IRBIL, Iraq -- They are the wretched of the earth. Huddled in half-finished buildings, sheltering under bridges; the children barefoot, the adults unwashed; families at the mercy of the strangers who help keep them alive with food, clothes and blankets.
They are the Yazidis, the religious minority that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) wanted to convert to Islam or kill. Many have indeed converted rather than die, if ISIS videos showing dozens of Yazidi men embracing Islam are to be believed.
There are tens of thousands of these people in and around Dohuk in northern Iraq. The immediate threat to them is over. The Islamist militants of ISIS have been driven back by U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish fighters on the ground.
I saw several babies who had been born on their brutal weeklong exodus from their homes across the barren Sinjar mountains. The babies are called “Beywar,” or “No Land,” because they have none now.
After thousands of years in their mountain refuge, a place of relative safety, they are now desperate to leave Iraq. They told me they could never trust their Arab neighbors again; neighbors who turned against them when ISIS arrived.
The future is uncertain for the Yazidis, but it’s uncertain too for the U.S.
The goal of the airstrikes in Iraq was to protect the Yazidis from genocide, to protect U.S. facilities in Irbil, which the ISIS advance had threatened to overrun and, according to the Pentagon last week, to assist Iraqi forces battling the militants.
Significantly, this week the Pentagon’s spokesman omitted the last objective.
As ISIS retreats from the Yazidi’s historic homeland, and as the Mosul Dam returns to Kurdish control after a successful campaign to retake it by U.S. airpower and Kurdish shelling, one big question looms large for U.S. policymakers and military chiefs: When does the U.S. campaign end?
It is always easier to start a military operation than end it.
So have the goals of this one been achieved? Or has President Barack Obama redefined the goals when he said Wednesday “we will continue to confront” ISIS? As he spoke, the U.S. continued its air campaign, an operation that has seen almost 100 strikes by drone and warplane against ISIS targets.
Is the goal of this campaign now to defeat ISIS? And, if so, for how long will it continue?
Significantly, it is an operation with no name.
Normally, the U.S. military gives its campaigns a catchy name: Desert Storm in 1991, Desert Fox in 1998, and so on. This one has not been branded.
It’s a pertinent question, not only because of concerns about mission creep or the United States’ long-term strategy in the Middle East.
It’s important because the lives of American hostages may depend on the answer.
The ISIS militant who killed the American journalist James Foley later paraded a second hostage, U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff and warned that his life depended on the next decision Obama made on airstrikes.
There are reports of internal divisions within the Obama administration about where the mission (if such it is) in Iraq should go. Many point to the advances of ISIS in Syria and ask why the U.S. is bombing the group in Iraq but not in Syria.
Clearly, to be seen striking the same target as President Bashar Assad’s air force would put the U.S. in a deeply uncomfortable alliance. Obama declared a red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria but then when hundreds of civilians were gassed in Damascus almost exactly a year ago, he pulled back from airstrikes and struck a deal instead with Assad’s main ally Russia.
If he chose to bomb on behalf of the Yazidis, why not bomb on behalf of the innocent victims of the worst chemical weapons attack in decades?
Such policy contradictions leave many worried that U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria is muddled and hostage to the instincts of a war-wary president who is desperate to keep America out of any deeper involvement in Iraq.
So, for now, the U.S. wages a limited campaign against ISIS at 30,000 feet. Far below, in their tattered clothes and dusty refuges, the Yazidis are grateful but uncertain what the consequences will be and what the future holds.