WASHINGTON, August 9, 2014 — Air strikes ordered by President Obama in Iraq will provide temporary relief to refugees trapped on a mountain, but are unlikely to hobble the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Over the last several months, the group has gained considerable strength and resources, undercutting the impact of U.S. action. Moreover, the commitment is likely to draw the U.S. deeper into the Iraq conflict and increases the risk of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets by ISIS.
President Obama on Thursday authorized humanitarian air drops of food and water to help groups of religious minorities stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. According to the United Nations, more than 40,000 members of the minority Yazidi sect fled to the mountain to escape ISIS, but are now living without food and water. The UN says more than 40 children have already died of dehydration.
On Friday, the United States delivered 36,224 meals and 6,822 gallons of fresh drinking water to the refugees.
The humanitarian drops came after three air strikes on ISIS forces near Erbil, the location of a U.S. military base and a U.S. consulate. The location of the strikes reflected statements by Obama when he said, “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.”
The food and water bring much needed relief, but the air strikes are too little, too late. Last February, Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn warned Congress that ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.” This warning was followed by a warning from Kurdish officials in April that ISIS planned to attack Mosul and then move to Baghdad.
Washington demurred on providing military support to Iraq at that time, and instead attempted to use the promise of assistance as leverage to force Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a more inclusive government. Instead, Iraq again missed a constitutional deadline to elect a new prime minister yesterday, the country remains divided, and ISIS continues to move forward.
In early June, ISIS posted photos on social media of convoys of seized Humvees and tanks moving from Iraq to Syria. At that time, several military analysts advised air strikes against the transfers, but the Obama administration again paused.
The delay by the United States has allowed ISIS to strengthen and cement its position. Since February, and even since June, ISIS has become stronger. The group now holds several cities and has defended them against the Iraqi military. It has captured large numbers of weapons in Iraq, including arms and equipment left by the U.S. military. The group holds oil and gas fields, and has taken millions from banks it has overrun. The success of the group has brought it a steady stream of new recruits, including defectors from other jihadist groups previously opposed to ISIS.
Last week, ISIS seized the Mosul dam, adding to its strategic advantage. The dam provides water and electricity for much of Iraq. ISIS could withhold water and electricity, increasing the humanitarian problem, in an effort to win concessions from the public and the government. Alternatively, the group could destroy the dam, sending a 65-foot wave that the Army Corps of Engineers estimates would kill 500,000 people. The poor condition of the dam, built on weak and shifting ground, means the dam could crumble even if ISIS does nothing.
International options for re-taking the dam are limited, as air strikes or massive fighting could further damage the structure.
ISIS now controls not only large parts of Iraq, but also several locations in Syria. The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front controls the Albukamal gate, giving the group easy access from Iraq to Syria along a strategic supply route.
The presence in Syria gives ISIS a safety valve to escape increased military pressure in Iraq. If air strikes in Iraq increase, ISIS can retreat to relative safety in Syria to regroup. The United States will not launch a military effort against the group in Syria because it would indirectly help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The new commitment by the U.S. has two likely corollaries: expaneded U.S. involvement in Iraq and a greater terrorist threat against the U.S. by ISIS.
Although President Obama continues to insist, “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” his decision to engage suggests there will be more military effort in Iraq. To avoid a public backlash, Obama will not announce a regular deployment, but he is likely to increase “advisors” or “special units” in the fight. The U.S. is also likely to increase supplies of Apache helicopters, long requested by Maliki, and Hellfire missiles.
Moreover, the air strikes raise the risk of ISIS terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. ISIS has repeatedly threatened to bomb U.S. embassies if the U.S. attacks Iraq, and the group has upped rhetoric since the air strikes. ISIS spokesman Abu Mosa told VICE media, “We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” he added. Jihadists have also taken to Twitter, posting threats and gruesome photos of attacks on the U.S. with the hashtag #AmessagefromISIStoUS.
Although the group has not launched any known terrorist attacks against the U.S. so far, its extensive capabilities, reach and finances make the threats legitimate. U.S. embassies, consulates and businesses overseas are particularly likely targets, given the ease of access by ISIS fighters.