The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is under attack in and around the last big three cities it holds in Iraq and Syria – Fallujah, Mosul and Raqqa – and is also struggling to hold on to Sirte, its main base in Libya.
Fallujah is the scene of the most intense fighting, as the Iraqi army and Shia militias, backed up by US airstrikes, attempt to drive Isis out. The Iraqi city has been under siege for a year by these forces and an estimated 300,000 civilians are trapped, threatening a humanitarian catastrophe. The Iraqi army’s so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ for civilians to escape has seen males detained as potential ISIS fighters. The Sunni residents of Fallujah have good reason to be fearful over their fate. After Ramadi and Tikrit were recently captured from ISIS by pro-Baghdad and largely Shia forces, hundreds of thousands were driven from the towns and vicious reprisals were carried out against the Sunni populations.
The battle for Fallujah is a useful diversion for the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad. The Green Zone – the seat of central government – was stormed twice by poor Shias in recent months, protesting against corruption and the failure to provide electricity and other essential services. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s regime is also under pressure to prevent more bloody ISIS suicide bomber attacks in poor Shia areas, which allegedly emanate from Fallujah.
It is two years since ISIS hit world headlines by capturing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, having already conquered Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad. Using columns of fast moving vehicles and with fighters hardened in the years of warfare that followed the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, ISIS stunned the West with its lightening gains.
Fallujah has long been a focus of resistance to the Bagdad regime. In 2004, the city was stormed twice by US forces, killing thousands and reducing much of it to rouble. The conditions for the stunning success of ISIS in capturing Fallujah in 2014 were a revolt of the city’s Sunni population. Sunnis’ deep hatred of the Shia-dominated Baghdad regime meant some of them initially welcomed ISIS rule or tolerated it, to a degree. They desperately hoped it could mean an end to Shia persecution and would bring a measure of ‘stability’ and ‘law and order’.
Initially the use of indiscriminate atrocities by ISIS terrified and demoralised the much greater forces of the Iraqi army, which often fled the battle field. But these terror tactics no longer are as effective. As all the armies fighting ISIS are now better trained to deal with ISIS suicide bombers, ISIS turns to slaughtering more innocent civilians. ISIS still displays the ability to reorganise and launch offensives but its losing more fighters than previous. However the self-styled ISIS ‘caliphate’ is still a large area and it faces divided enemy forces – a cockpit of rivalries.
The Turkish regime is involved in an incipient civil war with the Kurdish PKK militia, in the south of the country and refuses to close off ISIS’s access to the wider world. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – led by the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), backed by US air strikes – recently launched an offensive against the town of Manbij west of the Euphrates, close to the Turkish border, in an attempt to stop ISIS moving weapons and fighters across the border. The ultimate aim is to dislodge ISIS from Raqqa. At the same time, from the southwest, the Iraqi army, with Russian airpower backing, is also advancing on the Islamic group’s self-styled caliphate capital.
All of these military manoeuvres indicate the deep antagonisms between outside powers and their regional allies. Just as important as territorial gains are for all those battling ISISI - the Kurdish Peshmerga, YPG, Iraqi army, Shia militias and the US - is who will succeed in ruling in its place. The US is determined to stop the Shia militias, with their Iranian military advisors on the ground, from capturing Fallujah, which would represent a significant gain for Iran, the region’s Shia super-power and the main opponent of the US in the Middle East.
Fallujah is regarded by all sides as a dress rehearsal for a potentially much greater battle to capture Mosul, Iraq’s second city. US bombers and their allied Kurdish Peshmerga ground forces are conducting an anti-ISIS offensive in the north of Iraq, in preparation for taking Iraq’s second city.
Even if ISIS is routed, it does not necessarily mean the end of the organisation or it can evolve into another terror movement. Other Salafist groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda, are growing in popularity amongst Sunni Arabs in Syria. Such groups will find fertile conditions to grow amongst the Sunni Arabs, who view operations like the assault on Fallujah as ethnic cleansing that is intended to drive Sunnis from Iraq. According to a US diplomat, Sunnis exist in “islands of fear” in Iraq.
ISIS terror rule
Yet ISIS has proven to be no solution to the desperate situation facing Sunnis. In the cities and towns it takes over, ISIS’s medieval, obscurantist rule cannot answer even the most basic problems facing working class and poor Sunnis and its barbaric treatment of minorities repulses all others. Over 80,000 people fled Sirte, ISIS’s main base in Libya, since the Islamist group’s take-over, where in February 2015 it beheaded 21 Christians.
ISIS is now struggling to hold Sirte as militias aligned with the UN-backed ‘unity government’ advance from Misrata, in western Libya, and a militia from the east. But even if these forces drive ISIS out of Sirte, many Libyans fear it will only mean a return to the country’s previous hostilities. The ‘parliament’ in Tobruk refused to cooperate with the UN-backed government in Tripoli and militias could return to fighting one another for control of Libya’s oil ports.
The current round of anti-ISIS military advances is yet another bloody carnage resulting from the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Faced with general opposition in Iraq, the US occupiers whipped up sectarian differences in order to ‘divide and rule’ and later adopted a policy of fanning and supporting armed sectarian opposition to the dictator Assad in Syria. Similarly, the NATO powers decisively aided the armed overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, to further the interests of western imperialism, throwing the country into bloody chaos.
One source of the growth of ISIS that the West will not train its guns on is the reactionary Gulf States and other Sunni Islam regimes that help fund and nurture jihadist movements. As the veteran Middle East correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, recently noted: “The US and EU states have not wanted to acknowledge the link between the terrorism and their strategic Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey and Pakistan”.
On the basis of capitalism and the rule of reactionary elites and sectarian forces, more conflicts and humanitarian disasters are assured in the Middle East. Only the working people of the region, allied to workers everywhere, can find a way out.
The potential for this was clearly seen during the ‘Arab Spring’, when dictators were overthrown by mass movements of workers and the poor in Tunisia and Egypt. But these movements, emerging from decades of dictatorships, lacked a pro-working class leadership that could successfully mobilise the masses in a struggle against local tyrants and the capitalist system. Counter-revolution, with the support of the western powers, was able to gain the upper hand.
Yet the working classes of the region, through these bitterest experiences, will take to the road of mass struggle once more, in opposition to dictators and all sectarian forces. An independent, united working class movement is needed to organise self-defence of all communities and minorities and to offer a socialist programme to overthrow rotten regimes, expel imperialism, and for the democratic socialist reorganisation of society.