More than 100 American forces have arrived on Iraq's Mount Sinjar to plan an escape route for stranded Yazidi refugees, just hours after White House officials said they aren't ruling out use of U.S. troops to help evacuate the minority group. At the same time, the administration continues to issue assurances that limited aid to the Yazidis is not opening the door to a "boots on the ground" mission.
The new troops, mostly marines and Special Forces, "flew in on V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that can land vertically," according to the Guardian. (To us, that just sounds like a fancy helicopter, but what do we know?) Together with a few special-forces officers who were already on the mountain, they'll attempt to chart a route off the mountain for the remaining stranded Yazidis. These troops won't necessarily be involved in any evacuation missions, which would likely require more manpower.
Members of the Yazidi community were driven up the mountain when ISIS invaded their hometowns earlier this month. Many died atop the hot, barren mountain while waiting for aid to arrive, but couldn't leave because facing ISIS militants meant a certain execution. Since the Yazidi faith incorporates elements of different religions and is not strictly monotheistic, practitioners are considered apostates by ISIS.
Earlier, the New York Times highlighted the different escape routes the besieged group can take:
The most direct route off the mountain would be to head south into greater Iraq, but that would take the refugees and any troops protecting them through ISIS territory, increasing the potential for combat and casualties. Passing through the ISIS-held area, one senior military official warned, would also allow the militants to blend into the refugee population, making it more difficult to target them for American airstrikes.
The far more viable option, administration officials and humanitarian experts said, would be to establish a corridor northwest through Syria, following the paths established by the few refugees who have escaped. The refugees would then cross back over the border into Kurdistan.
The route through Syria would require Kurdish pesh merga fighters to make up the bulk of the troop escort, but a second military official said that American Special Operations forces and perhaps even Marines would have to reinforce that effort.
Previously, various news outlets reported that the U.S. was sending military advisers to the region "to assess the scope of the humanitarian mission."
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated that this would not reopen a long-term combat mission in Iraq. "As the president has made very clear, we're not going back to Iraq in any of the same combat dimensions we were once in," he told marines at Camp Pendleton.