Obama Authorizes U.S. Humanitarian Airdrops & Airstrikes In Iraq

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On Thursday evening, President Obama authorized humanitarian airdrops and military airstrikes in response to a growing ISIS threat. Earlier in the evening, American officials announced that cargo planes would be sent to embattled regions of Iraq to deliver supplies.

ISIS, the Islamic extremist group that has swept through Iraq with astonishing speed over the last couple months, has made its first moves in Kurdish territory. The Kurds, a largely autonomous group in Iraq, have managed to stay out of ISIS crossfires until now. Earlier this week, ISIS forces managed to break through Kurdish defenses in the northern region of Iraq, causing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to abandon their homes.

Included amongst those attempting to escape ISIS is a group of 40,000 Yazidis, a Kurdish minority, who have survived 72 attempted genocides. But this latest attack has sent them fleeing to the Sinjar Mountains, an isolated area of land with limited supplies. Lacking food, water, and basic medical supplies, the Yazidi are trapped in a precarious situation, and some have already reportedly perished of dehydration and other medical conditions.

Given the deplorable humanitarian situation at hand, one that White House press secretary Josh Earnest called "deeply disturbing," it seems that the United States can no longer remain uninvolved, and the airdrop mission will specifically assist the Yazidi. A U.S. official informed NPR that cargo planes, escorted by fighter jets, would carry survival pallets and humanitarian aid to the mountain regions. The mission is expected to take place overnight after the planes depart from Turkey.

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Despite the growing concern over ISIS, which has already captured several major Iraqi cities, including Mosul — and earlier Thursday, its dam — as well as Iraq's largest Christian city of Qaraqosh, the White House has remained firm that they will not take military action against ISIS. The caveat to this stance, however, is that if American aircraft are attacked, they will return fire.

Contrary to international reports that the U.S. has already launched airstrikes, Pentagon officials have told CNN that these claims are "completely false," instead suggesting that American allies, likely Turkish or Iraqi forces, have begun bombing ISIS strongholds. But regardless of whether or not these reports are true, the thought of American intervention seemed to bring hope to civilians in ISIS-controlled areas. According to a New York Times report, residents under siege responded to Kurdish reports of American military assistance with "street celebrations and horn-honking."

Though an Iraqi diplomat suggested that the possibility of American airstrikes had been discussed, in an earlier press conference, Earnest said, "We can't solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions."

But given the vast scale of the crisis at hand and cries for assistance, it may prove difficult to remain uninvolved. The United Nations estimates that around 200,000 people have fled their homes in response to ISIS attacks in the last couple days, and this number will only increase if ISIS continues to move unchecked. The group, which seeks to establish a Sunni state between Syria and Iraq, has targeted people of all other religious beliefs, including Shiite Muslims, Christians, and the Turkmen and Shabak minorities as well.

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Moreover, American lives are also at stake, as there are currently 245 military personnel stationed in Iraq, about a third of whom serve as advisers. Many of them are stationed in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, which is dangerously close to cities that have recently fallen to ISIS.

Northern Iraq had been guarded by the Peshmerga, a regional Kurdish force renowned for their fearlessness and excellent training, but with dwindling supplies and an aging fighting force, the Peshmerga have not been able to hold off ISIS fighters. The Peshmerga have recently retreated in several key areas of northern Iraq, causing two towns to fall to extremist forces.

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These retreats however, the Peshmerga have said, are not signs of weakness, but rather strategic movements to prevent civilian deaths. But even with this strong fighting force, the general consensus among the Kurds and the Iraqis seems to be that they are in dire need of international support.

Now, it seems, all eyes are trained upon the Americans and President Obama, who gave a statement on the situation Thursday evening, saying, "At the request of the Iraqi government, we've begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the ground."

If the Obama administration does choose to seek military action against ISIS in Iraq, it will mark the first time the U.S. sends troops back into action in Iraq since 2011, when the military was completely withdrawn following nearly 10 long years of war. Obama, whose 2008 campaign rested largely on his longstanding opposition to an American presence in Iraq, is now facing a country that is "nearing a humanitarian catastrophe."

"The United States cannot turn a blind eye. We can act," Obama said. "Today America is coming to help."

Images: PentagonPresSec/Twitter; Getty Images (3)