George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute. He is the co-author of the 2014 Strategic Outlook, and has served in NATO, Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.
"The darkest recesses of hell are reserved for those who try and remain neutral at a time of moral crisis" – Dante
This week, the world was shocked in seeing photos tweeted by an ISIS jihadist, who, beaming with pride, photographed his ten year old son holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier. That photo visually conveys that ISIS has few moral boundaries. What makes ISIS so different is that it revels in its brutality, advertises it, tweets it, takes pride in it and kills whomever they consider apostates without as much as a shrug. "That's my boy" said the caption to the ISIS tweet.
We are once again faced with a moral crisis, not at all unlike Rwanda, where innocents are the victims of a conflict, some chased from their homes, untold killed and thousands fleeing for nothing else but that their beliefs do not conform to those of the Islamic state which is cornering them in northeast Iraq.
There is a real possibility of genocide, as suggested by Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia and U.S. President Barack Obama. For Canada too, as the proud author of the Responsibility to Protect, there is a profound obligation to act and not observe on the sidelines.
This week the latest act of this drama played out, on a mountaintop in Northern Iraq where thousands of Yazidis, Christians, and Kurds were trapped. It would be generous to say they were fighting for their lives; but they had nothing to fight with. They were clawing for the chance to live – only the intervention by the U.S. in dropping humanitarian supplies and airstrikes coupled with Kurdish actions prevented either ISIS or the elements from taking their toll. Many have managed to flee again, but that is no guarantee of safety, only a migration of the crisis.
Every discussion of options is prefaced with the caveat of "no boots on the ground" – and that it is an Iraqi problem. That might be indeed the case, and that Iraq's problems should be solved by political agreements in Baghdad, but at a time of moral crisis there is no time for the wheels of diplomacy and politics to spin.
It is true that the U.S. and most of the western world has grown weary after ten years of wars, where the promise of improvement has often produced the opposite effect. But that weariness or concern should not be the impediment to acting now.
Something to stem the tragedy in motion is necessary – to assist the Kurds in their fight and to continue humanitarian air drops. A longer effort to destroy ISIS is the subject for another day.
With little preparation, an international force can conduct either mission by the establishment of a short-term humanitarian air corridor. The options would remain open to launch a rescue mission, to continue to drop humanitarian aid, or to bomb ISIS units if necessary. What is required is not militarily difficult but somewhat logistically complex.
Mount Sinjar is 47 nautical miles from the Turkish border, a safe haven deployment space which would eliminate our having to put a force into Iraq. The U.S. and its allies – France, the U.K. and Australia would possess complete air superiority. We should remember that for years, the U.S. and the U.K. enforced a no-fly zone over Iraq to protect the Kurds and not a single plane was lost, and the then-Iraqi army contained. The area around Mount Sinjar and most of northern Iraq is open desert which favours technical dominance over any ISIS forces on the ground.
With thermal imagers, IR and other technical means there is nothing that would move that could not be targeted. With that air dominance, featuring 24-hour air cover and a secure air corridor to Turkey, helicopters could remove people to safety, or C17 transport planes could continue to drop supplies at little risk to allied forces. Few, if any, ground forces would be needed.
The complexity comes from assembling sufficient helicopters, refueling capability, fighters and AWACS to conduct the operation, but the time to do this, if the will is present, would number in days, not weeks. We have acted rapidly before, as we did in Haiti and the Philippines, which were unforeseen disasters, surmounting complex logistical challenges in days.
The U.S. should not be bearing the risks and costs of this alone. Stemming a humanitarian crisis of this potential scale belongs to all of us as human beings.
It appears Canada will soon lend its support as well and we would be in good company with the U.K., France and the Australians. We have capable Special Forces that could be used, and we have C17 transports and CH-47 Chinook helicopters for air drops or evacuation. Add F-18's and refueling aircraft if needed – we are one of the few nations that have bit of everything needed, combat capable, and we can make a difference.
As in our Rwanda experience, we should not someday be asking, did we do enough?