Saturday, August 9 at approximately 9:30 a.m. CST, President Barack Obama told the media and the American people in a live press conference from the South Lawn of the White House that his obligation is to protect American citizens, diplomatic personnel, and facilities in the militant-threatened area in and around Irbil, Iraq. ISIL, aka ISIS, militants were met with unexpected targeted airstrikes outside Irbil from American forces on Thursday and Friday, restricting their previously unhampered terrorist activities in the region. President Obama pledged that wherever and whenever U.S. citizens' lives are threatened and a need for humanitarian aid is evident, the U.S. will intervene to assist the Iraqi armed forces.
The president said, “So far these strikes have successfully destroyed arms and equipment that ISIL terrorists could have used against Irbil. Meanwhile Kurdish forces on the ground continue to defend the city and the United States and the Iraqi government have stepped up our military assistance to Kurdish forces as they wage their fight.”
To the question as to how long the U.S. would be assisting with airstrikes in the fight against these “barbaric” Islamic terrorists in Iraq, the president responded,
“I'm not going to give a particular timetable … we're not moving our embassy anytime soon; we're not moving our consulate, anytime soon. That means that given the challenging security environment, we're going to maintain vigilance and ensure that our people are safe.”
The United States, along with allies from the United Nation and international community, including Great Britain and France, will be making regular airdrops of humanitarian aid to the refugees on Mount Sinjar, where as many as 40,000 men, women, and children were forced to flee to escape religious persecution. The ISIL militants gave the refugees the option to convert to Islam or be put to death. They chose to retreat into the mountains without food, water, and shelter, where brutal August temperatures reached more than 120 degrees, Fahrenheit. For now, the ISIL militants are being prevented from scaling the mountain and “slaughtering the people who are there” by the airstrikes and Kurdish troops on the ground.
President Obama said he felt confident that would not change. However, he added, “The next step, which is going to be complicated, logistically, is how do we give safe passage for people down from the mountain and where can we, ultimately, relocate them so that they are safe.” He said those would be questions for the international community to decide upon.
The president said beyond that initial step,
“The most important timetable that I'm focused on, right now, is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalized because in the absence of an Iraqi government it is very hard to get a unified effort by Iraqis against ISIL. We can conduct airstrikes, but, ultimately there's not going to be an American military solution to this problem. There's going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support … that can't happen effectively until you have a legitimate Iraqi government … so we're going to be pushing very hard to encourage Iraqis to get their government together. Until we do that, it is going to be hard to get the unity of effort that allows us to, not just play defense but, also, engage in some offense.”
Asked how he would assure the American people that, unlike with the last administration, we are not getting dragged into another long war in Iraq with uncertain outcomes, the president answered,
“Number one, I've been very clear that we're not going to have U.S. combat troops in Iraq, again. And, we are going to maintain that because we should have learned a lesson from our long and immensely costly incursion in Iraq … our military is so effective that we can keep a lid on problems wherever we are, if we put enough personnel and resources into it. But, it can only last if the people in these countries, themselves, are able to arrive at the kinds of political accommodations and compromise that any civilized society requires … it would be a big mistake for us to simply go in; tamp everything down, again; restart, without some fundamental shift in attitudes among the various Iraqi factions. That's why it's so important to have an Iraqi government, on the ground, that is taking responsibility that we can help, that we can partner with, that has the capacity to get alliances in the region. Once that's in place … we end up being one of many countries that can work together to deal with the broader crisis that ISIL poses.”
Asked if we underestimated ISIL, President Obama said,
“There is no doubt that their advance, their movement, over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and, I think, the expectations of policymakers, both in and outside of Iraq. Part of that is … not a full appreciation of the degree to which the Iraqi security forces … far away from Baghdad did not have the incentive or the capacity to hold [their] ground against an aggressive adversary … That's one more reason why an Iraqi government formation is so important … There has to be a re-building and an understanding of who it is that the Iraqi security forces are reporting to, what they are fighting for, and there has to be some investment by Sunnis in pushing back against ISIL”
As to how long it is likely to take to solve the current problems in the Iraqi government, the president said,
“I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks … this is going to take some time … changing that environment so that the millions of Sunnis who live in these areas (Iraq and Syria, predominantly) feel connected to and well served by a national government. That's a long-term process. That's something that the United States cannot do. Only the Iraqi people, themselves, can do. We can help, we can advise, but we can't do it for them.”
Behind the president, Marine One sitting on the White House lawn in the background waited to depart with the First Family for a much needed two-week vacation at Martha's Vineyard. This year he will interrupt the two weeks with a return to the White House for two days next weekend due to the unrest in Syria, Israel and Gaza, and Iraq.