President Barack Obama provided reassurance to a war-weary American public Thursday night, telling them that despite his decision to authorize airstrikes in Iraq, he had no intention of a broad-based campaign that would require the redeployment of ground troops in the country.
But now that the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL), as well as launched a humanitarian mission to provide aid to religious minorities trapped on a mountain, it could get increasingly hard for the U.S. to keep the campaign "very limited in scope."
The situation on the ground could get worse, and ISIS is growing more likely to target U.S. assets in Iraq — and, possibly, in neighboring countries in the region.
"It will be hard to limit U.S. intervention to 'just a few' strikes given the fight on the ground ... especially if ISIS now attempts to target U.S. assets in Iraq and beyond (as would seem likely)," geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider.
"Having said that, Obama has tried his best to narrowly define the scope of the operation — not meant to 'defeat' ISIS and assuring that no ground troops would be committed to fighting. Tying America's hands only weakens U.S. foreign policy and limits the deterrent value of the strikes on other actors (say, Putin), but reflects Obama's domestic priorities and the general state of the American electorate."
A trio of factors had changed Obama's calculus and forced an escalation in U.S. military involvement now, as well as humanitarian aid missions, senior U.S. officials said Thursday night.
In recent days, the situation on the battlefield has worsened, as ISIS insurgents have made sweeping advances toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil. At the same time, the insurgents have created an urgent humanitarian situation on Mount Sinjar, trapping tens of thousands of Iraqis who belong to the Yazidi religion and other religious minorities. U.S. officials up to the president used the word "genocide" to describe what could happen on Mount Sinjar.
Most significantly for the U.S., Americans in some Iraqi regions have now been directly threatened by ISIS' advances. About 150 U.S. military advisers are in Erbil, as well as several U.S. diplomats. Senior U.S. officials said ISIS gains in battles last Saturday and Wednesday "changed the dynamic" in Iraq and forced Obama's hand.
Last Saturday night, ISIS launched an offensive spanning hundreds of kilometers in northern Iraq, which an official called "swift," "effective," and with "tremendous military proficiency." That led to what one official referred to as a "historic" effort of coordination between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi air force. But ISIS countered that with another offensive Wednesday night that set the stage for advances toward Erbil.
And it's likely that airstrikes alone will not be enough to stop ISIS from making advances in Iraq.
"Airstrikes are very much needed to support both the Kurds and the government in Baghdad, but in the end the fighting will come down to ground troops against ISIS," Garrett Khoury, the director of research at The Eastern Project, told Business Insider in an email. "Both the Kurds and the main Iraqi military need proper training and equipment if they are going to be in any way successful."
For the past two months, Obama has been even reluctant to conduct airstrikes in Iraq as the U.S. has pressured Iraq to form a new, inclusive government.
Phyllis Bennis, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, told Business Insider that the decision to launch airstrikes now could undermine the U.S. push for a new, more inclusive government.
"The 'humanitarian' mission has already crept. The return of direct U.S. military engagement will be seen in Iraq in the context of proving U.S. support for the corrupt and discredited prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, widely blamed for expanding and consolidating the sectarian political system put in place with the U.S. occupation," Bennis said.
"It will also undermine any possibility that al-Maliki might step down, paving the way for a broader, less sectarian government in Baghdad (the deadline was supposed to be today), since a Maliki administration with the full backing of the U.S. military is hardly likely to give in to public political pressure to step down."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest exemplified the fine line on which the Obama administration is attempting to walk during his daily press briefing Friday afternoon. Earnest said that while there's no "specific end date" for U.S. airstrikes, a " prolonged military conflict that includes U.S. involvement is not on the table."
Michael B. Kelley contributed to this report.
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