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Hold on, Mr. President: The American rescue of the Yazidis that never was

Obama-ISIS

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:

Sinjar

 

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.