain, and open escape routes for the besieged people. Kurdish fighters also engaged with ISIS forces, in some cases creating brief corridors for the safe passage of thousands. Aerial intelligence, satellite imagery and drone data indicated that the number of people still trapped over the previous weekend may have numbered into the tens of thousands.

Though Iraqi troops could not safely enter the area (or were unwilling to consider moving into ISIS-controlled regions), some western reporters were able to reach Sinjar and the mountain. There, they discovered a humanitarian crisis unfolding at a grim pace. The U.S. increased both its airstrikes on ISIS targets, and its aid drops. With more Kurdish intervention, thousands more made it safely out of the besieged areas.

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced days ago that a detachment of U.S. Special Forces were being deployed to the area—to be inserted behing the lines and as close to Sinjar as possible—there was both relief and concern. Relief, since first-hand intelligence still trumps a few minutes of video footage or a few moments of cell phone imagery. Concern: more U.S. boots on the ground in what could easily become a quagmire of complexity for the U.S. and its allies. Since the crisis began in early June, the United States has sent in military advisors and observers, which now total roughly 850. Most of those advisors and support personnel are near Baghdad, and are placed to support Iraqi military and Iraqi security forces now deployed along the front lines facing the ISIS militants.

Yesterday, in a brief interruption to his vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, the President announced that the situation had become more stable in Sinjar, on the mountain, and in a few of the adjacent areas. Previous estimates, the President explained, of the number of civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar were no longer valid. Furthermore, sufficient food, water and medical supplies had been dropped in. More supplies were airlifted to the town of Kursi, on the north side of the range, and Kurdish fighters had escorted many thousands of Yazidis and Christians to safety, some eastward, toward Erbil, a few north toward the border with Turkey.

But problems with all those estimated numbers quickly developed. U.S. Special Forces began reporting what should have already been widely understood and known—both by Iraqi officials and those in the U.S. military and in U.S. and U.K. intelligence circles: many thousands of Yazidis live on the mountain, making it their permanent home. There are villages, farms, and markets along the range. Though thousands were in fact trapped, still unable to find safe passage off the mountain, many thousands more were as relatively safe among the enclaves and villages which dot the mountain range as they would be exposed to worse conditions in the open areas between Sinjar and Erbil, or between Sinjar and Turkey—where smaller detachments of ISIS militants still roam in search of civilians.

Obama declared the operation more-or-less terminated, but insisted that the air campaign of targeting ISIS positions on the ground would continue for the foreseeable future.

But an odd divergence of opinion and imagery was still emerging, even as the day unfolded. Reporters on or near Sinjar said that although many Yazidis has found their way to safety, thanks to Kurdish fighters now battling ISIS militants, there were still many thousands of civilians waiting in the blazing sun and extreme heat of encampments along Sinjar. Some of those who are still there fled villages and towns in the wake of horrific violence, and many said they were witness to ISIS atrocities being committed: shootings, beheadings, amputations, rape.

These reports seemed largely to square with disturbing digital images now being widely distributed on the internet—hundreds of separate but similar video clips showing murder and mayhem being wrought in the very towns and villages identified by the Yazidis and Christian Iraqis. In addition, widely viewed video images shot from inside Iraqi and U.S. helicopters clearly show general panic and desperation on the ground, with hundreds of stranded civilians rushing toward choppers once they have landed, in some cases tossing children on board. Reporters on the ground have given reports of hundreds of dead bodies along some roads and trails, especially in areas where large numbers of Yazidis have attempted to migrate in the heat without sufficient water or food, or where they came under the apparent fire of ISIS weapons. On Thursday, reporters from CBS and NBC gave reports of tens of thousands still trapped on Sinjar.

But those U.S. Special Forces and Marine Green Berets (a total of 160 were sent in this week, though only about 20 were inserted behind the lines into the area of Mount Sinjar) told their superiors within the military chain-of-command that the number of “stranded or refugee” persons on Mount Sinjar was approximately 3500 to 5000. Confusion also persists as to how many Yazidis and other refugees have moved successfully into other, safer areas of Iraq, or how many crossed the border into safe zones in Syria. Kurdish numbers vary depending on which unit is contacted.

The elasticity of these numbers, the confusion surrounding the movements of civilian populations in the path of ISIS militants, and the President’s expedited decision to end the humanitarian component of the current interventions in Iraq, worry some analysts and foreign policy experts who feel that the U.S. may be lacking reliable intelligence on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, as well as a muddled policy toward what actions are appropriate—military or otherwise. Other analysts and commentators have faulted the White House for not taking stronger measures, quicker, after the emergence of ISIS.

The rapidly-fragmenting situation in Iraq has been accelerated by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s resistance to opening up his government to Sunnis, Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities. Since ISIS forces swept into the country, Iraq has quickly begun to fragment along sectarian lines. Maliki, who became prime minister in 2006 with the partial backing of the U.S. and the blessings of his Shiite patrons in Iran (Maliki fled Iraq in 1979, and lived first in Damascus, Syria, and later in Iran, as a political dissident opposed to Saddam Hussein), filled most top government and political jobs, and even military appointments, with Shiites and his own political cronies. Despite a longstanding disagreement with the U.S. over the nature of his government and its apparent closed-door attitude toward Sunnis, Mailiki continued to govern from a sectarian position. Most observers agree that this created fertile ground in Sunni areas of Iraq for the arrival of ISIS. As the situation worsened over the last eight weeks in Iraq, and with ISIS forces seizing the dam at Mosul, taking control of oil refineries, and looting banks of cash and gold, Maliki was criticized even by Baghdad’s Shiite clerics, once his best source of support.

Amid much pressure, Maliki agreed to step down as Prime Minister this week, making room for a new incoming Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi. Al-Abadi is expected to offer immediate outreach to Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, and promises to reinvigorate the Iraqi Army for a possible nationwide offensive against ISIS-held areas, which now dominate the Iraq map.

Some foreign policy analysts in the U.S. and the United Kingdom are worried that Iraq may never be whole again, and that the fragmentation of the country may be a more-or-less permanent state of affairs for a nation in which sectarian divides between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and between Kurds in the northern regions, persist indefintely because of the long-held policies of Maliki, and because of the newly consolidated military strength of ISIS.

Late on Wednesday, the U.S. military air-dropped more supplies of food and water onto the mountain near where the remaining Yazidis are concentrated. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that a rescue mission was unlikely, and that the supply missions would be halted until further notice.

A brief bit of culture and history about the Yazidis: an ancient sect, Yazidis texts indicate that the peak of Mount Sinjar became the resting place of Noah’s Ark after the Great Flood described in the Bible. The Yazedis have numerous enclaves, dating back over a thousand years, established in and around the mountain range, and in some areas on the mountain—which they consider sacred lands—there are small shrines and religious structures. Though Yazidis can be found in many other countries, including in the U.S., Canada, Russia and Europe, the largest community can be found in northern Iraq. Often persecuted for their hybrid brand of religion—part Jewish, part Christian, part Islamic, but based largely on Old Testament beliefs—many Yazidis left the Middle East decades or even centuries ago in search of safety in other countries. Those who have stayed have done so in part for linguistic and cultural reasons, in part because of lands farmed and maintained for centuries by family lines, and in part because of community and a spiritual connection to Mount Sinjar.

ISIS militants, espousing a radical interpretation of Islamic law, accuse the Yazidis of being worshipper of the Devil, and consider them infidels subject to death.

Related Thursday Review articles:

ISIS, Iraq, and a Humanitarian Crisis; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 13, 2014.

Will U.S. Airstikes Stop ISIS?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 10, 2014.

Iraq's Maliki: Under Pressure; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 21, 2014.