The untold toll of Obama's war on ISIS

With the U.S. overseeing a third scorched-earth offensive on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Ashley Smith considers what an American military victory over ISIS might lead to.

A Syrian woman mourns victims of air strikes in Idlib

THE U.S. government and its rivals Russia and Iran, along with their respective proxies, are united in carrying out a major offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In Iraq, the U.S. is providing air cover for the Iraqi government's Counter Terrorism Service and Shia militias that have laid siege to ISIS in Fallujah--having already demolished 70 percent of the buildings in Ramadi, the last city conquered from ISIS. Washington's forces are operating in de facto collaboration with Iran, which has sent the commander of its elite Quds Force, spymaster Qassem Soleimani, to oversee the battle on the ground.

In Syria, the U.S. is providing air cover for the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces to lay siege to ISIS's capital in Raqqa. At the same time, Russia has launched its own air assault on the city in support of Assad's Syrian Army and its sectarian militias.

Meanwhile, with no protest from the U.S., Russia, Iran and the Lebanese organization Hezbollah continue their counter-revolutionary war on Aleppo and other cities, the last redoubts of the Syrian Revolution against the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

This offensive is poised to militarily defeat ISIS in the coming months. But the consequences of victory will be devastating. It will deepen the humanitarian crisis, increase the number of refugees and internally displaced people in Syria and Iraq, intensify the religious and ethnic divisions in each country, exacerbate regional conflicts, and drive ISIS and al-Qaeda to seek revenge through more terrorist attacks in the region, Europe and the U.S.

The de facto alliance of bitter rivals at the regional and imperial levels exposes the hypocrisy of the rhetoric about peace and justice used to justify the war on ISIS. The U.S. empire is willing to use violence and terror--and tolerate it from rivals and allies alike--to achieve an acceptable outcome in the Middle East.

Once again, the U.S. is about to make the nightmare of violence and repression in the Middle East worse--but the U.S. media are almost entirely silent about the war crimes already in the making.

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ISIS CAPTURED the attention of the world when it conquered huge swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014. In announcing the formation of a new Sunni fundamentalist caliphate in its territory, it promised to overthrow the entire state system of the Middle East established by the imperialist powers after the First World War.

In power, ISIS forces have committed countless atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities, subjected women from those populations to sexual slavery, imposed their extreme version of Sharia law and repressed any resistance to their rule, not least among Sunnis in whose name they claim to rule. For example, in the Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS, by its own count, executed 2,070 people since it took over the city in June 2014.

This counter-revolutionary state is the bastard child of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a formation of Sunni jihadists that developed after the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country in 2003. AQI was a reactionary force in the Sunni opposition to the U.S. It not only opposed the U.S. military, but condemned all Shia Muslims as apostates, conducted terrorist attacks on them, and blew up their religious sites.

The U.S. exploited AQI's emergence to divide and conquer the Iraqi resistance. It rallied Shia fundamentalist parties to turn against not only AQI but the entire Sunni resistance. This detonated a civil war that nearly destroyed the country in 2006 and 2007.

The American overlords backed the Shia-dominated state and its sectarian militias in a rout of Sunni forces. The U.S. then flipped the Sunni tribal elite through the so-called Sunni Awakening, putting their forces on the CIA payroll. U.S. officials promised to force the Shia parties to agree to reconciliation and incorporate the Sunni elite into the Iraqi state and give it access to oil profits, in return for Sunni forces turning on AQI.

But with the backing of Iran, the Shia fundamentalist government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to hold up its end of the bargain. It instead launched a witch hunt against Sunni leaders, claiming they were all Baathist cronies of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. After Obama withdrew of U.S. forces in 2011, Maliki's sectarianism intensified--he denied Sunni cities funds for reconstruction, arrested their leaders, and repressed any and all dissent against his rule.

Fed up, Iraq's Sunnis rose up in a wave of mass protests in 2012 that became known as the Iraqi Spring, after the Arab Spring rebellions across the region. Maliki brutally repressed the uprising, arresting, jailing and torturing Sunnis who participated.

The remnants of AQI and Saddam's Baath Party morphed into ISIS amid this repression. With no progressive alternative to advance their interests, the Sunni masses, in despair, viewed ISIS as a lesser evil, despite its reactionary program, compared to Maliki's brutal sectarianism and their own venal elite.

After building up its forces, ISIS launched its blitzkrieg offensive in western and northern Iraq in 2014, seizing Fallujah, Ramadi and finally Mosul, the country's second largest city after Baghdad. ISIS routed the predominantly Shia Iraqi Army, whose soldiers were unwilling to risk their lives in defense of a corrupt regime. Flush with funds and American arms seized after the Iraqi Army fled, ISIS then conquered further parts of Syria, established its headquarters in Raqqa and proclaimed the caliphate.

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IN SYRIA, ISIS exploited the catastrophe caused by Bashar al-Assad's counter-revolutionary war against the Syrian rising for democracy and equality. The dictatorship has killed nearly half a million people, displaced 11 million people out of a pre-war population of 22 million, driven 5 million out of the country, most to surrounding regions, but over a million into Europe.

At the same time, Assad postured as the protector of the country's religious and ethnic minorities against foreign Sunni jihadists. His regime granted Kurds citizenship previously denied to them and ceded de facto autonomy in the northern region, called Rojava, where they predominate. With this, Assad hoped to prevent Kurdish forces from joining with the Arab revolt against his dictatorship.

He also opened up a fifth column within the revolution by releasing hundreds of Sunni terrorists from his jails, knowing that they would participate in the conflict militarized by the regime's barbarism as opponents of both the government and other currents opposed to it.

The freed Sunnis went on to form the backbone of jihadist formations like al Qaeda's Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front. Assad's regional opponents--Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey--supplied funds and arms to the Sunni sectarian formations.

ISIS split from the Nusra Front after its victory in Iraq and seized control over a whole section of the country. Unlike the Nusra Front, however, ISIS didn't fight the regime but struck a de facto non-aggression pact with it. Instead, ISIS focused on defeating other revolutionary forces and subordinating the territory it had liberated to the caliphate. It now possesses an estimated 25,000 fighters, evenly divided between Iraq and Syria.

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SINCE 2014, the U.S. government's primary objective has been to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Mainly, the U.S. has carried out an unending bombing campaign against ISIS. Along with Britain and France, it has conducted 13,000 air strikes over the last year, at a cost of over $6.5 billion to the U.S. alone. The air strikes have laid waste to cities in predominantly Sunni areas of both countries.

The U.S., of course, claims that these have been surgical strikes on ISIS alone. It estimates that U.S. attacks have killed only 41 civilians in Iraq. But journalist Anand Gopal estimates that the actual number is at least 50 times higher.

As for the ground war against ISIS, the U.S. has cultivated different proxy forces in each country.

In Iraq, the U.S. has deployed close to 5,000 troops to rebuild and advise the Iraqi Army. While it has basically failed in the project, it successfully built a branch of the Iraqi Special Forces, the Counter Terrorism Service, that can field 5,000 combat-ready soldiers. The U.S. and the Iraqi state have deployed it throughout the country against ISIS.

The U.S. has also relied on the Kurdish Regional Government's Peshmerga militia in the north. However reluctantly, the U.S. has also depended on Shia militias organized in the Popular Mobilization Forces. These militias are just as sectarian and brutal as ISIS itself. They have detained, tortured and murdered untold numbers of Sunni civilians. The U.S. has even designated its commander, Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a terrorist.

At the same time, the U.S. hopes to win over Sunni leaders and their forces to join in the war on ISIS. So Obama has again pressured the Shia fundamentalist state to integrate some Sunni leaders into the government.

While the U.S. successfully forced Prime Minister Maliki from power, his replacement Hader al-Abadi has been unable to push through a proposal to form a technocratic government to reform the state's sectarian practices and rampant corruption.

Indeed, Abadi's government stands on the brink of collapse. The drop in oil prices has deprived it of revenue. The masses hold it in contempt because it merely funnels money to the corrupt Shia and Kurdish elite. And it has not even protected its Shia base from ISIS, which has launched a series of suicide bombings in Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad that have killed over 200 people.

Amid this mounting crisis, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr staged several mass protests inside the so-called Green Zone--the massive walled enclave that protects the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government from its people. The Sadrists demanded that parliament approve Abadi's proposal to appoint a new technocratic government. The corrupt Shia parties as well as the Kurdish ones used fear for their safety as an alibi to boycott parliament, effectively stopping reform and paralyzing the government.

Iraq's other main governmental formation, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), is also suffering through a crisis of its own. Previously hailed as a symbol of a new Iraq, the KRG's economy has been wrecked by the drop in oil prices. And that has exposed the corruption of its ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which have enriched themselves at the expense of the Kurdish majority.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is providing air cover, Special Forces and military advisers for the Iraqi Government's Counter Terrorism Service and Popular Mobilization Forces and the KRG's Peshmerga in their assault on ISIS. Abadi's government and the KRG have been eager to do so to galvanize support for their teetering rule and deflect attention from their corruption.

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OVER THE last several months, the U.S. and its proxies have made enormous gains, driving ISIS out of Ramadi, Tikrit, Sinjar, Samarra and Baiji. Having now lost 50 percent of their territory in Iraq, ISIS has retreated to their strongholds in Fallujah and Mosul.

The American and Iraqi forces have imposed an enormous price for these victories on Sunni civilians. For example, in the recapture of Ramadi, U.S. air strikes destroyed over 70 percent of the city's buildings. They displaced over 250,000 mainly Sunnis, only a few hundred of which have been able to return. The International Organization for Migration reports that the battle with ISIS overall has displaced more than 3 million people.

In many of the conquered cities, Shia militias have imposed their brutal and sectarian rule. They routinely arrest, detain, and torture all Sunni men on suspicion that they are ISIS terrorists.

After these "successes," the U.S. had wanted to attack Mosul next because it's the base of ISIS's economic and political power. But on May 23, Abadi announced that Iraq would reconquer Fallujah first. He hopes to use this battle to restore popular faith that his government could protect Shia supporters. He argued that he could put an end to the suicide bombings in Baghdad, which is only 35 miles from Fallujah, by defeating ISIS there.

This new war on Fallujah will be the third time the U.S. has bombed the city, which was once populated by 300,000 people, most of them Sunni Arabs. During 2004, U.S. forces committed some of their worst atrocities against the Sunni resistance to the invasion of Iraq. Much of the city was destroyed--the remnants were patrolled by mercenaries and U.S. soldiers who committed sundry atrocities. In its second assault, the U.S. dropped the chemical weapon white phosphorous on civilians.

Unlike elsewhere in Iraq, ISIS has decided to stand and fight in Fallujah. It has 1,000 fighters and is holding the city of some 50,000 people hostage as human shields. The U.S. is providing air cover and advisers for the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and a Sunni police force recruited by the area's tribal elite.

The Iraqi state and its religious parties have also sent in their Popular Mobilization Force. To oversee these Shia militias, Iran sent the leader of its Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. Iran and its Shia fundamentalist allies have whipped up sectarian bigotry against the city's Sunni population.

Aws al-Khafajii, leader of the Abu Fadhil al-Abbas militia, declared, "Fallujah is a terrorism stronghold. It's been a stronghold since 2004 until today. There are no patriots, no real religious people in Fallujah. It's our chance to clear Iraq by eradicating the cancer of Fallujah." As a result, many fear the conquest could turn into a sectarian bloodbath.

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THE COMBINED forces, which number in the tens of thousands, have laid siege to the city and are on the verge of causing a humanitarian catastrophe. United Nations official Lise Grande warns that all "50,000 Iraqis are at grave risk. There is widespread food deprivation. Medicines haven't made it into Fallujah for months. We know that people no longer have access to clean drinking water and they're forced to drink out of the irrigation canals. We're worried that there might be a cholera outbreak because of this."

The few civilians who have managed to escape from ISIS have faced brutal treatment at the hands of the Shia militias. One woman, Bushra Ahmad, told The Guardian, "When we came out of the ditch they started beating the men; they handcuffed my husband, started dragging him around. I fell on their feet, begging them, then an officer came and stopped the beating. In the morning the army brought us to the camp, but my husband and his 80-year-old father and my eldest son are still detained."

It is unclear how long the siege will go on before ISIS capitulates and Fallujah falls. Already, ISIS has lost dozens of fighters--on the coalition side, 130 soldiers are dead and over 1,000 are injured. The longer it goes on, the greater the civilian disaster will be.

Regardless, if Ramadi is any precedent, the U.S.'s and Iran's proxies will lay waste to the city, displace tens of thousands of people, and no doubt kills scores of civilians.

Even in the best-case scenario, if the Sunni tribal leadership and its police establish control of the city, given their exclusion from the sectarian Shia state, they will lack resources to meet the needs of the victims of the assault, let alone reconstruct the city. They will preside over a wasteland.

After conquering Fallujah, the U.S. will redirect its proxy forces at ISIS's last stronghold of Mosul, a city that is home to 600,000 people, mostly Sunni. ISIS possesses a formidable force of 12,000 fighters in the city. To defeat them, the U.S. is already providing air cover for Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers who are already retaking the area around the city.

Once Fallujah falls, the U.S. will no doubt encourage the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service to join the fray. The Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces would likely participate in the final siege and conquest of the city. When that comes, the assault on Mosul will add ethnic conflict between Kurds and Arabs to the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia.

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OBAMA WILL likely win a military victory over ISIS. But in the process, the U.S. and its allies will kill and displace untold numbers of Sunnis. That will in turn create the conditions for ISIS or some similar formation to recruit members for sectarian counter-attacks on Shia and Kurds.

While the U.S. directs the rout of ISIS in Iraq, it is carrying out a simultaneous offensive against ISIS's capital of Raqqa in Syria. The U.S. is providing air cover and 250 Special Forces to oversee 30,000 soldiers in the Syrian Defense Forces, which are mostly comprised of Kurds, with a symbolic presence of Syrian Arabs.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) provides most of the Kurdish troops through its People's Protection Units (YPG). The PYD is the sister organization of the Kurdish Worker's Party's (PKK) in Turkey. When Assad ceded autonomy to the northern areas of Syria to the Kurds, the PYD led the effort to establish an autonomous zone in Rojava.

While they have achieved some important gains for the oppressed Kurds, the PYD is a Stalinist party with a top-down military structure, and has proved unwilling to function in a democratic manner. It has repressed Kurdish dissidents who disagree with it, and in its attempt to carve out a Kurdish region in the north of Syria, it undemocratically imposed its rule over Arab areas and towns.

Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad's regime have also launched an assault on Raqqa in de facto collaboration with American and Kurdish forces. The Russian air force is providing air cover for the Syrian Army, which is mostly comprised of Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, in an assault from the south on Raqqa. The Russians went so far as to offer open collaboration with the U.S. in the reconquest of the city.

While the U.S. formally rejected the proposal, Rami Abdel of the Observatory of Human Rights told Agence France Presse: "It seems there has been an undeclared coordination between Washington and Moscow." Russia and Assad clearly hope to use the defeat of ISIS to guarantee the continued rule of the regime over the ruins of Syria.

ISIS has responded by unleashing its forces against the Free Syrian Army across northern Syria in a desperate attempt to open another front and salvage their increasingly grim military situation. ISIS and its jihadist competitor, the Nusra Front, are gradually supplanting the remaining revolutionary forces, which Russia has bombed to smithereens. As a result, Assad has achieved the military standoff between his regime and jihadists that he has always wanted.

To defeat ISIS in Raqqa, the combined forces of the U.S., the YPG, Russia and Assad's army will have to destroy the city. They will kill civilians, driving the majority of the surviving population out of their ruined homes. Many will flee the country, leading to another mass wave of refugees from a country that has experienced the greatest exodus of the 21st century.

No doubt the U.S. and its de facto allies will call this liberation. But in truth, it will be a humanitarian catastrophe and a triumph for counterrevolution in Syria.

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THE CONQUEST of Raqqa will intensify ethnic and sectarian divisions. The Americans and Russian are using Kurdish and Alawite forces, which will stoke fears among Sunnis that they will be subject to second-class citizenship. That combined with all catastrophic suffering they have endured will drive a minority into the hands of ISIS or the Nusra Front--which will inevitably lead to more terrorist attacks on Kurds, Alawites, Christians and other minority populations.

The likely defeat of ISIS in Syria will also intensify regional conflicts. Already, Turkey is furious about the Obama administration's support of the Kurdish PYD and YPG. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose government is fully committed to the government's historical repression of the large Kurdish minority in Turkey, has condemned American Special Forces advising the Kurdish forces for wearing the insignia of the Syrian Defense Forces.

Erdoğan fears that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria controlled by the PYD will be used as a base for the PKK's insurrection in Turkey. He is already bombing PKK forces along Turkey's Syrian and Iraqi borders--the death toll from these is more than 1,000 PKK fighters in the last three months. Turkey could launch a major military campaign to prevent the PYD from establishing a Kurdish state.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah will count the survival of Assad's regime as a victory. That will provoke their regional competitors--Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, above all--which have been backing various Islamist forces in the Syrian civil war. Conflicts between proxy forces for these powers could spill over into direct confrontation.

Finally, the victory of imperial and regional powers against ISIS will stoke more terrorism internationally. Having had their dreams of a new state crushed, the remnants of ISIS, al-Qaeda or some similar outfit will turn to terrorist attacks--most of all in the Middle East, but with Russia, the European Union and the U.S. coming into the crosshairs. That will lead the imperial powers to double down on the so-called "war on terror."

The only hope amid this catastrophe is for the region's embattled left to assemble its forces and begin building secular working class parties to provide an alternative to the authoritarian regimes, their imperial backers, and their reactionary Islamic fundamentalist opponents.

Internationally, the left must build solidarity with that left alternative. It must also expose the real aims of the U.S.--as well as its international rivals like Russia--which have nothing to do with providing peace and stability.

None of the existing powers offer any way forward for the struggling masses in the Middle East. Concretely and most urgently, the left, antiwar forces and humanitarian groups must demand that the U.S. and EU open their borders to the millions of refugees, provide them safe passage, and fund services for them to build a new life.