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Islamic State movement into Kurdish territory changes equation for U.S.

August 7, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
The White House is weighing launching airstrikes and sending humanitarian aid as the crisis darkens for displaced Christians and Yazidis fleeing Islamist militants in northern Iraq. Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how the rationale for U.S. military assistance has shifted, and the events that have pushed the U.S. to its tipping point.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Just as we went on the air, there were reports that the U.S. had begun airdrops of humanitarian aid into Northern Iraq.

I’m joined by Karen DeYoung, who has been covering this story for The Washington Post.

So, what’s the latest you’re hearing from the White House?

KAREN DEYOUNG, The Washington Post: I’m hearing that that’s not true.

I think that they — the Pentagon and the CENTCOM, the Central Command that will be running this operation if and when it’s approved, is still waiting for the president to sign off on any activity at all, either humanitarian or any airstrikes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We also had heard the administration say today that any military action would only be if it was in line with core American objectives. What is that rationale now?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, I think that they would say that humanitarian assistance and preventing the actual fall of Iraq or further gains by the Islamists certainly toward Baghdad or toward Irbil wouldn’t be in American interests.

And so that would be a pretty broadly-defined definition of American interests. I think that these encroachments into Kurdish territory have sort of changed the equation very quickly, literally overnight for the United States. They were prepared to allow the situation to stand as it has been for the past couple of weeks while the Iraqi government tried to form a new administration that could reach out to minorities there.

But having the Islamist forces move into Kurdistan, which has been relatively peaceful throughout this crisis, I think has changed the situation considerably.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But was there a tipping-point event that they describe, considering that the Islamic State group has been on a fairly aggressive march for the past month?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, again, I think they were fairly confident that the Peshmerga — those are the Kurdish military forces — could hold the line in Kurdistan.

And they also didn’t think or the Islamist forces really hadn’t indicated that they were interested at this point in moving into Kurdistan, but the fact that literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from places that have already been taken over by the militants have poured into Kurdistan, and the fact that the — all of a sudden this week, the Islamists have actually started attacking Kurdish towns and cities, I think, again, has made them sit up and say, whoa, this you know, this cannot stand.

Again, you have to remember that, in the Kurdish capital, or Irbil, that is one of the two American fusion centers, the communication centers that the U.S. forces that President Obama has sent there to assist the Iraqis is located. The other one is in Baghdad. Forces — Islamist forces are now about 40 miles away from Irbil.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the debate in the White House now? What’s being considered?

KAREN DEYOUNG: I don’t know that there is a very strong debate at this point.

I think that the question is certainly whether or not airstrikes could help or harm the situation and if this is the moment that this action that’s been so strongly resisted by the administration up until now can actually make a difference without making the situation worse.

I think the decision has pretty much been made on the humanitarian airdrops, which is a separate — a separate operation. There was some effort today to open a corridor to evacuate these people who, as you described, are on the mountaintop. As far as I know, that has not worked, because the Islamists have been shelling that evacuation route. And these people are stuck there with no food, no water and no shelter.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, would this humanitarian aid be limited to this specific zone?

KAREN DEYOUNG: That’s not clear to me, although that would certainly be the initial place.

You know, the Iraqi government has tried to drop some assistance to these people. It didn’t work out too well. They had crates of water which cracked apart when they hit the ground. You know, the United States has a lot of experience doing this, and experience in this particular area doing it.

You remember, in 1991, there were similar airdrops by U.S. forces. This of course was when the rest of Iraq was controlled by Saddam Hussein. But at that time, the United States actually sent ground troops into Kurdistan to wall off that area from Saddam Hussein’s forces. I don’t think that’s being contemplated now.

But I do think that the humanitarian assistance is something that it’s very, very likely they’re going to ahead and do and do it fairly soon. And it would start in this area.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

KAREN DEYOUNG: You’re welcome.