US Air Action in Iraq: Why Now and Why Not Syria?

This week, the US finally took the gloves off and directly involved itself in the current fighting in Iraq when US warplanes bombed IS (Islamic State) targets near the city of Erbil. The US also airdropped humanitarian aid to civilians fleeing the advance of IS (also commonly referred to as ISIL and ISIS). While the move was welcomed by Iraqi and Kurdish officials, one must wonder, given that the Islamic State has been actively trouncing Iraq’s armed forces for months and taking city after city, why intervene now?

As one can imagine, there has been plenty of speculation as to why the Obama administration finally decided to act this week. In his press conference announcing the air strikes and aid drops, Obama cited the protection of US interests in the city of Erbil (American staff are currently operating a consulate in the city), which the Islamic State is poised to attack. He also stated that the goal of the humanitarian aid was to help members of the Iraqi Yazidi minority group that are currently trapped in the Sinjar mountains due to the fighting.

Stopping the advance of IS has been key to saving Iraq from the potential of completely being taken over by this extremist group. The protection of US personnel is also most certainly a reason for the airstrikes given the presence of hundreds of US military advisers and diplomatic staff in Iraq, some of which currently operate in Erbil.

On the humanitarian side, the protection of civilians in dire need of food and water, particularly tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi minority stranded in the mountains, is a very valid reason for US air units to drop aid. Some have called the active persecution and violence towards minorities in Iraq a genocide.

One interesting theory, provided by Nora Bensahel, as to why the US is getting involved in Iraq again is that the US is intervening to defend the Kurds, not the Iraqis. The US has had a long-standing relationship with the Kurds in Iraq’s north since 1991, and aiding them is entirely different from helping an unpopular Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

All in all, these operations will hopefully achieve their objectives of halting the IS advance, protecting US interests, and preventing thousands of people from dying.

But haven’t we heard this story of absolute horror before? Civilians being indiscriminately slaughtered by an extremist group and in desperate need of aid? Remember Syria? The world has remained transfixed on events in Iraq when all the while Syrians have been facing extreme and horrific violence as well as a lack of humanitarian aid since March 2011.

The current action in Iraq and the current inaction in Syria thus begs the question: Why Iraq and not Syria? This is an important question as inaction in Syria is a primary reason for the current fighting in Iraq according to some like former UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.

Sadly, despite the over 170,000 civilians killed (and counting) in the country, the situation in Syria remains “too complex,” and it is not currently in the US strategic interest to directly involve itself like it has done in Iraq.

A primary reason cited for US involvement in Iraq and not Syria has been strong opposition, both within the United States and on the international scene, to a US or even UN intervention in Syria. In addition to pushback from states like Russia and Iran, polls in the US suggest that the public simply doesn’t support a military intervention.

Another reason for the inaction in Syria has been the confusion over which parties would benefit from a foreign intervention in the country. The US was particularly fearful that any void created by eliminating the threat posed by the Assad regime would be filled by extremist groups like the Al-Qaeda Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra as well as the Islamic State.

The likelihood that both military warplanes and cargo aircraft carrying aid would be shot down in Iraq is also less likely than in Syria as the Assad regime still has a potentially strong air defense system that would require significant effort to destroy on behalf of the US. The US has often involved itself in limited international missions where the risk to US lives was minimal like in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. Any action that has a high likelihood of US casualties is frowned upon by the American public. That being said, there is still fear that IS may have the capability to shoot down aircraft gained from equipment in Syria and from the retreating Iraqi army.

Furthermore, the legacy of US involvement in Iraq compels the Obama Administration to remain involved in the country. There is a still a sense held by many that the US is partially responsible for Iraq’s problems and that we have a responsibility to help fix it.

While there are very valid reasons for the United States to help Iraqi civilians and halt the Islamic State’s advance, one cannot forget the Syrians next door. Granted, the US population may not have the stomach for a military intervention in Syria, especially with the Obama administration poised to begin a long-term strategy in Iraq. However, one must recognize that one of the primary root causes of the instability in Iraq has been the fighting in Syria.

If the US won’t get involved militarily, it can at least pump aid into the country to address some of the dire human security needs of Syrian civilians, such as a lack of food and water. In previous years, it was incredibly difficult to bring aid into the country via international organizations without it being controlled by the Syrian government. However, a recent UN Security Council resolution has allowed international aid to enter the country, even without the approval of the Assad regime.

If the United States and the international community do not take advantage of this change, extremist groups will capitalize on the insecurity of the millions of refugees created by the conflict. In fact, they already have been taking advantage of this void by recruiting disgruntled youth, giving them money and food, and preying on their feelings of helplessness. Such action will ensure that the Islamic State will have a steady flow of new recruits, which will enable them to continue fighting for the long-term.

Photo by Official US Navy PageCC BY-SA 2.0



  1. Another interesting side to the intervention is the role of some Yazidis as translators during the First and Second Gulf Wars. And there is a special program for them to receive special visas to come to the U.S. So, in a sense, the U.S. Government “owes” them. In addition, some members of the Yazidi diaspora are lobbying Western nations to help them migrate from Iraq to Canada, the U.S. and Europe. They’re not only lobbying Washington, but also the Nebraska state government, where the largest U.S.-based concentration of Yazidis live. ‘


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