Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–August 7, 2014 – 10:10 P.M. EDT
MS. MEEHAN: Hi, everybody. This is Bernadette at the National Security Council. Thank you for joining us for this call on Iraq. This call will be on background, which means you can quote the speakers as senior administration officials and not by name.
We’ll turn it over to our first senior administration official who will make some opening remarks. And once we’re finished with opening remarks we will take your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call. I’ll just make some opening comments on the context of the President’s statement, and then turn it over to my colleagues to go into some greater detail.
First of all, as you heard the President say, he authorized two operations in Iraq today. The first is the authorization to conduct airstrikes — targeted airstrikes to protect our personnel and facilities specifically in Erbil. What we’ve seen in recent days is further ISIL advances that were beginning to threaten the periphery of Erbil. Given our commitment to the security of our personnel and facilities, the President issued this authorization so that if we see further ISIL advances and actions that threaten Erbil, he has authorized the military to take targeted action.
This is consistent with what he said back in June, when ISIL had begun its advances in Iraq. He made clear then, as he made clear tonight, that the safety and security of our personnel and facilities is a top priority in Iraq, as it is around the world. This principle applies, of course, to our personnel in Erbil. It would also apply to our personnel and facilities, including our embassy in Baghdad. So if we see actions anywhere in Iraq that threaten our personnel or facilities, we stand prepared to take targeted action to protect them. And, again, this is a dynamic situation that we will continue to monitor, and as we see the need to take that action, he has authorized the military to do so.
At the same time, we’re also mindful of the security challenges that Iraq is facing in both the area around Baghdad and the area around Erbil, as well as in other parts of the country. And you heard the President reiterate that we are working to continue to provide assistance to both the Iraqi Security Forces and also to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who are facing a very significant challenge in the north from ISIL.
Second, the President has authorized a humanitarian operation to provide immediate support to the Yazidi population that is facing such a dire situation. In the absence of food, water and basic shelter, we’ve grown increasingly concerned about the safety of the Yazidis, who are, of course, stranded on a mountain.
So based upon our analysis of what we’ve seen in terms of ISIL attacks on the Yazidi civilians and ISIL’s own stated determination to wipe out the Yazidi population, we feel that this is a unique and urgent humanitarian challenge. As you heard the President say, this raises the prospect of an act of genocide in which you see the targeted effort to eliminate a group of people based on their identity.
So in the first instance, we have already provided a humanitarian airdrop to get urgent food and water to the Yazidi population that is stranded. Secondly, the President has authorized the use of targeted airstrikes as necessary to break the siege at the base of that mountain. Now, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga are working to break that siege. But as with the safety of Erbil, if we see a need to take direct U.S. military action through airstrikes to relieve the pressure on the Yazidis, that has been authorized by the President as well.
I’d also note that there were statements out of the United Nations and from other countries calling on this urgent humanitarian crisis to be dealt with. There have been offers of assistance. And so we will coordinate internationally so that we are drawing on the support of other countries as we seek to resolve this urgent humanitarian challenge, which is also exacerbated by the displacement of many tens of thousands of Iraqis, particularly minority populations like the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians. And I would anticipate that we’re prepared to continue humanitarian airdrops as necessary as well.
Thirdly, the President made clear that we will continue to focus on our broader strategy of strengthening the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces to take the fight to ISIL, but also, importantly, to continue to encourage Iraq to move expeditiously to form an inclusive government. And as the President indicated, once that Iraqi government is formed, we will be consulting with our partners in the region to review what additional steps we can take to provide support to the Iraqi government and its security forces so that they can turn the tide more decisively against ISIL.
And, again, that remains our long-term strategy — that the Iraqis are in the lead; that an inclusive Iraqi government will form a stronger foundation for effective action against ISIL; and that the United States, together with international partners, stands ready to continue to increase our assistance, including the training and equipping that we have undertaken.
I’ll just conclude by saying that over the course of the day, the President met several times with his national security team to review these options and to make these decisions. We also consulted with leaders from Congress throughout the day to notify them of the President’s decisions and our thinking as it relates to the situation in Iraq. As you see, we read out the fact that Vice President Biden was in touch with Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi-Kurdistan Regional President. And we also had a range of other contacts over the last several days with the Iraqi government.
That’s a good point for me to hand it over to my State colleague to discuss the context of that coordination with the Iraqi government.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll just kind of back up a little bit. I think if you go back to the President’s statement on June 19th, in which he discussed a number of measures we were taking then, which were then in the nascent stages, including establishing a joint operation center in Erbil, in northern Iraq, and in Baghdad, surging ISR, and doing a number of other things, including our military assessment teams, helped us establish a platform to act as nimbly as possible to this really rapidly developing situation, which began on Saturday.
On Saturday night, ISIL launched a multipronged attack really across hundreds of kilometers in northern Iraq. It was swift; it was effective. They used — they acted with tremendous military proficiency. We immediately began to coordinate through our joint operation centers with the Peshmerga commanders and significantly with the Iraqi air force and Iraqi Security Forces in Baghdad. And we began to develop what was really a fairly historic level of cooperation between the Iraqi air force and the Peshmerga providing tactical airstrikes on the ground.
As we have seen in other circumstances, however, ISIL, given the rapidness in which it is able to maneuver, given its ability to direct indirect fire attacks followed by direct assaults with heavy weapons, it is a militarily proficient organization. We are seeing that increasingly across obviously in Syria and also increasingly in Iraq. And it requires a level of sophistication in terms of a military response.
So we were coordinating with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi air force to some good effect. And last night, ISIL launched another series of attacks, which changed the dynamic once again, particularly potential approaches into Erbil. And that gets to what the President discussed in his statement today with actions that we are now willing to take should they advance further towards Erbil.
At the same time, we had the humanitarian situation unfolding and with a particularly unique and urgent situation on Sinjar Mountain with the Yazidi population of thousands and possibly tens of thousands trapped on that mountain surrounded by ISIL fighters. The Yazidi population has been targeted by ISIL. This is not something new. ISIL originally was the group led by Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq, an organization we know very well. It’s important to keep in mind that ISIL is not a new phenomenon. It is al Qaeda in Iraq, and a part of the ideology which was spawned by Zarqawi all the way back in 2003. And to date, the largest terrorist attack ever in Iraq took place up in the Sinjar region in August of 2007, killing about 700 Yazidi civilians in a series of devastating car bombs then conducted by al Qaeda in Iraq.
It is their mission — ISIL, and then al Qaeda in Iraq, same organization — it is their mission to ethnically cleanse areas of anyone that it disagrees with, and that could mean Christians, it could mean Yazidis or anyone else. It is important also to keep in mind that it is targeting Sunnis in Sunni areas — anyone that it disagrees with. And it is so ruthless — quite literally putting people’s heads on spikes as a sign of anyone — the fate of anyone that would resist them.
In the case of the Yazidis, they were very clear that they were there to enslave the women and to kill all the men in these towns. The people on the mountain were — they needed water, they needed food. Temperatures can reach about 120 degrees in the day. The Iraqi air force maneuvered some of their cargo transport and did a number of airdrops, but to limited effect, because, frankly, these are difficult military operations. And that is when we, with our national security team, began to review all of our possible options, and acted on a fairly rapid basis to put together a very good military plan through the Department of Defense and CENTCOM, which was executed tonight and was executed, we believe, quite effectively.
At the same time, we have been in constant communication throughout — reviewing the situation and developing very concrete options for the President’s consideration. We have been in constant communication not only with Iraqi leaders up and down the board — I spoke with the Iraq President yesterday and, obviously, Ambassador Beecroft is in Baghdad discussing the situation with all Iraqi leaders across the board. And Secretary Kerry has been actively engaged. Even despite being in Afghanistan today, he was on the phone with the foreign ministers of France, UAE, Turkey, Jordan, and many others to discuss the situation. And also, as my colleague mentioned, we have the action at the U.N. Security Council this evening.
So a very multi-front effort to get this moving and to provide a little bit of context. I want to discuss briefly the government information process, which is also playing out against this backdrop. The government information process since the crisis began with the ISIL advance into Mosul has actually — has gathered some real traction. You might remember when Mosul fell, the political process was really at a standstill. The election had not been certified yet — they had the national election on April 30th — a parliament that has served since 2010 had gone out of session and the election had not been certified. There was not a new parliament convened. Despite what was then a very, very difficult situation in Baghdad, the Supreme Court came back, they convened a new parliament; the parliament met; the parliament chose a new speaker. They then chose a new president. And they are now on a timeline to name a new prime minister. And we hope to have that decision done within the coming days.
As soon as there is a prime minister named, there is then a 30-day clock to name a cabinet and also to develop a national program, which will be the framework by which Iraq organizes itself over the next four years. And as my colleague mentioned, as the Iraqi political — the elected political leadership of Iraq comes together and develops such a national program, that will provide a basis for us to consult with them and also our regional partners to think of how we can more aggressively support their efforts against ISIL and across the board in terms of regional integration, their own economic foundation, and also their ability to export as much oil as possible from north to south on to international markets.
So there is an awful lot going on. But number one, first and foremost, as the President said tonight, is making sure that we address this urgent humanitarian situation and also help the Iraqis manage this extremely serious threat from ISIL.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll go through what happened most recently, in the last couple of hours. The U.S. military conducted a successful airdrop of food and water for thousands of Iraqi citizens threatened by ISIL near Sinjar. The mission consisted of one C-17 and two C-130 aircrafts. And together, they dropped a total of food and water for about 8,000 people. The C-17 and the — one C-17 and the C-130 dropped water, about 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water, and then one of the C-130s dropped about 8,000 meals ready to eat. The aircrafts were over the drop area for less than 15 minutes, flying at a low altitude.
The cargo aircrafts were escorted by two F-18s. They originated from the area of responsibility of the U.S. Central Command. The operations were coordinated with U.S. forces in Iraq, of course, responsible for supporting the ISF — the Iraqi Security Forces — and there were no U.S. forces on the ground operating in the area at the time of the drop.
U.S. military will continue to work with State, our international partners, the Government of Iraq, the U.N., NGOs and others to assess the humanitarian needs going on there. We are capable of doing additional drops as necessary in coordination with all the parties I mentioned.
Of course, as my colleague said, the President has authorized airstrikes to protect American personnel and facilities, and to help Iraqi forces press back the siege at Mount Sinjar and protect civilians trapped there. No airstrikes have taken place at this time, but we remain postured to take targeted military action should the situation warrant it.
And I’ll stop there.
Q Thank you, very much. Can you say how you could break this siege without targeted airstrikes? And if that were to take place, do you expect it would be with a coalition?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure, Andrea. I’ll start and my colleagues may want to come in. The President has authorized airstrikes if we believe they’re necessary to help break this siege. So we will be driven by military decision-making as to whether or not there are targets that present themselves that can help relieve the pressure on Mount Sinjar. And we will be watching that very closely.
As my colleague said, we have dedicated a substantial amount of ISR over Iraq and intelligence resources that enable us to track the situation. And one of the two military actions that the President authorized is not just humanitarian airdrops, but airstrikes to support a relief of that siege on the mountain.
And the Peshmerga has been engaged in that area, so they will continue to provide support to the Yazidi population. And again, as we can provide air support to relieve that pressure, the President has given the military the authorization to do so.
I don’t know if my colleagues — if you have anything to add there.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that covers it.
Q Hi. Thank you for doing the call. I was just wondering if you could comment a little bit on what the legal authorities behind this operation and the (inaudible) or some other legal authorities that the President has yet to notify folks about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. I’ll make a couple of comments on that. First of all, with respect to international law, we believe that any actions we would take, to include airstrikes, would be consistent with international law, as we have a request from the Government of Iraq. So we’ve essentially been asked and invited to take these actions by the Government of Iraq, and that provides the international legal basis.
As to the domestic legal basis, we believe the President has the authority under the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief to direct these actions, which are consistent with this responsibility to protect U.S. citizens and to further U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. Specifically, the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities is among his highest responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, and given the threats that we see on the periphery of Erbil, he has authorized the use of targeted military action.
Similarly, we believe that there is an urgent humanitarian challenge that further poses a threat to U.S. interests. As I said this rises to the level of a potential act of genocide when you have an entire group of people being targeted for killing, and you have a population of the size that is on Mount Sinjar that is threatened with starvation as one option, or, as the President said, coming down that mountain and potentially being massacred by ISIL.
If we do end up taking airstrikes, we would have to do a War Powers report consistent with how we respond when the United States is engaged in hostilities. So we have been consulting Congress for the last several weeks about Iraq, generally. And then throughout the day today we were able to reach a good number of members and leaders of Congress to advise them of our thinking and then of the President’s decision. And again, if there are airstrikes taken, we will comply with our responsibility to file a War Powers report.
Q Hi, thanks for doing the call. I wanted to ask whether this authorization is limited only geographically to Iraq, or whether it covers Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, any areas where ISIL is operating or may pose a threat. And also, can you just tell us, should we expect to have more planes (inaudible) circling over Erbil now on a constant basis? ThankS.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll take the first question and then my colleague can take the second.
With respect to this authorization, it applies to Iraq. The missions that the President specified are geographically restricted to Iraq. This was not an authorization of a broad-based counterterrorism campaign against ISIL. It had two very narrow and specific objectives: One, the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities; and two, alleviating the huge humanitarian crisis faced by the Yazidi people.
With respect to that first mission, the President has always been very clear that he will take action to protect our personnel and facilities in Iraq. Again, the threat that we are most urgently monitoring right now is the threat posed to Erbil, given the advances that ISIL has made. At the same time, we have a significant presence in Baghdad as well, so the principle that we would take action if we saw a need to protect our personnel and facilities in Baghdad also applies here.
So, as the President said in his statement, if we see actions anywhere in Iraq that put at risk American personnel and facilities, he’s authorized the military to act. Again, our focus right now is on the situation outside of Erbil, but that principle applies to all of our personnel and facilities. But this specific operation, again, is focused on Iraq and not other countries.
My colleague may want to address the other question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. In terms of what we have over Erbil, obviously as my colleague just said, given our extreme focus on Erbil right now, we have oriented both our manned and unmanned ISR to take a particular and constant look at Erbil to make sure we know what’s going on and have eyes on. So to your question about whether we have fighter jets or planes above Erbil at any one time, we almost consistently have either manned or unmanned ISR over Erbil right now, given the concerns.
Q I wanted to ask whether the President has authorized a broad campaign against ISIL, perspectively. And to take an example, ISIL’s presence reportedly at the Mosul dam, giving it considerable strategic leverage for the future — what’s being done about that kind of threat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll just make a couple comments, David. First of all, this is focused on the protection of our personnel and facilities, in addition to the humanitarian mission associated with the Yazidis. I’d say a couple of additional things, though. One is given the strategic nature of Erbil and Baghdad, clearly we would be concerned about and prepared to take action if we saw ISIL advances that put our facilities at risk. So we’re laying down a marker here that even though ISIL has not penetrated Erbil, just their presence in the periphery and the potential threat they pose could lead us to take action as targets present themselves.
At the same time, we would also be concerned about critical infrastructure that could impose a risk to our personnel and facilities — for instance, a significant breach of a dam that could, frankly, cause flooding that would again potentially compromise our embassy in Baghdad. So we will be making assessments on what may endanger U.S. personnel and facilities. And again, the military has been authorized to act as necessary. Our focus right now is very much on the situation in Erbil.
We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against ISIL here, because our belief is the best way to deal with the threat of ISIL over the long term is for the Iraqis to do so. But that does not mean that we’re not going to support them in that effort through additional assistance, training, equipping, intelligence, advice.
We have teams on the ground in both Baghdad and Erbil who are already coordinating through our joint operations centers. We have said that we are going to direct additional resources to both the Iraqi Security Forces, and to the Peshmerga. And we’ve also made clear that after the Iraqis form a government, we stand prepared to work with other partners in the region in providing additional support — for instance additional resources and equipment to the Iraqis as they go on the offensive.
So I think we’ve laid down a marker that we’re going to act to protect our personnel and facilities that include, of course, these two very strategically important cities of Erbil and Baghdad. We are taking action to alleviate a very unique humanitarian crisis.
On the broader campaign against ISIL, the Iraqis will be in the lead, but they have our support. And that support, again, has been growing, including helping them meet the acute needs in the Kurdistan region in the days ahead.
Q I wanted to ask a question about those advisors and consulate employees in Erbil. Has any consideration been taken to perhaps try to organize some sort of evacuation of those employees of the U.S. government? And what does that pose as a challenge long term as you have advisors and State Department employees in that country at various locations? Thanks very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I can say we are — obviously, anywhere around the world, we’re constantly reviewing our posture and our personnel. In a situation like this, we’re looking — we had a similar circumstance obviously in Baghdad back in June. It’s a question of do we have the right people there, do we have to rebalance, do we have to bring in more people. So that is an ongoing conversation. But certainly and particularly given that, we will make sure that ISIL cannot approach Erbil, we’re very confident that our consulate is safe and our people will continue to be at work.
Q I’m wondering if there are plans to speed any more weapons or equipment to either the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga. I understand that American advisors are pushing for both Apaches and Hellfire missiles to the Iraqi forces, and it’s sort of being bogged down I’m told by foreign military sales. So do you plan on speeding any of those weapons to the Iraqis? Or as you say, will this all wait until a new government is formed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we’re working to speed that. But I’ll go to my colleague to take the question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, we’ve been expediting defense articles to the Iraqi Security Forces for months now. And certainly since the crisis started more urgently in June, we have pushed that output to the maximum. We have — particularly Hellfire missiles — we have the factories that produce those here in the United States working seven days a week in order to meet the need and push them out to Iraq. We’re transporting them in bundles as soon as they’re available in order to push them forward. So we’ve been expediting those for months now in addition to large numbers of ammo — antitank ammo — a significant number of sales. So we’re not waiting for anything and have been pushing that out aggressively. And we are now expediting assistance to the Kurds. So we are not waiting. We are moving out.
Q Thanks for taking the call. I just wanted to follow up on Jim’s question about the evacuation and ask why you didn’t consider, as you did in Libya, evacuating the personnel from Erbil, instead of launching potential airstrikes to protect them?
And then do you have a timeline for when you’ll assess the need to have another round of airdrops for the Yazidis before they run out of the food and water that you’ve delivered there, and whether you might need to launch the effort to break the siege —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. I’d just say on your first question, it’s our intention to continue operating in Erbil and Baghdad. We have in Iraq a significant amount of ISR and a capacity to closely monitor developments on the ground in the security of our facilities. We also had the request from the Iraqi government to take action. So we believe that provides us with the basis to essentially lay down a marker that we are going to take action with the airstrikes if we see movements by ISIL that put our people at risk.
Of course, we’ll always assess the footprint of U.S. personnel. But it’s our intention to defend against further ISIL encroachment towards Erbil. And as I said, we would apply the same principle as it relates to Baghdad as well.
My colleague may want to take your second question — the additional drop question?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll say the President has authorized a continual drop site if necessary, which again, we’ll be evaluating on a tactical basis. But I don’t know if you have anything more you want to add to that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we stand ready. We’re in constant contact with the Iraqis and with all of our partners. And should it become necessary, we will do another drop.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And again, I think one of the things we can do is also seek to coordinate with other international partners who have expressed concern about the humanitarian situation as we seek to both meet the immediate needs and to come up with longer-term solutions.
Again, I’d add we’re very concerned about the displaced Iraqis. That includes the Yazidis. That also includes many Christians. And so as we consult with the Iraqi government and review our humanitarian assistance, we will continue to endeavor to provide humanitarian assistance that can help those displaced people.
Of course, those are particularly vulnerable minorities. But as my colleague said, ISIL has killed, threatened, intimidated many Sunnis in the areas they have taken over. They pose a threat to all Iraqis. So that is why the Iraqi government is getting our support in working to take on the threat from ISIL.
Q I just want to go over a couple of things that were addressed at the top of the call. So the humanitarian drops today should take care of the immediate food and water needs of about 8,000 people, is that correct? Do I have that correct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.
Q Okay, so that’s a small subset of the 40,000 estimated who are there. Is it part of the U.S. mission to try to address the needs of all 40,000 and we should assume that these humanitarian missions will be ongoing until all of them have at least got some crack at this food and water? And is there any sense of how long these supplies — even for the 8,000 that are to receive them, theoretically, will last? That’s just one question.
Then there was a reference at the top of the call to a new prime minister in Iraq in the coming days. Can you be any more specific about that? And what dynamic do you think the completion of the Iraqi government will have on the willingness and the efficacy of the Iraqi Security Forces to get back into the fight? Because without a government, clearly, they haven’t been there.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll take a crack at that, and then my colleagues will, I’m sure, want to add to it.
With respect to the estimates, we cannot give a firm number of how people are on Mount Sinjar. There have been estimates in the thousands, and then there have been estimates that go into the tens of thousands — 40,000 would certainly be I think at the very far end and higher than I think the assessed population on the mountain. But needless to say, however, we’re going to continue providing airdrops as we see a need. And I would expect that need to continue. So this 8,000 is an immediate source of relief in terms of food and water, but we’ll continue to have the capability to provide additional drops.
I’d add that the Iraqi government and the Peshmerga have also sought to provide humanitarian assistance, and other countries have offered to, as well. So it may be that we’re able to draw on additional resources beyond just U.S. resources.
And as a general matter, we’re working to facilitate Iraqi support for the population on the mountain, and an important part of that is breaking the siege as well.
I’d just say on your second question, we’ve always believed that forming an inclusive government would provide a stronger foundation for Iraqis to then turn their attention to the threat of ISIL. They’re already dealing with it, of course. Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga are engaged in hostilities with ISIL. But we believe that part of the context for Iraq’s challenges has been a sense of division within Iraq’s different communities — between Iraq’s different communities. And an inclusive government I think would give confidence to Iraqis that there is a national authority in Baghdad that can represent all of Iraq’s communities. That is Sunni, Shia and Kurds, but that is also Iraqi minorities.
And that provides a strong basis and a foundation for Iraqi Security Forces to take the fight to ISIL. And the United States is already providing support. But I think with a new and inclusive government, we’ll be better able to marshal not just U.S. support, but support from some of the countries in the region that have wanted to see that formation of an inclusive government, so that Iraqi Security Forces are getting additional resources.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just say, look, we have a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq, and we’re acting pursuant to that Strategic Framework Agreement and their specific request for assistance. And if you really go back and look at the assistance we’ve given since the spring, but particularly since the Mosul crisis, it is quite dramatic. There’s been congressional testimony to that effect in which we laid out some specifics.
So it’s certainly not the case as is some of the context of the question that we’re kind of waiting. That’s not the case. We’ve done an extraordinary amount. And one of the reasons that the ISIL advance we think was blunted from what they were trying to do in June is due to that level of support.
In terms of the prime minister question, they’re proceeding along a constitutional timeline. They hope to get this done by I believe Sunday night. I’m not going to speculate on the prime minister. One of the most influential voices in the country is Grand Ayatollah Sistani, particularly with the majority Shia population — and the prime minister will come from the political blocs from the majority Shia population. He has repeatedly called for a prime minister that has broad national consensus, and that’s what they’re trying to select as we speak.
So, again, I won’t get ahead of their process as to who that might be, but we’re encouraging them actively to meet their constitutional timelines and to form a government as soon as possible, because it’s been said it’s not just choosing their leaders, they then have to develop a national program to govern the country. That’s also a constitutional requirement. They’ll have about 30 days to do that. And it is within that context that we can review our support going forward.
And that national program will be designed to be in place for four years. And this is going to be a very long-term effort against ISIL. Nobody believes that this is going to be something that you can turn around overnight. The Iraqis don’t believe that. So it’s going to be very long term. So we’re doing an awful lot now. I think a new government and a new national program will give us an opportunity to review where we are with the Iraqis and to look at other things that we can do. So that is why we’re encouraging them very hard to meet their constitutional deadlines, as they are trying to do, and to get a new government up as soon as possible.
Q A quick question. Given the fact that you guys talked about laying down markers in the various places that the President has now authorized potential strikes, how do you reassure the American public, how do you reassure the President that this won’t metastasize into a broader U.S. involvement that looks much more like a kind of big United States presence — albeit not on the ground but in the air? And then, second, do you have any idea whether the President plans to postpone his trip to Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d just say, first of all, the President has placed limits on the type of action that we’re taking. First of all, these are focused on the two objectives he articulated tonight — protection of our personnel and facilities and addressing the humanitarian crisis faced by the Yazidis — even as the protection of our personnel and facilities involves ensuring that ISIL is not, for instance, making advances that threaten Erbil.
At the same time, he has also made clear that we’re not going to introduce combat troops to be engaged on the ground in Iraq, that what he has authorized are airstrikes, and the additional support we’ve already provided is in the form of advisors who are not engaged in combat but are rather assessing the Iraqi Security Forces, making determinations about how we can further train and equip them as they go after ISIL.
So those are fairly clear limits in terms of not introducing ground forces into combat in Iraq, and carrying out a set off narrow objectives that are clearly in the U.S. national interest.
It is a core interest of the United States to protect our personnel and facilities, and also to prevent what would be an act of genocide, where you have ISIL threatening an entire population of people with elimination and acting on those threats. And, as the President said, we have a capability in this instance to take action, to provide humanitarian airdrops and to help break that siege. We have a mandate in terms of requests from the Iraqi government, and so those circumstances converged to compel him to take action on this humanitarian instance.
We have not taken action to address every humanitarian challenge that is faced across the region with our military. So in Syria, for instance, we’ve provided a significant amount of humanitarian aid but we have not seen a viable military option that is as clear and distinct as what we’re doing to assist the Yazidis today and going forward in the days ahead. So all that is to say that I think the American people understand the need to protect our personnel and facilities, and they understand the need and responsibility that the United States has to prevent this scale of massacre when we have the capabilities to do so.
At the same time, we’ve always made clear that, ultimately, Iraq’s future is up to Iraqis. They’ll have our support — their security forces will have our support, but they need to be in the lead to take the fight to terrorists. And this is consistent, by the way, with the approach the President had laid out at West Point — that we’re working to build capacity among our partners, but if we need to act to fill gaps, we will do so when our core interests are implicated. And that is certainly the case here in Iraq.
With respect to his plans, I don’t have any updates on his schedule. I will just note for people in case it’s of interest, as I said, he had several check-ins with his national security team today. He began early this morning with an update from Susan Rice. Then, before he left for his announcement regarding the VA, he met with his national security team in the Situation Room. Then when he returned, he met in the afternoon with his national security team in the Situation Room.
We were able, for instance, in that meeting to be joined by Secretary Kerry from Afghanistan and Secretary Hagel from his travels, as well as a number of other Cabinet-level officials in the White House and National Security Council staff. I’d expect that if he — or as he is traveling in the coming days, wherever he is, he will have the capacity to work closely with his national security team, given the fact that he is President wherever he goes.
I think we can wrap there. I want to see if any other of my colleagues have any concluding thoughts before we wrap up the call. Anything else you want to add?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I’m good.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You good?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m good, thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, well, thanks, everybody. I know it’s late. And I’d add that we were very mindful — our first principle here is the operational security of people who are carrying out operations, which is why we did not comment on this operation until the humanitarian airdrop was concluded.
We will endeavor to keep you informed about our actions in Iraq in the hours and days ahead, and look forward to being in touch. So have a good night, everybody.
10:55 P.M. EDT