The self-titled Islamic State (aka ISIS) continues its push against targets in Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon, while U.S. airstrikes begin to degrade their capabilities. Is it enough? What more can be done? Here are some important questions we should be asking about the situation in Iraq and the threat from ISIS.
What is the U.S. doing in response to the Islamic State’s violence in Iraq?
The United States was again caught by surprise by the insurgent army ISIS. Its rapid advance on the Kurdish capital of Erbil and threat to kill 40,000 minority civilians trapped on a mountain may prove to be the spur to action.
President Obama announced and began two operations in support of the Iraqi government. One is humanitarian aid (food and water supplies will be dropped from planes) to minority Yezidis trapped by ISIS forces on a remote mountain top. The other is the authorization for combat air strikes if ISIS moves closer to Erbil, where a large number of U.S. personnel are stationed in a consulate. There is also a small U.S. military element in Erbil that was coordinating with the Kurds.
Is Obama’s announced response sufficient?
This is not an adequate policy. It is a knee-jerk reaction that is too little, too late. Using air power alone to “plink” at individual vehicles and pieces of equipment did not work in Kosovo for Bill Clinton and will not work here. The policy of “do as little as humanly possible” just so you can get credit is now coming home to roost. This requires a much larger regional response. ISIS is a regional threat, and it will take cooperation from numerous sources to deal with it.
Does ISIS pose a serious threat?
ISIS has shown itself to be ruthless with the persecution, torture and even murder of minorities (Christians, non-Sunni Muslims, etc). There is every reason to believe it will follow through with its demand that the Yezidis convert to Islam or die. The group is trapped on Mt Sinjar in northern Iraq. It includes mostly women and children. They also have a considerable number of foreign fighters from the United States and Western Europe who hold “clean” passports that will not necessarily be flagged if they try to enter the United States. This is a realistic homeland security issue that makes ISIS a significant threat to U.S. interests here and in the region.
Does the Iraqi government want the U.S. to intervene?
It was emphasized in the White House announcement that the Iraqi government had requested this support. Additionally, there were great pains taken to ensure it was understood that no additional U.S. ground troops will be deployed.
There had been earlier reports the United States already had conducted air strikes in Iraq against ISIS targets, but these proved to be false. These earlier actions were likely conducted by the Iraqis air forces themselves. They clearly are not sufficient to address the situation.
With the likely formation of a new Iraqi government (one without Nouri al Makliki), chances that support for Baghdad will go up are high.
How serious is this?
The situation is grave. ISIS has shown itself to be very clever. Rather than moving on Baghdad, as expected, it appears to be looking for, and finding, weak spots. The move against Erbil was not anticipated. The initial airstrikes seemed to have helped, but more needs to be done.
Many experts have noted the reversals the Kurds have suffered are stunning. The Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) had a reputation for extreme toughness and military capability. It was thought it would form a bulwark against which ISIS would flounder. ISIS’s ability to push Peshmerga out of areas it has controlled for extended periods is not a good sign and indicates ISIS is a force to be reckoned with. It now must be considered more than just a terrorist group.
The concern is growing that even if ISIS can be driven back, there may be irreparable damage done. Its present control of an Iraqi dam, electric production facilities and oil infrastructure means it can, at the very least, damage or destroy these key locations as it withdraws.
There are reports that ISIS continues to expand in other areas as well. It is operating in Syria and Lebanon. It is not widely reported, but an ISIS affiliate moved into northern Lebanon, and the army has failed to dislodge it. This ability to operate in multiple locations against disparate targets is another sign that this is a very dangerous foe, not just to Iraq, but to the region.