U.S. air strikes aren’t protecting anyone

August 11, 2014

U.S. justifications for renewed air strikes in Iraq stink of hypocrisy, writes Alan Maass.

THE U.S. government is dropping bombs again in Iraq on a rebel military force that arose as a direct consequence of Washington's disastrous occupation. The warplane and drone strikes mark a new episode in almost a quarter century of nearly continuous U.S. warfare that has brought nothing but poverty, violence and oppression to the people of Iraq.

Meanwhile, another crisis caused by the occupation is playing out in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is clinging to power against pressure, encouraged by the Obama administration, for a new government. According to press reports, troops and police, apparently responding to orders from Maliki, were moving into Baghdad's central Green Zone as the week began.

The air strikes against convoys and artillery positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began late last week and continued into the weekend. The targets are in northern Iraq, where an ongoing offensive by ISIS fighters is threatening Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurds, the most steadfast of U.S. allies during the decades of war on Iraq--and Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of the Yazidi religious minority have fled, fearing the ISIS advance.

A U.S. warplane on the deck of on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf
A U.S. warplane on the deck of on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf (Ryan O’Connor)

Barack Obama and his administration focused on the plight of the Yazidis in justifying renewed air strikes. In a speech announcing the operation, Obama said the U.S. "cannot turn a blind eye" in "a situation like we have on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale."

Obama had the gall to utter those words after the U.S. government's cherished ally in the Middle East, Israel, had spent a full month terrorizing the innocent people of Gaza with the reality, not the prospect, of "violence on a horrific scale."

The Yazidis are the latest victims of a savage civil war set in motion during the U.S. occupation, with the connivance of American military and political authorities. At the height of the first wave of the civil war, Sunni Muslims suffered the brunt of the violence, at the hands of Shia militias integrated into official Iraqi security forces--giving rise over the coming years to the radical Sunni fundamentalism of ISIS.

For American political leaders to say now that they are concerned with protecting religious and ethnic minorities from violence--violence they encouraged to maintain their rule during the occupation--is the height of hypocrisy. As Middle East studies professor Juan Cole wrote on his Informed Comment blog, "The United States of America has no claim on the language of 'humanitarian aid' to Iraq after what it did to that country."

Pentagon officials said the air strikes last week were followed up by a parallel operation to drop food and water to the besieged Yazidis, who fled when ISIS fighters captured the town of Sinjar and surrounding areas that are home to the Christian minority. ISIS threatened to kill Yazidis who did not convert to Islam or agree to pay extra taxes.

Anyone who took comfort in the belief that at least innocent Yazidis would not die of dehydration or starvation thanks to the U.S. operation should bear in mind the outcome of another humanitarian airdrop, as antiwar writer Phyllis Bennis pointed out: During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, U.S. planes dropped food packages for refugees who had fled into the mountains to escape bombardment--but the yellow wrapping of the packages looked identical to the cluster bombs U.S. planes were also dropping.

Even after reports of Afghan children being torn to pieces by cluster-bomb shrapnel when they tried to retrieve "food" leaked into the pro-war U.S. media, the Pentagon stated that it wouldn't stop using the cluster bombs, nor even change their color.

THE OTHER main justification for the air strikes is that the ISIS advance on Erbil is threatening U.S. citizens--around 250 diplomatic personnel and military "advisers" deployed to collaborate with the Kurdish authorities who rule the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

If it truly feared for their safety, the Pentagon could get this many Americans out of Iraq in a few hours. But their presence in Erbil signifies the importance of the city to U.S. imperialism, and to Washington's desperate hopes in a deteriorating situation.

The ISIS offensive in Iraq began in June when a small force of some 1,200 fighters attacked Mosul, a city in the north with a population of some 2 million. The Iraqi Army had a garrison in Mosul with at least 20 times as many soldiers--trained under U.S. supervision until the American withdrawal at the end of 2011--but the Iraqi troops fled without a fight.

In the weeks since, ISIS took over in one town after another in western Iraq and parts of the north. The Iraqi Army has launched only one large-scale counterattack--in Tikrit last month, where it suffered a humiliating defeat with heavy casualties.

The collapse of Iraqi forces--numbering 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police in all--in the face of ISIS exposed the rot of the new regime under Nuri al-Maliki, who is now widely opposed even among the Shia political parties that dominate the Iraqi government. No one believes an Army commanded by the Maliki can stop ISIS.

U.S. political and military leaders arrived at a two-pronged strategy: Count on the U.S.-trained and -supplied Kurdish militia, known as the peshmerga, to stop the ISIS advance in the most important parts of the north, while pressuring the Shia political establishment to dump Maliki and form a new government that can appeal to Sunnis to renounce the rebellion led by ISIS.

Both prongs showed signs of disintegrating in early August.

In the north, ISIS forces--supplied from the huge cache of military equipment, including armored personnel carriers, helicopters and weapons of all kinds, seized in Mosul when the Iraqi Army fled--drove back the peshmerga, capturing two towns, Gwer and Makhmur, that brought the insurgents within 20 miles of Erbil. Media outlets reported widespread panic at the threat of an ISIS assault.

Obama may have focused on the Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar in his televised speech, but most of the air strikes have taken place more than 100 miles away, outside Erbil--with the aim of helping the peshmerga regain the initiative against ISIS.

Reports on Sunday indicated that Kurdish forces had pushed back ISIS fighters following the air strikes, stopping the immediate threat to Erbil. "With the support of the Air Force of the United States, we are winning now," a Kurdish fighter told the New York Times.

But no one thinks that ISIS--now well supplied and financed, thanks to its takeovers in Mosul and elsewhere--has been defeated, which is why Obama warned that the air strikes in Iraq will likely go on for months.

U.S. OFFICIALS have been saying that they will deliver more military support to the Iraqi government, but only if Maliki is tossed out.

Maliki was installed in power during the post-invasion occupation, but even U.S. officials acknowledge that his repression against Sunnis--including systematic assaults against a largely nonviolent movement of demonstrations and sit-ins in 2013--created the conditions for the uprising led by ISIS. As Ashley Smith wrote at SocialistWorker.org:

Maliki responded to the wave of protests--what some called the Iraqi Spring--with a brutal campaign of repression. He turned to tactics learned from the U.S. occupation--neighborhoods sweeps, mass arrests and torture. Thus, the overwhelming majority of the Sunni population was driven into desperate opposition by the actions of the Maliki government.

U.S. officials are urging Shia political parties, in alliance with Kurdish representatives, to form a "national unity" government, which can appeal to Sunnis that they will be given a share of political and economic power if they turn against ISIS and the armed rebellion. So, according to Juan Cole, another aim of the air strikes was to put:

pressure on President Fouad Massoum to pick a prime minister other than Nuri al-Maliki and form a government asap. Likewise, Washington wants the Kurds to remain within a federal Iraqi framework rather than declaring independence, and seems to be bombing [ISIS] positions for the Kurds in order to extract a promise from Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani that he will stay in Iraq.

But Maliki--reportedly fearful that he would be arrested or assassinated if he gave up being prime minister--isn't going without a fight. Despite pressure from both the U.S. and Iran--a one-time supporter of Maliki and influential with Shia political leaders--Maliki has refused to step aside or endorse another candidate.

Over the weekend, Fouad Massoum, who was elected by the Iraqi parliament to be president in late July, announced he was extending a deadline under the constitution drawn up during the U.S. occupation that requires parliament to agree on a prime minister within 15 days of choosing a president.

The U.S. strategy of winning Sunnis away from ISIS is in trouble regardless of the outcome of this stalemate.

If Maliki hangs on to power, U.S. air strikes, however limited, will be seen as propping up a regime that transformed Iraq's military and police into a sectarian armed force used primarily against Sunnis. But if a new government is formed, the U.S. will be under pressure to escalate military action against an uprising that may be led by ISIS, but which is supported by a majority of Sunnis, driven to desperation in a system that has disenfranchised them, impoverished them and inflicted violence against them.

Either way, as long as the air strikes go on, wider Sunni support for ISIS is likely to persist--and perhaps deepen--even if many question its religious and political views.

THE RENEWED U.S. air strikes in Iraq are one piece of a picture that represents what journalist Patrick Cockburn, writing in the London Review of Books, called "the ultimate disaster" for the U.S. and its schemes for the Middle East.

Though you might not know it from the Western media, ISIS is a new political force in Iraq--even its predecessor formations like al-Qaeda in Iraq didn't exist before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Now, ISIS claims control over about a quarter of Iraq--primarily Sunni-dominated areas in the west near the border with Syria--and parts of the north.

ISIS established a base in eastern Syria during the civil war that ensued after the mass uprising erupted against the dictator Bashar al-Assad in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. Faced with the threat of being toppled like Hosni Mubarak, Assad and his regime sought to divide and rule by focusing their firepower mainly on secular forces, rather than the Islamists, who meanwhile attacked other opponents of the Assad dictatorship as eagerly as the regime itself.

Now, however, ISIS has launched an offensive in Syria, as it has in Iraq--benefiting, once again, from the military equipment seized from Iraqi Army bases. The Syrian government responded with a counter-offensive--which puts it, and its supporters in Iran, in a strange-bedfellows relationship with the U.S. government that claims to be seeking its downfall.

In late June, the leader of ISIS declared a new "Caliphate" that obliterates the borders of the Middle East established during the colonial period--this is why ISIS now claims to simply be the Islamic State. With its recent military conquests, it controls one-third of Syria, along with one-quarter of Iraq--"an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least 6 million people, a population larger than that of Denmark, Finland or Ireland," Cockburn writes.

ISIS won't be nearly as easy to dislodge as some commentators seem to think, according to Cockburn:

The very speed and unexpectedness of its rise make it easy for Western and regional leaders to hope that the fall of ISIS and the implosion of the Caliphate might be equally sudden and swift. But all the evidence is that this is wishful thinking and the trend is in the other direction, with the opponents of ISIS becoming weaker and less capable of resistance: In Iraq, the army shows no signs of recovering from its earlier defeats and has failed to launch a single successful counter-attack; in Syria, the other opposition groups...are demoralized and disintegrating as they are squeezed between ISIS and the Assad government.

U.S. officials who believe the mass of the Sunni population will easily abandon ISIS are clinging to an illusion. After the ethnic cleansing presided over by Shia forces during the height of the Iraqi civil war, and more years of persecution to come after that, ISIS is achieving victories in the name of the Sunni population. Even those who fear ISIS's tyranny fear the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad--led by Maliki or not--as much or more.

As Cockburn wrote in conclusion about the architects of the U.S. war machine:

Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organized than the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably.

The U.S. air strikes open a new chapter in Washington's war on the Iraqi people, but it is not likely to end soon, nor to end well for the U.S.--and it will certainly not bring peace, prosperity or stability for the people of Iraq, wherever they live.

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