Once the Capital of a Proud Jewish Queen, Erbil Could Emerge as Obama’s Stalingrad

With guns blazing, more Americans could resort to the binary ‘with us or against us’ test by which Israel is surely with the U.S. and Hamas is definitely with its enemies.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand guard during air strikes targeting Islamic State militants near the Khazer checkpoint outside of Erbil. August 8, 2014.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand guard during air strikes targeting Islamic State militants near the Khazer checkpoint outside of Erbil. August 8, 2014.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Bar-hoppers on Monobaz Street and Israel Radio workers in the adjacent Heleni Hamalka Road near the Russian Compound in central Jerusalem might be surprised to learn that they are indirectly linked to the new American military campaign in Iraq. Heleni the Queen, as she is known in Hebrew, along with her husband Monobaz I and two sons, Izates and Monobaz II, ruled the ancient kingdom of Adiabene in Assyria and converted to Judaism in 30 AD: They financed parts of the Second Temple, built palaces in the City of David, helped fend off Roman onslaughts on Judea and are buried in the Kings Tombs near today’s American Colony Hotel.

And their center of government was in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the city that is now under threat by Islamic State forces, which could emerge – in a wild exaggeration of course – as Barack Obama’s Stalingrad.

This was the upshot, at least, of the U.S. president’s Saturday morning address on the White House lawn, moments before he took off for his peculiarly-timed summer vacation. On Sinjar Mountain, Obama made clear that he is now committed to the much more complicated task of extricating them to safety as well. And only 24 hours after U.S. Navy F-18A Hornets dropped their first laser guided bombs on ISIS positions near Erbil “to protect Americans,” as the Pentagon said, Obama promised not to withdraw the American consulate from the city. By inference, and to all intents and purposes, Obama is pledging that Erbil, taken from Jewish Adiabene by the Roman Emperor Caracalla in 196 AD when its name was Arbella, won’t fall again.

Obama’s swift mission creep is a nightmare come true for many of his hardcore supporters in the American left. The president reiterated ironclad promise not to place U.S. combat troops on Iraqi soil, but the campaign is complex , “we won’t solve it in weeks” and is dependent on the almost mission impossible of reconciling Iraq’s warring factions, establishing a broad-based Iraqi government and resuscitating the demoralized Iraqi army. And this is before taking into account the Islamic State's proven track record of ruthless resolve and astounding success on the battlefield.

Obama is not hiding the act that he is a reluctant warrior, after doing everything in his power to release America from the Iraqi quagmire that it entered exactly 24 years ago when George Bush Sr. – after whom the aircraft carrier from which the F-18’s took off is ironically named – vowed to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Conservative pundits are blaming Obama’s hesitancy and inaction for bringing the U.S. to this point, but the fact that he acted only when his back was to the wall may still serve him well with the American public, which mostly shares his Iraq anxieties. The reflexive patriotism of public opinion may actually boost Obama’s slagging approval ratings; on his way up, he might even cross paths with Benjamin Netanyahu whose soaring public support, of which Obama seemed envious in his interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, may now be diving in the wake of the renewed fighting in Gaza.

It seems almost superfluous to note that the American’s on-again involvement in Iraq and its possible political ramifications are now dominating U.S. media and relegating coverage of Gaza to second or third place. Scores of foreign correspondents dispatched to cover Operation Protective Edge are now said to be on a mass exodus to Turkey and Iraq. And just as the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 at the beginning of the operation postponed the international criticism of Israel because of the civilian casualties in Gaza, so the sharp shift in focus to Iraq – and to Ebola, and to Ukraine again – can only dilute the condemnation that seemed to be cresting in the wake of the fledgling cease fire announced last week.

But this change could be even more dramatic the more the U.S. gets entangled in northwestern Iraq. Even if Netanyahu’s current effort to identify Hamas with the Islamic State and Al-Qaida is intellectually wobbly, as many experts contend, the outlook and world view of many Americans is likely to change, especially if American bombers cause civilian casualties, as they are bound to. When the guns are blazing, more Americans will be inclined to adopt the biblical Joshua’s “Are you with us or are you with our adversaries” query, and by that binary measure, Israel is surely with America and Hamas is definitely with its enemies.

Desperate peace seekers might still pray for the revival of the “linkage” principle, also born in the first Gulf war, which seeks Israeli concessions towards the Palestinians as a means of drumming up support for America in the Arab world, especially in times of war. Obama, however, would need a lot of convincing: The change, he told Friedman, must come from within, if at all.

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