While the US airstrikes in Iraq have slowed down and “temporarily disrupted” the advance of the Islamic State (IS) toward the city of Erbil, the defacto capital of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, the US military’s efforts are “unlikely to affect” the terrorist group’s overall capabilities or operations in other parts of Iraq or Syria.
That was the blunt warning of Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the Pentagon’s director of operations, in a briefing with reporters Monday.
Top military officials are “very concerned” about the threat posed by IS in the region, he said, in large part because their fighters now control some of the largest cities in Iraq and have a solid base of operations in war-torn Syria.
“They’re very well organized, very well equipped, they coordinate their operations and thus far have shown the ability to attack on multiple [fronts],” Lieutenant General Mayville noted. “That is not insignificant.”
Perhaps most concerning to US military officials is that the Islamist group “remains focused on securing and gaining additional territory throughout Iraq,” he said.
Despite these alarming ambitions, Mayville emphasized that the current US military mission is not to destroy IS. It is rather to help Kurdish forces stand guard against the group’s advances in the north.
“Our current operations are limited in scope to protect US citizens and facilities,” he said.
To that end, the US military has carried out some 15 airstrikes since President Obama announced on Thursday evening that US military operations in Iraq had commenced for the first time since the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011.
President Obama invoked the goal of halting the slaughter of a minority religious group that few Americans had heard of before last week – the Yazidis – as the driving force in the US military operations.
They were trapped on the Sinjar mountains near the Syrian border after fleeing IS forces intent on killing them. American operations in the form of humanitarian air drops could “help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food or water and facing almost certain death,” the president said.
Even so, back at the Pentagon, Mayville told reporters that it’s unclear, even to him, how many Yazidis there actually are, and whether their ranks number in the thousands or tens of thousands.
What also remains unclear, he said, is whether the US military can create a safe corridor without boots on the ground, as one reporter asked.
“That’s too speculative for me,” Mayville answered. “We are now gripped by the immediacy of the crisis.”