Saturday, August 9, 2014

Iraq: Update on ISIS Initiatives, President Authorizes Limited Air Strikes to Protect US Military, Religious Minorities

According to, as Islamist militants swept through northern and western Iraq in early June in a lightning advance, President Barack Obama examined his options and announced that he would be prepared to “take targeted and precise military action.”

Nearly two months later, Obama, albeit reluctantly, on Thursday (August 7) approved the use of limited air strikes in Iraq. He said the step was taken to defend US personnel in the city of Irbil and protect religious minorities facing what he called a “potential act of genocide” from the Islamic State, the extremist group most recently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The escalation marks a turning point in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which has avoided direct military involvement in Iraq and Syria until now.

It’s been a cautious policy that has come under fire from Republicans and some military and foreign policy experts.

While Obama’s foreign policy ratings have plummeted, he has sought to avoid dragging a war-weary nation into another Mideast conflict.

Administration officials acknowledge Obama was reluctant to authorize military action, but was compelled to act to protect the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil and stave off the potential slaughter of tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis, both religious minorities in Iraq.

“When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said on Thursday.

COMMENT: CNN military analysts retired Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks and retired Col. Rick Francona said the presence of US personnel in Irbil gives Obama the political cover to act militarily to address the precarious humanitarian situation.

“If that humanitarian disaster was not in place, I don’t know that the President would have acted as aggressively,” said Marks, a CNN military analyst.

Francona agreed that Obama would not have authorized airstrikes unless US personnel were stationed in Irbil and noted that the administration’s goals are unclear.

“I think they’re looking at this very tactically and I don’t know if they have a strategic vision here,” Francona said, noting that the immediate objectives are clearly to blunt ISIS’s advance toward Irbil and help protect the Christian and Yazidi refugees.

That is not the first time the administration has been criticized for lacking a strategic vision for countering ISIS.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly criticized Obama for undermining American influence globally by not acting decisively enough on Iraq and Syria — among other global crises.

Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have partly pinned ISIS’s advance on Obama’s full military withdrawal from Iraq, knocked Obama’s “policy of half measures” and called on him to “degrade ISIS.”

“It is inherently expansionist and must be stopped,” the pair said in a statement following the President’s announcement Thursday. “The longer we wait to act, the worse the threat will become.”

And House Speaker John Boehner lamented the “ongoing absence of strategy” in a statement released Friday. And in June, an animated Boehner accused Obama of “taking a nap” instead of dealing with ISIS.

Republicans, like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and Sen. Bob Corker, criticized Obama last summer for not ordering military strikes in Syria after that country’s authoritarian regime reportedly used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war — which Obama had called a “red line” that would prompt action.

The hands-off approach in Syria even prompted the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, to resign recently because he could no longer defend the policy, he told CNN in June.

“Had there been more military assistance … the opposition would have probably been able to gain ground a couple years ago more quickly,” Ford said. ” (And) the ability of al-Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups to recruit away from the moderates would have been less.

Ford and others have called ISIS a national security threat to the United States and fears are growing that its fighters could return to Europe or the United States and carry out terrorist attacks.

In a September 2013 CNN poll, about six in 10 Americans opposed a resolution that would authorize military action in Syria and 55% opposed airstrikes.

The above being said, that does necessarily mean that the lack of public support does not mean that US strategic foreign policy interests are not at stake.

Meanwhile, ISIS has not only continued to increase its territorial gains, but also increased its military strength by reportedly seizing weapons, armored vehicles and even tanks from Iraqi forces, all equipment the United States provided to Iraq.

“You can pull that thread,” Marks said of the link to US policy in Syria. “It’s positive in my mind that had we acted more aggressively in Syria, the problem with ISIS would probably be less exacerbated and aggressive.”