Time to shed illusions

Only the international solidarity of our class can deliver a lasting solution, writes Yassamine Mather

As the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate, and in the wake of renewed political and military efforts led by the United States, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies have gone onto the offensive.

On December 6, Ali Akbar Velayati – advisor to and representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei – met the Syrian ruler in Damascus. Tehran is confident that, given the current situation, if elections are held in the next few months, Assad and his Ba’ath party will win and no doubt in the next round of negotiations, to be held in New York, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran will fight their corner. However, it is not clear if this total support for Assad results from an agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin or if Iran is asserting its position ahead of a compromise by Russia. Apparently Putin is considering the possibility of replacing Assad by a military junta, to include Sunni and Christian military commanders – a solution favoured by the US and its allies. Iran’s reassertion of its support for Assad is an attempt to avert any such compromise.

The reality is that, for all the spin coming from the US administration about the next round of Syria talks in New York, the various options presented as ‘solutions to the crisis’ seem as bad as each other. After more than four years of bloodshed and suffering – including the complete destruction of several major cities, not just by Islamic State, but by the regime itself, not forgetting the air raids by the US, France, Russia and in the last week the United Kingdom – the efforts of the ‘international community’ could well end in the continuation of a minority Alawite-led regime or a military junta.

According to an article aptly named ‘Can Iran live without Assad?’ by Matthew McInnis, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Islamic Republic’s options ahead of a new round of peace talks are clear. In fact the west’s options are not that different. According to McInnis, the alternatives are:

  1. Someone from Assad’s inner circle taking over. The problem with this option is that the Syrian opposition and presumably their western allies will not accept such an arrangement and, more importantly, there is no likely candidate to fulfil such a role.
  2. A Christian or Druze as a compromise candidate. Tehran has few allies beyond the Alawite community and it is therefore unlikely that Iran will accept this.
  3. The replacement of Assad by a Sunni officer, rumoured to be favoured by the Russians. This would clearly be unacceptable to Tehran, and Khamenei would have made Iran’s views on this clear during his meeting with Putin last week.

That is why, as far as Tehran is concerned, Assad’s survival is the best, and maybe the only, option. Again according to McInnis,

Tehran will continue the fight on the ground to improve the Syrian regime’s position, work with Russia to find candidates that have support from the army and the Alawite community, the country will prevent the emergence of any leader too popular or strong to potentially push Iran out of Syria later, and it will ensure Iran retains a veto over the transition process, either directly or implicitly through threats of sabotaging any deal.1

For most Iranians the supreme leader’s 100% support for Assad – support echoed by the most conservative factions of the regime, including the Revolutionary Guards – is bizarre. Khamenei and his inner circle will not tolerate anything approaching secularism in their own country – female members of the Assad family, including Bashar’s wife, Asma al-Assad, would face a flogging for failing to wear a hijab if they were Iranian citizens. Apparently Iran’s adherence to Shia rules was one of the reasons the Syrian dictator refused to accept the offer of a sanctuary for his family in Tehran.

Yet senior clerics, leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and close advisors to the supreme leader do not seem to see the irony of their commitment to do all in their power to keep a Ba’athist, secular party in power in Syria. As many Tehranis have observed, there is one rule for Iranians and another for the country’s allies – as always, Iran’s foreign policy is based on pragmatism, not religion. Tehran wants to maintain its current advantageous position in the region – the fall of the Syrian regime would endanger Hezbollah’s grip in Lebanon and Iran cannot tolerate such a situation. However, for the US and its allies Iran’s emerging market and cheap labour force present a golden opportunity not to be wasted.

Support Damascus?

According to the Morning Star, “the Nato powers and their Middle Eastern allies should stop arming and funding terrorist groups in Syria and start supporting the Damascus regime in its desperate battle against Isis and other sectarian forces.”2 This is precisely the solution put forward by sections of global capital and, although it might bring a temporary respite, it would not deal with the root causes of the current conflict and could be temporary at best.

But London mayor Boris Johnson seems to be competing with the Star in this regard:

I was in Paris at the end of last week, and the Russian leader’s face glowered sulkily from every billboard. “Putin”, said the headline, “notre nouvel ami”. Many French people think the time has come to do a deal with their ‘new friends’, the Russians – and I think that they are broadly right. We have the estimated 70,000 of the Free Syrian Army (and many other groups and grouplets); but those numbers may be exaggerated, and they may include some jihadists who are not ideologically very different from al Qa’eda.

Who else is there? The answer is obvious. There is Assad, and his army; and the recent signs are that they are making some progress. Thanks at least partly to Russian air strikes, it looks as if the regime is taking back large parts of Homs. Al Qa’eda-affiliated militants are withdrawing from some districts of the city. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

However, both the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and Boris Johnson are wrong. The Russia/Iran/Syria ‘solution’ will only delay the final stages of this conflict. If Assad and his Iranian allies were popular or had legitimacy, we would not be where we are today.

Similarly, the talk about ‘illegal’ wars and United Nations resolutions is totally counterproductive. In his speech to the UK parliament last week, Jeremy Corbyn told MPs:

UN security council resolution 2249, passed after the Paris atrocities and cited in today’s government motion, does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria. To do so it would have had to be passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, to which the security council couldn’t agree.

The UN resolution is certainly a welcome framework for joint action to cut off funding, oil revenues and arms supplies from Isil. But there’s little sign of that happening in earnest. Nor is there yet any serious evidence that it’s being used to coordinate international military or diplomatic strategy in Syria.3

I rest my case. At least two of the west’s allies are involved in the IS sale of oil, which is said to generate $1 billion a month! Do we really believe that nothing can be done about this trade? US sanctions have meant that European banks have paid billions of dollars in fines for trading with Iranian companies, yet the sale of oil from Mosul and other Iraqi regions cannot be detected and stopped? Are we seriously expecting the UN to punish the countries involved? The US and its allies are not actually attempting to defeat IS – the policy is one of containment, not destruction. In fact the group has its uses for imperialism – or at least imperialist allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states.

For us it is clear that the defeat of the imperialist project involves the shedding of liberal illusions, including in the UN. The statement issued by the Stop the War Coalition on the eve of the Westminster vote on Syria certainly had its fair share of those: “Our parliament must ensure it takes decisions in the interests of the security and well-being of our citizens and must consider the impact of our decisions on the wider world.”4 Hardly an expression of internationalism. It is regrettable that sections of the left have fallen into the trap of using the state’s current opportunistic emphasis on “security”.

Solidarity

Everyone knows that IS has its origins in al Qa’eda – itself a creation of US imperialism – and that it is able to recruit because of imperialist interventions, together with the failure to address historic injustices in the region, including the occupation of Palestine. It is only through the defeat of the imperialist project that a genuine solution can be found.

We are first and foremost for the defeat of the imperialist project – including their jihadist offshoots, such as Islamic State. Even if many of their recruits do not see themselves as such, I would classify IS as part of the imperialist project. They are also part of the problem, the enemies of revolutionary forces. So, while we call for the defeat of the imperialists, we are not necessarily for the victory of their opponents.

The working class in Iran and Iraq are under the neoliberal economic hammer of these Shia states, and the secular peoples of the region are desperately in need of support, which must come in the form of the international solidarity of the working class. As Adam Hanieh rightly points out,

Isis’s rise cannot be explained as simply an outcome of ideology or religion, as many western commentators appear to believe. There are very real social and political roots that explain the organisation’s growth.

One of the most important factors is the defeat of the Arab spring – itself a rebellion against the onslaught of neoliberal economic policies in the region, in circumstances where the weakness of the left allowed reactionary forces to benefit from the political vacuum caused by war, instability and economic hardship.5

Contrary to populist belief, the Arab spring had little to do with the spread of the internet and the growth of social media. It was first and foremost a reaction to economic hardship, the transfer of the effects of the 2008 economic crisis to the third world in general and the Near East in particular.

Its dramatic defeat – predictable, given the weaknesses of radical forces of the left – gave new impetus to the forces of reaction, including Wahhabi Islamists. They were already popular because of their opposition to the rise of Shiism in the region – a direct consequence of another war with no strategy, the one started in 2003 in Iraq.

To defeat the imperialist project we must address the fundamental reasons behind the Arab spring, as well as the issues surrounding the current civil wars – in this case the continuation of politics by reactionary states, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

Notes

1. www.aei.org/publication/could-iran-live-without-assad.

2. www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-ef71-Communists-condemn-wave-of-brutal-terrorist-attacks#.Vmfc4XaLT8s.

3. www.lawfareblog.com/uks-parliament-debates-what-un-security-council-said.

4. http://stopwar.org.uk/index.php/news/why-uk-joining-the-bombing-will-be-bad-for-syria-the-region-and-britain.

5. www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/isis-syria-iraq-war-al-qaeda-arab-spring.

Imperialism has no progressive role in Kobanê

kobane-womanThe group formerly known as Daesh (Isis), now Islamic State, entered the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobanê In the early hours of Tuesday October 7. As this statement is issued, air strikes seem to have halted its advance for the moment, street-to-street fighting is taking place and initial reports suggest that in these battles secular Kurdish forces allied to the People’s Protection Units (military wing of the Democratic Union Party or PYD) are getting the upper hand – mainly because they are familiar with the town’s layout and IS’s heavy weaponry are not as effective in street battles. That said, the town is being destroyed, its inhabitants are refugees and it is highly unlikely that Kurdish forces can win ultimately.

Who is to blame for the catastrophic situation?

First the United States and its coalition partners – not just for their role in the Iraqi invasion of 2003 that is the root cause of all this, but, more important, for their association with and support for the countries who created and financed this IS monster.

US vice-president Joe Biden recently stated: “My constant cry was that our allies in the region were the largest problem in Syria” – and he singled out the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey specifically. He added:

“The Turks were great friends, but, when it came to Syria and the effort to bring down president Bashar Assad there, those allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qa’eda and eventually the terrorist Islamic State … What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war? What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Of course, in his candour the US vice-president failed to mention that until last autumn the Obama administration shared these views and tactics. Even when the US did a complete U-turn, for all the propaganda about air raids by a coalition of 40 countries, there has been no serious attempt to weaken IS in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds have been forced to leave their homes and, according to the fighters and the people of Kobanê, coalition air raids were too little and too late to make any difference.

Turkey

Another culprit is the Turkish army. Controlling the heights north of the city, it stood by, as IS used heavy artillery, tanks and rocket launchers to attack the poorly armed Kurdish guerrillas. According to a Kurdish commander, Turkey hopes the fall of Kobanê will create the conditions where it can send ground troops into Syria, paving the way for the establishment of a pro-Turkish regime in Damascus.http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1029/the-is-conundrum/ – 1 Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking on October 7, seemed to confirm this view when he called for the launch of a ground operation against IS to halt its advance: “The terror will not be over unless we cooperate in a ground operation,” Erdoğan said.

For the last two years the town had been controlled by the PYD, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is fighting for Kurdish freedom from Turkish rule. The PYD and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) claimed it had created a region of self-governance. Those familiar with the PKK’s authoritarian politics would consider such claims with a degree of cynicism. However, there can be no doubt that tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen from all over Syria had sought refuge in Kobanê.

The Turkish president has repeatedly talked of his country’s ‘commitment’ to fight IS, yet in reality there has been no sign of any serious effort from his state. Many believe Turkey is directly or indirectly helping IS’s rise, both by funding some of its activities and by allowing foreign volunteers to cross the Turkish border into Syria. In contrast, it has closed the border to Kurds wanting to cross into Syria and join the defence of Kobanê. In September the release of 46 Turkish hostages came after negotiations between the Turkish state and the jihadist group. And last week PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, held in prison near Istanbul, warned Ankara that the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdish rebels would collapse if IS seized Kobanê.

While PKK/YPG officials in Syria are adamant they do not want Turkey to intervene in the conflict, they have called for an easing of border controls between Syria and Turkey, so that Syrian Kurd fighters can be supplied with arms. The group’s military forces – a poorly trained group of male and female peshmergas – have only light weapons and a few captured tanks. The YPG also claims that, for all its rhetoric, Turkey has been and remains in an undeclared alliance with IS, as it is more concerned to defeat Syrian Kurdish forces allied with the PKK.

Turkey, for its part, is blaming the Kurdish group for choosing an “isolationist position”, and for refusing to join the Free Syrian Army and other Syrian opposition groups funded by Arab countries. Turkey has maintained close relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Kurdish regional authority in Iraq. However, YPG/PKK fighters have dismissed KDP efforts in opposition to IS as half-hearted and ineffective. A claim supported by Kurdish, Yazidi and Turkmen refugees in the region.

The treacherous leaders of the Kurdish regional authority is a recipient of generous aid from the United States and the European Union. It is a living example of a corrupt, decadent, semi-colonial state. Its leaders were so alarmed by YPG’s experiments of ‘self-governance’ that they were ready to sit back and watch brutal jihadists take over Kobanê. But the problem they will face in the long term is obvious: when IS reaches Suleymaniye or Kirkuk, the major cities of the KRA, no-one will be left to defend its decadent, autocratic, misogynist rulers.

If IS defeats the Kurdish guerrillas in the Kobanê street battles, it would gain control of most of the Syrian-Turkish border – Kobanê is already flanked by two IS-controlled towns to the east and west. This would be a strategic victory for IS, as it would then be able to control the key Raqa-Kobanê route. That is why, irrespective of its political differences with the PKK and YPG, for the left in the region, Kobanê is in the eye of the storm of the fight against IS.

Iran

In Tehran on October 6, 14 well-known left/liberal activists began a protest hunger strike in solidarity with Kobanê – a little strangely. Left and centre-left websites and social media are full of messages of support for Kobanê fighters. Photos of the heroes of the war – the men and women guerrillas who have given their lives to defend the city – are prominent, including that of the young mother, Arin Mirkan, who launched a suicide attack on advancing jihadists on October 5.

The attitude of the Iranian left can only be explained as a leftover from the early 1980s – a period when it romanticised the Iranian Kurdish resistance: the brave fighters in the mountains were going to pave the way for the overthrow of another Islamic state – Iran’s Shia republic – and establish ‘socialism’! However, an ill-equipped army of brave young men and women faced reactionaries who were armed to the teeth, financed by wealthy, powerful forces and determined to die for Islam has little chance. Unfortunately, it is not hard to guess who will win the current struggle in Kobanê. We should leave the suicide attacks to the Islamists (Shia or Sunni) – for the left this is no way to fight, however desperate the situation gets. But the politics of vanguard activism, which created such illusions in Iranian Kurdistan in the 1980s, is fostering similar illusions about Kobanê, at least amongst sections of the Iranian left. This does not mean that in the Middle East, and especially in the west, the left should not support the fighters in Kobanê, who, as secular, leftwing forces, remain a source of hope, a progressive force fighting reactionary Islamists. Our comments are directed at those sections of the Iranian left who seem to have become obsessed with promoting YPG guerrilla heroism.

Who and why

For all the talk of a ‘US-led coalition’, including countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, none of these states are serious about stopping the funding of the jihadists or preventing the financial transactions of banks and institutions in IS-occupied northern Iraq. Who is buying the oil IS sells? Turkey. Who is allowing international transactions from Mosul banks? Qatari, Saudi and UAE banks are laundering money from their counterparts under IS control in northern Iraq.

Is international capital incapable of stopping the flow of funds to IS? Of course not. We know from the recent example of sanctions against Iranian banks that the world hegemon power, the United States, is capable of closing down all international monetary routes. It is capable of tracing the smallest transactions between individuals associated with ‘rogue states’ and punishing banks who fail to comply. Yet we are expected to believe that it cannot do the same when it comes to the northern Iraqi cities controlled by IS? The reality is that a disorientated US does not want to confront its allies in the Arab world.

The ability of IS to maintain and expand its influence is due to a number of factors – not least the reputation it has gained as a force that does not (ostensibly) compromise with the west.

For all the religious statements issued by Sunni clerics denouncing the group’s brutal methods, many young Muslims still join it. Its brutal methods may be medieval, but IS has shown considerable ability in managing the cities it has captured.

According to the Irish Independent newspaper:

“The ‘Islamic State’ group, infamous for its beheadings, crucifixions and mass executions, provides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques. While its merciless battlefield tactics and the imposition of its austere vision of Islamic law made headlines, residents say much of its power lies in its efficient and often deeply pragmatic ability to govern …

“Civilians who do not have any political affiliations have adjusted to the presence of Islamic State, because people got tired and exhausted, and also … because they are doing institutional work,” one Raqqa resident opposed to Isis said.”

So far, the US-led bombing operations– which rely on long-distance engagement (to ensure minimum risk to military personnel and warplanes) – have largely only succeeded in gaining new allies for IS. Imperialism created the horror that is currently engulfing this region of the world: it is madness to think it can now drop bombs on it to provide a solution.

Is the US serious about defeating IS or is Iran right to believe that there is a ‘stage two’ in the US-led action against IS – one dedicated to overthrowing Assad from above, with Turkey waiting patiently in the wings? And is this ultimately aimed at regime change in Iran? The situation is confused and tense, but Hands Off the People of Iran is clear:

  • Imperialism has no progressive role to play – no to the bombings!
  • Defend Kobanê against IS barbarism!
  • The only force that can bring peace, progress and socialism to the region is the working class!

The origins, politics and economics of the Islamic State

Consequences of IS atrocities disorientate the left

Every day news of new atrocities by the Islamic State is making headlines. From the beheading of young journalists to the mass extermination of religious and national minorities in Iraq and Syria, there seems to be no end to the barbarism and brutality of this latest brand of Islamist jihadism. US air strikes might have slowed down the IS’s military progress – earlier this week the two Shia cities of Amerli and Suleiman Beik were recaptured, the latter with the direct intervention of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. However, it is clear that the IS is far from defeated.

It is ironic to think that only a year ago the debate was about US military intervention on the side of Syrian opposition forces – even then dominated by the very jihadists who later chose the name ‘Daesh’ (in Arabic), or Isis. Today the US is conducting an air war against the group (and the United Kingdom is close to joining in). This air war will no doubt bolster the regime of Bashar Assad. The mass media portray US air raids and drone attacks as yet another humanitarian intervention, downplaying the enormity of the US change in policy over the last 12 months. Has there been regime change in Syria? Has the dictator the imperialists were so keen to ditch relinquished power? Is his government more democratic than a year ago? Of course, the answer to all these questions is ‘no’. Assad has consolidated his power with phoney elections; his army (supported by another ‘rogue state’, Iran) is as repressive as ever before. In short, what has changed is the priorities of the imperialist powers – there is now an urgent need to maintain control over the country they ruined in another ‘humanitarian’ intervention in 2003: Iraq.

So Shia Iran, and therefore its ally, Syria, are no longer the main enemy. On the contrary, Iran’s alliance and support is welcomed in Iraq, where, in true colonial fashion, Washington dismisses the prime minister of the occupation government and gets Tehran’s approval to install a replacement. Nouri al-Maliki is ousted and in his place is Haider al-Abadi – and the first person to express support for Iraq’s new premier is none other than Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

Ten years after de-Ba’athification and ‘year zero’, when neoliberal economics was supposed to bring about a flourishing, democratic civil society and, according to some on the left, trade union rights for Iraqi workers, the country remains devastated. Contrary to the US vision, it soon became obvious that the regional power benefiting from the political vacuum was Iran’s Islamic Republic. With a friendly, at times obedient, Shia-led state in Baghdad, relative influence in Syria and growing links with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the clerics in Tehran and Qom could not believe their luck: the neoconservatives had handed them the Shia belt, stretching from Tehran (some would say Kabul) to the Mediterranean coast. Yet Iran’s influence and at times direct interventions in Iraq and Syria – not to mention Hezbollah’s political success in Lebanon – increased sectarian tension, a tension fuelled by Saudi and Qatari financial support for Sunni militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as political opponents of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

US threats against Iran and the hysteria about Iran’s nuclear programme since 2007, as well as subsequent crippling sanctions, were inevitable consequences of attempts by first Bush and then Obama to address the increasing geopolitical strength of Iran. The Arab spring in 2011 and 2012 only reinforced this position, as the US now had to consider the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Ironically it was the defeat of the Arab spring and the rising power of fundamentalist jihadists, especially in Syria, that changed US foreign policy. Obama’s statement this week to the effect that the administration has no strategy (yet) has started a number of debates. Clearly there is a level of disorientation in Washington and, for all the claims of Israel’s supporters that the ‘strategy’ is appeasement of nuclear Iran (according to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the biggest threat to world peace since Hitler), the reality is that last year’s enemies (the Iranian rulers, Assad and Hezbollah) are today’s allies.

Confusion

Unfortunately this disorientation seems to have found reflection amongst sections of the left. Two recent articles – Andy Cunningham’s ‘New fault lines in the Middle East: Isis in a regional context’ on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website1; and a response by Sam Charles Hamad in IS Network2 – are good examples of such confusion.

Sam Hamad is right to criticise the simplistic arguments of the first article, which almost falls into Press TV-style reductionism regarding the current situation – while it is easy to put all the blame on the US and its allies in the region, the full story is more complicated. However, comrade Hamad’s response, although correct in describing the disastrous policies of Al Maleki and pointing out Iran’s involvement, has its own grave shortcomings, as it implies support for US air raids in ‘defence’ of Iraqi Yazidis:

If anybody, revolutionary socialist or not, wants to see Daesh defeated or weakened without relying on or appealing to imperialism, then we must deal with the realities and complexities of the balance of forces of Iraq since the invasion and occupation by the US and its ‘coalition of the willing’. Narratives that advertise the identification of ‘new fault lines’ in the Middle East, but that then end up relying on old formulations, such as advocating ‘working class independence’ against Daesh, are usually those which necessarily stay as far away as possible from reality. Perhaps, following on from the usual line of regional Revolutionary Socialists, we ought to conclude that the only solution to Daesh is revolutionary socialism?3

Contrary to what Hamad claims, the choice is not between the abstract claim that only “revolutionary socialism will do” and a descent into the ‘realistic’ politics of supporting ‘humanitarian’ interventions by the US and its allies. Even in the current mess of the Middle East you can hold to the principled position of opposing foreign military intervention, while resisting the temptation to support one or the other reactionary state, one or the other hopeless, ‘moderate’ Islamic group, simply because they oppose the local dictator. Why should we do so?

  • Because the origins of many of these jihadists go back to Saudi Arabia and other US allies, and because it was colonialism that created the underlying problems of the region – arbitrary borders, deliberate imposition of ruling elites from religious minorities (Sunni rulers in Shia countries and vice versa). This means that imperialism can play no part in the solution. If the US were serious about stopping the massacres, why does it not impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (and take action against the Arab billionaires who finance these dubious organisations)? Instead it continues to arm these states.
  • Because all imperialist ‘humanitarian interventions’ are political, with the single aim of advancing the geopolitical hegemony of US imperialism. Otherwise we would have witnessed, if not US military action, at least forthright condemnation of Israel, as it massacred over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza.
  • Because, as Obama admitted last week, the US has no clear strategy and the left that tails the latest ‘humanitarian’ intervention ends up supporting the bombing of pro-Assad forces, including Iranian Revolutionary guards, one year and the bombing of Assad’s opponents the next, as ground troops supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards help Iraqi forces to recapture Shia towns.
  • Because every military intervention, ‘humanitarian’ or otherwise, brings new recruits into the ranks of the jihadists. Anyone in doubt should look at events in Afghanistan and how US bombing increased support for the Taliban.

One of the revolutionary left’s most important tasks in the current situation is to point to the fallacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’. It is the short-sighted, opportunistic politics of falling behind this or that Arab/Middle Eastern state or Islamic opposition (‘moderate’ or jihadist, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Al Nasr in Syria) that continues to discredit the international left in the Middle East, and play into the hands of the religious fundamentalists.

Rise of IS

As I have written before, Iraq’s political problems were compounded after the 2010 elections, when the more or less non-sectarian, mainly Sunni Iraqi coalition gained the largest number of parliamentary seats. Maliki used the courts to stop it from attempting to form a government. He followed this later with attacks on non-Shia ministers and officials.

It is true to say that the destruction of Iraq started with the 2003 invasion. However, it is also true that Maliki’s sectarianism, his refusal to incorporate Sunni militias in the regular army, his intolerance of tribal leaders in northern Iraq all contributed to the ensuing chaos. Iraq, a country where religious and national minorities had lived in relative peace side by side for centuries, has become the scene of vicious battles between Sunni jihadists and Shia military sects, of Kurdish peshmergas driven out of their homes, refugees in no man’s land, and victims of ‘humanitarian’ air strikes aimed at stopping Isis’s advance. According to the most conservative estimates, currently there are three million internally displaced persons in Iraq.

Anyone who last year fostered illusions in the potential of air raids to halt Assad’s atrocities, just like anyone who is fooled by US air attacks today, should be thoroughly ashamed. Nothing could be further from the minds of American and British politicians. It is all about safeguarding their interests in the region (remember Gaza).

And what about the IS itself? Who has been financing it over the last few years? How did it gain the prominence it has? According to Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, “There is no publicly accessible proof that the government of a state has been involved in the creation or financing of Isis as an organisation.”4 However, the Iraqi government, Iran’s Islamic Republic and a number of independent observers have made accusations that the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Persian states financed Isis in 2013 and early 2014. There is credible information about wealthy members of ruling families from the Persian Gulf countries funding it over the last two years. So, for all the Saudi and Qatari denials, there can be little doubt that, before it gained access to oilfields in north Syria and later banks in Mosul, Isis was the recipient of financial support from states in the Persian Gulf region.

Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, asks:

So has Qatar funded the Islamic State? Directly, the answer is no. Indirectly, a combination of shoddy policy and naivety has led to Qatar-funded weapons and money making their way into the hands of IS. Saudi Arabia likewise is innocent of a direct state policy to fund the group, but, as with Qatar, its determination to remove Mr Assad has led to serious mistakes in its choice of allies … many taking bags of cash to Turkey and simply handing over millions of dollars at a time.5

Some of this money was originally destined for Al Nusra (Al Qa’eda’s wing in Syria). However, Isis/IS also benefited from the money smuggled via a Turkish border left deliberately unchecked. This has made the organisation one of the richest jihadist groups in the world, which now benefits from control of oilfields in Syria – indeed selling oil back to the Assad regime – and from conquering Iraqi cities: “During its conquest of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Isis fighters looted more than 500 billion Iraqi dinar, worth about $420 million … Iraqi officials estimate that the group now has about $2 billion in its war chest.”6

IS leader Al Baghdadi has established a military command, which includes officers from Saddam Hussein’s military. In the Middle East it is widely reported that former Iraqi officers like Fadel al-Hayali, who was one of the Ba’athist regime’s top military commanders, as well as Adnan al-Sweidawi, a colonel of the Saddam Hussein era, hold crucial positions in the military leadership of IS. These are men who fought the US occupation in the mid-2000s. Other Sunnis, linked to northern Iraqi tribes, groups which fought al Qa’eda in the 2000s, felt so isolated and betrayed by Baghdad that they sided with Isis. The Iraqi government of Maliki broke its promise to integrate over 90,000 Sunnis who fought al Qa’eda into the military security system, thus providing them with a proper income. Instead, incompetent, corrupt Shias were promoted to the highest ranks of the army – and they were among the first to run away and abandon their posts as Isis advanced.

The Americans and their new regional ally, Iran’s Islamic Republic, hope the removal of the much hated Maliki and the coming to power of the ‘moderate’ al-Abadi will improve relations with Sunni tribes. However, as late as August 30, Sheikh Ali al-Hatim of the Dulaim tribe was urging fellow Sunni leaders to withdraw from talks to form a new government. Hatim also called on the Sunni authorities to clamp down on Shi’ite militias.

Kurds

The western press and media have been full of stories about Kurdish fighters and their role in the current battles in Iraq. Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has encouraged the government to “arm Kurdish forces” and called on Britain and the US to act as “handmaidens to Kurdish independence”.7

However, all those who are familiar with the region will tell a different story. Fighters from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have not been as brave as some reports suggest, nor were they in the forefront of recent battles. Those who survived the IS’s onslaught in Sinjar province last month claim that the peshmergas and the political parties of the Kurdish Regional Authority abandoned them. Throughout the last few years, the KDP has recruited members and supporters from among Yazidis in the Sinjar province, promising them protection. (The Yazidis, whose religion is close to Zoroastrianism, have often been called “devil worshippers” because there is confusion between their name and that of the third Islamic Khalif, Yazid, who was considered by Shias to be a heretic). In Sinjar province, the KDP assured the residents, both Christians and Yazidis, that they would be safe from Sunni and Shia extremists. Sarbast Baiperi, head of the local KDP in Sinjar province, appeared on KDP radio and TV and on Facebook claiming: “Until the last drop of blood we will defend Sinjar.”8 In return the KDP expected the population to vote for its deputies. Yet in the first test of this pact, the local population claims that when the IS advanced KDP peshmergas abandoned their posts and fled.

Of course, other Kurdish fighters, mainly from the YPG (Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units), members of the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as Iranian peshmergas based in Iraqi Kurdistan, did fight the IS. As the refugees approached a checkpoint where Kurdish Regional Government authorities were confiscating weapons, the Yazidis and the Christians sent word back down the convoy behind them: “Give your guns to the YPG!”

The western mass media might confuse the heroism of leftwing Kurdish fighters with the cowardice of Barzani, Talabani and their useless armies, but the peoples of the region know better.

Principles

It is inevitable that, faced with the horrors inflicted by the IS, the left in the imperialist countries is suffering from some confusion. However, the answers remain simple and straightforward. For example, in 2007 we pointed out, in opposition to the line adopted by the Stop the War Coalition leadership, that threats of war against Iran should not cause us to side with a reactionary religious state that intervenes in the affairs of other countries in the region. In 2012, during the Arab spring, we said that, while in Egypt the departure of Hosni Mubarak was a cause for celebration, we should remember that, in the absence of any viable leftwing alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood’s adherence to neoliberal economics, accompanied by the imposition of aspects of Sharia law, would be a recipe for disaster. We rejected claims about the allegedly progressive and anti-imperialist nature of the MB and warned against calling for a vote for it. We were also against the military coup in Egypt in the summer of 2013, which, for example, the Socialist Workers Party at first giddily supported.

And we opposed US military intervention in Syria. Foreign interventions in that country from Iran and Russia on the side of the Syrian dictator, and from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of Al Nasr, Isis and the Free Syrian army, paved the way for subsequent disasters.

We can do no more than repeat the same warnings again. The Middle East has a complicated history, compounded by arbitrary borders drawn up by the colonial powers. It has been the scene of imperialist interventions throughout the last century. For the left there is only one position that has stood the test of time: we refuse to echo social-imperialist calls in favour of ‘humanitarian’ intervention. Nor do we offer ‘critical support’ to this or that regional dictator or Islamist group (‘moderate’ or otherwise), but stand alongside those sections of the working class movement that have not been tainted by either social-imperialism or false anti-imperialism.

Only by adhering to basic principles can we stand any chance of regaining support amongst the working class in the region. Do not be fooled: there are no short cuts, no easy solutions.

Notes

1. http://rs21.org.uk/2014/08/12/new-fault-lines-in-the-middle-east-isis-in-a-regional-context.

2. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/international/war-and-imperialism/483-iraq-response?showall=1&limitstart.

3. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/international/war-and-imperialism/483-iraq-response.

4. www.dw.de/who-finances-isis/a-17720149.

5. http://commonsensewonder.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/islamic-state-income-stream.html.

6. www.dw.de/who-finances-isis/a-17720149.

7. The Guardian August 15 2014.

8. www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/17/how-the-u-s-favored-kurds-abandoned-the-yazidis-when-isis-attacked.html.

Descent into regional chaos, horror and fragmentation

Last week, the leader of the Islamic state (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis) appeared in Friday prayers in Mosul addressing Muslims worldwide. At least this is what his supporters claimed after a week when the organisation had declared the territory under their control a “caliphate”.

On July 3 the Iraqi ministry of interior (not the most reliable source of information) put out a statement maintaining that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (otherwise known as Ibrahim al-Samarrai), the Islamic world’s new caliph, or Amir Almuminin (‘commander of the believers’), successor to prophet Muhammad, had been wounded in an air strike and had been transferred to Syria for medical treatment. Irrespective of whether this was the real Baghdadi or a double (as claimed by Iraqi government forces and the United States), Isis took no chances. According to Mosul residents, the city’s mobile network was closed down, presumably to stop any tracing of the movement of the Isis leader.

The same day the militant Sunni group also issued video footage showing the destruction of dozens of places of worship in Nineveh province in northern Iraq. Shia, Sunni and Christian sites were destroyed, with images placed on social media. In line with Isis’s claim that it is abolishing the arbitrary borders drawn up by Britain and France in 1916, the group symbolically blew up border posts between Syria and Iraq. On July 8 the Al Arabia news agency was reporting the circulation of a new Isis passport in the name of “the State of the Islamic Caliphate”.

The first caliphate, or succession to Islam’s prophet Muhammad, was established in the 7th century, when, according to Sunnis, Abu Bakr succeeded Muhammad as the commander of the believers. Sunni Muslims claim Abu Bakr was chosen by Muhammad in the last few days of his life – the prophet asked him to lead prayers and this indicated his choice of successor. However, according to followers of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor and previous caliphs were irrelevant.

The Ottoman emperors (1451-1924) were originally secular conquerors. However, Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1481 claimed caliphal authority and his grandson, Selim I, who conquered and unified more Islamic territories, continued the title as the defender of Islam’s holiest shrines. The collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923 marked the end of the caliphate.

Over the last few centuries small fringe groups have, like Isis, declared their territory to be a caliphate and, of course, Iran’s Islamic Republic portrays itself as the true Islamic state for both Sunnis and Shias, while the Moroccan king calls himself “commander of the faithful”. The specific problem with Isis’s declaration is not just that it has left itself open to accusations of overreaching itself, but that it has put it on a collision course with al Qa’eda. The conflict between the two groups has been in the open for months and in Syria they have taken up arms against each other.

Stalemate

The government of Nouri al-Maleki has rightly been blamed for sectarianism and incompetence and it is certainly largely responsible for creating the political stalemate that paved the way for the current crisis in Iraq. Throughout his two spells as prime minister, the Iraqi leader made no serious effort to reach out to either the Sunnis or the Kurds. On the contrary, Maleki’s ‘counterinsurgency’ policies were aimed at reducing the influence of Sunnis in the state and the military – a policy that created dissatisfaction amongst the Sunni population of the northern provinces. The Iraqi army became dominated by incompetent, unpopular officers whose only quality was loyalty to the Shia prime minister.

Maleki ignored reports of corruption and torture made against his allies in the upper ranks of the military. One general close to the Iraqi premier was implicated in torture; another, already sacked in 2009 for failing to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, was put in charge of defending part of the northern territories and is believed to have been amongst the first deserters. As a result, the military was quickly sapped of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.

In the 2010 elections, the more or less non-sectarian, mainly Sunni Iraqiya coalition gained the largest number of parliamentary seats. However, Maleki used the courts to stop it from attempting to form a government. He later used delaying tactics, bringing false accusations of corruption against Sunni rivals to outmanoeuvre opposition politicians and eventually taking power himself. And now, nearly three months after the elections held on April 30 2014, the Iraqi parliament has failed to reach an agreement over nominations for the country’s top posts: president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament.

According to the Iraqi constitution, a new president should be chosen within 30 days of the election of parliamentary speakers and their deputies. Following this process, the new head of state will have two weeks to ask the political party/alliance with the most MPs to nominate a prime minister, whose responsibility it is to form a government. Maleki, who remains the prime minister-designate until August, is responsible for carrying the process through and it is his delaying tactics that are blamed for the current political chaos in Iraq – a stalemate that has paved the way for Isis’s military advances.

The Iraqi prime minister has now acquired some powerful enemies. The United States, Britain and some factions of Iran’s Islamic Republic are looking for an alternative figure. John Kerry, Tony Blair and senator John McCain all agree that Maleki needs to stand down before a unity government can take shape in Baghdad. In late June US deputy secretary of state William Burns discussed Iraq with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in Vienna. US officials claim Iran is sending out conflicting messages over whether it is prepared to support a new Shi’ite prime minister other than Maleki. Both Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Ahmed Chalabi, mentioned as possible replacements, are acceptable to Iran’s government. However, ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has publicly declared his support for Maleki and demanded the US stop interfering in Iraq’s political deliberations.

His views are supported by some commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In fact the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in military operations against Isis. For all the denials by Iran’s foreign ministry officials regarding the country’s military intervention in Iraq, there are a number of reports over the last couple of weeks of funerals held for Revolutionary Guards, as well as for Iranian airforce pilots, killed in Iraq and Syria.

Tribal leaders and Sunni politicians in northern Iraq have also been blamed for the crisis. Without the active cooperation or acceptance of locals, Isis would not have been able to capture so many cities. Those Sunni leaders who think they are preparing the ground for an Islamic state have clearly not thought through the implications of being part of an Isis-led ‘rogue state’, with little or no access to oil; a state where self-appointed ‘caliphs’ will interfere forcefully in every aspect of the private and social lives of Iraqi citizens in the cities under its control, irrespective of their religious and cultural background.

Kurdistan

In the midst of this political and military chaos, incompetent, corrupt and deluded Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also hoping to benefit from the situation, and are calling for Kurdish independence. Having secured temporary control of the Kirkuk oil refinery on July 1, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, told the BBC he intends to hold a referendum within months – Iraq was already “effectively partitioned”, he added. No sooner had Barzani spoken than the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, promised cooperation with any new state.

The news of Netanyahu’s support initiated postings on the internet and the social media of the historical background to Israeli-Kurdish relations, including photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, embracing the then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan. In 2004 Israeli officials met with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, publicly affirmed good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.1

Soon after the Israeli statement, social-imperialist groups, ranging from the Worker-communist Party of Iran to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain, echoed Israel’s position on the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

Iran’s response followed soon after, with a warning to its former allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not to declare independence, since Israel was plotting to divide Iraq. Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying: “Undoubtedly the vigilant Iraqi people will not allow the Zionist regime and enemies of a unified Iraq to carry out their plots and realise their immature fantasies in the region.” Deputy minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the US is going for a Ukraine scenario in Iraq.

However, before anyone gets too excited about an ‘independent Kurdistan’ (limited to Kurdish territory in Iraq, of course), let me remind them that the biggest obstacle to such a plan will be economic considerations. Barzani clearly hopes to benefit from oil revenues generated from areas under his control, but the Kurdish authorities are currently in dispute with the central government and Baghdad is withholding payment of the share of the national budget allocated to the Kurdish regional government. Any serious attempts at separation will reduce the chances of the Kurdish authorities obtaining sufficient funds for economic survival. Moreover, the territory is landlocked, and the ‘independence’ plan is based on the income gained from the export of oil resources through Turkey. This will depend on the outcome of lengthy negotiations with Ankara. In other words, the new Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic survival will be in the hands of Ankara (not exactly the Kurds’ best friend) instead of Baghdad. Turkey’s support for such a state will no doubt include plans to control and silence aspirations for independence in Turkish Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, exaggerated stories about the role of KDP pishmargehs in fighting Isis in northern Iraq do not match reports from the region. Barzani’s initial order to his pishmargehs was to avoid conflict with Isis. It is the PKK and Pejhak guerrillas who have been taking the lead against Isis advances in Kurdish territory in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Barzani and his supporters should be well aware that Isis’s ambitions go far beyond defeating the Shia government in Baghdad. It is violently opposed to semi-secular Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is no state-imposed sexual segregation, where some women dare go out without a headscarf, where alcohol is openly sold and consumed …

There is also the question of Sunni Arabs living in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are fiercely nationalistic and will oppose any talk of independence. Iraqi Turkmen in and around Kirkuk are also unhappy about Barzani’s proposal and are threatening to unite against the Kurdish regional government’s attempts to fully integrate Kirkuk into the region.

No-one should take Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in the Iranian and the British left seriously when they talk of the “birth of a new Kurdish nation” in Iraq. Any unilateral attempt at declaring the current Kurdish region independent would unleash civil war.

Stability

For all the hype about Isis’s military gains in the last few weeks, we should remember that last time jihadists, in the shape of al Qa’eda forces led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, controlled a large chunk of northern Iraq, they did not keep hold of it for long, because their brutality alienated the majority of the local population and they also managed to alienate the Sunni tribes who had backed them. Reports from Iraq imply the new ‘caliph’ has not learned any lessons from the previous occasion. No wonder al Qa’eda has distanced itself from its former ally.

Having said that, clearly the unpopular Maleki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, does not believe he can stop Isis without huge support – and in the case of Iraq almost everyone is now involved: Russian jets, Iranian planes and ground forces, as well as US drones.

Although the governments in Iran and Iraq have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of funding the jihadi movement, the Saudis, together with Jordan and Morocco, are now concerned that it could endanger their own rule. In the case of Saudi Arabia there is clearly a feeling that the monster it has created is out of control. Nothing else would explain the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with talk of a possible visit by the chairman of Iran’s expediency council, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, to Riyadh.

On July 5 Rafsanjani proposed the following: “To fight extremism … a collective effort should be made by all Muslim countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to prevent a perception that Islamic nations and governments depend on foreign powers to maintain their stability and security.”2

Once again it is clear that, far from securing ‘democracy and prosperity’, the ‘war on terror’ unleashed by Bush and Blair has created such chaos that the two most reactionary countries in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – could soon be widely seen as forces of moderation and “stability”.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. The Guardian June 21.

2. www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/07/06/370099/iran-ksa-must-unite-against-extremism.

Iraq: A disaster waiting to happen

ira

The US and Iran find themselves on the same side and ready to cooperate, warns Yassamine Mather

News from Iraq is getting worse by the hour. Many cities in the north of the country have now fallen to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), working in alliance with a variety of Sunni groups and tribes. The mortar attack on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery is another example of the escalation of the conflict. On June 17 news came of an attempt to capture of the city of Baquba, the capital of Diyala province, which is just 64 kilometres north of Baghdad.

Isis already controls Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar and a number of smaller cities and towns. However, its gains in the north of Iraq are not just military advances: the group is now able to access government military equipment, including helicopters and Humvee military vehicles, as well as substantial funds held at banks and insurance companies in the places it has taken. It is reported that the banks of Mosul alone have increased the jihadist group’s funds by $400 million. Of course, Isis has additional regular income from the oilfields it controls in eastern Syria, the sale of antiquities looted from historical sites, as well as donations from wealthy contributors in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

According to David Gardner in the Financial Times, “When your second largest city is overrun by a black-shirted horde of jihadi fanatics and your army melts away, you call for a state of emergency but your parliament cannot field a quorum, what you have is a fast failing state. That is what Nouri al-Maleki, Iraq’s irredeemably sectarian prime minister, is presiding over, in what may be his afflicted country’s last gasp as a unified nation.”1

Although most reports trace Isis back to Syria in 2013, the group’s leaders have a longer history as part of an offshoot of al Qa’eda. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isis’s main figurehead, was born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, and joined the insurgents soon after the 2003 US-led invasion.

The group claims to have fighters from the UK, France, Germany and other European countries, as well as the US, and its declared aim is to create an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. However, its main enemy is Iran – Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been fighting Isis for the last few months in Syria. Isis forces are now less than 40 kilometres from the Iranian border, threatening the Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf in Iraqi territory. The propaganda is clear: liberate the region from the takfiri (apostates or those they accuse of being impure or adulterous Shias).

According to prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who should know about Isis and other Jihadist groups, Isis has no more than around 3,000 fighters, so it could not have advanced so rapidly without help from local Sunni tribes and political groups. In many of Iraq’s northern cities, members and supporters of the Islamic Party, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, have joined forces with Isis.

Roots in 2003

Contrary to comments by the western media, none of this should come as a surprise. After all, Isis’s car bombings in Shia areas of Baghdad started last year and the group has controlled Fallujah since March 2014. More importantly, the current disaster in Iraq was predicted by anyone with even limited familiarity with the region as early as 2002, when the US and its allies began preparations for the invasion of Iraq. These events are a direct consequence of the 2003 invasion – Isis’s support from Sunnis has everything to do with the US carpet-bombing of Fallujah and its support for successive sectarian Shia administrations in Baghdad (which, ironically, allied with the west’s pariah state in the region, Iran). No amount of denial and falsification by Tony Blair and other warmongers can change this.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 fundamentally altered the balance of forces in the region. It surgically removed the reactionary, but more or less secular, rule of Saddam Hussein and put in power a Shia government, albeit under the auspices of the US occupation.

That government was and remains very close to Iran. It was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia, and most of the Sunni states, whose manoeuvres against it started from the very beginning. There can be no doubt that, for all its talk of inclusiveness regarding Sunnis, Turkmen and Kurds, the Iraqi government followed sectarian policies from the very start. Sunnis face routine discrimination and corruption is ripe. Initially the armed opposition to the Shia state was not jihadist – some of it was not even religious: it was simply against the occupation. It was always a question of when, not if, the jihadists would intervene.

Having said that, it would be wrong to see this as a Shia-Sunni conflict pure and simple. As Sami Ramadani has reminded us this week, “Prior to the 2003 US-led occupation, the only incident was the 1941 violent looting of Jewish neighbourhoods … The bombing of synagogues in Baghdad in 1950-51 turned out to be the work of Zionists to frighten Iraq’s Jews – one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world – into emigrating to Israel, following their refusal to do so. Until the 1970s nearly all Iraq’s political organisations were secular, attracting people from all religions and none.”2

The current conflict is about not just the instability the war created, but the balance of geopolitical forces in the region – not least the ‘Arab spring’. Contrary to Tony Blair, the Arab spring was not about the kind of deformed democracy hypocritically promoted by Bush and himself. It was a rebellion against pro-western dictators, and for better economic conditions at a time when the transfer of the worst aspects of the global economic crisis to the countries of the periphery had worsened the living conditions of the majority of the population in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.

In the Arab world there was also shame about defeat in the Iraq war, frustration with the conciliatory attitude of pro-western rulers regarding the Palestinian issue. The Arab masses rebelled against dictators they saw as puppets or allies of the west. Many in Cairo as well as Tunis and Damascus rightly saw their rulers as being partly responsible for the whole situation. It is true that the Syrian uprising started as part of the Arab spring before jihadists, including Isis, got involved, but who financed these jihadists? The west’s main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. Why? Because they were fearful of Iran’s increased influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. So Blair would do better to keep quiet – every word he utters exposes not just his reactionary self-justification, but his complete ignorance of the region.

The key for us is to keep reminding people that we are in this terrible situation not because Sunnis do not like Shias, or vice versa; not because Arabs simply enjoying fighting each other. We are here because of western politicians, such as Bush and Blair, who were clueless about what was going on in the Middle East. We face this situation because of the history of colonialism and the way arbitrary borders were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman empire – and again Blair’s comments show his blatant ignorance of that history.

We are here because the west supported the shah’s dictatorship, because it supported Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government in its war against Iran’s Islamic Republic throughout the 1980s – and then, when Saddam became the ‘enemy’, the US turned a blind eye to Iran’s advances in the region. Then, in the mid-2000s, wary of the change it had inadvertently caused in the balance of forces in the region and concerned about Iran’s influence, it escalated the conflict with Iran, using the excuse of the country’s nuclear programme; it punished the Iranian people (rather than the government) through stringent sanctions. Finally, now that another enemy has appeared, the west is seeking to strike an alliance with what until yesterday was its enemy. No wonder there is cynicism in the region and beyond about this latest phase of US foreign diplomacy.

The situation is, then, that the two countries directly and indirectly responsible for the creation of the current mess in Iraq and Syria – ie, the United States and Iran – are now joining forces to discuss cooperation regarding the “security situation in Iraq”. Both have already committed hundreds of military personnel to ‘advise’ Baghdad.

On June 17 the US dispatched USS Mesa Verde, which carries combat helicopters, to the Persian Gulf to join other naval ships, including the aircraft carrier, USS George HW Bush. President Barack Obama has, after all, said that no option is off the table – and that includes military air strikes.

Iran is already militarily involved. A senior member of the Revolutionary Guards has been in the country for the past three weeks to advise the government of Nouri al-Maleki and, according to some reports, he is leading military operations in Baghdad. On June 13 it was confirmed that hundreds of Revolutionary Guards were already fighting in Iraq, and Iranian president Hassan Rowhani has said that Iran is ready to step up its intervention. Let us not forget that until a few months ago the US was supporting the Syrian insurgents against the pro-Iran regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Hillary Clinton thinks military strikes are unlikely and suggests the US should work with the Maleki government to get its army fit for purpose. She claims the Iraqi army must become more disciplined, less sectarian, less corrupt. Clearly, she is delusional. The US occupation has relied on a sectarian Shia state to rule post-war Iraq, so it is a bit late now to worry about sectarianism in that country.

What about corruption? The army learnt what it knows about corruption from the likes of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other representatives of the US-led occupation. They saw how ‘Iraqi democracy’ meant allowing companies like Halliburton to make billions out of war. The Iraqi army is proving spectacularly useless in fighting the jihadists, but it is able to suppress and execute civilians. The idea of ‘retraining’ a force like this is akin to the notion of retraining the Mafia.

None of this excuses the barbaric acts of the jihadists – they are from another era. But it does underline the correctness of the position that we in Hands Off the People of Iran have consistently taken on the reactionary nature of both imperialism and political Islam.

New context

The situation in Iraq has changed the whole context of the negotiations on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. The US is now in a far more precarious situation – Republicans have been pointing this out very forcefully. If a week ago there was doubt as to whether the interim deal could be extended in the absence of any agreement before the July 20 deadline, suddenly we hear of the drafting of a final agreement. All obstacles seem to have been removed.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has rushed through plans to reopen the British embassy in Tehran and David Cameron is going the extra mile – admitting to MI5’s role in the coup that overthrew the government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. However, all this can change overnight if discussions about Iraq fail or a new enemy is identified in the region. There is nothing stopping US foreign policy taking another turn.

Whatever the outcome of the current conflict, the future looks bad. The Iraqi government has had to rely on hard-line Shia militias, including those who previously fought against the US occupation. If they survive, such forces will demand a greater role in state affairs – and stricter implementation of Shia Islamic legislation. Without some sort of progressive movement from below we are looking at the possibility of barbarism. And it will not just blight Iraq: it will spill over into Syria and Lebanon, Turkey and Iran.

This will not be a straightforward civil war. The jihadists have found allies amongst former Ba’athists and tribal forces opposed to the Iraqi state. But these forces will soon be alienated by the extremism of Isis, as in Syria. There, it formed alliances with moderate Islamic and secular groups fighting Assad. However, soon it began to dominate those groups, expecting them to adhere to strict sharia law. It is the same in Iraqi cities where Isis has the upper hand. So it will not be a case of a straightforward conflict between Sunni and Shia. There will be infighting amongst Sunnis and Shias and the likelihood of further fragmentation.

The situation is even more complicated in the Kurdish areas. The jihadists have largely left the Kurds alone and have taken the opportunity, for example, to move on Kirkuk, in the oil-rich part of Iraqi Kurdistan. There are unconfirmed reports that Kurdish Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani has ordered his forces to hold their fire against Isis. But Kurds should not be fooled. The jihadists have an absolute programme of imposing sharia everywhere. From that point of view, they actually have more in common with Maleki as the head of a Shia state than with the Kurdish government.

An Iraq divided into three or more separate countries might suit the pro-imperialist, Masoud Barzani, along with western arms manufacturers and oil companies. But it would be a disaster for the peoples of these ethnically mixed regions, producing a situation of permanent conflict.

The lesson that this disastrous situation underlines yet again is the need to be implacably opposed to imperialism and its military adventures, while at the same time standing against political Islam in all its shades – from moderate, through radical to jihadist. We say no to US intervention, no to Iranian intervention. They and other reactionary forces have caused this tragedy and, even if their intervention were to secure military victory against Isis, it would not diminish support for the Islamists – quite the opposite.

If the US really wanted to deal with the Jihadists, then logically it should settle accounts with their paymasters in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. The problem is that, when they were fighting Assad, the west was more or less unconcerned with their ‘extremism’ and adherence to jihadist political Islam. Now it might be too late.

Notes

1. Financial Times June 13.

2. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/16/sectarian-myth-of-iraq.