President Obama declared what sounded an awful lot like mission accomplished, at a Thursday press conference, for the US effort to save the thousands of Yazidis starving and besieged on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
"We broke the [ISIS] siege of Mount Sinjar," Obama said. "We helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives." The situation had vastly improved, he said, and thus the US would not attempt the hinted-at military rescue mission and will likely not continue its humanitarian airdrops, either.
The United Nations seems to disagree pretty strongly, through. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) held its own press conference on Sinjar and the Yazidi crisis just minutes before Obama's.
"The situation on the mountain is not over," the UN spokesman said. "At least several thousand people" are still stranded on Mount Sinjar and in need of urgent assistance.
Contra Obama, a UN official JUST briefed the press, saying the situation on Mt. Sinjar is exceedingly dire. several thousand stranded— Mark Leon Goldberg (@MarkLGoldberg) August 14, 2014
What Obama is saying about Sinjar and what UN is saying about situation on Mt. Sinjar is far, far different.— Mark Leon Goldberg (@MarkLGoldberg) August 14, 2014
There were strong hints that the US was planning on scaling down its efforts to help the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. A day earlier, the Pentagon had told reporters that there were "only" 2,500 or 3,000 Yazidis left trapped on the mountain, unlike the earlier speculated tens of thousands, and that a US rescue attempt was unlikely.
As the above-quoted UN-watcher Mark Leon Goldberg later pointed out, the UN and US see the situation differently in part because they have different objectives. The UN is worried about the long-term prospects and resettlements of thousands of displaced Iraqis, Yazidi and otherwise, so they are looking at the bigger humanitarian picture. The US, by contrast, has been focused much more narrowly on the specific plight of the people trapped on this mountain.
Still, it is striking just how narrowly the Obama administration has sets its goals here — it appears to be declaring mission accomplished just as the UN is ringing the alarm bell. The fact that many of the Yazidis "escaped" across the nearby border from Iraq's war zone to Syria's comparably dangerous war zone does not seem to be of particular concern for the US right now.
This was always going to be a highly limited operation; Americans don't want to see the United States re-invade Iraq any more than Obama does, and they certainly don't want the risk of another Black Hawk Down-style disaster. Obama is doing a good job not letting mission-creep take his Iraq mission beyond where he wants it to go, but that leaves Iraq's Yazidis still stuck in what the UN at least sees as a dire situation that is far from resolved.