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.
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.