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Interview: Analyst Predicts U.S. Air Strikes A 'Short-Term Measure' In Iraq

A screen grab from video distributed by insurgents of the Islamic State as they took over military barracks in Tikrit, Iraq.
A screen grab from video distributed by insurgents of the Islamic State as they took over military barracks in Tikrit, Iraq.

The United States has ordered warplanes back into the Iraqi skies to help halt the advance of Islamic State militants.

Michael Stephens, a Middle East security analyst and deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in Qatar, explains how the decision might change the military and strategic landscape in Iraq.

RFE/RL: What is the strategic reasoning behind U.S. President Barack Obama's authorization of air strikes in Iraq?

Michael Stephens: The air strikes that have been authorized are not designed to defeat IS and they are not designed to change the balance of power in Iraq or Syria. They are simply designed for the protection of Irbil [capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region] and for the defense of Yazidi refugees. It's what we call "point defense." It is designed simply as a short-term measure to stop IS expanding into areas which are controlled by critical U.S. allies. So it's not a strategic move, but it's an immediate move that is also humanitarian, if you like.

RFE/RL: What ramifications will U.S. air strikes for the Islamic State's advance?

Stephens: The air strikes are simply designed to give reassurance to allies and to make IS know that there's a limit to the kind of activities they can undertake. IS have shown themselves to be growing in confidence, so that reassurance was needed to make IS realize that they probably reached the limits of their capabilities in Iraq and, should they overstretch any further, then there's going to be serious consequences to pay which will degrade IS quite badly in that particular region.

RFE/RL: What will these air strikes mean for the tens of thousands of refugees in northern Iraq? Will this allow them to escape to safety?

Stephens: There have been humanitarian aid drops of food and water, but these are going to have to be daily if they are going to keep these people alive. It's a very intensive operation. I think in order to make sure these Yazidis are able to flee further north to Kurdish-protected areas, then there will have to be military air strikes against IS if they happen to find militants on any of the roads or pathways that the refugees need to escape by. The U.S. is ready to take those operations on, and the air strikes will make a difference to these Yazidis.

RFE/RL: Do these air strikes signify the start of a larger U.S. military role in Iraq?

Stephens: There's a concern that these air strikes might expand into a much larger operation. But I don't think that's what is happening. I think there will be more air strikes if IS decides that it wants to attack civilian areas and take out religious minorities. But as I said before, the air strikes are not designed to destroy IS and to be a full, long-term operation. It's just simply to deal with the immediate problem. If that immediate problem comes back, then the air strikes will come back.

RFE/RL: What can the United States do to change the tide in the conflict against IS militants in Iraq and Syria?

Stephens: If you're going to destroy IS, then you have to destroy their main operating base in Syria, from where they stem. But it seems clear that the Americans are not going to intervene in Syria anytime soon. There are serious debates right now in Washington, London, and Paris about arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and making sure they have training and the right equipment to push these IS forces back. That's the same idea with the Iraqi army. But as you know, the Iraqi army has collapsed and shown they are incompetent. I don't think IS will be defeated because there is not enough political will for that. But what people are willing to do is to stop them expanding. It's about sealing them in areas where they're in control rather than defeating them altogether. Obama has been clear that he wants the Iraqis to take that responsibility rather than the West doing it for them.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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