WASHINGTON — On Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama's national security advisers gathered on a video conference to discuss options for rescuing tens of thousands of Yazidis starving and besieged by Sunni militants in northern Iraq. But a report from Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the U.S. Central Command, on the findings of the small team of Marines and special operations forces that had just spent 24 hours on Mount Sinjar, upended the meeting.
The team had found there were not tens of thousands of Yazidis on the mountain anymore, only between 4,000 and 5,000. They were no longer starving — many pallets of food and water dropped by the U.S. planes remained unopened. And they were no longer stranded — Kurdish peshmerga fighters had spent the past five nights escorting thousands of refugees to safety.
The news took the far-flung advisers who were on the video conference — including Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Hawaii; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on a plane somewhere over the Rockies; the national security adviser, Susan Rice, who was with the president in Martha's Vineyard — by surprise. Just hours before, the White House had sent out a top aide with a statement saying that the United States was considering using U.S. ground troops to rescue the Yazidis.
But no one, least of all the president who defined his first campaign by his opposition to the war in Iraq, wanted to send U.S. ground troops to the country that the United States left in 2011. Hearing that a rescue most likely wouldn't be needed "was a huge relief," a senior administration official told the New York Times.
Last week, Obama said that relieving the humanitarian crisis caused by the entrapment of the Yazidis was one of the reasons he was ordering U.S. planes to begin a bombing campaign in Iraq. On Thursday, he said that goal had been achieved, although some Yazidi leaders disputed this saying the situation remained dire.
Speaking to reporters at a school in Massachusetts, Obama declared the siege of Mount Sinjar over, crediting the airstrikes, along with American drops of food aided by the British, and the assistance of Kurdish forces.
Obama said airstrikes in Iraq would continue, to protect Americans and assist Iraqis threatened by Sunni militants.