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Why it’s so hard to help the Yazidi dying of thirst on the Iraqi mountaintop

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, take refuge at Dohuk province. (Ari Jala/Reuters)

The plight of Yazidi refugees in the Sinjar mountains, hemmed in by Islamic State forces and relying on dwindling supplies of food and water, has brought renewed international attention to the war in Iraq. Some have suggested that the United States or United Nations facilitate airdrops to the starving, dehydrated refugees.

But this is more complicated than it seems.

The first and biggest problem involves securing the authorization of the Iraqi government and the government of the Kurdish autonomous zone. This shouldn’t be such a problem, except that governments are often loath to admit that they can’t carry out basic humanitarian tasks within their own borders. The Iraqi government has appealed for support, but reports suggest that it has yet to establish a basic framework for cooperation, which would include access to airbases, provision for foreign personnel and authorization to suppress Islamic State air defenses in the area.

The problems don’t end with authorization, however. The refugees do not appear to control any airfields suitable for the landing of heavy transport aircraft. Transporting material without the benefit of a landing strip is difficult and time consuming. The same factors that make it difficult to bomb guerrillas in mountains make it difficult to supply refugees. The rugged terrain makes it hard to put deliveries precisely where they need to be. In mountainous terrain, altitudes can differ dramatically across a few hundred meters, making it a struggle for refugees to find the supplies destined for them unless the drops are precise. This requires good technology and excellent piloting skills.

Unless the drops are very careful, militants might end up with the food and water. That’s not such a disaster, except that groups searching for aid packages can come into contact with armed militants searching for the same thing. The Pentagon has worked hard over the past decade to develop a system that allows precision delivery of large amounts of material, but the system remains geared toward getting supplies to experienced soldiers, not to groups of untrained civilians.

Moreover, airdrops of food, and especially water, are time- and resource-intensive. One off-the-cuff analysis suggested that 24 C-130 transport aircraft flying round trips every day would be necessary to keep the Yazidi supplied with water. Iraqi capacity is limited by the lack of available aircraft and by the need to devote resources to areas in direct combat. Iraq has a handful of C-130s, and a handful of smaller Antonov An-32s, but these aren’t nearly enough to meet the needs of such a large population, even under the best of circumstances. Thus, any operation would require the deployment of American, Turkish, or NATO transport aircraft to the area.

The ability of Iraqi or U.S. aircraft to operate safely is also in question. The Islamic State has demonstrated the capability to shoot down aircraft, and if the Yazidi are closely hemmed in, then relief aircraft could prove easy targets for Islamic State missiles. The United States would quite likely require authorization to launch SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) attacks against militant positions suspected of having surface-to-air missiles.

What about unmanned aerial vehicles? Our current ability to deliver supplies by UAV is sharply limited. Most UAVs lack the capacity to deliver more than trivial loads, and only a very few are sufficiently large and robust for consistent transport service. Moreover, UAVs are even more vulnerable to ground fire than manned aircraft.

Some people are crowdsourcing solutions to these problems. U.S. Air Force Maj. Mark Jacobsen has been working on a project to develop a swarm of small, cheap UAVs that could deliver humanitarian aid into conflict zones. So cheap that they aren’t worth shooting down, the drones would also be simple enough for relatively inexperienced maintainers (with some expert advice) to load, launch and target effectively. However, the system cannot as of yet deliver the magnitude of supplies needed by the Yazidi.

Delivering supplies to the Yazidi isn’t impossible, but it does require a degree of effort and coordination that we haven’t yet seen in the regional response to the Islamic State. Even the limited efforts undertaken thus far can save some lives, but the best chance to resolve this crisis is probably with a Kurdish ground offensive that opens up a corridor for supply. Supporting such an advance with air power, either Iraqi or other, is probably less demanding than a sustained resupply operation.