While Washington focuses on when the United States might begin bombing Islamic State targets in Syria, another town in Iraq has the U.S. military's attention.
The Islamic State has besieged Amerli, home to at least 13,000 Shiite Turkmen, since June 15. With militants surrounding the town, fears are growing that Amerli could be overrun and its residents slaughtered. In the meantime, inhabitants don't have enough food or water and face "a complete absence of medical services," according to the United Nations, which has implored the international community to intervene.
"The situation of the people in Amerli is desperate and demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens," Nickolay Mladenov, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, said Aug. 23.
The United States has not launched airstrikes or begun humanitarian airdrops there. However, Iraqi warplanes reportedly started bombing the area Tuesday while Iraqi forces, aided by Shiite militias, are preparing to launch a counteroffensive to break the Islamic State's siege.
"We're focused on reviewing options to assess how we can best help alleviate the situation in Amerli," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday. "Our embassy and military personnel at our joint operation centers in Iraq are already working closely with the Iraqi government to share information and discuss ways to provide relief to those in need, and certainly we're having ongoing internal discussions as well."
A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon is monitoring the situation and ready to assist, if needed.
Local fighters have seen U.S. warplanes and drones flying over the besieged town for days but not striking, said Hayder al-Khoei, an expert on Iraq at Chatham House, a policy institute based in London.
"They are expecting a push tonight or tomorrow morning from the Iraqi security forces and Shia militias to break the siege; but they are extremely tired and there has been very limited humanitarian relief," Khoei told Foreign Policy on Thursday after speaking to local fighters on the ground. Iraqi security forces are progressing toward Amerli but the Islamic State still completely surrounds the town, Khoei said.
The Obama administration on Tuesday was "nearing a decision to authorize airstrikes and airdrops of food and water," according to the New York Times, but had yet to act by Thursday afternoon. In contrast, the Obama administration moved quickly earlier this month to save thousands of Iraq's Yazidi community trapped on Mount Sinjar, driven there by the Islamic State.
"There is an opportunity to act and some would say a moral obligation to do so, but what are the criteria for times we act? The number of deaths? How sophisticated the media strategy is by the people on the receiving end?" asked Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Without a clear strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, the pressure for the United States to respond to the day's headlines and images will continue, he said.
"It's time to make choices about what we're going to do. What is important? What is vital? What's intolerable?" Alterman asked.
The U.S. military's current mandate is limited to protecting U.S. personnel and facilities, supporting Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense operations, and assisting humanitarian efforts. It has bombed to protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region; to save the Yazidi community on Mount Sinjar; and to retake the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State.
U.S. airstrikes continued on Thursday in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam, according to U.S. Central Command. From Aug. 8 through Aug. 28, U.S. planes conducted 106 airstrikes across Iraq, two-thirds of which were near the Mosul Dam.
President Barack Obama touted the effect of the American airstrikes on Thursday, saying they had caused the Islamic State to lose arms, equipment, and territory. But he also tamped down expectations for further interventions.
"Where we see an opportunity that allows us with very modest risk to help the humanitarian situation there, as we did in Sinjar Mountain, we will take those opportunities after having consulted with Congress," Obama said during a briefing at the White House. "But our core priority right now is just to make sure that our folks are safe and to do an effective assessment of Iraqi and Kurdish capabilities."
Kadir Ustun, research director at the SETA Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on Turkey and U.S.-Turkey relations, said that the United States and its allies, including the Iraqi government, will have to focus in the immediate term on saving these pockets of vulnerable people and protecting critical assets.
But "a whack-a-mole strategy is not going to solve the problem" that's been created by the rise of the Islamic State, he added.
For now the fate of the residents of Amerli lies in the hands of Iraqi forces -- and the Islamic State.
"Like the Yazidis of Sinjar, the Turkmen of Amerli will be slaughtered if no one comes to their rescue," Khoei said.
ALI AL-BAYATI/AFP/Getty Images