That red line will be tested in the coming days and weeks as the president acts to address both the acute humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq – which he called a “potential genocide” – and the broader threat posed by advancing militants of the Islamic State (IS) now consolidating their hold on parts of Iraq and Syria.
White House officials were anxious Wednesday to calm rising concerns about a “slippery slope” to a US combat role in Iraq, as the Pentagon announced it was sending 130 additional personnel to Iraq to assess the humanitarian crisis in the north on and around Mt. Sinjar. Sunni militant fighters for IS on a sectarian-cleansing mission have trapped thousands of minority Yazidis on the mountain, prompting the United States to launch a humanitarian campaign of food and water drops.
Mr. Obama, in dispatching the additional assessment teams, says he wants to know what else needs to be done and what role the US can play. Recommendations are expected “in a matter of days,” White House officials say.
But with the United Nations as well as some members of Congress calling for establishing humanitarian corridors and perhaps even safe havens for populations under threat from IS, the question of whether the US can play a deeper role without resorting once again to putting in ground forces is back on the administration’s plate.
“What [Obama] has ruled out is reintroducing forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, speaking with reporters in Edgartown, Mass., on Wednesday. The Obama family is on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
Pressed to clarify if that means the president has ruled out putting any troops on the ground in Iraq, even as part of a humanitarian operation, Mr. Rhodes left the door open. US troops, he said, are not going to be “on the ground in a combat role fighting ISIL,” the acronym the White House uses for IS.
As for whether the US would act to establish humanitarian “corridors” for the Yazidis and other religious minorities including Christians to escape the IS threat, Rhodes said it was too early to say. “The president will be making decisions after the [assessment] teams report back,” he said.
But even as the teams arrive in Iraq to make those assessments, work is advancing in the UN Security Council on a resolution targeting IS and an Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group in Syria, Nusra Front. The draft resolution so far calls for financial sanctions on the groups and measures to stem the flow of recruits to the groups from other countries, but it is being formulated under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which means it could be enforced by military intervention.
While the draft resolution as proposed by Britain does not call for establishing humanitarian corridors in Iraq or Syria, the topic is under discussion in UN hallways, according to sources there.
On Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California issued a letter urging UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to move quickly to provide an escape route to the thousands of Yazidis she said are still on Mt. Sinjar.
Saying she was aware of discussions at the UN on a humanitarian corridor, Senator Boxer said, “I urge you to move expeditiously to support such a corridor that would provide multiple safe routes for the Yazidis to descend the mountain and move to a safe zone.”
However, establishing and maintaining such a corridor in a zone where IS is operating would take more than air power and would probably require a presence of ground forces, though not necessarily US troops, experts say.
Even if not technically a combat operation, enforcing a humanitarian corridor would potentially put any participating US forces in harm’s way, administration officials acknowledge. “There are dangers involved in any military operation,” Rhodes said.
But he also suggested Obama is aware that the ongoing campaign of airdrops of lifesaving supplies is not a fix to the Yazidi crisis and that measures allowing thousands of desperate people to reach safe haven may be necessary. “Just dropping food and water in perpetuity from the air,” Rhodes said, “that’s not a permanent solution.”
Beyond the humanitarian crisis, the question of whether US troops will have to return to Iraq is also surfacing as officials and regional analysts take up the broader question of addressing the IS threat.
Obama has said that stepped-up US support for Iraq in its fight with IS is contingent upon Iraqis resolving their political differences and settling on a new unity government that reintegrates the Sunni community that has made way for the IS advance. He has also insisted that any increased US assistance won’t include a return of ground troops.
But analysts and former officials who say that IS and its extremist ideology have to be seen as a serious regional challenge and even a threat to the US homeland also say that defeating the group may require some number of US ground forces to augment the Iraqi and Kurdish forces that have not been up to the task.
“The president is right to be reluctant about a substantial force on the ground, and I don’t think that is necessary,” says Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the UN. At the same time, he does not rule out deploying some forces, saying they would probably be needed to advise the Iraqi and Kurdish forces when they do go on the offensive against IS, and to assist US air assets in targeting IS forces and armaments in a stepped-up air campaign.
Others say it’s time for Obama to retire his blanket “no return policy” concerning US troops in Iraq, saying that such rhetoric from the US president emboldens groups like IS.
“The US should cease talking about ‘no boots on the ground,’ ” said Samir Sumaidaie, former Iraqi ambassador to the US and the UN, participating Wednesday in a conference call organized by the Wilson Center in Washington. “The stick has to be waved, and it has to be waved credibly,” he said.
Mr. Khalilzad, participating in the same call, said that, beyond just the question of US troops in Iraq, Obama will have to acknowledge through his policies that the threat posed by IS requires American leadership and a long-term commitment to a region that both Obama and Americans might prefer to forget.
“The president needs to start a conversation with the American people” about the role that Khalilzad says the US has no choice but to play in defeating IS. “He needs to prepare for a broader effort of several years,” he says, “one that will probably extend to the next presidential elections.”