White House weighs sending more troops to Iraq: How far will US, Europe go?

The US is developing a plan to rescue members of the Yazidi minority group amid increasing calls from the Kurdish government and Yazidi leaders for the US to respond more forcefully against Islamic State militants.

Rodi Said/Reuters
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate August 11, 2014.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
A map of northern Iraq, showing where ISIS militants have taken control of a number of cities and where Kurds still maintain a hold.

The United States is developing a plan to send US troops to rescue Iraq's Yazidis, currently under siege by forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). The plan, which has yet to be submitted to and approved by President Obama, comes amid growing pressure on the US and other Western nations to intervene directly in Iraq to prevent a massacre of the Yazidi minority and to help Kurdish forces repel IS.

A US rescue mission would risk putting American forces into direct conflict with IS fighters, but US officials warn such a move might become necessary if supply drops by Western powers to the Yazidis, currently under siege on Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq, prove insufficient. "You can only do that for so long," one official told The Wall Street Journal.

On Tuesday, the US sent another 130 military advisers to Iraq to assess the situation on the ground, which will help the Pentagon determine what it can do next. The team includes US Marines and special operations forces who have expertise in such situations. The Wall Street Journal notes that despite ongoing media coverage, much about the situation around Mt. Sinjar remains unclear, including just how many Yazidis are in peril there – reports range from several thousand to as many as 50,000 refugees present. Given the uncertainty and the difficulty of operations in mountain terrain, the scope of a rescue mission still has to be worked out.

"Any operation with respect to the mountain has its challenges," the US official told The Wall Street Journal. "Whether you try to do something by air, whether you try to do something by ground, both have inherent risks to them."

The development of the plan comes amid increasing calls from the Kurdish government and Yazidi leaders for the US to respond more forcefully against IS militants. Al Jazeera reports that Kurdish leaders say that US airstrikes, which the White House has described as limited, are not enough.

"For the air strikes to be really fruitful in a way that can somewhat turn the tide of the conflict, they need to continue long enough," said Dler Mustafa Hassan, deputy chairman of the committee of Peshmerga [Kurdish military] affairs in the Kurdish parliament.

"In addition, for the situation to change and IS to be fought effectively, the US needs to go beyond limited air strikes," said Mr. Hassan, a former Peshmerga brigadier general. "They need to help arm and train the Peshmerga so we can defend ourselves in the future, as well."

The Daily Beast notes that while the CIA has already begun covertly supplying the Kurds with arms, the Kurds have also asked specifically for drones and other advanced weaponry, including "Javelin anti-tank missiles, integrated air defense systems, armored personnel carriers, surveillance drones, and third-generation night vision equipment."

The Yazidis have also pleaded for more assistance from the West, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

“We are calling for a buffer zone patrolled by international forces or the mass relocation of Yazidis abroad,” [says Baba Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the Yazidi ethno-religious minority]. “The Islamic State is the most dangerous and unjust terrorist group in the world – they kill women, men and children without cause. But when it comes to the Yazidis, they pose the highest threat. They do not give them the a chance to convert, the only option is death." ...

“This marks the 73rd genocide in our history. It’s the worst so far,” says Sheikhan’s mayor Mamo al-Bagsri, who now wears a pistol at his waist. Like the sheikh, Mr. Bagsiri is pushing for an expanded US war effort in the region, even though Obama has insisted that no combat troops will be deployed. 

“No one can save the Yazidis (but) the Americans. Unless the Americans act, the Yazidis will disappear," says Mr. Bagsiri. "The Americans were able to kill Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, (so they) should surely be able to tackle a few members of IS on Sinjar mountain."

The British government, which has been dropping supplies to those on Mt. Sinjar and has deployed Chinook helicopters to the region, is also feeling pressure to step up its efforts. The Guardian reports that former Conservative Foreign Secretary Liam Fox called for Britain to do more, writing in the Daily Mail, "The idea that this is not our problem is wishful thinking at best, and catastrophic complacency at worst. The US government has made a belated, but welcome, decision to use American air power to hit Isis bases. We should be willing to do the same if asked."

Similarly, Col. Tim Collins, whom the Telegraph describes as "one of Britain’s most respected commanders," argued that the aid drops were little more than “a pebble in the ocean.”

“In the next months ancient civilisations will be extinguished on our watch unless we act. I cannot think back in my mind of a precedent. Pol Pot was the closest it came, Stalin tried it.

“Britain helped create Iraq in 1920 and we have a moral responsibility to help. We have used the Kurds as a public convenience for too long, now their backs are against the wall and we’ve got to support them.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Britain would not intervene militarily in Iraq, and its assistance would be limited to aid drops.

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