Massacre warnings signal now is the time to attack ISIL

President Barack Obama acknowledges that degrading and destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may require attacking them in either Iraq or Syria.

"I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," Obama said in a Sept. 10 address to the nation.

ISIS fighters on parade
ISIS fighters on parade

If there was ever a moment to attack ISIL in Syria, now is the time. Islamic State forces are gathering to attack Kobani. The slaughter of Syrian Kurds and moderate Sunni opposition is underway.

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Last night, I received the following report from a Kurdish Observatory in Kobani:

"According to confirmed news from Kurdish forces in Kobani, since yesterday 15 September ISIS is attacking Kobani Canton on multi- frontline with very heavy weapons, 12 tanks and 3000 fighters. These brutal attacks are still facilitated and supported by Turkey which facilitates [the transit of] ISIS on Silpkiran village on Turkish- Kobani border. We fear that this attack will be a genocide. It is vital to stop them before they arrive! What's the best way to prevent a possible massacre? Can the United States help us?"

I woke up this morning to a message of deeper distress:

"ISIS has already attacked Kobani with 50 tanks from 3 directions, and they have already fired 3 rockets to Kobani centre. They are swearing a fatwa to slaughter everyone they capture! Even 70 years old men are trying to defend themselves, but I doubt they can resist much against ISIS weapons. I am so worried about a massacre!! It would be even more tragic if ISIS complete such a massacre despite U.S. presence in the region! This would make them empowered and feel they can defeat everyone despite international intervention. I hope the U.S. can stop them..."

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Reports in several Turkish and Iraqi media sources confirm that so far, 21 Kurdish villages have been overrun. There is a clear and present danger to Kobani canton, and civilians in surrounding villages. Now is the time for action. Now is also the time for straight talk.

However, the Obama administration is sending mixed messages. Some U.S. officials refer to the "war" on ISIL. Obama, himself, is reluctant to use the term.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin E. Dempsey discussed U.S. Special Forces in recent congressional testimony. Obama came out the next day to reiterate his opposition to boots on the ground.

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Some U.S. officials talk about "counter-insurgency," while Obama calls it a "counter-terrorism" campaign.

Launching airstrikes to prevent a massacre in Kobani would show support to innocent civilians under siege by ISIL. It would also send a message of resolve to coalition partners who are meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN Security Council to finalize their commitments.

It is time to act in defense of defenseless victims. No more deliberating and pontificating. The Obama administration will be judged what it does — not what Obama says.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama.