Red line, green line /  Obama’s foreign policy justifications are coming apart at the seams

Syria and Iraq have had many total disasters in too short a period of time, caused separately – and sometimes in concert – by theocratic lunatics now armed with a conventional military arsenal, and by sectarian gangsters who have preferred to drop chemical weapons or barrel bombs on civilians rather than on those theocratic lunatics. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, abetted by Iranian-created militias, is guilty of the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis. In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s policy has been one of a political disenfranchisement of Sunnis, a systematic and underreported campaign which, if not quite precipitating the IS sweep of whole swathes of Anbar and Ninewah provinces, certainly created the sufficient conditions for popular Sunni support for it. The disintegration of the Levant and Mesopotamia threatened to culminate in another act of genocide, this time of a minority most people in the West would never have heard of until the commander-in-chief gave a press conference. So much, then, for the supposed limitations of American power in the 21st century. 

Sinjar lies just west of a bellwether town, Tel Afar, and is similarly important as a gateway between two countries that now appear to exist as distinct entities only on outdated maps. Its population, predominantly Yazidi but with an Arab minority, had previously been protected by the Kurdish peshmerga – until this weekend when, after two months of fighting, those reputed paramilitary forces were finally overrun and outgunned by IS invaders. The latter are armed with 50-caliber artillery guns and armored military vehicles stolen from the Iraqi Security Forces – hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of materiel supplied by the United States. 

The Yazidis might be thought of as a “not quite” people: they are not quite Muslim, not quite Christian, not quite Zoroastrian, and not quite Kurdish – although the Kurds consider them to be ethnic kin, and Sinjar to be a part of any future independent state of Kurdistan. But this historically fascinating macedoine community now threatens to become not quite existent, too.  

Col. Joel Rayburn, a former US Army military intelligence officer in Iraq, estimates that there are somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 Yazidis in Sinjar, owing to a steady exodus following a decade of Sunni jihadist attacks, which saw many of them relocating to Bashiqa and Dohuk, the latter being behind the Green Line separating Iraq from Iraqi Kurdistan, where many Yazidis have once again fled in the past week.  Sinjar has acted as a “waypoint for foreign fighters coming from Syria across the Jazeera toward Mosul and the Tigris valley,” Rayburn said, adding that in August 2007 the largest terrorist attack of the entire Iraq War occurred just south of Sinjar when four truck bombs collapsed Yazidi apartment blocks, killing about 800 and injuring another 1,500. “As soon as the IS began its June 10th offensive, I just knew the Yazidis would be targeted again. And so did every Iraqi. Anyone who knew what al-Qaeda in Iraq did to the Yazidis could recognize that its new incarnation, the IS, would repeat the attack, but would do it this time without US military interference.”   

The most powerful Arab group in Sinjar is the Shammar tribe, led by Abdullah al-Yawar, who used to control the Rabia border crossing. He was once poised to offer the Shammar to the Yazidis as an ally against what many in the latter camp saw as the overweening political influence of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which had kept watch over the jihadist ratlines pouring in from Syria. But Yawar’s dominance, too, has waned as a result of the implosion of Iraq; his estate northeast of Sinjar was seized by the IS weeks ago, and the Shammar tribe has not been able or willing to protect the Yazidis, leaving the peshmerga as their only bulwark against the jihadists. 

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an Erbil-based journalist who specializes on the Kurds, said that several Yazidis were executed by the IS in May, prompting the KRG to seek Maliki’s approval to send in peshmerga fighters. “Baghdad refused to allow the Kurds to send armed forces to help the Yazidis then,” Wilgenburg emailed me. “After Mosul fell, the Kurds did send in forces to protect them.” But they weren’t enough to hold Sinjar.  

The IS’s greatest strength is still fear-mongering in advance of its onslaughts. And so, out of a sense of justified panic, 200,000 people fled from Sinjar and outlying areas, nearly 150,000 of them into Iraqi Kurdistan. As the New Yorker’s George Packer reported, Yazidi men who refuse to convert to Islam have been murdered; Yazidi women have become “jihadi brides.” 

Carrier-borne F-18s appear to have targeted IS positions this morning in the towns of Gwer and Mahmour, the latter being where the IS has lately clashed with the peshmerga in an apparent bid to try and invade Erbil, a regional capital that has long been thought of as Iraq’s most secure city, fortified by nearly a quarter-century of US protection, beginning with a no-fly zone in 1991. Allowing Erbil to fall to the IS would have constituted the unraveling of a significant US accomplishment in the Middle East. True, Obama has tried to dress up his airstrikes in the rhetoric of protecting US “interests” – the IS, he said, were a mere 30-minute drive from US diplomats, military advisors and civilians. Surely those interests encompass seeing a loyal, secular ally safeguarded from medieval pillage. Obama’s “red line” has finally been uncovered: it’s the Green Line. 

There has been talk of the United States also sending weapons and military equipment to the peshmerga. Packer believes that it may have already happened, albeit covertly. Others have disputed this claim. McClatchy’s quoted Karwan Zebari, a staffer in the KRG office in Washington – who was mistakenly cited in the news agency’s report as the KRG’s “representative” to the United States, a post that is now vacant – said that while heavy artillery and armored vehicles were asked for and had been “promised,” so far frontline peshmerga commanders “haven’t gotten anything yet.” But it seems highly improbable that the United States would launch airstrikes to protect the Kurds without also arming the Kurds. 

This is policy, too, may be fraught with complications. Militants from Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD), have also dispatched reinforcements to Sinjar and elsewhere to square off against IS. Barzani has historically been at odds with both insurgencies, but desperation seems now to trump ideology. Still, if the PKK and PYD combine with the peshmerga operationally, then this will mean that Washington has overcome another ostensible hiccup for involving itself directly the affairs of failed or failing Arab states: enabling an actor that is working with a proscribed terrorist organization, as the PKK is still considered to be by the US State Department. 

As for the Yazidis, 8,000 meals and 5,300 gallons of water is not enough even in the short term to sustain a stranded population in the tens of thousands. It seems likely that more US attacks on IS positions will be forthcoming, as White House officials have already begun to indicate to the press. “We’re laying down a marker here,” one official told the Wall Street Journal. “Just their presence… and the potential threat they pose could lead us to take action if targets present themselves.” 

Nevertheless, what happens next rests solely with a man who was elected on the promise of eroding the US military presence in the Middle East and who reiterated his commitment to non-intervention by saying, “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.” Yet bombing the IS means that the United States has been dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. No amount of euphemism or spin changes that fact. And a precedent has been set that others in the region won’t allow Obama to forget. 

Evidently, when Baghdad invokes the Responsibility to Protect, the US can act without congressional or UN Security Council support; but when the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which has been recognized by Washington as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, does, it is met with silence. Obama may find that yesterday’s foreign policy justifications in nearby conflicts may be harder to put forward tomorrow.The president was almost dangerously disingenuous when he claimed: “When we have the unique capacity to avert a massacre, the United States cannot turn a blind eye.” This, from someone who has turned a blind eye to the deaths of 200,000 Syrians, the external or internal displacement of millions more, and who, just last week, allowed his officials to receive “Caesar,” a former Syrian military and police photographer who exhibited documentary evidence of just what kind of massacres have been perpetrated in Assad’s dungeons for three years, with no bombing runs or air-lifts in sight. The effect was so horrifying as to impel a key member of Obama’s national security team to rule out the prospect of an American alliance with Assad for defeating al-Qaeda.  

“There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told the New York Times before the airstrikes on the IS were launched. “These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions.” Ask the Kurds or Yazidis if all the Iraqi parliamentary sessions to date are worth a single Hellfire missile.  

Actually, you don’t have to. Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi MP, already explained what the administration’s policy should be. “We are being slaughtered!” she shouted in genuine terror on August 6 in Iraq’s parliament. “We are being exterminated! An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the Earth. In the name of humanity, save us!” 

If Obama still believes that a vote in Baghdad can forestall a genocide, then what may look like a rescue mission will fast degrade into another American fiasco. 

Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss