On a Thursday in mid-August 2014, President Obama held a press conference in a place called Edgartown, Massachusetts, and declared “We broke the ISIS siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives”. Americans, he said, should be “very proud of our efforts”.
If he were still around, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News veteran who covered the White House during the Reagan years, would surely have issued his trademark challenge: “Hold on, Mr. President”. But there aren’t many Sam Donaldsons these days, and there were none on the day the current president took credit for a rescue he had nothing to do with.
Let’s examine the facts. For starters, the place Obama held his press conference was Martha’s Vineyard where he was on holiday. Edgartown is a hamlet on the island (pop. 4,000), but obviously has a better sounding dateline than the golf course down the road from which to announce a bold international operation to avert a disaster. Another awkwardness: for weeks, the president had insisted the United States would NOT intervene to stop ISIS. Suddenly, though, US forces had accomplished something “Americans should be very proud of”. Sam would have asked the president to explain.
What we do know is this:
- On August 2, ISIS militants overrun the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, home of Kurdish-speaking Yazidis, whose beliefs fuse elements of several religions and are therefore anathema to Islamist fundamentalists. Those who cannot escape east towards the Kurdish towns of Mosul and Irbil, flee north up the mountain ridge behind their town. For several days, it is unclear how many Yazidis have actually sought refuge there, estimates often citing the figure of 50,000 (a suspiciously round number).
- Reports then begin to circulate that the Yazidis are desperate for food and water and public pressure mounts for Western governments to “do something”. In response, Obama is reported to be “gravely concerned” and his deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, says the president is “weighing options”. These are said to include airlifts of supplies and creating safe passages for the refugees to leave the mountain, but there is no question of “US troops re-entering a combat zone in Iraq”.
- In a late evening broadcast on August 7, Obama declares “Today, America is coming to help”. He announces he is ordering air drops of supplies to the refugees on the mountain and “limited air strikes” against ISIS forces advancing on Irbil – not on Mount Sinjar but on Irbil, which is where some American troops are based about 200 kilometers away. Obama says nothing about creating safe passages for refugees. He does, however, repeat that “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq”.
- According to the New York Times, the aircraft assigned to drop the relief supplies are a single C-17 and two C-130s, escorted by a pair of F/A-18 jet fighters. They are over the drop zone for about 15 minutes. Further US (and UK) relief flights follow in the next few days.
- On August 10, Jonathan Krohn of The Telegraph in London, claiming to be the first Western journalist to reach the mountain, reports that “Mount Sinjar stinks of death … dogs were eating the bodies of the dead”. An Iraqi general had told him “It is death valley. Up to 70 percent of them are dead”.
- On August 12, the Wall Street Journal reports that Administration officials are still weighing the option of a rescue mission but that the president has yet to give his approval. There are fears a rescue mission would put US troops at risk.
- Then things get weird.
- Later on August 12, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announces that the Department of Defense has deployed an additional 130 personnel to the region “to take a closer look and give more in-depth assessment of where we can continue to help”.
- The next day, August 13, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, says a team of “less than 20” personnel has conducted an assessment of the situation on Mount Sinjar and reported back that there are “far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared”. In addition, those who remain are in “better condition than previously believed”. The US estimates there are actually only “somewhere between 4000 and 5000” on the mountain, perhaps 2000 of whom live there and “may not want to leave”.
- Asked to explain what happened, the Pentagon spokesman says that “more than a thousand or so” Yazidis had been able to leave the mountain every night over several days “in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on ISIL targets, (and) the efforts of the Peshmerga”.
- Conclusion: The US hadn’t known what was going on, it had been surprised to find out that most of the Yazidis had left the mountain, and it hadn’t had anything to do with their evacuation.
As it turns out, the evacuation had taken place almost a week earlier — about the time Jonathan Krohn was confecting his holocaust on the mountain top, the President was still pondering his options, and US air operations had just begun — to protect US personnel in Irbil. On August 9, Al Jazeera and the Daily Mail in London both reported that thousands of Yazidi refugees had safely arrived in Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. On August 10, the Guardian estimated that some 20,000 Yazidis had managed to flee to safety.
What happened was that the rescue had been the work of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fighters from Syria, not Kurdish Peshmergas from Iraq who had fled the scene earlier. (The Peshmerga commander was later fired.) The PKK had crossed into Iraq and created safe corridors by which to bring the Yazidis out – one of the “options” Obama had adamantly rejected. The PKK had helped the Yazidis down the mountain valleys, loaded as many as they could onto trucks and jeeps, and escorted them the 15-20 kilometers to Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria.
“We broke the ISIS siege of Mount Sinjar”? Hold on, Mr. President.