Months into waging a new war in Syria and an expanded one in Iraq, the U.S. military is on the public relations defensive following a series of blows to its stated strategy to defeat ISIS.
Jabhat al Nusra, which is allied with al Qaeda, over the weekend took the town and surrounding areas of Deir Sunbul, in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which the United States considers a "moderate" ally key to its plan to build a proxy force to fight ISIS. SRF leader Jamal Marouf was forced to flee, and some of his fellow fighters even turned on him. McClatchy reports that the offensive was bolstered with support from ISIS, which could point to a broad coalition.
"What we're seeing right now in Iraq and Syria as a result of increasing military action is not a move to end the conflict but really an escalation of violence resulting in more deaths and injuries. There is no coherent strategy for supporting an end to violence." —Mike Merryman-Lotze, AFSC
Speaking to reporters on the Tuesday following this development, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby declared, "I don’t believe that we view current events as a major setback to the goals that we’ve set with respect to training and equipping the moderate [Syrian] opposition."
"Obviously, these kinds of developments are certainly not helpful to the security situation writ large, but we don’t view it as a major setback or a major blow to our ultimate objectives," he continued.
However, the Pentagon offered no evidence supporting these claims, and basic information about the U.S.-led offensive—including civilian and combatant deaths—remains largely concealed from the public.
Meanwhile, anger and opposition to the U.S. war strategy is reportedly mounting in the northern Syria areas held by opponents to President Bashar al-Assad. “We thought the Americans were going to help us," said an SRF spokesman, quoted by the Guardian. "But not only have they abandoned us, they have been helping the tyrant Bashar instead."
Also over the weekend, news emerged of a large-scale ISIS massacre of members of the Albu Nimr tribe in Iraq's western Anbar province. “The number of people killed by Islamic State from Albu Nimr tribe is 322. The bodies of 50 women and children have also been discovered dumped in a well,” Iraq's Human Rights Ministry said on Sunday.
Ordinary people in Iraq face violence from all sides. According to a report released in October by Amnesty International, Shi'a militias in that country, many of them armed by the United States, are committing war crimes against Iraqi civilians.
A recent United Nations report obtained by the Guardian finds that ISIS is recruiting fighters and allies at an "unprecedented scale," with at least 15,000 people from at least 80 countries traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside them. This includes countries that "have not previously faced challenges relating to [al Qaeda]," the report states.
Critics charge that the numerous setbacks stem from a flawed and contradictory U.S. strategy.
"John Kerry boasts of having put together a coalition of sixty countries all pledged to oppose [ISIS], but from the beginning it was clear that many important members weren’t too concerned about the Isis threat," wrote independent journalist Patrick Cockburn in an article published last week. "When the bombing of Syria began in September, Obama announced with pride that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey were all joining the US as military partners against Isis. But, as the Americans knew, these were all Sunni states which had played a central role in fostering the jihadis in Syria and Iraq.
"The response by the U.S. over the last decade or more in the Middle East has been one of military action, and from that we haven't seen a stabilization of the region or an end to conflicts but rather an expansion of conflict," Mike Merryman-Lotze, interim Middle East Regional Director for American Friends Service Committee told Common Dreams. "What we're seeing right now in Iraq and Syria as a result of increasing military action is not a move to end the conflict but really an escalation of violence resulting in more deaths and injuries. There is no coherent strategy for supporting an end to violence."