The airstrikes that began this morning in the northern region of Iraq are a limited action to defend the Kurds, which will not necessarily lead to an expansive U.S. military commitment to the state of Iraq as a whole. Intervening on behalf of the Kurds, who are long-standing U.S. partners, is very different from intervening to support the Iraqi government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is rightly seen as a divisive leader who has fanned Iraq’s sectarian flames.
The United States has used air power to protect the Kurds before. Starting in 1991, the United States conducted air strikes to defend the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, which evolved into a no-fly zone over northern Iraq that the United States enforced continuously until the 2003 invasion. The United States also used airdrops to provide the Kurds with humanitarian relief in 1991, as occurred last night in the Mount Sinjar area where tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees have fled. These precedents make it far more likely that President Obama’s decision will be seen as a limited action rather than as an expansive new commitment to the state of Iraq as a whole.
Protecting the Kurds is a far different decision from intervening on behalf of Maliki and his Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Any U.S. military action on behalf of that government (or its immediate successor) would be seen inside Iraq and throughout the region as taking sides in Iraq’s currently unfolding sectarian war – which would inevitably draw the United States further into the conflict. But President Obama has avoided that by strictly limiting the use of air power to the Kurdish regions of Iraq, in order to defend the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil and provide humanitarian relief.
President Obama was right to make this decision, but now his challenge will be keeping this intervention limited. He must resist pressure to intervene elsewhere in Iraq, or to expand the military goals to directly attacking ISIL’s leadership. Expanding this currently limited mission would begin an inexorable march by the United States into a widening sectarian war.