It seems the usually lacklustre Obama administration has finally woken up. It has launched limited air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in a bid to prevent them making it to the Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Irbil, and - in the US President’s words - to prevent “a potential act of genocide”.
Islamist jihadists are only 25 miles from Irbil, the capital of what was until now the only safe place in Iraq to visit. Its people lauded the 2003 US-led military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein — he had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Kurds.
The UK government has supposedly ruled out air strikes but The Times reported that “Government sources refused to rule out British air strikes if the humanitarian situation in the country deteriorated.” French President François Hollande released a statement, saying “The president confirmed that France was available to support forces engaged in this battle.” American action must be fully supported by all countries which want to see an end to IS rule a stop to their genocidal intentions.
But at least some sort of humanitarian intervention is back on the menu.
On Mount Sinjar, at least 40,000 members of the Yazidi sect have taken refuge, surrounded by IS fighters. Half of those are children. If they stay, they face death by dehydration — there is no water and the daily temperature reaches 50 degrees Celsius — if they flee, they will be slaughtered.
A UNICEF spokesman said: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
Christiana Patto of the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq said: “Yesterday 45 children died of thirst. Some families throw their children from the top of Sinjar mountain in order not to see them die from hunger or thirst, or not to be taken by the terrorists. 1500 men were killed in front of their wives and families, 50 old men died also from thirst and illness. More than 70 girls and women including Christians were taken, raped and being captured and sold. More than 100 families are captured in Tel afar airport. There is about 50 Christian families in Sinjar. The terrorists were able to control the Syriac church there and cover the Cross with their black banner. Till now we do not know anything about those Christian families.”
Militants are currently holding hundreds of Yazidi women — all under the age of 35 — hostage. Kamil Amin, the spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, told the Associated Press: “We think that the terrorists by now consider them slaves and they have vicious plans for them. We think that these women are going to be used in demeaning ways by those terrorists to satisfy their animalistic urges in a way that contradicts all the human and Islamic values.”
Iraq’s only Yazidi MP broke down in Parliament: “Mr Speaker, we are being slaughtered under the banner of ‘there is no God but Allah’… We are being exterminated!”
IS has released pictures of their capture of Sinjar. Under the banner of “Conquests of the Islamic State”, they post images of men lying on the floor waiting to be gunned down, an image of an unarmed man lying on the floor being shot, his legs bloodied, others of men dead on the floor, their mouths wide open, their eyes devoid of life. There are other pictures elsewhere — one where a woman’s neck is slit and her blood captured in a bowl as she is still alive, another where a father holds his young daugher’s headless body, and others showing mindless numbers of people with their throats being slit, blood spitting from their necks.
IS has recently gained control of Mosul Dam. Professor Richard Kaufman from the University of Arkansas told BBC Newshour that if it is not properly maintained, it could collapse, submerging the city of Mosul under 30 metres of water and the Iraqi capital Baghdad under 5 metres of water. The country’s second largest dam, in Anbar province, is also under siege.
How can you watch children — children! — and other helpless civilians having their heads sown off or gunned down in ditches or crucified by Islamic State fighters and not call for anything substantial to be done?
Throwing some food at some people on a mountain will help — to an extent.
Lobbing some missiles at some fighters in a desert will help — to an extent.
But that does not get at the root of the problem and solve it.
Precise strikes must be used against IS forces to prevent them from taking over more land — their artillery, much of it stolen from the retreating Iraqi army, must be heavily damaged and the Iraqi and Kurdish forces must be in a position to hit back at IS.
Any military action must be weighed against the risk of inflaming sectarianism. That is why a new unity government in Baghdad must be set up, with leaders from all ethnic groups. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s feckless leader, must stand down. We cannot be allied to him. By creating a government, army and police force shaped on sectarian lines and built to protect his power and not his people, he has damned his country to the fate of IS. Many moderate Sunnis have sided with the extremists because they feel alienated, discriminated against and side-lined by al-Maliki’s Shi’ite government — they must be persuaded to abandon IS and join with a new administration in Baghdad. In the end, only a credible and popular Iraqi government can defeat IS in the long run.
However, in the short term, the US must provide the Kurdish forces — the only credible force fighting IS — with weapons and aid. Eventually they must be allowed to form their own state, Kurdistan. That is, however, sadly unlikely to happen soon.
In the words of Vian Dakhil, the Iraqi Yazihi MP: “Away from all political disputes, we want humanitarian solidarity.” We cannot wish a crisis away nor can our actions only be limited and superficial — there is no point veneering rotten wood.
This is not the time to play pathetic politics over the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 — now is the time to act properly and with moral suasion.
We cannot allow a genocide to happen in front of our eyes — evidence is there on IS’ own social media.
We have the ability, we have the money, we have power to rescue thousands of people. But do we have the will to do what is necessary?
Short term military action to hit IS hard, with longer term political aims driving at a change in Baghdad, is absolutely necessary and morally correct.
To paraphrase Sir Ian Kershaw, indifference paves the road built by hatred. Our apathy will be their death sentence. Don’t close your eyes to the horrors of devils.
By Tom Fenton