In response to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe on Sinjar mountain, where some 40,000 refugees are believed to be dying of heat and thirst, the U.S. is inching closer to yet another military intervention in Iraq. The Obama Administration is considering “both passive and active options,” ranging from airdrops of food and medicine to strikes against Islamic State fighters who continue to besiege the refugees, largely members of Iraq’s Yezidi minority. At the same time, the White House remains reluctant to commit U.S. military force to roll back the gains made by the Islamic State, which now controls much of the Sunni Triangle and is threatening to invade Kurdistan. A White House official told the New York Times that any military action to assist the Yezidi will be “limited, specific and achievable.”
That’s wishful thinking. The massive challenges of mounting a relief operation in a place like Sinjar, as well as the recent history of U.S. humanitarian interventions, mean that the U.S. is likely to become enmeshed in a much more prolonged—and costly—military conflict with the jihadists.
The U.S. military has unmatched capabilities and years of experience in delivering humanitarian aid to victims of natural disasters. But as Robert Farley writes in the Washington Post, the crisis in Sinjar poses unique complications. The terrain is rugged and inaccessible; you can’t land large aircraft there. Much of the airdropped food and water intended for civilians could end up going to the militants instead, who are undoubtedly prepared to slaughter anyone who manages to get their hands on Western supplies. And U.S. military planes would be ripe targets for being shot down by the Islamic State, which is believed to possess antiaircraft missiles.
The mountainous geography of the region also limits the effectiveness of airstrikes against the rebels, who ultimately will need to be pushed back on the ground. Until now, the Iraqi government has relied on the Kurdish peshmerga to hold off the Islamic State’s advance, but the rebels’ capture of Iraq’s biggest dam is a sign that even the Kurds are in danger of being overrun. At the very least, the peshmerga will require more heavy weapons and robust U.S. air support. If that fails to dislodge the jihadists, the U.S.—along with some NATO allies, such as Turkey—may have little choice but to deploy troops of their own.
We’ve been here before. The post-Cold War era has been marked by “limited” U.S. humanitarian missions that mushroomed into broader, open-ended military interventions, with mixed records of success—think northern Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1993, or Libya in 2011. There’s little question that the Sinjar crisis demands a response, on both moral and strategic grounds. But the Obama Administration shouldn’t harbor illusions about what the U.S. is getting into. History suggests that good intentions can often lead to war.