US Airstrikes Weaken ISIS, Strengthen Militias

Massive US intervention has for now liberated Amerli, averting humanitarian disaster. Another crisis looms.

Iraq US Flag

Massive US intervention has for now liberated Amerli, averting humanitarian disaster. Another crisis looms.

WaPo (“U.S. airstrikes help Iraqi forces break Islamic State’s siege“):

Iraqi troops and militias aided by U.S. airstrikes broke through a two-month siege of the town of Amerli on Sunday, opening up a humanitarian corridor to thousands of Shiite Turkmen who had been trapped by Sunni militants and deprived of food, water, and medicine.

“Amerli has been liberated,” said Mahdi Taqi, a local official who spoke by phone from inside the town after the army had entered. “There is so much joy and people are cheering in the streets.”

Sunni militants from the Islamic State group, which seized much of northern Iraq in June, had surrounded Amerli, cutting off access to supplies and electricity.

Residents struggled to fight off the militants, but were beginning to die of hunger and disease.

The United Nations Special Representative to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, last week warned of an impending “massacre” should Islamic State fighters breach the town.

But a short series of U.S. air strikes on Saturday night appeared to quickly tilt the balance in favor of Iraqi government forces.

The three strikes, plus two more on Sunday, were accompanied by humanitarian aid drops by American, British, French and Australian aircraft, the Pentagon said in a statement.

“These operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to address this emerging humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amirli,” the Pentagon said.

The United States has carried out 120 strikes in northern Iraq since early August. But the Amerli strikes marked the second time this month that the Pentagon has intervened militarily to prevent a jihadist attack on thousands of trapped civilians.

Earlier in August, the U.S. military carried out limited airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops to help Kurdish pesh merga forces open a humanitarian corridor to thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who were trapped by the militants on a mountain range in western Iraq.

The long-suffering residents of Amerli, an impoverished farming hamlet, and members of the country’s Shiite majority, had accused Washington of employing a double standard in helping the Yazidis, while Amerli’s siege dragged on for more than two months.

It’s unlikely that this will turn the tide against IS(*) or that Iraqi government forces will be able to handle it from here, thus allowing an end to US operations. Still, averting two different humanitarian tragedies in the space of a month through air strikes alone, without the loss of a single American life, is quite an accomplishment. Alas, given the history, no good deed will go unpunished.

But the presence of Shiite militias battling their way through nearby Sunni towns also underscored the potential for revenge attacks, Sunni political leaders and local residents said Sunday.

At least three of Iraq’s most notorious Shiite militias, which fought U.S. forces and killed thousands Sunni civilians during the eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq, are playing a lead role in the ground offensive.

“I’m happy that the siege has been broken, but I would have been happier if it was achieved by the military alone, and not by the militias,” said Emtashar al-Samarra, a Sunni member of parliament from Salahuddin, the province where Amerli is located.

“Our main concern now is that these militias, empowered, will punish innocent Sunni people for crimes committed by daaish,” said Samarra, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Which crimes?

Since the rise of the Islamic State, rights groups have accused the Shiite militias of reviving old tactics of killing and kidnapping Sunnis, a practice that defined Iraq’s worst period of sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.

The Islamic State, which has used car bombs and suicide bombers in attacks on Shiite civilians and security forces, has claimed to have executed thousands of Shiites since seizing control of the northern city of Mosul and other territory in June.

So, it’s quite likely the cycle will continue. Will the US feel compelled to intervene to stop Shiite-on-Sunni violence? If so, it’s unlikely that airpower will be very effective in discriminating between the two.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    This points to something I’ve suggested from the start: the IS is not ten feet tall. 120 airstrikes in 30 days is not much, and yet it’s done the trick in stopping IS in its tracks.

    I normally lean hawk, but the hysteria over IS, the hair-on-fire freak-out not just by the usual suspects like McCain, Graham and Bill Kristol, but the credulous media as well, and the absence of pushback from doves, really bothers me.

    The IS are barbarians, no question. I’m all for killing them just on general principles. But can we please handle this situation without the usual over-the-top hysteria? Everyone needs to calm down: we have IS surrounded, and utterly outgunned. With some American air power – though God only knows why we bother selling jets to the Saudis and Jordan – the local forces, peshmerga and the Iraqi “army,” should be perfectly capable of containing the IS.

  2. Gustopher says:

    We knew from the get-go that hurting ISIS was going to help some unsavory characters we don’t like — we are on the same side as Assad and Iran.

    Still worth doing, because of the humanitarian reasons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we were bombing the militias soon for similar reasons. But, that’s ok, we have plenty of bombs.

  3. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I normally lean hawk, but the hysteria over IS, the hair-on-fire freak-out not just by the usual suspects like McCain, Graham and Bill Kristol, but the credulous media as well, and the absence of pushback from doves, really bothers me.

    I believe people are going to be far less willing to allow a group like IS to grow and spread after the years of allowing al Qaeda to do so resulted in 9/11. There will be a strong push to err on the side of caution.

  4. President Camacho says:

    Only cost about $1 billion Who should we send the bill to?

  5. michael reynolds says:


    Doing something is what got us here. Rather than just decide we need to get into another war, I’d really like the president and the American people to have some clear idea of just what the hell we plan to do, why, how, how long and for how much. No more George W. Bush “decisiveness” please.

  6. President Camacho says:

    @michael reynolds: you can build a lot of schools, repair a lot of bridges, feed a lot of kids school lunches for what we spent on those bombs. How much longer will we continue to be the world’s policeman AND billpayer. Can we at least get reimbursed for being the policeman? Withhold that amount from our next contribution to say the UN, World Bank, NATO, ______ or whatever else every other 1st world country expects us to pay into?

  7. anjin-san says:

    @President Camacho:

    you can build a lot of schools, repair a lot of bridges, feed a lot of kids school lunches

    Not if congress has anything to say about it…

  8. President Camacho says:

    @anjin-san: okay a compromise. Some groupons at least

  9. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: Doing something at the wrong time for the wrong reasons got us here.

    I’m not pushing for war–just trying to explain why I think there’s no great pushback against one, at least not one against IS. People are seeing it as a nascent second al Qaeda and wanting to kill it in its crib.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    Someone questioned Paul being called a chicken-hawk???

  11. the Q says:

    So Mikey, what if we, in our zeal and stupidity 6 months ago, had decided that we needed to assist the “rebels” against Assad and we followed the advice of the usual sacks of stupid schitt and intervened, tipping the battle in their favor, allowing them to “win” against Assad, thereby establishing ISIS as the de facto government in Syria.

    That blunder would have potentially been even worse than the Iraq quagmire, since ISIS would now be far more difficut to deal with.

    However, saner heads prevailed and we avoided that utter catastrophe. As Mr. Reynolds pointed out, lets not act out of panic and hysteria…sometimes thats NOT the best policy.

    Our airstrikes, in coordination with the Iraqi army, the Kurds, the local Shiite militias, Syrian pressure and yes, Iranian support will destroy ISIS without our ground troops entering the fray.

  12. Mikey says:

    @the Q: You must have missed the very clear and unambiguous phrase in my comment: “I am not pushing for war…”

    Only on the internet can a blase’ explanation of why OTHER PEOPLE feel a certain way suddenly become evidence the explainer shares the sentiment. Gah.

  13. the Q says:

    I wasn’t dissing you personally, just the argument you were making by being devil’s advocate

  14. Mikey says:

    @the Q: Ah, OK, I understand now. My apologies.

    No doubt leaving Assad in power had benefits. I remember discussions then regarding the kind of cold political calculation that went into that, and it turned out to be right, thankfully, even at the unfortunate cost in Syrian lives. One can imagine the situation there being even worse with ISIS in charge. And now the Syrian government is a convenient ally against ISIS.

    IS in its various permutations certainly has to be contained or destroyed (if the latter is possible), the big questions of course are “by who” and “how.” We can probably maintain the current level of involvement, which is basically just special operations forces (overt and covert) and local allies. Any need to escalate to a large involvement of conventional forces would mean something had gone very wrong.

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    @President Camacho: Think about the flow: the U.S. government spends $1 billion buying weapons from American businesses paying salaries to American workers. It pays American soldiers the families of whom are in the U.S. and spend most of the money. That $1 billion will cycle roughly seven times, before it is taxed back by the U.S. government which will spend it again.

    Military Keynesianism does (unfortunately) work because the dollars we spend come back to us.