New fault lines in the Middle East: ISIS in a regional context

As the calls for more direct intervention in Iraq grow and the US drops their first bombs, Andy Cunningham looks at what the rise of the Islamic State means for the wider Middle East.

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Following discussions with other comrades, this article was revised by the author on 14/8/14 to remove a factual error and to avoid confusion in other areas. Details of the changes made can be found in the comments.

Who are ISIS?

When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exploded onto Western news screens in June this year, it was as if an army of Jihadis had sprung fully formed from the desert to scream across Northern and Western Iraq, conquering all in their path. This was a seismic shift in Middle Eastern politics, with one commentator calling it the biggest change since the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the region between the UK and France.

The truth about ISIS is a little less dramatic. ISIS, now simply called the Islamic State, grew out of an amalgamation of Sunni militias that have been fighting first the US and UK occupation, then the corrupt government of Nouri al-Maliki. Often described in the west as an ‘offshoot of Al Qaeda’, one of its constituent parts was previously known Al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS, however, has undergone a lot of development since those days (including a shooting war with official Al Qaeda fighters) and is now a more formidable organisation than anything that Al Qaeda can call upon.

So how did ISIS grow from a ‘terrorist’ network into an organisation that can claim to control a territory covering 9 million people and roughly equivalent to in size to Britain? Understanding this is key to analysing what ISIS means for the Middle East.

Resisting the occupation

ISIS’s rapid success in Iraq is partly due to the legacy of the 2003 invasion. After the initial collapse of the Ba’athist state in the early months of 2003, an ongoing popular mass resistance had developed across Iraq. Neither Sunni or Shia but compromising of a patchwork of militias rooted in both communities. This resistance rattled the US occupation so much that it began to turn to that old imperialist method of divide and rule. The resulting rise in sectarian violence spiralled until entire districts of Iraq and its major cities were cleansed of minorities. It was the occupation that was key to defining the Iraqi resistance in sectarian terms.

Following the US retreat from Iraq, leaving behind a corrupt Shia-led government in Baghdad, this sectarianism has become deeply rooted within Sunni militias. It is precisely those militias, some based on tribal groupings, others on the old Ba’athist officer class, that ISIS have been able to draw into a coalition big enough to control most of Northern and Western Iraq.

The Syrian crucible

The current Civil War in Syria is proving to be an incredibly important theatre in terms of defining the future direction of the Middle East. It was ISIS’s involvement in Syria that was the key catalyst to its transformation into force that could occupy entire territories. Not only did the Civil War give ISIS an opportunity to develop new military tactics, its involvement in fighting Assad has given it a steady stream of recruits from around the world and allowed it to control large territories for the first time.

These developments were also encouraged by Saudi Arabia who had turned a blind eye to money and volunteers headed for ISIS before 2014. The Saudi ruling class obsession with countering Iranian influence in the Middle East has often meant a hands off approach to challenging reactionary groups such as ISIS. Imagine the rage in the palaces of Riyadh when ISIS screamed across Iraq and declared their own Caliphate, claiming the allegiance of all Muslims in the region.

The experience of Syria and their growing hegemony within the Sunni resistance in Iraq encouraged ISIS to act more boldly. In January this year it declared the City of Fallujah in Iraq as an Islamic State and after recapturing the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah (from which it was expelled by other Syrian opposition forces in January 2014) it instituted its variant of Sharia law there. These experiences laid the ground work for its capture of Mosul in June this year and the declaration of an Islamic Caliphate on 29 June.

Caliphs and class struggle

Since the declaration of a new Islamic Caliphate centred on Mosul, ISIS has moved to consolidate its position in areas under its control. On our TV screens we witness the most obvious result of this consolidation: the masses of refugees, those who have fled in fear to mountains and deserts and who know face starvation and disease. Many refugees have tried to make it to Kurdish controlled areas, as the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq is currently the only force offering any sort of coherent resistances to ISIS.

The plight of these refugees is a logical extension of ISIS’s ideology and position. The extreme sectarianism not only extends to Shia Muslims but also other ‘People’s of the Book’ such as Christians in the area. For those who don’t fit either of these categories, like the Dawaaseen (Yazidi people) or those not ethnically Arab such as Turkmen or Kurds, life in the new Caliphate has become near impossible. ISIS itself is doing everything possible to cleanse areas under its control by arresting and killing dissenters and blowing up shrines that its sees as heretical.

ISIS rule is also based on an extreme social reaction. They have ordered women in Mosul to wear full face veils and stay indoors unless they have good reason to be out on the street. In a period of chaos and shortages, stealing is now punished by amputation and, according to some reports out of Syria, other crimes can attract crucifixion as a punishment.

Alongside this purge of religious and political dissent in its territory, ISIS is also carefully trying to dismantle the Sunni coalition that helped it win such spectacular gains in Iraq. This process has seen the arrest and liquidation of Ba’athist and tribal militias that fail to swear allegiance to the new ISIS Caliph and the willing incorporation of other militias into the new Islamic State.

A similar process is also under way in Syria, with ISIS fighting for control in rebel-held areas of the country. As it gains hegemony over the Islamist opposition in Syria, it has been able to push other Syria opposition groups into ever smaller territories. Many of these groups (previously championed by the West, like the Free Syrian Army) are collapsing under the pressure of a twin assault from Assad and ISIS. ISIS has reportedly reached the Eastern outskirts of Aleppo, the city at the heart of the Syrian Revolution and also has de facto control over Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces.

It’s important to understand that while these actions are ideologically inspired, they are also the result of the political and military position of ISIS – a group of a few thousand fighters attempting to control a population of 9 million and found a new state. To help the numbers stack up, ISIS are carrying out a calculated purge of elements it may find hard to govern in the short and medium terms.

This quest for longevity is also what’s driving further ISIS expansion. While it would be impossible for ISIS to hold Baghdad with its huge Shia population (and it may have calculated that the fall of Baghdad would have triggered a much stronger US response), ISIS is still trying to expand its new Caliphate into other areas. This expansion is crucial in gathering new allies to its cause.

But this process cannot continue forever and in order to survive. The new Caliphate will quickly have to adjust to normal capitalist governance. With this will come all the contradictions faced by ruling classes everywhere. Put simply, if ISIS wants to exploit the gas and oil reserves its now sitting on, or run the power stations it now controls, it will need engineers. This reliance on the Sunni working class, with none of the normal ideological props that capitalism has, may prove a more difficult challenge than defeating the Iraqi Army.

New fault lines in the Middle East>

The rise of ISIS has created new fault lines across the region. As the ISIS advance threatened Baghdad, it almost looked like the US and Iran might launch joint air strikes to halt their expansion. In the North and East, Turkey, once a secure supply route for ISIS, is now helping to arm the Kurdish guerrillas it has spent decades trying to kill. In Syria, some fighters supported by Britain, France and the US as ‘moderate Islamists’ are now voluntarily pledging allegiance to ISIS. The strange bedfellows thrown up by the current crisis make for a confusing situation that cuts across the established fault lines of Middle Eastern politics.

From the point of view of western imperialism in the region, they are running out of options fast. In the Syrian theatre, Washington and its allies have to choose between a dictator they’ve consistently likened to Hitler (Bashar al-Assad) or a group of jihadis that even Al Qaeda thought were beyond the pale (ISIS).

In Iraq, the situation is even more serious. Whether al-Maliki’s government stays or goes, the situation doesn’t seem recoverable – what we are witnessing is the partition of Iraq. Even if ISIS were to collapse tomorrow, there is now an independent Kurdistan that has expanded its territory and is offering the only coherent resistance to the new Caliphate. With that territory bought and paid for with the blood of Peshmerga fighters, it would be hard to see them voluntarily submit to Baghdad again, whatever figurehead changes may occur.

Standing in the way of this too is the dominant view in the Shia south of Iraq. Rather than face the reality of the Iraqi Army’s collapse when confronting ISIS, the dominant narrative among the Shia elite is one of Kurdish betrayal leading directly to an ISIS victory. Al-Maliki himself, desperately trying to cling to power in the face of domestic Shia and international pressure, has blamed the fall of Mosul on the Kurdish government in Hewlêr (Irbil). Racist attacks like this make a united front with Kurdish forces increasingly difficult.

For the various sub-imperialisms in the region, ISIS has proved a real challenge. For the ruling class of Saudi Arabia, the reactionary force that shares their ideology has become a danger to their own rule. Saudi troops have been moved to the border with the new Caliphate and recruiters for ISIS have been arrested. The example of a Wahhabi-inspired Islamic State on their borders is providing a real ideological threat to the House of Saud, previously seen as the champion of this reactionary variant of Islam.

For Iran too, the rise of ISIS contains a real threat. Iran was one of the big winners from the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its vocal and material opposition to the occupation won it influence with Shia militias and with the post-occupation Iraqi government. It now sees that government under threat, along with its allies in Assad regime and in Hezbollah in Lebanon. In their place is a new state that stands in complete ideological opposition to Iran and its majority Shia population.

The declaration of the Caliphate has also exposed Turkey’s weakness. At the height of his regional popularity, Recep Erdoğan was the figurehead of a self-style neo-Ottomanism but Turkey’s role in helping ISIS to grow, as well as its reliance on Kurdish fighters to contain its expansion has shown just how superficial such ideas are.

As these various imperialisms try to come to terms with a new situation that is shaking ruling classes from Baghdad to Amman, the missing piece on the Middle Eastern chessboard is the role of the Arab masses and the Arab working class. The rise of ISIS is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring and its failure to win any significant improvement for the Arab masses.

When the Egyptian Revolution brought down Hosni Mubarak in 2011 it represented a high point in the uprising of the Arab masses. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of the Stalinist left and the betrayals of the Arab nationalists, Islamism has become the dominant mode of protest in the Middle East. While Islamist movements take different forms, they are all characterised by an elitist approach to the involvement of the masses. Since the start of the Egyptian Revolution, there has been a different method on show – the active participation of the masses in winning their own liberation. It is instructive that following Egypt, the first uprising in Syria were nationalist and democratic rather than Islamist. But the triumph of Sisi’s counterrevolution in Cairo, which has brought so much horror to Gaza, paved the way for political Islamism to make a comeback. Now when you survey the Middle East, the two success stories to draw lessons from are Islamist ones – Hamas in Palestine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, though this does not necessarily equate the two groups, as the Egyptian comrade Mostafa Omar’s article makes clear.

This fact opens up some serious questions for revolutionaries across the world. Revolutionary Socialists active in the Middle East have made the case for working class independence in the struggle against ISIS, as well as making it clear that any outside involvement in Iraq is unwelcome. The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt shows that the economic policies of these new Islamic capitalists can often encourage the development of independent class action in opposition to neoliberal policies. Ultimately, raising the confidence of the masses inside the Caliphate to challenge both ISIS and the various imperialist players in the region is the only way to ensure a long term solution for Iraq and Syria.

Here in the West, there are two key task for revolutionary socialists. The first is to oppose any intervention by our governments in Iraq or Syria. It is this very intervention that has birthed ISIS and strangled the Egyptian Revolution. US airstrikes on ISIS territories will simply close down space to challenge the group and are more about rehabilitating the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ than they are in helping starving Yazidis. Equally, looking to the various regional imperialisms, such as Iran, does nothing but confirm the sectarian nature of the conflict and close down space for Sunnis to challenge the Caliphate.

For socialists here we have to demonstrate the idea of working class independence in practice by opposing such interventions. The huge movement currently active around the question of Palestine, and the BDS movement is excellent starting point that can make the principle of international working class solidarity concrete to those fighting for liberation in the Middle East.

I also think it is time that we debate whether the ISIS control over large parts of Syria qualitatively changes the nature of the uprising there – does it still represent a progressive mass movement? Can we unconditionally but critically support a Syrian Uprising when its victory would put ISIS in control a territory stretching from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates? These questions, which have already been raised in the movement and workplaces following ISIS consolidation, will require an answer from revolutionary socialists over the coming weeks and months.

The second key task for revolutionaries in Britain is to work to oppose the rise in Islamophobia that ISIS have helped to create. Whether it be the media focus on the Christian minority in Mosul, the underlying message of which is that Islam and Christianity cannot coexist, or the focus on British Muslims who have gone to fight for ISIS, there is a clear attempt to stoke Islamophobia by conflating ‘Islamism’ with ‘ISIS’. Playing out the worst fears of every UKIP voting racist, the implication is that the imposition of Sharia law on Mosul shows just how dangerous the Muslim down the street is. This sort of reactionary propaganda can be most successfully challenged by practical unity with working class Muslims to build solidarity with masses of the Middle East, whether that be in Gaza, Aleppo, Irbil or Baghdad.

There are 16 comments

  1. Matt Collins

    A comrade called Sam Charles Hamad has made the following criticisms of this piece which I have edited together to post up here:

    I think the article downplays the sectarianism of the Maliki regime e.g.:

    “Following the US retreat from Iraq, leaving behind a corrupt Shia-led government in Baghdad, this sectarianism has become deeply rooted within Sunni militias.”

    It’s not just ‘Shia-led’, it’s fully sectarian, and the takfirism of Daesh is not ‘deeply rooted within Sunni militias’. The article completely fails to mention the non-violent, non-sectarian Sunni insurgencies that occurred from 2011 onwards, and the fact that Maliki brutally crushed them using Shia death squads. There’s not one word about the anti-Sunni sectarianism that has allowed Daesh to fester – the ethnic cleansing, the massacres, the day to day brutality, not to mention the economic and social aspects. You can actually trace the sectarianisation of the insurgency from the 2011 Iraqi spring, which contained mostly Sunnis, but was non-sectairan and supported by Shiites too, which was met by brutality by Maliki, to Hawija and Al-Anbar, which was met by massacres by Maliki, right to the beginning of the Daesh offensive, which contrary to popular belief began in Fallujah in January of this year, and not in Mosul in June. The piece also doesn’t even mention the grassroots opposition to Daesh in the areas it rules over: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Aug-04/265968-white-shrouds-mobilize-against-isis-in-syria.ashx#axzz3AD6LlRI5

    “For Iran too, the rise of ISIS contains a real threat. Iran was one of the big winners from the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its vocal and material opposition to the occupation won it influence with Shia militias and with the post-occupation Iraqi government. It now sees that government under threat, along with its allies in Assad regime and in Hezbollah in Lebanon. In their place is a new state that stands in complete ideological opposition to Iran and its majority Shia population.”

    The Iranian regime is probably marginally less reactionary than the Al Saud in terms of domestic policy (which is not a compliment to Iran), but let’s not beat about the bush here: Iran is deeply worried about losing its main base, namely Iraq in its current corrupt, sectarian form, form which it can launch its genocidal counter-revolutionary intervention against the Syrian revolution, from which Daesh in its current form emerged. I despise Al Saud, but it’s actually one of the only countries that is currently funding those forces who are fighting Daesh in Syria, namely the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front of Jamal Maarouf (a coalition of Free Army brigades), while Qatar is funding the anti-Daesh Islamic Front. Iran not only created Daesh to a far greater extent than Saudi did (by sponsoring Assad’s war), but it’s sponsoring and participating in the kind of genocide in Syria that Daesh could only ever dream about, not to mention sponsoring viciously sectarian militias in Iraq, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which has murdered hundreds of innocent Sunnis and which isn’t that different to Daesh to your average Sunni.

    “The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt shows that the economic policies of these new Islamic capitalists can often encourage the development of independent class action in opposition to neoliberal policies”

    There was no ‘independent class action in opposition to neoliberal policies’. This is sheer fantasy. Further the article doesn’t even the mention the R4BIA movement either, which is no wonder as he seems to take the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists seriously, and they either don’t talk about R4BIA or slander them as ‘counter-revolutionary’.

    With regards to Syria the piece is weak. It begs the question whether one ought to support the Assad regime because of the incalculable evil of Daesh, as if Assad’s barrel bombs in Aleppo aren’t actually paving the way for Daesh to take over Aleppo, along with the regime. No, if people genuinely care about defeating Daesh, then they ought to support those non-Baathist fascists who are fighting them.

    “These developments were also encouraged by countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that were arming and supplying ISIS until very recently”

    This is completely inaccurate, the author really ought to remove that. If he wants his analysis to be even thought of as serious. Daesh has not received any state support, despite the desperate need of two-campists who support Iran to make absurd claims about Saudi-Zionist-Western support for it.

  2. billy

    “which is no wonder as he seems to take the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists seriously”
    I should hope everyone should take the RS in Egypt seriously! Even the great expert Matt Collins!

    1. Miles

      Billy- I think you missed the bit at the top where Matt made it clear he was posting on behalf of an Egyptian comrade.

      Do you think “everyone” takes the RS seriously? People in and around the IST certainly do, but I doubt many Egyptians have even heard of them

  3. Andy Cunningham

    Firstly on Syria in response to Tim’s comment.

    There is a debate in the movement about what ISIS means in terms of Syria – certainly in my workplace people have raised the issue of whether its now just all rubbish and there’s nothing good involved. I think its important that revolutionaries take up those debates rather than simply carrying on as if it was still 2011 when the actual facts of the situation have changed markedly.

    More than that, however, I think Tim is conflating the uprising in Syria against Assad with the Syrian Revolution – a process that takes place within that Uprising but is not the same as it. ISIS represents a serious counterrevolution that has grown up principally within opposition controlled territory. Its war on both Assad and on Syrian Revolutionaries is seriously threatening the survival of the Syrian revolution as its currently constituted and that I think needs to be acknowledge. I alo think that the British left could do with some discussion (that I couldn’t do justice to) on about what the changing situation means for how we organise. Organisations like the Syrian Solidarity Movement are key to our current activity but I think we have to be prepared for a left liberal call for imperialist intervention in both Syria and Iraq (which has stepped up a gear today after the first US bombings). This is not just about US involvement but also about some on the left being soft on Iranian involvement through Assad and in Iraq.

    We also have to be politically sophisticated enough to draw a distinction between a popular uprising of workers and peasants that finds expression through their Islamic beliefs and certain groups of political Islamists that represent deep reaction. This means rejecting the binary that Tim mentions above of either Assad or ISIS and instead looking to the potential of the masses to oppose both.

  4. Andy Cunningham

    Firstly on Syria in response to Tim’s comment.

    There is a debate in the movement about what ISIS means in terms of Syria – certainly in my workplace people have raised the issue of whether its now just all rubbish and there’s nothing good involved. I think its important that revolutionaries take up those debates rather than simply carrying on as if it was still 2011 when the actual facts of the situation have changed markedly.

    More than that, however, I think Tim is conflating the uprising in Syria against Assad with the Syrian Revolution – a process that takes place within that Uprising but is not the same as it. ISIS represents a serious counterrevolution that has grown up principally within opposition controlled territory. Its war on both Assad and on Syrian Revolutionaries is seriously threatening the survival of the Syrian revolution as its currently constituted and that I think needs to be acknowledge. I alo think that the British left could do with some discussion (that I couldn’t do justice to) on about what the changing situation means for how we organise. Organisations like the Syrian Solidarity Movement are key to our current activity but I think we have to be prepared for a left liberal call for imperialist intervention in both Syria and Iraq (which has stepped up a gear today after the first US bombings). This is not just about US involvement but also about some on the left being soft on Iranian involvement through Assad and in Iraq.

    We also have to be politically sophisticated enough to draw a distinction between a popular uprising of workers and peasants that finds expression through their Islamic beliefs and certain groups of political Islamists that represent deep reaction. This means rejecting the binary that Tim mentions above of either Assad or ISIS and instead looking to the potential of the masses to oppose both.

  5. Nick Evans

    Like Tim, I was surprised by the paragraph which asked whether we can continue to support the Syrian revolution. The savagery of the counter-revolution, both in the form of Assad’s barrel bombs, and in the form of the Islamic State, should not be a reason to withdraw our support for the revolution.

    This article fails to acknowledge the way the Islamic State was in part created by the Assad regime, which opened its prisons for many of the Islamic State’s leaders, while keeping revolutionaries in jail (http://www.newsweek.com/how-syrias-assad-helped-forge-isis-255631). Assad systematically bombed civilian populations while he left ISIS HQ untouched.

    Who exactly are the “fighters armed and paid for by Britain, France and the US” in Syria that the article is referring to? What are the grounds for claiming that “countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar… were arming and supplying ISIS until very recently”? In what sense was Turkey a “key ally of ISIS”?

    The governments of Britain, France, the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey all have bloody hands in this region. As the article argues, the US-led invasion of Iraq and its deliberate fostering of sectarianism are directly responsible for the horrors now facing the people of Iraq and Syria. It is good that the legacy of the movement against the war in Iraq saved Syrians from American bombs or American ground troops to add to their troubles.

    But we need to be more careful about reproducing the propaganda of the Assad regime and its allies. The idea that the western imperial powers are mortal enemies of Assad is a convenient fiction for both sides. Even by its own admission, the US was developing closer ties with the Assad regime from 2009 up until the revolutions of 2011 (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm). Since the outbreak of the revolution, the US has repeatedly said that it does not want to see the downfall of the regime, even if Assad himself has to go, and the reason is that they can’t find any forces in Syria that would serve US interests (http://eaworldview.com/2013/08/syria-analysis-us-military-rules-out-american-intervention/). While waging war on the Syrian people, and the Palestinians in places like Yarmouk, Assad and Hezbollah have left Israel free to massacre the people of Gaza.

    I entirely agree that our job in the UK is to challenge the Islamophobia that is fuelling, and is fuelled by, these terrible events. I also agree that we need to build practical solidarity with working class people in the region. But I don’t see how that is helped by ignoring the grass-roots opposition to the Islamic State and by washing our hands of a revolution against the dictator who helped to create it.

  6. Andy Cunningham

    In response to Sam.

    The Maliki regime is a sectarian regime and I haven’t tried to underplay that. That sectarianism isn’t rooted in 2011 though it can be traced in a direct line back to the policies of Occupation. Faced with this reality, however, its understandable that when militias based in areas that happen to be Sunni, fighting against a sectarian government thats based in the Shia community in a conflict that imperialism is trying to promote as sectarian that the terms of the conflict become entrenched along sectarian lines. This is nothing new and is the long term issue in India and Pakistan or Ireland or anywhere else imperialism has used this trope. It’s important to recognise this because the alternative is that there is something intrinsically sectarian about Shias or Sunnis in Iraq (though I think its far to say your comments place the blame for sectarianism with the Shias, which is not true).

    Equally, I don’t think my article is soft on Iran at all and its gets the same treatment as other regional imperialisms. I don’t argue its more or less progressive. Quite the opposite in fact.

    In terms of Egypt there is a genuine political disagreement here. There is an analysis that see’s the masses of Egypt as passive players in the revolution there. In this world the revolution finds its expression through Morsi’s government and that revolution was overturned by Sisi’s coup with the support of what I assume are either reactionaries or duped masses. This is where a criticism of two campism fits. The facts of the Egyptian Revolution are very different and the defeat that it suffered at Sisi’s hands does not mean that we can rehabilitate the role the Brotherhood played in government in terms of carrying out anti-working class policies.

    See my comments on Syria above.

    I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’ve missed anything important.

  7. Andy Cunningham

    I response to Nick on Assad releasing ISIS fighters. I have to be honest that I’m not convinced by the article you’ve posted and I could easily see how Syrian revolutionaries faced with having to fight both sides might want to draw links between the two but I think on the basis of hearsay I’m reluctant to make a concession to the conspiracy theorists. Especially when what isn’t in question is that Assad and ISIS are two sides of the same reactionary coin.

    Having said that I would wholeheartedly agree with your nuance about the role of the US, UK, etc in Syria and their attitude to the Assad regime. I certainly think that would make an excellent extended piece and I would encourage you to write it.

  8. Rob Owen

    Nick, I’m perhaps less clear on some of the nuances here but I do think people are jumping the gun by suggesting an implied support for Assad. It is quite possible to take a “the revolution is now swamped by the counter revolution” position and still look for ways to support the genuine resistance that exists. Part of this has to be analysing and tracing the fate of the revolutionary process in Syria. I struggle to see how the Syrian revolution exists beyond very small bases, a small (but significant) revolutionary grouping and a popular memory and elements of resistance within the rebel held zones. To call for victory to either side could now mean either supporting Assad or the further growth of ISIS. The possibility of Assad’s fall sparking a renewed wave of revolutionary struggle is possible but given the lack of a movement or significant radical organisation coming out of the last wave seems increasingly unlikely.

    Starting from taking sides in what seems now primarily to be a civil war on the basis of supporting the revolution makes little sense when neither of the two sides are pushing in a revolutionary direction and the mass base of the revolution has been at best pacified and at worst destroyed. Where the analysis of Counterfire (and others who developed an equivocal view of the revolution earlier) failed was to stop tracing the legacy of the revolution that remains. I’m not 100% convinced the revolution in Syria has been defeated but I am 100% convinced it is a very real possibility we should discuss.

    On some of the disputed facts:
    – Saudi and Qater as states never funded ISIS but it is hard to dispute their rulers allowed a variety of figures and companies to direct significant fund to them under their protection. I have not seen it contested that the growth of the “Islamic state” did not attract significant funding from sources within those states.
    – On Turkey it is both a Kurdish and (more cynically) and Iranian position that Turkey has been allowing funds and ISIS fighters to cross its borders as a counterweight to the Kurdish groups linked to the PKK (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/06/zaman-syria-kurds-rojava-ypg-muslim-pyd-pkk-turkey-isis.html#). There would seem likely to be a reasonable degree of truth in this.
    – On the US, British paid fighters: yes this is a large overstatement. But the CIA programme in Syria does train and support sections of the rebels and certain groupings enjoy western backing. The fact this falls short of arming rebel groups has been for two reasons: 1) the humbling of US hawks after the disaster in Iraq. 2) The chaotic nature of the Syrian rebels and the difficulty in controlling who gets the arms. The second of these points has been refered to repeatedly by Obama. The growth of ISIS seems to have now tipped the US in favour of more direct interference alongside its “humanitarian bombing” in Iraq. In June the Wall Street Journal (while reporting Obama asking for 500 million to aid the rebels in a major program) quoted the pentagon as saying “The proposed Pentagon program would supplement or replace a covert Central Intelligence Agency-led arming and training program, which President Obama authorized last year but which critics inside and outside the administration said was too small to make a difference on the battlefield. “The CIA doesn’t do this en masse. That is what we do—train militaries,” said a senior defense official.” Directly referring to the US support for the rebels.

    To accept these influences does not diminish the dynamic of the rebel forces as independent actors nor the potential of a revolutionary movement to gain independent political leadership. However the role of funds from Imperialist states (and regional powers) sloshing around in a civil war situation (especially one with very little social character remaining) is a genuine factor.

    The passing reference to Egypt in the article is, I think, to crude but it is not the focus of the article. I hope we write a bit more on Egypt in future. I think some of the thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood in particular (since it held office) has lost some of the sense of the contradictions inherent in it as a mass organisation.

  9. rs21

    Following discussions with other comrades, this article was revised by the author on 14/8/14 to remove a factual error and to avoid confusion in other areas. The changes made are:
    **************************
    These developments were also encouraged by countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that were arming and supplying ISIS until very recently. Recognising ISIS as fellow-thinkers thanks to their extremely reactionary and sectarian ideology, the ruling classes of the Arabian peninsula were happy to build-up an opposition to Assad that they hoped would work in their interests (and against Iran’s). Imagine the rage in the palaces of Riyadh when ISIS showed their disregard for their old ruling class partners and declared their own Caliphate, claiming the allegiance of all Muslims in the region.

    has been changed to:

    These developments were also encouraged by Saudi Arabia who had turned a blind eye to money and volunteers headed for ISIS before 2014. The Saudi ruling class obsession with countering Iranian influence in the Middle East has often meant a hands off approach to challenging reactionary groups such as ISIS. Imagine the rage in the palaces of Riyadh when ISIS screamed across Iraq and declared their own Caliphate, claiming the allegiance of all Muslims in the region.
    *************************
    In the North and East, Turkey, once a key ally of ISIS, is now helping to arm the Kurdish guerrillas it has spent decades trying to kill.

    has been changed to:

    In the North and East, Turkey, once a secure supply route for ISIS, is now helping to arm the Kurdish guerrillas it has spent decades trying to kill.
    **************************
    In Syria, fighters armed and paid for by Britain, France and the US are now voluntarily pledging allegiance to ISIS.

    has been changed to:

    In Syria, some fighters supported by Britain, France and the US as ‘moderate Islamists’ are now voluntarily pledging allegiance to ISIS.
    **************************
    Rather than face the reality of the Iraqi Army’s collapse when confronting ISIS, the dominant narrative is one of Kurdish betrayal leading directly to an ISIS victory.

    has been changed to:

    Rather than face the reality of the Iraqi Army’s collapse when confronting ISIS, the dominant narrative among the Shia elite is one of Kurdish betrayal leading directly to an ISIS victory.
    **************************
    For the ruling class of Saudi Arabia, the reactionary force that they helped to create as bulwark against infidel Shi’ites (especially to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria) has become a danger to their own rule.

    has been changed to:

    For the ruling class of Saudi Arabia, the reactionary force that shares their ideology has become a danger to their own rule.
    **************************
    This is a question that will require some debate over the coming weeks and months.

    has been changed to:

    These questions, which have already been raised in the movement and workplaces following ISIS consolidation, will require an answer from revolutionary socialists over the coming weeks and months.

  10. Andy Cunningham

    Thanks to comrades for the informative discussion – it has certainly helped clarify things. I’ve edited the article this afternoon in light of the debate. I haven’t taken out the reference to Saudi money – comrades were right and despite this being widely reported there is no evidence for it with most reports simply echoing Malikist or Iranian sources. I’ve also clarified some of the language around some of the other points to make it clearer what I was talking about.

    There is one further point on Syria. Whatever people would wish two things are true about Syria: (i) the situation there has changed dramatically since the rise of the IS (ii) there is a debate in Britain about what the rise of ISIS means in terms of the Syrian revolution. As revolutionaries we cannot simply wish these facts to be different and responding to the debate as if it were still 2011 is not good enough, Comrades should be writing much more on this in general if we want to win the argument in the class that there is still a Syrian revolution that we can support.

  11. townsia

    Whilst it is perfectly legitimate to have a historical perspective on the part played by British and French imperialism in the distortion of boundaries in the Middle East and elsewhere and the conflicts arising from this I think it is more fruitful to bring the analysis of what is happening closer to shore. Not sure ISIS can be seen as anti-imperialist in any meaningful sense of that word. Or brave fighters against a colonialist past. If we look at more recent history we might find a better explanation of what is happening in Syria and Iraq re ISIS.

    Firstly, the American’s have much to answer for in the 2003 invasion of Iraq regarding the fomenting of sectarian exclusion and violence. In the drive for regime change on lying pretexts they not only destroyed the Ba’athist powers that be but they also completely dismantled all the institutions of social control that could at least have guaranteed some form of law and order. This in itself led to massive chaos and disruption but more importantly there was a deliberate policy from Paul Bremer, Bush’s appointed dictator, to exclude Sunni Muslims from public office and political power because they were seen as siding with Sadam Hussein. This entailed the sacking of thousands of soldiers and police officers, the dismantling of the judiciary and the dismissal of many thousands in the civil service as a kind of cleansing process of Ba’athist influence. Coupled together with the installation of a puppet regime composed overwhelmingly of Shia elements that to this day continues to oppress and discriminate against Sunnis and you have the right conditions for a maelstrom of sectarian violence. It is little wonder under these circumstances that Sunni Muslims have joined up with ISIS as the only show in town fighting against their oppressors. Their support for ISIS has been reinforced recently by the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and again in Iraq by Shia Militias.

    Secondly, the fighters of ISIS have taken full advantage of the chaos of civil war in Syria to recruit members from the rebel factions. With a war that has continued inconclusively for over three years this has proved fertile ground for recruitment among the divided and confused opposition. The strength of ISIS’s commitment to its political and religious goals has also prompted attacks against other rebel groups that do not share their vision of the future.

    Thirdly, ISIS’s proclamation of a Caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq with pretensions at world domination (just like America though with different motivations/dynamics) is just that, a proclamation. No democratic process put them there. No-one voted them into office and no popular revolution sanctioned their powers. Their rule came out of the barrel of a gun backed by a rigid and uncompromising religious ideology. Their stance is much like any other Islamic fundamentalist group in that a strict interpretation of sharia law would be applied in the new Caliphate. This has to be seen in the context of resistance to ‘western values’ which are seen to be unclean, impure and corrupting. Hostility to ‘Modernity’ and the ongoing uncertainty and insecurity this brings, by which we mean the juggernaut of capitalist developments in culture, has always been a feature of Islamist fundamentalists fears (as it is of Christian and Jewish ones). Let us not discount the cultural aspects of Islamist resistance as well as the politico/economic ones.

    Lastly, let’s not forget that Syria, Iraq and indeed Egypt have secular, nationalist regimes that have attained a certain measure of freedom under a nominally socialist dispensation. In the past this has been attained under one party, authoritarian states with Kleptocrats in charge but at least they were secular without favouring any particular religious faction over others and are (or were) secure and economically developed to a degree that afforded many people, if not all, a decent standard of living. Do not read this as my defence of these regimes. I simply want to point out what fears there are of losing minimal progressive achievements under rule by Islamist fundamentalists. Witness what happened in Algeria in the 1990s with a bloody civil war against Islamists to protect the gains made by the Algerian revolution against colonialism and for a more progressive socialist system however inadequate. Al-Sisi’s ‘seizure’ of power can also be seen in this light. This was not the usual backroom, secretive coup d’etat by reactionary elements against progressive revolutionary developments. It was backed by millions of Egyptians against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government . The people of Egypt have now been betrayed by Al-Sisi as the new Mubarak. Watch this space for another revolution by the long-suffering Egyptian people?

    I have never agreed with the logic of not being able to oppose reactionary regimes and ‘western’ imperialism at the same time. For people on the Left to be critical of reactionary regimes under attack by the west is to be accused of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ or ‘Islamophobia’. Iran hangs homosexuals and stones women to death for adultery as do countries under the sway of Islamist regimes that apply strict sharia law. However these regimes are seen as bulwarks against imperialism. There are other regimes that will not tolerate free trade unions or workers organisations or indeed any kind of political dissent whatsoever but because they are under attack by the west they are at the forefront of anti-imperialist resistance. To give you one particular example. This twisted logic prompted George Galloway to be critical of Peter Tatchell’s attack on Iran for the above atrocities at a time when the USA was threatening to attack the country. In his usual way of Messianic pronouncement he stated that when the bombs start falling on Iran they will not discriminate between straight or gay people. In other words in a skewed way he is saying forget about your ‘little’ oppressions and worry about the bigger problem of imperialist aggression. To which, in my opinion, the correct response should be: ‘Fuck off!’ There is no reason why we cannot fight against reactionary regimes and imperialism as one inseparable struggle.

    So…where does that leave us in the present circumstances. Whatever is happening in the Middle East has to be seen in bigger geo-political terms . As in the past the Middle East is a playground for inter-imperialist rivalries. Russia has long had an ‘influence’ in Syria and Iran as has the USA and the ‘west’ in Egypt , Israel and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry is around the fight for energy resources with the cover of neoliberal economic practices supposedly promoting ‘freedom’ and liberal values. The hammers of invasion, war and bombing together with crass and failed attempts at setting up puppet regimes has ensured that none of this has succeeded. There does not seem to be much in the way of progressive left movements as we know them in Syria and Iraq. I have no idea what to say next as a meaningful contribution to a way forward out of the morass of misery and destruction in the Middle East. One thing I do believe is that if Islamist fanatics gain an increasing hold over Syria and Iraq that will immeasurably retard any progress towards a liberal regime let alone a revolutionary socialist one. ISIS has to be stopped and to bite the bullet that might mean arming and training the Kurds and Peshmerga as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims to fight against this cancerous growth of reactionary religious movements. That and the end of sectarian divisions has to be achieved as preconditions for any kind of progress to be possible.

    Ian Townson

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