Yazidis on Mt Sinjar 'don't need rescuing': how very convenient

Cameron's foreign policy is an 'omnishambles' while Obama looks increasingly parochial and isolationist

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:35 ON Fri 15 Aug 2014

Whatever the true mission of the US special forces team sent to Mount Sinjar this week, they sure came back with a convenient answer for their Commander-in-Chief at the White House.

Right on cue for the primetime TV news outlets, the Pentagon was able to announce that the special forces' night and day on the bare mountain in northwest Iraq had revealed "far fewer" Yazidis taking refuge there than expected and that they were in "much better condition" than had been reported hitherto.

US officials were not slow to suggest that this seeming miracle had come about because of the effects of American air action on IS positions, making it easier for Kurdish peshmerga forces to escort the Yazidis to safety. And so the US would not now be leading a humanitarian operation to save the Yazidi and assorted Christian refugees after all.

The "good news" from the Pentagon brought yet another about-turn from David Cameron. On his return from holiday on Wednesday, he had chaired a meeting of the Cobra security committee at which he resolved that the situation was so dire that someone "had to come with a plan".

He said Britain would contribute to an operation "to get these people off that mountain" - the presumption in Whitehall being that the rescue would be led by the United States.

But with the Americans retreating, the Yazidis are suddenly yesterday's news. Cameron has at last suggested that the UK government will now be prepared to join the French, Dutch and Americans in sending arms to the Kurds, but as for the immediate plight of the Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar, they're on their own. 

There is something distinctly odd and disturbing about the antics of the Pentagon and President Obama in all this, with Cameron following in their wake. Obama has been reluctant to address the effects of IS terror and the plight of their victims from the start. "It's not time for stupid stuff" he is reported to have said in a briefing - which Hillary Clinton stated very publicly was no basis on which to run a foreign policy.

It is not clear who exactly the US special forces were who visited Mount Sinjar this week, how long they were on patrol or how far they travelled. They could have been CIA agents, Delta Force or Green Beret Rangers from Special Operations Command, all of whom have a particular ethos, not to say political baggage. There should be an urgent Freedom of Information request to discover their precise orders and the terms of their mission.

The problem is that what they reported back to the Pentagon contrasts so starkly with other accounts from the ground by equally trained practitioners in their own line of business.

UN and local aid workers still believe tens of thousands of Yazidis (estimates range between 20,000 and 30,000) remain at huge risk from the marauding IS jihadis as well as the elements - the searing heat of daytime and the chill of the mountain nights.

"How much can a small team of people see in a mountain that is 64 kilometers [40 miles] wide? There are valleys and caves where people are living," Shawkat Othman, an aid director in Dohuk, told the Wall Street Journal yesterday. 

Western reporters have been in the mountains from the early days of the flight of the Yazidis, among them Jonathan Rugman of Channel 4 News, who responded to the Pentagon's "assessment" with this blog yesterday: "I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this conclusion but I would like to know its methodology.

"When I flew over the mountain in an Iraqi helicopter on Monday, I saw refugees spread out over a very large area, small pockets of people sheltering from the extreme heat wherever they could...

"Are the Americans saying that the refugees are not spread out any more but have either been shepherded or moved into a concentrated area where they can be counted?" 

The Pentagon did not volunteer an actual number of Yazidis remaining on Mount Sinjar, but according to a Downing Street source the Americans believe the number is "in the low thousands". If that is correct, then, as Rugman points out, "The UN estimate of over 20,000 is simply wrong."

Whatever the number, the American decision to leave the Yazidis to fend for themselves appears callous: what does it matter whether there are 50 or 5,000 left on the mountain – the individual suffering is still the same. 

As Rugman reported yesterday, "The temperature here today is 46 degrees. It is so hot that my camerawoman Philippa is finding it very difficult to film, because the camera becomes too hot to touch.

"And what this American conclusion does not tell us is how many died up on the mountain in this extreme heat in the previous 12 days, before this assessment was carried out."

Nor does the US assessment deal with what has become of those Yazidis already captured by IS fighters. A report for the Daily Beast by Kimberly Dozier claims that hundreds, if not thousands, of Yazidis are being held in schools and mosques as well as prisons across northern Iraq.

Some have managed to speak by cellphone to relatives in Iraq and the US. "They all tell a similar tale of horror: families fleeing on foot caught by militants in trucks and cars," reports Dozier.  "The men are then dragged away at gunpoint from their wives and children, never to be seen again. The younger unmarried women are being told they will be forcibly married to Isis fighters. Some are taken away and raped and a few have even been sold at Mosul’s main market."

The reporters are crucial to this story as they got onto the ground first and reported with clear accounts. The scenes shown by Channel 4 News were not fake. This cannot be wished away and ignored - though some in the Obama and Cameron camps might prefer that.

The Tory elder statesman Sir Malcom Rifkind argued in the London Evening Standard this week that the UK should stay out of Iraq as it was a poisonous legacy and the jihadi forces of IS were not primarily aimed at Britain. It must be remarked that the then plain Mister Rifkind took much the same approach when he was in charge at the MoD during the mission to Bosnia, including the time of the Srbrenica massacre when Britain commanded the UN force there.

Interestingly three retired British full generals have been the clearest about Britain's obligation to the refugees and displaced people of northern Iraq. Generals Dannatt, Shirreff and Jackson believe this is a matter of principle and practicality. Britain has been involved in helping the Kurdish autonomous region from the first, and to abandon the Kurds to IS forces would be a disaster for the entire region and beyond. Mike Jackson says that Britain's role in Iraq carries an obligation to try to avert catastrophe now.

But both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron seem paralysed by the legacy of their predecessors Bush and Blair who launched their Iraq adventure in 2003 with rashness bordering on irresponsibility. This has led Obama and Cameron to avoid military action and war at all costs, however good and humane the cause.

Their reluctance, dithering and prevarication is the diametric opposite of the can-do dynamism of Bush and Blair. In its way, however, it invites almost equal charges of gross irresponsibility.

Cameron's foreign policy looks like an "omnishambles" to rival his Chancellor's Budget of two years ago: at least his late-in-the-day agreement to help arm the Kurds – if they request it – might give the RAF something to do with the Chinooks sent to Cyprus to help airlift the Yazidis.

As for Barack Obama, when he was first elected he looked to have the strongest international credentials of any modern American president - which led to the Nobel Peace Prize award within months. Now he appears to revel in being one of the most stubbornly parochial and isolationist US leaders of all. ·