Until last week, most Americans had never heard of the Yazidis, a largely impoverished, ethno-religious group little known outside Iraq and Syria. The danger associated with terrorists allied with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al-Qaida breakaway faction that has seized vast stretches of territory in northern Iraq and neighboring Syria, is very real. But it was the desperate plight of tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar — death by starvation and thirst if they remain on the barren peak, or extermination at the hands of the ISIL if they descend the mountain — that was the most convincing reason for American intervention in the ongoing conflict.
Perhaps more than other people, Jews are all too painfully aware of what it is like to be a persecuted minority facing annihilation and finding their desperate pleas to the world to be falling on deaf ears. Seventy years ago, the Americans and British refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, though they flew some 2,800 missions to bomb a petrochemical plant five miles away.
Therefore, we strongly support the humanitarian mission to bring food and water to the stranded Yazidis, as well as the airstrikes intended to break the siege on Mount Sinjar and to halt the ISIL advances on the Kurdish city of Irbil. At the same time, it is vital to note that a limited U.S. bombing campaign will at best slow the momentum of the ISIL, but will do little to change the fact that the ISIL already controls a vast swath of territory, and that the al-Qaida breakaway is eager to take its fight against America.
“Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq,” Abu Mosa, a spokesman for the terror group, mockingly declared recently.
President Obama’s repeated insistence that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq” reflects the wishes of the majority of the American people. Public opinion surveys find that, in concept, Americans say they overwhelmingly support military action to prevent genocide or retaliate against the use of chemical weapons. But when it comes to authorizing force in specific conflicts, such as Iraq, those poll numbers dwindle rapidly. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found fewer than half — 45 percent — supported launching airstrikes against Sunni terrorists in Iraq, and only 30 percent supported deploying ground troops.
But President Obama’s decision also represents the facts on the ground.
It is a bitter irony that the ISIL is using American-made arms, munitions and equipment that it seized from the Iraqi army to grab land for its terror caliphate and seek to annihilate minorities. There is no guarantee that any additional arms sent to the Iraqi forces won’t meet the same fate.
Right next door, Syria’s three-year-old civil war continues to rage. Activists say the war has killed more than 170,000 people — an incredibly high number — yet news of the war has largely faded from the headlines.
A key reason the world has become almost immune to the murder and mayhem in Syria is because while the Assad regime has long been recognized to be despotic and brutal, most of the primary rebel groups are just as evil, or even worse.
While the lines between the warring factions in Iraq are far clearer, and there is considerable sympathy in the West for the position of the Kurdish population in Iraq, ultimately it is up to the Iraqi people to decide the direction they want their country to go.
So far, the Iraqi political leadership seems more intent on focusing its energies on internal political squabbles than on fighting the ISIL, and despite its infamous reputation, the terror group appears to be attracting support among Sunni youths. Adding to the complexity of contemporary Iraqi intrigue is the role of Iran, which has substantial influence over some of the powerful Shiite groups in Iraq, and is thought to even have troops fighting against the ISIL inside Iraq.
Tehran clearly doesn’t adhere to the adage of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” It has rejected overtures by the Obama administration to work together with America in finding a solution to the Iraqi crisis, and while some of the Iranian-funded Shiite militias that fought in the past against American forces in Iraq see the ISIL as a formidable foe, these too are terror groups.
The president is right. There’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq, and it is far from certain that there is any military solution at all.
In the larger scheme of things, it is far from certain what the American airstrikes will really accomplish, but if all they do is save the lives of the poor Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, that alone is a very worthwhile endeavor.