SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 190 July/August 2015

Iraq/Syria: US imperialist strategy in tatters

Millions of people in Iraq and Syria continue to suffer from the devastating aftershocks of the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003. Predictably, the subsequent occupation destabilised the whole region. As SERGE JORDAN explains, it also unleashed sectarian division to an unprecedented degree, giving rise to a multitude of reactionary, violent forces, including ISIS.

A year after the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) captured Mosul and declared its ‘caliphate’, it now controls about half of Syria and a third of Iraq – more territory than ever before. The legacy of imperialism – decades of divide-and-rule, power struggles, corporate plunder, support for brutal dictatorships, flirtations with jihadist forces and bloody military interventions – has left these two countries in ruins, reflected in a rapid descent into sectarian fragmentation.

Existing nation states, creations of colonialism, are being increasingly hollowed out as the map of the Middle East is redrawn in blood. The old imperialist order, established after the collapse of the Ottoman empire a hundred years ago, is being radically reshaped in a sectarian battleground that has engulfed much of the region. The advance of ISIS is symptomatic of this general process. The fight against this group – a common agenda that had supposedly united all nations over the last year – is faltering as the competing powers have failed to come up with any unified strategy.

On 17 May, the city of Ramadi fell into the hands of ISIS. The takeover of Ramadi, capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, represented the biggest military victory for the right-wing Sunni Islamist group since the fall of Mosul. In a replay of the military debacle there, fleeing Iraqi elite units abandoned a vast amount of their US-supplied equipment to ISIS fighters. Over 100,000 people have fled Ramadi. Stranded in the desert, some of the displaced have died of heat and exhaustion. More are predicted to flee as anti-ISIS forces prepare for a bloody showdown to regain the city, raising the likelihood of a drawn-out battle with mass killings and destruction.

Sectarian fault lines are being pushed to new heights. ISIS has used its newly acquired position in Ramadi to threaten an attack on the shrine city of Karbala, seen by Shia Muslims as one of their holiest sites. Many Sunnis displaced from Ramadi have been officially denied entry into Baghdad, because of fears that there could be ISIS infiltrators in their midst. Such overt scapegoating, coupled with a denial of assistance from central government, might ironically cause desperate Sunni refugees to turn to ISIS for succour instead. As violence spreads through Iraq, the International Organisation for Migration has estimated that, since the beginning of 2014, the number of displaced people in the country has reached a record 2.8 million. Terrorist attacks against civilians are intensifying, and hundreds of people are killed in these murderous encounters every month.

Despite the attempts of US officials to downplay the fall of Ramadi, it represents a big blow to western imperialism’s campaign to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ ISIS. American airplanes bombed ISIS positions around Ramadi 165 times over the month preceding its capture. This clearly made little difference. The assumption that the air strikes would at least curtail the momentum of the ISIS, if not defeat it outright, has been shattered.

In contrast to the US army’s upbeat argument that coalition airstrikes had put ISIS on the back foot, this defeat also exposes the futility of the blood spilled by Washington’s warmongers, and the self-defeating results of their policies. During the post-2003 invasion and occupation, the bloodiest battles fought by the US army were to capture Fallujah and Ramadi from Sunni insurgents. Both cities are now in the hands of ISIS, a decidedly more reactionary, murderous group than the ones fought by the US troops at that time.

Since Ramadi’s fall, Iraqi and US rulers have traded accusations over who is to blame for the defeat. Iranian officials made their stand clear, through General Soleimani, who said that the US had so far ‘not done a damn thing’ in the fight against ISIS. This is taking place against the backdrop of an increasing assertiveness of the Iranian regime on the Iraqi battlefield.

Shia militias

Reneging on its previous injunction, the Iraqi government has taken the explosive decision of deploying Shia militias in an attempt to retake Ramadi – a predominantly Sunni city in a predominantly Sunni province. Known as the Popular Mobilisation Units, this umbrella organisation of Shia militias has at its core the Badr Corps, military wing of the Badr Organisation, a Shia party founded as a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the 1980s.

Up to this point, Iraqi prime minister Haydar al-Abadi had ordered these Shia militias to stay out of Anbar province. Yet the latest decision was made necessary because of the ignominious collapse of the corrupt Iraqi army, armed and trained at a cost of $25 billion by Washington, and assisted since last year by thousands of US trainers. Journalist Patrick Cockburn estimates that Shia paramilitary forces in Iraq number between 100,000 and 120,000 men, while the regular army, having suffered heavy losses due to fighting and desertions over the last 18 months, has only between 10,000 and 12,000 combat-ready soldiers. The government had run out of options.

Earlier campaigns launched by Shia militias have been accompanied by sectarian reprisals against the Sunni population, often indiscriminately treated as de facto ISIS supporters. The Shia militias played a leading role in the government’s effort to recapture the northern city of Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, earlier this year. However, after the city’s recapture, Shia militias engaged in widespread looting and mass executions, burning hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of Sunnis to flee. Similar scenes have taken place in Saladin, Diyala, and other places where ISIS fighters have been driven out.

These Shia-perpetrated atrocities on civilians mirror those committed by ISIS, raising the spectre of a new general sectarian bloodbath in Iraq. "Our main concern is that the security forces will accuse us of supporting ISIS because we stayed in the city", a Ramadi resident commented in a recent interview, pointing out the Sunnis’ widespread fears for their lives in ISIS-controlled territory.

These fears, coupled with past grievances and a rejection of the years of persecution by Shia-dominated regime forces, are exploited by ISIS to secure a social base among the most alienated layers of the Sunni population or, at least, some form of tacit acceptance of its rule. This is helped by the perceived military collusion between the Shia militias, Iraqi government forces and the US-led anti-ISIS airstrikes.

Troops on the ground?

The US government has admitted that, in the offensive to retake Ramadi, it would give close air support to all forces who are working under the control of the Iraqi government. The increasing dependence on Shia militias, politically aligned with the Iranian regime, is a testimony of the embarrassing dilemma facing Barack Obama’s administration. These Shia forces involve groups such as Kitaeb Hezbollah, responsible for carrying out hundreds of attacks on US soldiers after the 2003 invasion and still listed as a terrorist organisation by the US government.

The tentative rapprochement with Iran has started generating tensions between US imperialism and the Gulf monarchies, opening fractures within the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’, as well as with the Israeli government – especially in the aftermath of the impending nuclear agreement with Iran, which infuriates these traditional US allies. This situation is also exacerbating divisions within the US political establishment. The lack of real progress in the months-long air campaign against ISIS and the absence of reliable troops on the ground – a vacuum increasingly filled by a competing Iranian presence – are heightening the debate in US ruling circles about military involvement in Iraq, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Under pressure, Obama announced a plan for establishing a new military base in Anbar province and for deploying 400 additional US trainers to help retake Ramadi. British prime minister David Cameron followed suit, saying he would send up to 125 troops to train Iraqi forces. Later on, the Pentagon said it was looking at creating a ‘lily-pad’ of sites to re-establish a presence across northern Iraq, in locations used by the US army when it occupied the country.

When Obama took office in 2008, he had campaigned to end the war in Iraq and keep the US out of new military conflicts. Hence his earlier insistence on ‘no boots on the ground’. But for months now, some US military leaders have been suggesting that they will need US troops to play a more active role. In Britain, Lord Dannatt, former head of the army, called for a parliamentary debate on dispatching 5,000 British troops.

So far, such voices have remained in a minority. Obama and other western leaders have to deal with their own populations who have no real appetite for new military adventures in the Middle East, as past fiascos remain fresh in public memory. While the frantic media campaign displaying the savage violence of ISIS initially pushed a layer into thinking ‘something needs to be done’, and supporting some form of military intervention, opinion polls indicate that this support has already waned. The developing quagmire is unlikely to boost the number of interventionist enthusiasts among ordinary people.

That is why the US administration has tried to favour options that would keep its forces out of the firing line as much as possible. This has been done by sending new weaponry (such as anti-tank rockets) to the Iraqi government, and by promising to lift all constraints on Iraq’s access to weapons – though much of the earlier arms and ammunition it acquired ended up in the hands of ISIS.

A lot of noise is also heard about pushing the delivery of weapons and assistance to Sunni tribes who would be prepared to confront ISIS, in a new version of the ‘Awakening’ movement – when some Sunni tribes grew sick of al-Qaeda and cooperated militarily with the then US-backed Iraqi government in 2006-07. But this only worked because the operation was backed by 150,000 US troops, and was directed against al-Qaeda, a group which was much weaker than ISIS today. In these conditions, a mission creep scenario could develop. The recent enlargement of the ‘training’ programme shows that a surge of US military presence in Iraq is not impossible. However, the consequences of such action would take the ongoing catastrophe to new heights, as past experiences have amply demonstrated.

Kurdish resistance

Although ISIS has achieved prominent military victories, the situation remains very fluid, with many ebbs and flows. Some recent episodes have also highlighted its inherent weaknesses. Most significant among the setbacks suffered by ISIS is its failure to capture the Kurdish town of Kobanê despite an intense 134-day siege. It had to back off, eventually, in the face of relentless resistance by the predominantly Kurdish armed factions of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), which had established a base in three cantons of northern Syria, now commonly referred to as Rojava. Since the beginning of May, the YPG/YPJ have wrested back more than 200 Kurdish and Christian towns in north-eastern Syria, as well as strategic mountains seized earlier by ISIS.

The resistance put up by the YPG/YPJ in Kobanê, and in and around Rojava, has shown that ISIS can be defeated. Unfortunately, this resistance relies essentially on the heroic actions of guerrilla units rather than on the democratic, mass mobilisation of the people themselves. Nonetheless, within its limits, it has shown that when anti-ISIS fighters are motivated by an agenda linking up armed defence with appeals for the national liberation of oppressed communities and social change – noticeably encouraging women to take their place in the struggle and fight for their rights, getting sympathy among workers, poor peasants and young people – a difference can be made and the most ruthless reactionary groups can be put in check.

It shows in a somewhat distorted fashion what would be possible on a large scale if a mass, non-sectarian, working people-led resistance was put into play. It highlights the fact that, ultimately, ISIS military successes elsewhere have a lot to do with the lack of a serious contender capable of challenging it through rallying the mass of the population behind a broad-based programme of a radical transformation of society that many people in a region ravaged by poverty, war, sectarianism and state terror are yearning for.

Yet the CWI has warned from the beginning about the fault lines in the strategy and methods of the leadership of the PYD (the political wing of the YPG/YPJ). The dangerous expectation that it will get a ‘political payback’ from western imperialism should be countered by genuine socialists. "We want to build good relationships with the US", commented one leader of the PYD, Sinam Mohamad, last April. The YPG is in close contact with the US-led coalition and sometimes asks for airstrikes targeting ISIS positions after its fighters locate them.

Beyond the western powers’ disregard for the Kurds’ deep-rooted aspirations for self-determination, if the initiative for the struggle against ISIS is left in the hands of imperialist powers – now collaborating with Shia death squads massacring Sunni civilians – the potential appeal of that struggle to a wider working-class audience will be totally undermined. That will be even more the case among poor Sunnis who constitute the pool in which ISIS relies for support and fighters. Furthermore, Kobanê has been totally wrecked by the bombing. The level of destruction shatters any hope for a quick return to normal life for the local population. This is partly due to the US carpet-bombing, with a total lack of consideration for human lives and people’s habitations.

A matter of greater concern comes from recent reports that point to attacks on Sunni Arab civilians by YPG/YPJ fighters. While these instances have remained isolated, and are certainly not widely endorsed by supporters of the ‘Kurdish Spring’ in Rojava, they point at a very dangerous development threatening to destroy the progressive claims made by a movement that many workers and youth, in the region and beyond, looked at with inspiration.

Syria’s implosion

At present, northern Syria is the only area where ISIS seems to be losing substantial territory. Elsewhere in that country, ISIS has escalated its offensive, moving from tightening its grip on territory under its control to gaining new ground. A few days after the fall of Ramadi, the Syrian city of Palmyra was captured by ISIS troops. Nearby gas fields were seized, depriving Bashar al-Assad’s regime of an important source of energy production and revenue. Palmyra is a strategic target: it houses military bases and an airport, as well as crossroads linking the Syrian capital Damascus with territory to the east and west. A fresh offensive by ISIS is also underway in the northern province of Aleppo. If ISIS seizes the area, it would extend its territory along the Turkish border, amplifying its capacity to secure supplies and smuggle in foreign fighters.

The civil war in Syria is dragging on to its fifth year with no real end in sight, alongside regular UN-sponsored peace talks which have predictably achieved nothing. Estimations of the death toll are approximate, but most put the number at over 300,000. The war has created the desperate flight of millions of refugees into neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. About half of the Syrian population has been driven from their homes. Many parts of the country are hardly recognisable and the economy is in a shambles, accompanied by a breakdown of public services and an outbreak of epidemics. The World Health Organisation says 57% of Syria’s public hospitals have been damaged. Indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas, from all sides, are on the rise.

The movement against Assad’s dictatorship in 2011 was inspired by the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But, because of the lack of a sufficiently strong, independent working-class movement capable of challenging the violence and sectarian incitement by both Assad’s dictatorship and Sunni fundamentalists, the progressive, popular elements of the mass movement were pushed into the background. This ceded space to an increasingly multi-sided sectarian civil war tearing the country apart. This process was intensified by the intervention of competing outside powers fighting for regional influence.

Proxy war

Several close allies of the US in the anti-ISIS coalition have continuously funded violent jihadist groups in Syria. Despite their previous frictions, the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have repaired relations in recent months, joining their efforts against Assad’s camp by arming and funding a coalition of hard-line Islamist rebel groups called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), dominated by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. This coalition has managed to capture the city of Idlib at the end of March, along with most of the Idlib province.

The transformation of the political landscape in Turkey, following the general election in June, might bring into question the Turkish state’s new alliance with the Qatari and Saudi regimes, and its assistance to jihadists in Syria. Nevertheless, this chapter shows again the complete mess that US imperialism has been drawn into, and the growing disunity developing within the formal coalition it has assembled against ISIS. Some of its ‘allies’ have teamed up to openly fuel the jihadi fire, considering the fight against Assad and the Shia axis more important than the campaign against ISIS. The historic erosion of US hegemony in the region has left more space for regional powers to assert their own political agendas – and clashing interests – with the US government walking a tightrope between them.

The US administration’s plan to arm and train a ‘moderate’ rebel force has collapsed. According to Pentagon sources, only 90 rebels have taken part in this programme so far. Some western analysts are trying, therefore, to bridge the gap by echoing the propaganda from Turkey and the Gulf that the supposedly more moderate jihadists of al-Nusra can be a useful counterweight against both Assad’s regime and ISIS. This is in spite of al-Nusra’s notorious record and ideological project which is hardly any different from ISIS.

As Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have stepped up the coordination of their activities through such al-Qaeda-type proxies, the Iranian government has reportedly decided to send 15,000 regular army troops to support the Syrian regime’s forces. These escalating moves will aggravate the already charged sectarian tensions. They are not only carving up the country and dragging the Syrian people into increasing horrors, but also ruining the future of the entire region with the threat of a wider military conflagration.

Assad losing ground

In the last few weeks, different factions of the armed opposition have won a string of victories against Assad’s forces. While Assad’s clan is still strong in the west, he has been hit hard by losses in the south, north and east, not just to ISIS and al-Nusra, but also to other Sunni armed groups. This flows from four years of a relentless war of attrition that is eating away the pro-regime forces. Deaths or desertions have hit nearly half the regime’s soldiers, and an estimated one-third of Syrian Alawite males of military age have died in the fighting. This has led to a growing difficulty to recruit new fighters among the Alawite population.

These setbacks have compelled Assad to rely heavily on fighters from his regional allies: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Shia group Hezbollah from Lebanon, as well as volunteer Shia fighters and mercenaries from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. According to Lebanese military sources, the number of Hezbollah fighters in Syria has doubled since 2013. The group has enlarged its sphere of military activity and has become the main group fighting beside the Syrian army, helping on several occasions to retake areas occupied by Sunni groups. To sustain this momentum, Hezbollah has stepped up its recruitment activities within Lebanon, targeting not only Shias but even other minorities, such as Druze and Christian groups. This highlights the growing threat of a sectarian blowback of the conflict into Lebanon.

The Assad regime’s defeats on the battlefield have opened up divisions within the Syrian government and the top echelons of power. While they do not automatically mean the downfall of Assad – he still controls the bulk of Syria’s most populous areas, up to 60% according to estimates – these defeats indicate that his regime is in its most vulnerable position since the start of the mass revolt in 2011. Alawite families are less and less willing to sacrifice their sons to keep Assad in power, and there have been protests in predominantly Alawite areas against conscription. The Syrian economy is also buckling under the costs of war. The regime has been unable to maintain fuel and food subsidies, increasing popular anger in the areas under its control.

The Iranian economy has itself been crippled by sanctions and falling oil prices, raising questions as to how long it can inject billions of dollars to preserve Assad in power. These difficulties might result in more decisive moves by the Syrian regime to regroup its forces to protect the capital, Damascus, the western cities of Homs and Hama, and the coastal and other areas seen as central to the regime’s survival.

A removal of Assad, either by some diplomatically negotiated deal through his foreign backers, or by a coup from within the regime, cannot be ruled out. Assad’s removal would probably preserve big parts of the repressive state machine, and would be no deterrent to the empowered Sunni jihadist groups and their regional backers. The war would grind on, providing no real exit strategy for the Syrian population. While moves that stop the suffering of ordinary Syrians would be a welcome development, any arrangement from the top by foreign powers, with or without Assad, would be in the interests of these powers. It would leave the Syrian masses drained, divided and suffering under the fist of a new bunch of profiteering gangsters.

In Iraq and Syria, sectarianism is at a feverish pitch and, because of their sectarian essence, none of the existing armed groups will be able to put these countries back together. The formal ‘national’ armies of the two states, reduced to their sectarian support base, are rendered increasingly ineffective and reliant on outside sectarian militias for backup. This is symptomatic of the broader breakup at play, with the previous nation states of Iraq and Syria disintegrating, splitting into sectarian enclaves under the control of competing armed groups.

This is the product of the long-standing divide-and-rule policies by imperialist powers and local rulers. They have systematically pitted communities against each other for the sake of securing riches, power and privileges for themselves. The bloody imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq, in particular, has unleashed sectarianism to an unprecedented degree. This has been further nurtured by the Syrian conflict. The monstrosity that is ISIS is a by-product of both wars.

Tackling the root causes

Since its bombings began last August, the US has spent more than $2.7 billion on the war against ISIS ($9m a day). Despite the coalition having completed more than 3,700 bombing runs in Iraq and Syria, killing many civilians in the process, this air warfare has failed to fundamentally alter the situation on the ground. Terrain might continue to change hands regularly in the future, but the US-led coalition is not winning this war. Obama had to admit on 8 June that the US did not have a ‘complete strategy’ to confront ISIS. The only clear winners in this deadlock are the weapons manufacturers who have seen their sales skyrocket as the wars rage on.

No genuine solution will come from the forces that have given birth to ISIS and religious fundamentalism. Of course, one cannot totally rule out the possibility that the western-led coalition might eventually impose some decisive military blows to ISIS or kick the jihadists out of some of the territories they control. But even if this happens, unless the underlying conditions that enabled ISIS to flourish in the first place are addressed, other similar or even more barbaric organisations are likely to take its place. It is the task of the Iraqi and Syrian people to counter ISIS and not that of outside military powers. The developments of the last year have shown that outside interventions only aggravate the situation for the masses of the region.

Some reports mention that the jihadists of ISIS have gone out of their way to try and win over Ramadi residents by trying to restart the provision of basic services in the city, handing out free food and vegetables. In Mosul, road-paving, cleaning and lighting projects have been witnessed. This seems to mark a conscious attempt to regain a fading popularity. But eventually, the barbaric rule of ISIS, which wants to throw history into reverse, stoning and beheading, enslaving teenage girls, destroying history and culture, banning films, music, and any slightest criticism to its suffocating and ultra-reactionary diktats, will inevitably push many Sunnis into resistance and open rebellion.

Capitalism and imperialism, feeding themselves on devastating wars and mass poverty, are responsible for what is happening in the region. The working people, small farmers, unemployed, the youth and women of Iraq and Syria can only rely on their self-organisation to put an end to this nightmarish situation. At present, united, non-sectarian self-defence of threatened communities and minorities is vital. It could also be an important lever with which a grassroots movement fighting for democratic, economic and social change can be rebuilt.

By standing uncompromisingly against all imperialist forces, local reactionary regimes and sectarian death squads, and supporting the rights of self-determination for all communities, such a movement could find mass support among the regional and international working class. In their turn, workers’ organisations internationally need to spearhead movements against imperialist intervention in the Middle East. They should be ready to support workers’ struggles breaking out in the region, such as the protests regularly taking place in Iraq against unpaid wages, privatisations, for trade union rights, and other issues.

In 2011, the popular reverberations in Iraq and Syria of the revolutionary mass protests that shook North Africa and the Middle East indicated that war and religious extremism are not an unavoidable fate for the people of the region. The long history and tradition of mass workers’ struggles in these countries, as well as the previous existence of powerful communist parties with mass bases across all religious and ethnic communities, amplifies this argument. Regrettably, the failed policies and betrayals by the Stalinist leaders of these parties, who collaborated with sections of the ruling classes, led to the almost total annihilation and irrelevance of these once mighty organisations.

Today, it is the lack of a mass left political alternative to right-wing religious forces, corrupt authoritarian rulers and imperialist meddling, which has allowed the present nightmarish situation to unfold. But the horrific experiences of war and the poison of sectarianism will not prevent the workers’ movement from eventually re-emerging and rebuilding itself. For it to be viable, it will need a programme aimed at respecting the right of all peoples and communities to freely and democratically decide their own fate, but also work towards putting the vast wealth of the region under people’s democratic control. A voluntary socialist confederation of the peoples of the Middle East would provide a lasting basis to put an end to war and barbarism in all its forms.

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