Obama authorizes limited airstrikes to protect US personnel in Irbil

President Barack Obama has authorized the US military to launch limited airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State, under two conditions: to halt a potential Islamic State advance on Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan that hosts a US Consulate and military advisers; or in support of humanitarian operations to help Iraqis on Mount Sinjar. Obama was clear that the military could launch airstrikes only under those specific conditions, and that the US military would not act as an offensive air force for the Iraqi military or the Kurdish Peshmerga, nor would it send in ground troops to fight the Islamic State.

“Today I authorized two operations in Iraq: targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped on a mountain without food, water, and facing almost certain death,” Obama said, speaking this evening at the White House.

“To stop the advance on Irbil, I directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL [Islamic State] terrorist convoys should they move towards the city” and threaten US personnel there or “anywhere in Iraq.” The Iraqi government has approved the US’ potential use of force, he said.

Obama was clear that US ground troops will not engage in fighting against the Islamic State.

“I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said. “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home.”

“American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he continued.

Obama said the US should respond “to help avert a massacre” when able to do so.

“Therefore I authorized targeted airstrikes if necessary to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege on Mount Sinjar,” he said.

Obama’s statement took place just hours after Kurdish officials claimed that the US had launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The US Department of Defense denied the rumors.

The Islamic State has made significant advances in northern Iraq during the past week. Over the weekend, the Islamic State seized the city of Sinjar, just west of Mosul, which sparked the exodus of the persecuted Yazidi minority. Tens of thousands of Iraqis fled to Mount Sinjar to escape the Islamic State’s advance.

And within the past several days, the Islamic State took control of the Christian town of Qaraqosh, as well as Bartella and Karamlesh east of Mosul, putting Islamic State fighters just 20 miles west of Irbil. Also, the town of Tal Kayf, north of Mosul, fell under the terror group’s control. The Mosul Dam is also said to be occupied by the Islamic State.

Until recently, each of these areas were under the protection of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Defense Forces that stood up to Saddam Hussein with the help of the US Air Force for more than a decade before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the Peshmerga left most of the cities and towns without putting up a fight.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Ayamo says:

    Will this make a lasting impact on the advance that IS is making? I doubt it … They’ll simply focus elswhere for the time being.

  • Joel says:

    Typical reactionary Obama foreign policy. Is there any doubt that ISIS poses a long term national security threat to the United States, and an immediate threat to some our best allies in the Middle East (the Kurds)? Does anybody know what the Obama Administration strategy is to deal with the threat? Limited air strikes to protect American personnel isn’t going to accomplish much. Were just kicking the can down the road at this point. American leadership is required, but Obama clearly doesn’t have what it takes.

  • Paul D says:

    Who is protecting the Christians in the Middle East?

  • Bill Baar says:

    Re: Who is protecting the Christians in the Middle East?
    Sunni Muslim Kurds at the moment. And Jews in Israel http://www.mesop.de/2014/08/07/mesop-watch-pictures-listen-podcast-arabs-with-israeli-flags/

  • Andrew says:

    There isn’t a military victory to be had in Iraq and the Obama administration knows that better than most. We should see these strikes as a strategic message rather than an attempt to achieve some tactical goal. The real questions are “what is the message?” and “who are the intended audiences?”.
    Does anyone else think it’s notable that the first acknowledged US strikes against ISIS effectively support the Peshmerga and not the Iraqi Government? I can’t think of a more clear message than that: “ditch Maliki-style majoritarianism and craft an inclusive government, or the US will (tacitly, at least) support Kurdish independence.”
    Joel – American Leadership doesn’t have to be loud. It can often be more effective to lead through subtle messages and diplomacy. Don’t you think that Iran will notice that the US’s first efforts don’t help it’s client government in Baghdad? Won’t Turkey (to whom many moderate Sunni groups in Iraq look for leadership) notice when the US helps the functionally independent Kurds?

  • Muhammad Qawi says:

    Andrew, I’m curious about this comment:
    “American Leadership doesn’t have to be loud. It can often be more effective to lead through subtle messages and diplomacy.”
    I’m not sure where you are going with this. I cannot help but think about the withdrawal. Had it not occurred then it is likely that the need for these airstrikes would not exist. The Kurds and Yadizis would, in all likelihood, not be confronted with the situations they now face. American diplomacy may not have to be loud but, at the same time, all this did not have to happen. America seems to be in the process of paying for the same real estate twice.

  • Lint says:

    Yet another non-committal decision that won’t have any affect on the outcome. It’s dangerous ineptitude. Take a stand and be very, very clear about it! Obama could learn leadership skills from Netanyahu.

  • Josh says:

    This administration is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
    Stopping genocide, what’s there to complain about? We want to discuss root cause? Perhaps we shouldn’t have invaded in the first place?

  • Joel says:

    American leadership does not have to be loud, but it needs to be clear and decisive. I don’t think this administration has a clear or decisive strategy to combat the long term threat that ISIS poses to the region and the world.

  • Joel says:

    History doesn’t begin and end with our invasion in 2003. The root cause of the current conflict is our military and political abandonment of Iraq after 2011 and a festering civil war in Syria. While the root cause of the conflict in 2003 was the growth of jihadist terrorism in the 1990’s, coupled with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and his slaughter of both Shia and Kurd.

  • Andrew says:

    Muhammad, understanding history is useful, but revisionist hypotheticals aren’t. Unless you’re suggesting the US re-invade Iraq (which I hope you’re not) then it doesn’t really have any bearing whether or not ISIS would be in power had the US remained in Iraq ad-infinitum. This situation might not have existed had a good many things happened or not happened in the past, the question at hand is what to do about it now.
    The whole point of my “quiet diplomacy” comment was that the US doesn’t have to “pay for the same real estate twice” because we can influence the outcome better by setting the political conditions region-wide to starve ISIS of popular support and cleave it’s allies from it.
    All these folks talking about decisive action and bold moves aren’t saying what those bold moves should be, because there ISN’T a bold, military move to make that will serve our interests. Wholeheartedly back the Maliki Government? Then we encourage sectarianism, help Iran, harm our allies, and contributed to the authoritarianism that is the root cause of the conflict in the first place. Invade and pacify the region? We bleed for nothing and stoke the fires further. Fund the Peshmerga? We contribute to the breakdown of the Iraqi state, which might be a “least bad” option down the road but isn’t our stated goal now. There’s a lot of sabre rattling going on around here, but I’ve yet to read someone say what, exactly, they think a “strong, decisive leader” should do.

  • Joel says:

    Political progress often requires military action. This is the reality of politics in Iraq, and it appears that the “quiet diplomacy” of the Obama administration over the past few years has failed.
    A strong, decisive leader should arm the Kurds, reach out to our former allies in the Sunni community, get more involved with politics in Baghdad, and target ISIS with airstrikes.
    A strong decisive leader should communicate to the world and the American people that at least we have a long term strategy to cripple ISIS.

  • Daniel says:

    It´s clear that toppling Saddam Hussein and the de-baathification of Iraq was the greatest political mistake in modern history. The region is now completely unstable with horrific consequences for the civilian population,
    The Iraqis clearly didnt know what do with their newfound ´freedom´. Unfortunately the psychopath warlords knew exactly what to do and again the region is plagued by roving, rapist ´islamic´ warbands. The region is now completely unstable with horrific consequences for the civilian population.
    The US owes the Iraqis and Kurds to bomb ISIL into oblivion. The US should establish aggressive, decisive air superiority so that the kurds and the iraqis can reestablish ground security in their homelands.
    Then let´s hope the US never again invades a country with the intent to engage in state building on foreign soil.

  • Jake says:

    Obama is making reasonable choices, and I support what he’s doing. Americans obviously have no interest in going into another war, but something has to be done to combat IS before they’re able to slaughter more people and brainwash more youth. IS is also making direct threats to the US (much like UBL in the late ’90s), and they should be taken seriously. I think the best option is to start a drone and air campaign against their fighters in Iraq AND Syria if it’s feasible. Those claiming Obama is at fault by not keeping troops in Iraq fail to remember that the Iraqi government didn’t want our troops there, and that needed to be respected. Maliki appears to be on his way out so maybe something can be done politically in Iraq in the near future to help end the Sunni tribal support to IS. Also, I find it incredibly disturbing that the major ME players like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc aren’t doing more to combat IS. Are they completely blind to the threat IS poses to them and their governments?
    And Joel, “A strong, decisive leader should arm the Kurds, reach out to our former allies in the Sunni community, get more involved with politics in Baghdad, and target ISIS with airstrikes.” That is EXACTLY what the Obama administration is doing so…

  • Joel says:

    The Obama administration is taking minimal action against ISIS. The stated goals are so narrow as to have in immaterial affect on their operational capacity, and there is still no coherent long term policy to defeat the group.
    Furthermore, what arms are we providing to the Kurds? We still insist on providing those arms through Baghdad, which essentially ensures they won’t have what they need when they need it. Meanwhile, ISIS is using American arms against them.
    At the end of the day, Obama doesn’t have the stomach to wage an effective war on ISIS, and they know it.

  • Eric says:

    Obama waited until there was an unambiguous justification for use of military force. 40,000 Yazidis cut off on a mountaintop did the trick. Now we are in the airstrikes game with minimal condemnation and controversy. I don’t see one thing wrong with that. If we could just gradually expand the circle to include all the approaches to Kurdistan, we would be doing fine, I believe.
    Under the present circumstances in Iraq, the smartest thing to do is let the shia ans sunni have a go at each other. The only real cure for their dysfunctional arguments is to let them kill each other for awhile. I know that is not PC, in fact it is barbaric, reprehensible and unconscionable, too. But it is exactly the right move to make. Both sides must come to the realization all by themselves that their big brothers are letting them down, and they would be better off cutting a deal to save what is left. That needs to happen before there is any chance to involve ourselves in some effort that will bring about stability.
    ISIS will definitely get around to attacking US interests directly at some point. They are too full of themselves to see the stupidity of doing so. As a democracy, we are stuck waiting for that pearl harbor moment, before we can bring retribution. I never saw much point in rattling our sabres while we are waiting. This time is better spent observing and marking my enemy, sharpening my sabre, and double-checking my gear.
    Let’s send the Kurds an early birthday present. Set them up with Drones and hellfires,

  • Mike E says:

    Obamas precipitous with drawl from Iraq is probably the worst foreign policy mistake in US history. His ineffectual pinprick airstrikes are not helping. A massive air campaign supported by a large number of boots on the ground is necessary.

  • Mike E says:

    Daniel claims, It´s clear that toppling Saddam Hussein and the de-baathification of Iraq was the greatest political mistake in modern history. The region is now completely unstable with horrific consequences for the civilian population,”
    This ignores Saddams attempted genocide of the Marsh Arabs, WMD use on the Kurds and the brutal police state that all Iraqis (except the post 1991 Kurds) were forced to endure. It also ignores the quite stable and peaceful democracy left behind after OIF and the surge.
    Leading from behind has been a fiasco in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Yemen as shown by the rise of ISIS, AQAP and Boko Haram.

  • Jake says:

    Joel, this is a direct quote from a recent article from Reuters, “Washington is also directly supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters, U.S. officials said. The weapons were supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency but the Pentagon may soon start arming the Kurds, the officials said. They declined to specify when the supply program began or what sort of arms it included.” So the US is arming the Kurds directly, even if they may have not been doing so previously.

  • Paul says:

    …to protect U.S. personnel. There wouldn’t be U.S. personnel to protect if he hadn’t sent them to Erbil. Either wade in and do some serious killing, or talk tough but do nothing as was done in Syria. A few sorties a day doesn’t do much but provide pilot training.

  • Tunde says:

    Joel and Mike E,
    I couldn’t disagree more with your ‘prescriptions’. Mike E ; I just returned from Nigeria ( no I don’t have Ebola 🙂 ).
    There is no ‘decisiveness’ to be had. The Nigerian government and in particular, their military, are extremely reluctant to accept US military assistance because they believe that foreign powers entrenching themselves strategically will begin to have designs on their oil. It’s a weird paranoia but very real in their minds. And they quote the Iraq invasion as proof. The Iraq invasion has had tertiary and quarternary orders of consequence way down the diplomacy line, something that may not be readily apparent if one sat in the US.
    Joel, pol science statements sound decisive but you will have to concede that we are dealing with Iraqi Shia as the dominant power group in Iraq. How would the US operate in Iraq outside of a mutually beneficial SOFA without being an occupying force (thereby subjecting US troops to the PJCC Karbala type op) ?
    Those whom suggest arming the Kurds don’t seem to realize this could reverberate badly with Ankara. ISIS in it’s initial formation was funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Assad. The LWJ has been admirably documenting ISIS’s evolution to IS. An anti-Assad, anti-Hiz’bullah, anti-Iran/Shia force has now become a US problem ? What I seem to recall is that the US tacitly agreed to the plan. The plan has now sprouted legs and wings, metaphorically. And the response is to arm a restive, secessionist peoples residing in three or four states in the region ? How does that de-escalate tensions in the region ? Also, the US has a poor history of long term support of insurrections/insurgencies. The Shia especially have fresh memories, talk of Contras, Hmong, UNITA etc.
    Has anyone considered that perhaps the Sunni Gulf states would continue to finance and arm IS to negate Iran’s power ? SA continues to pursue it’s own foreign policy, which increasingly is clashing with US ME policy. The Tehran-Maliki-Assad-Nasrullah axis is still potent and strong. iS counters that. Erdogan/Tayyipists also back IS.
    I agree with the poster above who says that destabilizing Iraq by invading unleashed pent-up forces in the region that Americans in general cannot hope to understand.
    I have no confidence that the US foreign policy establishment has the wherewithal and the patience to craft a long-term strategy. It seems to be top heavy with persons with Ivy League credentials, enthralled to a belief that everyone wants to be American.
    The same people who urge ‘decisiveness’ also want the same expressed to Putin, the consequences of which don’t bear thinking about. Let’s wait this out because this is just the opening salvo. IS will turn in strength on Syria (against Assad-HB) and have already started infiltrating Turkey.
    The Kurds may become collateral damage.

  • Ram says:

    The present day construct of Iraq that includes Shias, Sunnis and Kurds living side-by-side is clearly an artificial one imposed first by the colonial power and then by dictators. It is simply not sustainable – certainly not in a democracy given the antipathy each of these groups has to the other.
    Best is for US to openly support Kurdish independence – give them arms to defend themselves against IS. Let Iran defend the Shia parts of Iraq, including their holy sites.
    That way, the IS is kept under control with minimum direct involvement of US men and money.
    I suspect the Turks are supporting in IS in some form. There needs to be pressure applied on Turks to end this support


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