The Obama administration has been delaying decisive action against the terrorist Islamic State until there’s a new Iraqi government and a neater foundation for policy. But the terrible human suffering of refugees trapped in Sinjar should alter that timetable and force U.S. support for Kurdish fighters who can save the refugees now.
The Kurds have looked to the United States as a friend ever since a similar tragedy took place in 1991, after the Gulf War. Kurdish civilians fleeing Saddam Hussein’s army were trapped in the mountains back then, and Jonathan Randal of The Washington Post and other reporters managed to reach them and record their plight. Pressure built in Washington for action, and the result was Operation Provide Comfort, which stopped Hussein’s killing machine.
The White House didn’t want to be forced to take action back then. I was The Post’s foreign editor at the time, and I remember an angry official in the George H.W. Bush administration telling me that media coverage of the humanitarian tragedy had forced the administration to act when it would have preferred to stay on the sidelines.
The Islamic State is a menace, to Iraqis today and to Europeans and Americans in the future. But nobody is asking the United States to put “boots on the ground” and re-invade Iraq. The pesh merga militia of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq can do the fighting, if they have the weapons and other support.
Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, a retired Army officer who spent 46 months in Iraq and has been back six times this year, explained the situation in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago: “We should support the Kurds and enable them to defend against this existential threat of [the Islamic State]. The Peshmerga are an effective, determined and well-led force. However, they are lightly armed, inadequately equipped and insufficiently trained to counter the better-equipped [Islamic State] force….The Kurds have proven to be loyal friends and allies to the United States and they have recently asked for material and non-material support from us, and we should expedite this support to them.”
The United Nations has warned in stark terms of the danger to the Sinjar refugees, who are drawn from the minority Yazidi sect. One U.N. official warned of a “humanitarian tragedy,” while another expressed “extreme concern” about children who are trapped on the mountaintop. These civilians would be butchered if they tried to come down from their refuge, but they are dying in the mountains from dehydration as they wait for help.
This is the power of the weak — that their suffering can force governments to take actions that might not otherwise be convenient or prudent. The Obama administration supports one Iraq and doesn’t want to encourage a Kurdish breakaway. That’s good policy, but it’s not an excuse for failing to help Kurdish fighters who might be able to avert a massacre on a mountaintop.