What Made the US Decide To Intervene Now? Five Questions about Attacking

Yesterday, the United States began airstrikes in Iraq to stop the Sunni terrorist movement Islamic State – formerly known as ISIL. What made Obama decide to intervene now?

Why did President Barack Obama order “targeted air strikes” in Iraq?

Thursday night – Dutch time – he gave two reasons. First, there are dozens of American diplomats and soldiers in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which is being threatened by ISIL fighters. Their advance has to be stopped, Obama says. As to why the Americans are not being evacuated, a high-ranking American official responded that this would be a wrong signal to send to “barbaric terrorists,” words Obama used to describe the jihadists. The second reason is of a humanitarian nature: There are approximately 40,000 civilians who fled from ISIL on Mount Sinjar, among whom dozens have died from hunger and thirst. The displaced belong to religious minority groups and are under threat of being massacred by ISIL for being “non-believers.” According to Obama, action is required because genocide is imminent. Those who decide to use this word, like Secretary of State Kerry did on Friday, cannot just sit by idly.

What do people in the U.S. think of this decision?

Obama realizes that Americans are war-weary. Accordingly, he is not rushing to undertake a large-scale military action in a country that The New York Times describes as “the graveyard of American ambition.” Returning ground troops [to Iraq] has been ruled out, Obama stressed. As a candidate for the presidency, he pledged to remove the last of the troops, and he kept his word. However, the president is also feeling political pressure to do more. Acknowledged hawks, such as Republican Senators McCain and Graham, think that ISIL has to be “destroyed”* by attacking troops and bases in both Iraq and Syria. It was the latter country where the jihadists began the offensive that led them to seize the northwest region of Iraq during the last couple of months.

Why does Obama intervene militarily in Iraq but not in Syria, where for the past three years a civilian war has been going on?

From a formal point of view, this is because a request for military support was made by the government in Baghdad. The Kurds, in their autonomous region, did the same. The U.S. is on good terms with the latter, something that cannot be said for Prime Minister al-Maliki. Of greater importance is that Syria is both a political and military minefield, where insurgents do not only fight the regime, but each other as well. President al-Assad, whom the U.S. maligns, lost a part of his country to ISIL. Ironically enough, at this point, both Assad and the Americans consider the terrorist group to be their biggest enemy. According to a former American ambassador in Iraq, it is there, as opposed to Syria, where “U.S. security” is at stake. The ISIL group aims to establish a caliphate in the Arabic world and North Africa, where the U.S. has numerous allies.

Is the U.S. under threat of being sucked into the war in Iraq?

This is not our war, Obama stressed. “There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.” American military specialists, however, pointed out that this may change if ISIL fighters advance to the capital, Baghdad. They have already seized the country’s second largest city, Mosul. The fall of Baghdad would mean the ultimate humiliation of the United States, which has lost nearly 4,500 soldiers in Iraq. The sentiment that they “will have died for nothing” could force the Obama administration to undertake more severe military intervention.

What stance are U.S. allies taking?

Secretary Kerry indirectly appealed to the allies: “The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die.” The British government approved of the action taken by the U.S. and announced food drops, but ruled out air strikes. French President Hollande spoke in vague words about “supporting” the United States. A joint military operation between the U.S. and European countries, as with Libya under dictator Gadhafi, is not self-evident.

*The original quotation: “destroyed,” accurately translated, could not be verified.

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