Sentiment in Washington may not reflect that the U.S. is at war, but two war correspondents described the astonishing extent and toll of recent U.S. military strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen on Intercepted, the weekly podcast by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill.
In Iraq, U.S. forces are helping Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers in their months-long battle to drive ISIS out of western Mosul. As many as 600,000 civilians are trapped there, amid widespread hunger and destruction, and more than 1,000 civilians were killed or injured last month in Iraq.
“There are American special forces on the ground but much more important than that is U.S. airpower, without which the Iraqi forces would not be able to get very far,” explained author and journalist Anand Gopal.
“And they’ve been hitting pretty much everything in sight and there’s been an extraordinary number of civilian casualties — just kind of gone through the roof in the last couple of months especially coming into Mosul.”
Gopal explained that the western half of the city, where the fighting is now, is the older part, with densely packed neighborhoods.
The “houses are really close together and so you can have a case where an ISIS sniper is on a house and the Americans are dropping bombs on the house and killing everybody inside including families that are cowering in the basement, people who are being shot on the street in sight. It’s a real humanitarian disaster that’s unfolding as we speak.”
The United States is also building up its own troop strength in Syria. “There the U.S. is allying with Kurdish forces — with the YPG — in the push towards Raqqa, and then if you look at the pattern of where the U.S. is deploying — where its airstrikes are hitting in Syria — what you see is the entire U.S. effort in Syria is to attack the enemies of [President] Bashar al-Assad,” Gopal said.
In Palmyra, for instance, U.S. warplanes in February carried out 45 strikes to help the Syrian government forces — the only forces on the ground — recapture the city from ISIS.
“You know, we tend to think that the U.S. is supporting regime change in Syria but on the ground it’s not the case,” Gopal said. “In fact, the U.S. has been avoiding doing anything to antagonize the Syrian regime and instead has been really focusing its fire on ISIS or on other enemies of the Assad regime.”
To complicate matters further, the United States has been also fueling a Saudi Arabian campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and is now attacking alleged al Qaeda targets there directly. This month, independent war reporter Iona Craig covered a tragically botched Navy SEAL raid in Yemen for The Intercept. Craig interviewed survivors of the raid, which Trump called a success despite the death of one Navy SEAL, at least six women, and 10 children under the age of 13.
Craig said that a spate of airstrikes followed the raid. “In the space of 36 hours [the U.S.] carried as many strikes as they had done in the whole of last year [across] three provinces,” she said. One of the targets was the same village, Ghayil, where the raid had taken place.
Craig said the U.S. strikes killed two more children and three more adults, some of whom she had met while reporting her story. “They saw it as revenge — a revenge for killing a Navy SEAL basically — that the Americans were coming back to destroy their village entirely and to make sure that everybody was gone.”
Both Craig and Gopal said that the U.S. risks getting sucked into domestic and geopolitical dramas in the region in a way that could be disastrous.
Craig said the U.S. is already “being seen as very much taking one side” in Yemen. “That could get even worse if now the Trump administration decides to conflate the Houthis with Iran.”
Gopal said that the United States harbors a “fantasy” of creating a Sunni force to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while reducing reliance on Iranian-backed forces in the region.
“There’s this idea in some quarters that you can raise this almost like a second-awakening and this would be your proxy force. How realistic that is, is another question,” said Gopal, referencing the Iraq war based Iraqi “awakening” councils that fought al Qaeda. “Already it’s a bloodbath in the Middle East and already there [are] hundreds of different forces fighting,” he said. “Any attempt to try to either create Sunni proxy force or push onto Iran would be just an even greater disaster, and there we’re talking world war three level of disaster.”
Craig said the only winner is the defense industry. “Well, it’s good business,” she said. “In the first year of the war [in Yemen], the U.S. sold $20 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia has been buying more and more weapons as a result of this war, and the same goes for the British government as well,” she said. “Really it all boils down to financial gain and that’s the greatest win really for the U.S., but it’s an extremely costly one obviously for the civilian population of Yemen.”