Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This weekend, the international community appeared to finally wake to the looming humanitarian crisis in Amerli, a town of 12,000 Shiite Turkmen in northern Iraq that has been under attack by the Islamic State for more than 60 days. On Saturday, Nickolay Mladenov, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, urged the international community in a tweet “to relieve the #Amerli siege and ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
Amerli is the only major Shiite community still behind the Islamic State’s front lines. In nearby towns, Shiite Turkmen families captured by the Islamic State have been split up, men and boys taken to be killed and women and girls bused away to be used as human shields, sold as chattel and sometimes raped and murdered.
Now, the Islamic State seems to be redoubling its efforts to overrun the town. Its outposts are less than a mile away from the makeshift perimeter set up by poorly armed residents, and its rockets make it impossible for Iraqi helicopters to bring supplies and take out the most vulnerable. If the fragile defense fails, we face the risk of another Srebrenica, the July 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian civilians under the noses of the U.N.
With a safe haven only four miles away in the Kurdish-controlled area to the north, the international community, particularly the United States, needs to intervene immediately to facilitate the opening of a relief corridor to Amerli. The presence of thousands of Shiite civilians in territory controlled by the Islamic State presents the terrorist movement with the opportunity to undertake a sectarian provocation that would eclipse its previous crimes and plunge Iraq irretrievably into full-scale disintegration. If Iranian-supported Shiite militias liberate Amerli on their own, any relief operation might turn into a sectarian rampage as these forces take revenge on local Sunnis. But if the United States facilitates a joint effort to relieve Amerli, similar to the recent recapture of the Mosul dam, the fight against the Islamic State and efforts to stabilize Iraq could be greatly strengthened by another example of cooperation between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Relief of the town offers the possibility of an unparalleled win-win-win: Baghdad and Iran would protect an important Shiite community; Kurdistan would show its non-Kurdish minorities that it will protect them; and Turkey, the Turkmen’s historic protector, can live up to its responsibilities, most likely by arranging aerial medical evacuation, as it did when the town was hit by a truck bomb in 2007.
Iraqis have tried repeatedly to relieve Amerli by themselves but failed. On Aug. 8, a column of Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen sought to punch through from the north, but their column was shot to pieces by an Islamic State tank. A single U.S. drone could have dispatched the tank at almost no risk to friendly forces or civilians.
Having worked in Iraq for more than a decade, I would not lightly advocate any use of force by the U.S. military. But Amerli represents an unusually clear-cut opportunity to reduce human suffering, weaken the Islamic State and neutralize a key risk to Iraq’s fundamental stability. It is not the top of a slippery slope to unintended escalation: In fact, Amerli is a uniquely dreadful situation with a simple, achievable solution — coordinated U.S. airstrikes with a joint Baghdad-KRG offensive to open a humanitarian corridor. Flying over Iraq right now is a Predator drone carrying a Hellfire missile, and that missile will probably one day be shot into a tank hulk on a training range when it reaches its expiration date.
Or it could save 12,000 people if it is used today.