When Iraq was invaded in 2003, there was not much resistance in Fallujah, the Iraqi city in the province of Anbar, located around 65 kilometers west of Baghdad. Although the residents of the city were mostly Sunni, the mayor of Fallujah, Taha Bidaywi Hamed, who was selected by local Sunni tribes, was not against the U.S. forces, according to reports. There were few protests, and many people in Fallujah hoped that their relatively calm city would stay out of the chaos.
Their hopes were destroyed in April 2003 when U.S. soldiers fired upon a small crowd that had gathered to protest the military presence of the U.S. army inside a local school in their city. Seventeen protesters were killed, and more than 70 were wounded. U.S. forces alleged that they were fired at first, but human right groups firmly stated that they didn't find evidence that supported claims that the U.S. soldiers came under attack. This was the first incident starting the chain of events, including a siege and two assaults by U.S. forces, which would eventually cause widespread destruction and a huge humanitarian crisis in Fallujah.
It was the resentments and fear of the Sunni population in Fallujah, or more broadly in Anbar, that helped the al-Qaida insurgency start. Sunni Arabs who were removed from the Iraqi army, the Baath Party from their jobs and their old lives found a place in Anbar where in return they swore to protect the people from Shiite militias that sought revenge and the U.S. soldiers that came to take their country. That was how the Sunni Arabs of Iraq were driven into the arms of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). In 2006, AQI mostly occupied Anbar province.
It took time, but the U.S. realized it needed to adopt a new approach to stop alienating Sunnis and bring them back to be a part of Iraq. That small move was actually the biggest step, which would severely reduce the AQI presence in the west of Iraq. The Sunni tribes that dubbed their movement the "Sunni awakening" in exchange for promises of the presence in Iraqi political life joined their forces with the U.S. troops and regained control of Fallujah and Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, where much of the stronghold of AQI was.
However, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki started to marginalize the Sunnis and deliberately pushed them away from political life when the last U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011. Adopting overtly sectarian policies, he prosecuted Sunni Arab politicians, put thousands of Sunnis in jail once again and ordered the killing of hundreds of local forces. When he looked at the Sunnis, all he saw was al-Qaida, the Baathists, the coup plots. It was surprising that Washington didn't stop him until it was too late, even though they knew what was happening and what was coming next. When Maliki was no longer backed by Washington, AQI was already gaining strength in Syria thanks to the bloody violence of the Bashar Assad regime and began referring to itself as the Islamic State, reconstituting itself in Iraq, seizing many cities, including Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. DAESH was born from the ashes of AQI with the help of Baghdad and Damascus regimes' sectarian policies and Washington's ignorance.
The U.S.-led anti-DAESH coalition wants to retake territories controlled by DAESH in Iraq and Syria since the fall of Mosul. Based on the experiences of the past and the reality on the ground, it cannot succeed without the broad support of the Sunni Arab community in Syria and Iraq, which can only be received by promising political reforms that ensure the role of Sunnis in political life, as well as for other ethnic groups other than Shiites. Instead, Washington has chosen to push the region into a more toxic sectarian environment by alienating all Sunni groups that have fought against the Assad regime in Syria or stood up to the Iraqi government's never-ending sectarian policies. Labeling all Sunni fighters as extremist groups, accusing Sunni political groups of supporting terrorists is not helping the fight against DAESH. In a region where trust has been completely lost, looking for "secular" fighters but giving air support to Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq or cooperating with the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian offshoot of the listed PKK terrorist organization, definitely will not work.
I can predict how the Sunnis of Iraq reacted when Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force, was spotted in Fallujah. The same question stands for Syrian Sunnis when they see U.S. troops photographed wearing the emblem of the YPG on their uniforms. What I don't understand is how Washington cannot predict the consequences of those choices unless they are on purpose.