While the biggest geopolitical news of the past week was Obama's announcement he would become only the fourth president in a row to order military action in Iraq, explicitly targeting the ISIS jihadists, the far bigger question are the developments that spurred the administration to finally act.
The NYT reports that "as the tension mounted in Washington" the catalyst for Obama's decision was sudden developments surrounding the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. "Kurdish forces who had been fighting the militants in three nearby Christian villages abruptly fell back toward the gates of the city, fanning fears that the city might soon fall. By Thursday morning, people were thronging the airport, desperate for flights out of town. "The situation near Erbil was becoming more dire than anyone expected," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the White House’s internal deliberations. “We didn’t want another Benghazi."
The reason for this is that the US has an embassy in Erbil: that falling to ISIS would be the supreme punch in the gut for an administration whose foreign policy has become the butt of all global jokes. What's worse, now that ISIS had taken control of a critical dam in Mosul (which as we reported earlier controls water levels on the Tigris levels as far as Baghdad, and whose capture "shook Kurdish officials and fueled the sense of crisis" as it gave ISIS all of the leverage) the US embassy could be flooded should ISIS blow up the dam in question.
In other words, Obama merely took to arms after the threat of another massive foreign humiliation became all too real and when the reality that the Kurdish defense was about to fall. Of course, the actual stated reason for intervention was different, a far more noble one.
At a 90-minute meeting in the Situation Room on Thursday morning, Mr. Obama was briefed again about the plight of the Iraqis stranded on Mount Sinjar. Members of an ancient religious sect known as Yazidi, they were branded as devil worshipers by the militants. The women were to be enslaved; the men were to be slaughtered.
Officials told Mr. Obama there was a real danger of genocide, under the legal definition of the term. “While we have faced difficult humanitarian challenges, this was in a different category,” said an official. “That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”
At 11:20 a.m., Mr. Obama left the meeting to travel to Fort Belvoir, Va., where he signed a bill expanding health care for veterans. He had all but made up his mind to authorize airstrikes, officials said, and while he was away, his team drafted specific military options.
When the president returned to the White House barely an hour later, he went back into meetings with his staff. By then, there were news reports of airdrops and possible strikes. But the White House “hunkered down,” an official said, refusing to comment on the reports for fear of endangering a nighttime airdrop over Mount Sinjar.
Mr. Obama did not announce the operations until dawn had broken in Iraq, a delay of several hours that added to the panic in Erbil. Reports of explosions near the city at dusk on Thursday night sowed confusion after Kurdish officials said the United States had begun airstrikes on the militants. The Pentagon flatly denied the reports.
The rest is now well-known (the full breakdown can be found here), and culminated with Obama's Thursday announcement as well as the immediate launch of bombing raids on ISIS militants.
Here is the most recent Iraq situation report courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War.
Within the past 24 hours, ISIS seized Mosul Dam. This capture provides ISIS strategic advantage over the Iraqi state. The dam's collapse would severely damage vast areas of the country where ISIS seeks to achieve military victory but has encountered heavy resistance. Also, ISIS now controls electricity production to Mosul and the group extends its claimed territory farther north. ISIS continues to fight the Peshmerga in Makhmour, south of Mosul and the IA in Dhuluiya, north of Baghdad. Although the United States conducted two rounds of targeted airstrikes against ISIS held territory outside of Arbil and Mosul, it remains too early to determine whether or not the group will adjust its military strategy. ISIS is likely hardening territorial boundaries for the Islamic Caliphate east of Mosul, but ISW assess ISIS will not attempt to seize Erbil. Still, fear of an ISIS attack on Erbil has peaked.
So now that the attention is once again back to ISIS, whose dramatic success in forming the caliphate was lost to the world following the return of hostilities in Ukraine and the escalation of the second Cold War, here are, courtesy of Vice News, the first two parts of a series looking at life in the Islamic State caliphate. Vice News reporter Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks embedded with the Islamic State, gaining access to the group in Iraq and Syria as the first and only journalist to document its inner workings.
In part 1, Dairieh heads to the frontline in Raqqa, where Islamic State fighters are laying siege to the Syrian Army’s division 17 base.
In Part 2 filmmaker Medyan Dairieh meets an Islamic State member from Belgium who works to indoctrinate some of the youngest members of the group. He also gains further insight into the minds of Islamic State fighters as they host celebrations and military parades featuring American tanks and APCs seized from the Iraqi army.