When U.S. President Barack Obama announced on August 7 that the U.S. military would launch airstrikes on Iraq to stem the advance of the militant group Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), it was quite a dramatic turnaround.
For the time being, the mission will be limited in scope. Beyond offering military advice to the Iraqi military, which the Obama administration had already been providing, the United States will hit at IS targets that are seen to be threatening U.S. interests in and around Bagdad and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish federal region. It will also provide aid and protection for the Yezidi minority in northwestern Iraq, which IS had lately been threatening to exterminate en masse.
Some might question the formal justification for the U.S. intervention. The threat of genocide, for one, does not seem exaggerated: Yezidis are a heterodox sect that IS considers neither Muslim nor a “recognized” non-Muslim minority eligible for IS protection. The militant group, therefore, sees the group as a legitimate target for complete annihilation. In Syria, IS has carried out mass killings of other such groups, so Obama’s fears seem justified. His decision to step in on the Yezidis’ behalf is also consistent with statements during his 2008 presidential campaign that potential genocide would be one of the few things that might change his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq.
However, Obama’s evaluation of the threat to Erbil and Baghdad is more ambiguous. Baghdad, for one, has been seen as a potential IS target for several months, but the Obama administration has never blinked. Its calculations only seemed to change after IS started to threaten Erbil and, reportedly, a Kurdish military unit with U.S. advisors deployed in the vicinity.
The apparent special treatment of the Kurdish north reflects several longstanding U.S. interests there, including commercial and oil concerns. The Kurds also enjoy the support of many U.S. senators, who see them