The origins, politics and economics of the Islamic State
As imperialism once again changes its allies, the left needs to stick to its principles, says Yassamine Mather
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.
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.
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.
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 l