The so-called Islamic State (IS), the terrorist army which came of age fighting for the imperialist subversion of Syria and has now swarmed across northern Iraq committing the vilest atrocities, is serving the interests of imperialism in two main ways.
Firstly, as regards Syria, it is plainly to the advantage of imperialism that its proxy war against Damascus should equip itself with a secure base area in northern Iraq from which to continue a war of attrition against the Syrian government and people. Despite similar base areas in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the proxy war has been driven back into a few pockets and is in desperate need of a lifeline. Whatever nonsense Washington may spout about supporting “moderate” Free Syrian Army and shunning the “extremist” end of the rebel spectrum, the reality is (a) there are no “moderates”, and (b) the weaponry and the cash in any case gravitate towards the most ruthless and best organised terrorist forces – a contest which IS currently wins hands down. So the reality is that imperialism’s best hope of postponing defeat in its proxy war in Syria is for IS to consolidate a viable base area in northern Iraq.
Secondly, as regards Iraq itself: sooner than see Iraq lapse so far from its role as puppet state as to morph into a card-carrying member of the axis of resistance, imperialism would rather see the country broken up along tribal, ethnic and confessional lines. The call for a universal caliphate which melts all existing borders plays straight into the imperialist agenda, preparing the way (the West dreams) for the dismantling of troublesome secular unitary states like Iraq, Syria and Egypt, to be replaced by god knows what historically regressive neocolonial fiefdoms carved out on sectarian lines.
As Paddy Ashdown noxiously expressed it, “What is happening in the Middle East, like it or not, is the wholesale rewriting of the Sykes-Picot borders of 1916 , in favour of an Arab world whose shapes will be arbitrated more by religious dividing lines than the old imperial conveniences of 100 years ago… [B]etter, surely, to face up to the realities of the post-Sykes-Picot Middle East and influence it where we can, than lose the moment standing impotently by, hoping that yesterday will come back again.” ( Paddy Ashdown, 14 August, Guardian, “Western intervention over Isis won’t prevent the break-up of Iraq”)
Of course what Ashdown wearily presents as the sadly inevitable result of Arab backwardness is in fact the desperate aspiration of Anglo-American foreign policy. The sectarian horrors now inflicted by IS are merely an extension of the divide and rule policy by which imperialism sought, sadly with some success, to blunt the edge of national resistance by promoting sectarian hatred by every means at its disposal, all the way from granting political favours to planting bombs in mosques and markets. And what in due course will deny imperialism its aspiration to destroy and break into pieces what it cannot control will be the resurgence of national resistance against imperialist oppression, a historical force that can be delayed but not denied.
Summer’s sudden spread of IS from Syria into Iraq hardly came unheralded, though its speed and scale took most by surprise. Already in January of this year, after months of fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province, the Western-funded terror group IS seized and held Fallujah, further destabilising a country already devastated by years of sanctions, invasion and occupation. Had Washington been serious about driving IS out of Iraq, it had ample opportunity then to make a decisive intervention. No scruples about military intervention are staying its hand now, as airstrikes resume and the CIA gives guns to the Peshmerga. So why not earlier, as the Iraqi army floundered around in Fallujah whilst the West watched unmoved?
Instead it stood aside and watched as the jihadist terror gang, with arms full of US weapons and pockets stuffed with US dollars, had carte blanche to go on harrying the Iraqi forces and steadily destabilising the country.
That instability increased in the April elections (the first since the US army officially quit in 2011) when Maliki’s coalition topped the polls but failed to achieve an overall majority, further undermining the prime minister’s position and making him vulnerable to hostile pressure from the US.
It was the US that elevated Maliki to prime ministerial office in the first place, when the previous incumbent, Jafari, had grown too troublesome. However Maliki’s refusal to rubber stamp a continued “residual” US military presence, and worse still his refusal to join in the hate campaign against Syria, made of him a marked man. The fear was growing that, so far from acting to promote the West’s interests in the region, Maliki was steering Iraq into de facto membership of the axis of resistance.
The official reason for turning against him – that he was “too sectarian” – takes cynicism to a new level, given that the artificial promotion of sectarian hatred, in what had previously been a country noted for amicable relations between Sunni and Shia, has been a central plank of the imperialist strategy from the very first. The pot should not call the kettle black.
The purposeful imperialist inaction during the first period of the IS incursion needs to be viewed in the light of these circumstances. It is probable that Washington positively relished the humiliation of the Iraqi army in Mosul, throwing enough of a scare into Maliki’s own Dawa party to secure its acquiescence to dumping him. It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that Washington was happily pulling all the strings throughout the bloody events of June, given its unfortunate record with puppets who cut loose.
IS runs amok
IS burst out of Anbar Province on 10 June, not only seizing Tikrit (of great symbolic importance as Saddam Hussein’s birthplace) but also Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq presiding over massive oil wealth and the vital Mosul Dam. It is claimed that the Iraqi army offered little or no resistance, leaving IS to seize millions of dollars worth of US military equipment, including 1,500 Humvees and 52 howitzers. Reports that IS also pulled bank heists totalling $430 million have been disputed by Iraqi bankers, perhaps fearful of shaking public confidence in the banking system. Intriguingly, Business Insider reports that banks in Mosul remain open for trade under occupation by IS, suggesting a curiously worldly perspective from these islamist psychopaths. (Jeremy Bender, “Iraqi Bankers Say IS Never Stole $430 Million From Mosul Banks”, 17 July) Maybe even the most saintly members of the new caliphate need to cash a cheque sometimes.
June was declared by the UN to be Iraq’s bloodiest month since April 2005, with an estimated death toll of 2,400. Tens of thousands fled as news of the most appalling atrocities spread, devastating Shia, Christian and Yazidi communities. IS kidnapped nuns, confiscated the homes of Shia and Christians, raped women as a punishment for not wearing the veil and slaughtered without mercy. In one case they rounded up members of the army and police in a mosque, asked them to declare repentance and give up their weapons, then sentenced them according to Sharia law and executed them.
Pleased with its handiwork, on 29 June the ISIS thugs rebranded themselves as the Islamic State (IS) and declared an Islamic caliphate covering both Syria and Iraq, with one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new “caliph”.
The horrors continued throughout July, with the West confining its official action to a little handwringing on the sidelines, clearly not yet seeing any threat to its core interests, or none that could not be rectified. Indeed, such calculated inaction rather suggests that, whether or no the initial incursion was a surprise to the West, it was content enough to let events run their gruesome course for the nonce.
Come August, though, with the capture by IS of the strategic Mosul Dam and a number of Kurdish towns, the West’s dormant “conscience” jolted back to life. The advance of the IS forces was getting just a little too close to imperialist interests for comfort, especially when the centre of Kurdish regional government, Irbil, came under threat. It was time to give a boost to the Peshmerga and give a pull on the IS chain.
It was at this point that the Radio Four audiences were suddenly acquainted with the persecution of the Yazidi religious minority, and the news that the Kurdish Peshmerga were our allies in a sort of war which
nobody had actually declared. The spotlight suddenly burned on the plight of the Yazidi minority stuck on Mount Sinjar and in mortal fear of attack: something must be done!
Unlike all the other occasions over the past three months when the self-same terror was being inflicted on thousands of no less terrified innocents, this one really counted.
Why? Because it was time to rein in the IS a little, and the West always likes to justify its military action with a moral pretext, however random. The West needed x thousand Yazidis up a hill waiting to be rescued. They needed it so badly that if the Yazidis confused matters by making their own way down (or worse, with the assistance of the PKK, as some accounts suggest), better send the SAS, the Tornado and the Chinooks anyway, just to be sure. Even Ann Clwyd felt moved to confess that she was “completely confused because how do 50,000 people suddenly diminish to such a small number when there are actually very few flights that have been able to take them out? “, and Matthew Parris in the FT warned “We mustn’t let the interventionists piggyback their misguided military desires on the back of a humanitarian disaster”. (FT, 16 August, ‘The crisis is easing. The cries for action aren’t.’)
That of course is exactly what ‘we’ are doing. The US has launched air-strikes against IS positions and, in concert with France, put guns in the hands of the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have joined forces with the chastened Iraqi army to recapture the Mosul Dam. The weapons it is reportedly supplying (Kalashnikovs and mortars) are perhaps intended to help the Peshmerga contain IS rather than inflict a decisive blow, given the US-supplied heavy arms IS picked up in Mosul.
The suspicion that a decision was taken deliberately to humiliate the Baghdad government (and not just Maliki) was reinforced when it became clear that the CIA was arming the Kurds directly, without bothering to go through the tiresome rigmarole of funnelling arms through the government in Baghdad.
Another empty UN Resolution
Belatedly, on 15 August the UN Security Council stirred itself to denounce IS atrocities in Iraq and Syria and piously ‘demand’ that IS forthwith disband itself. The ostensible aim of the resolution was to cut off the funding and the flow of foreign fighters to IS, but practical measures were limited to imposing travel restrictions and asset freezes on a few al-Qaeda affiliates.
The Syrian ambassador, whilst obviously supporting the resolution, pointed out that his country had been fighting such terrorists for the past three years, while others in the region had been busily supporting these groups. He pointed out that the resolution was really intended to calm public opinion in the West. He also drew attention to the shameful fact that neither Iraq nor Syria had been consulted about the resolution in advance, nor had the representatives of either country had a proper opportunity to give their national view in full before the Security Council. The ambassador hit a particularly raw nerve when the discussion turned to the fact that IS are busily stealing and selling Syrian oil to the tune of nearly $5m each day. He asked the simple question: which countries are buying all that oil via Turkish and European intermediaries? Scenting a line of inquiry that was getting too close to the bone, the President of the Council
(on this occasion the British ambassador) rudely interrupted him and cut him short – as if he were addressing a British colony, the Syrian representative noted drily.
Syria stands firm
Meanwhile, whilst the UN frames face-saving resolutions on behalf of the West and draws a veil over the paymasters behind the terror, Syria’s government, army and people stand firm against the terrorist threat, lent a new urgency by the developments in Iraq.
On 14 August, after months of operations against terrorists who had entrenched themselves in al-Mleiha, the Syrian army liberated the town and the surrounding farms in the Eastern Ghouta area of the countryside around Damascus. The army was assisted in this task by local civil defence groups. Because of its strategic location, the town had served as a magnet for foreign fighters eager to use it as a base from which to terrorise civilian neighbourhoods. Fighters from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Qatar, Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere had barricaded themselves into residential areas of the town, forcing locals to flee, scattering land mines and IEDs on the streets and burrowing tunnels beneath the town. It is anticipated that the liberation of this whole area will be a final blow to the morale of terrorist organisations which are already undermined by internecine strife.
The spirit of national resistance which has carried Syria through this appalling period of her history, refusing to be deflected from her chosen secular, progressive and anti-imperialist path, stands as an inspiration to the whole middle east and beyond.