The Pentagon said its reconnaissance team that checked out the plight of Yazidi refugees under siege from ISIS fighters on Mount Sinjar is not as dire as officials there believed.
“As part of the ongoing humanitarian efforts ordered by President Obama, today a team of U.S. military personnel, accompanied by USAID, conducted an assessment of the situation on Mt. Sinjar and the impact of U.S. military actions to date,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. “The team, which consisted of less than twenty personnel, did not engage in combat operations and all personnel have returned safely to Irbil by military air.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced yesterday that he had asked Obama for and received permission to send 130 extra “advisers” to Iraq, but stressed to Marines at Camp Pendleton that this didn’t mean “boots on the ground.”
“The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on ISIL targets, the efforts of the Peshmerga and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” Kirby continued.
“The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped. Based on this assessment the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely,” he said. “Additionally, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed and will protect U.S. personnel and facilities.”
The Pentagon did not release their estimate on the number of Yazidis still on Mount Sinjar.
On Tuesday, UN officials warned of an imminent atrocity with an estimate of 40,000 Yazidis trying to hide from ISIS on Mount Sinjar. “All possible measures must be taken urgently to avoid a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours – civilians need to be protected on the ground and escorted out of situations of extreme peril,” said Rita Izsák, Special Rapporteur on minority issues.
“We are witnessing a tragedy of huge proportions unfolding in which thousands of people are at immediate risk of death by violence or by hunger and thirst,” said Chaloka Beyani, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons. “Humanitarian aid must be delivered quickly and no efforts should be spared to protect all groups forcefully displaced by this conflict.”
Additionally, the UN noted that ISIS is hunting down religious minorities in all areas under its control.
“We cannot stand by in the face of such atrocities,” said Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “International actors must do all in their power to support those on the ground with the capacity to protect lives.”
At a Tuesday press conference, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon called the plight of the Yazidis and others on Mount Sinjar “especially harrowing.”
“UN humanitarian personnel are in the area, doing what we can. Air drops of food and water are reaching some of the trapped people. But the situation on the mountain is dire. And even when people manage to find a way out, they remain exposed to searing heat and a perilous odyssey,” Ban said.
The White House said in a briefing earlier today that it was still assessing what to do about the trapped Yazidis.
“The Iraqis and the Kurdish forces in particular have been engaged. They have a presence on the mountain and they will certainly be cooperating with us in this effort,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in Massachusetts.
“We have offers of support from a number of allies like France, Australia, Canada,” Rhodes said. “We will be in discussions with them about what they can do, both as it relates to helping the Yazidi population that has been trapped on the mountain but also more broadly helping bring relief to the displaced persons in Northern Iraq, which includes not just Yazidis but an enormous number of Iraqi Christians and others who have been driven from their homes by ISIL.”
“…The people who are on the ground fighting ISIL are the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi security forces. We are taking action from the air on the objectives of protecting our people and providing humanitarian space for the Yazidis, in particular on the mountain. If there’s additional things that we can do as part of an effort to move them off the mountain, [Obama will] certainly review those — those options.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today stressed “the United States is not the only country on Earth with an air force.”
“While I support President Obama’s decision to use airstrikes to protect the lives of thousands of innocent people of the Yazidi minority, the U.S. should not have to act alone militarily in this crisis,” Sanders said. “ISIS is a danger to the entire region and to the world. The international community must work with the U.S.”