Millions of working people around the world have been shocked at the rapid advance of the extreme religious fundamentalists of ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIS) who have now proclaimed the foundation of a ‘caliphate’, the ‘Islamic State’.
While most ‘reports’ from this war zone must be treated with caution, there is no doubt about ISIS’s sectarian brutality towards opponents and other religions, something they themselves highlight in their own propaganda videos. Despite their opposition to the big imperialist powers and populist hostility to some aspects of capitalism, ISIS is not progressive in any sense and does not stand for an end to exploitation and oppression. Its methods include a dictatorial fascist-style crushing of all who do not follow their version of Islam and their single leader, now renamed Caliph Ibrahim, ruler of the ‘Islamic State’. In practice, ISIS follows a similar murderous path to previous religious fundamentalists like the Catholic Crusaders who slaughtered Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians in their marches through the Middle East in the Middle Ages, or the Catholic and Protestant combatants in Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century.
ISIS’s rapid advance is not only a threat to those who do not accept its rule or who follow a different religion, it also immediately poses a challenge to the western imperialist powers.
ISIS threatens not just the break-up of states established on the basis of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, but it represents the most virulent ‘blow-back’ to Bush and Blair’s post-9/11 neo-con strategy, which could now undermine the western imperialists’ position in the Middle East and beyond.
Desperately, the West, while searching for an answer to ISIS, is trying to scratch at least a tiny propaganda advantage from ISIS’s advance. Thus Western leaders strive to portray themselves as humanitarian defenders of the oppressed as they attempt to escape from the poisonous legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But this is not possible. ISIS’s advance represents a crushing defeat of the policies previously pursued by the US and Britain, with the support of the major parties in both of these countries – the Republicans and Democrats in the US and Labour and Conservatives in Britain.
At the time of the invasion of Iraq, the CWI warned that this imperialist intervention would lead to the break-up of Iraq into rival ethnic and religious entities. We said this, not out of support for Saddam’s dictatorship but because the only progressive force that could overthrow Saddam would have been a movement of the Iraqi working and poor masses. The CWI warned that, without such a mass movement capable of breaking with capitalism and imperialism, Iraq would tend to break-up, resulting in ethnic or religious-based entities ruled by new would-be mini-Saddams.
This argument was dismissed by Tony Blair, the 2003 invasion’s chief propagandist, who tried to camouflage that imperialist adventure by claiming that only intervention could remove Saddam’s dictatorship. The 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt showed that was false, when mass action removed dictators. But Tony Blair was never against dictators, just dictators who did not agree with him. Thus he is perfectly happy to work with the new Egyptian would-be dictator, Sisi, and get paid for his advice!
Now Blair tries to claim that ISIS has grown because of the West’s failure to arm the opposition in Syria. But in Iraq ISIS has armed itself by seizing weaponry given to the Iraqi army by the West! At one stage, elements in the West, as well as in the Middle East, looked favourably on ISIS; in June, ISIS posted on the web photos of some of their fighters with right-wing US Senator John McCain who spoke of his “very moving experience to meet these fighters”.
The Turkish government, which previously effectively tolerated ISIS’s growth in Syria by allowing it free movement across its borders, now feels threatened by ISIS’s new-found strength that threatens both the close relations Ankara has been building with the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq and, in the longer term, to have an impact within Turkey itself.
In Iraq, the speed of ISIS’s advance was a result of the sectarian policies followed by the Shia Maliki clique which, alienating Sunni tribes and the Kurds, hastened the country’s break up.
There is no certainty that new Iraqi prime minister Abadi will be able to completely prise away from ISIS some of the Sunni tribes and opposition which joined them in reaction to Maliki’s sectarian policies. While both Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively the leading Sunni and Shia powers, have welcomed Abadi, it is not clear how many Iraqi Sunnis will see him as a break with the previous, sectarian Shia rule.
Given the horrific reports of how ISIS treats opponents or those it sees as ‘non-believers’ it is natural that there is a growing demand for action to stop its advance.
After the previous wars and ‘re-building’ in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little popular expectation anywhere in the world that a renewed western deployment in Iraq would fundamentally alter the situation. Certainly the western ruling class would like to avoid once again putting large numbers of troops on Iraqi soil, although it cannot be entirely ruled out that an attempt to hold parts of Iraq may take place.
With the collapse of the Iraqi army’s military resistance to ISIS, western imperialism is immediately looking to strengthen Kurdish forces, particularly those linked to the regional government. This, they hope, will also allow western imperialism to maintain a foothold in the region. It is not accidental that the British government has sent one of its most right-wing policy setters, Hadhim Zahawi, who happens to be of Kurdish origin, to Irbil. Kurdish workers and youth should have no trust whatsoever in such ‘helpers’ who, as in Zahawi’s case, support vicious attacks on the poor in their home countries.
Working people must act independently
Iraqi and Kurdish working people must have no trust in the imperialist powers. These powers are quite prepared to support sectarian religious regimes like Saudi Arabia when it is useful to do so. The key to stopping the unfolding sectarian war is building a resistance amongst working people, a resistance that fights against the sectarian attacks by forces like ISIS and the Shia death squads operating in and around Baghdad while, at the same time, defending the rights of peoples like the Kurds to self-determination.
This can only be based upon building democratically-run, non-sectarian bodies as the basis for popular defence, which would be able to appeal to those Sunnis who have rallied to ISIS as a means of defending themselves from sectarian Shia attack. Without such a non-sectarian approach, there is a danger that imperialist-backed military action against ISIS will not weaken it and may actually increase its support in some areas.
However, military setbacks or defeats for ISIS will not be the end of the crisis gripping both Iraq and Syria. In both countries the fight against oppression, dictatorship and poverty requires the creation of a movement of working people. Only such movements can struggle for democratic rights (including full freedom for religious and non-religious alike), oppose further imperialist intervention and fight for governments led by genuine representatives of the working people and poor, which are prepared to break with the capitalist system that has failed the peoples of the Middle East and begin the socialist transformation of the region.