Friday morning, with a humanitarian mission already underway, the United States began airstrikes on ISIS in northern Iraq. What had been the U.S. policy—to rely on local forces to contain ISIS while waiting for a new Iraqi government to reach a political solution—is finished. The new policy is still taking shape, but it may eventually lead to more involvement from the special operations troops who have been in Iraq for weeks.

President Obama said Thursday night he had authorized airstrikes to protect American personnel and the Yazidi minority group stranded by ISIS on top of Mt. Sinjar. A senior administration official later stressed to reporters that U.S. forces were not launching a “sustained campaign” against ISIS in Iraq.  

But with the Kurds, America’s closest allies in the fight, recovering from heavy losses, some analysts and military veterans say that airstrikes alone may not be enough to turn the tide. A sustained—if small-scale—campaign may be the only way to achieve that.

The Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, had been acting as a bulwark against ISIS, keeping the group tied up on a northern front while it also battled against the Iraqi military in the south and west.

Then, starting on Saturday evening, came the waves of ISIS attacks on positions in northern Iraq. A senior administration official described it as “a multi-pronged attack across hundreds of kilometers in northern Iraq.” This official said ISIS “acted with tremendous military proficiency.”

The Kurds were overrun. The surviving religious minorities and other vulnerable groups who had lived under their protection fled into the mountains to escape ISIS.

And now these vulnerable groups—especially the Yazidi, trapped around Mt. Sinjar without food or water before an American airdrop—are at risk of being slaughtered.

That’s what triggered the current humanitarian crisis and the growing threat that impelled the U.S. to act. The airdrop mission consisted of a C-17 and two C-130 aircraft that were escorted by two F-18 fighters. The cargo planes dropped food and water for 8,000 people, according to a senior administration official, who added that there were no U.S. personnel on the ground on Mt. Sinjar. 

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