ISIS: Capitalist slaughter in Iraq and Syria

As ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Shams) crossed the border between Syria and Iraq, it proclaimed this to be the “annihilation of the disgrace of Sykes-Picot” and the formation of an ‘Islamic state’ (IS).

The current situation in Iraq is not only a result of the US-led invasion in 2003 but also reflects the bloody legacy of the world war that started 100 years ago. As ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Shams) crossed the border between Syria and Iraq, it proclaimed this to be the “annihilation of the disgrace of Sykes-Picot” and the formation of an ‘Islamic state’ (IS).

It turns out that parts of the Marxists’ previous analysis were fulfilled despite ISIS being a reactionary force. The CWI in 2003 predicted a collapse of Iraq and its potential split-up into several statelets, this has come true along with the Communist International’s 1920 prediction that the then new borders drawn by imperialism in the region would be swept away.

The 2011 revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa not only opened a new era of working class movements, but also unleashed a massive struggle over the redistribution of wealth and resources along sectarian lines of the various capitalist elites. But now, with the revolution currently stalled in many countries, one of the most dynamic actors in this process is IS which, being expelled out of certain parts of Syria by rival rebel factions, shifted its focus on Iraq. There it provided the necessary fighting power to tip the balance between the Shia-led government of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and Sunni Arab forces. It is not IS alone that has conquered the central and northern Iraqi regions. Rather IS has been supported by a highly instable, and already partially collapsing, coalition of various Sunni groups and militias, including former Baathists and local tribal forces. But obviously, IS is the best-organized and most effective force. The conflict between Sunni factions and the Iraqi government has been going on for some time, mainly caused by the regime’s repressive politics and its anti-Sunni economic policy. Already, early in the beginning of this year, the army had lost control of Falluja and a number of other towns and villages in the so-called “Sunni triangle”. It is a long-lasting civil war, which was raised to a new level by the involvement of IS, which now could significantly change the face of the region.

Looking at the current situation in Iraq, IS, or for that matter, any major development in the region, we need to focus not only on the political and military aspect, but on the economic dynamic as well.

Profit-driven warfare

IS, as the New York Times wrote, is spearheading a development which can be subsumed under the term “commercialiszation of Islamic terror.” It’s essentially, to quote the Financial Times, a “multinational corporation selling terror as their product”.

As a significant part of financial activity of jihadist movements, as a-Shabab or Boko Haram, can be more or less summed up with Schiller’s Wallenstein, saying: “The war nourishes the war”. ISIS went at least one step further. This is illustrated by its annual business reports. The last, being a 400 page document covering the “business year” November 2012 to November 2013, printed in high quality, resembling any corporation’s business report, which is distributed to various investors. These reports include detailed lists of the number of attacks, weapon stocks etc. which according to other reports don’t seem to be exaggerations but can be verified by secondary sources. The reports obviously are supposed to on the one side be accountable to the investors, on the other side attracting new ones; the investors of course rich businessmen from the despotic oil-countries on the Gulf.

It is necessary to emphasise the ambivalent position of the Saudi elites in regard to IS. While on the one hand they consider them a Sunni force, useful in countering Shia (read: Iranian) influence, there are also big fears. This is not because of IS’s barbarism, slaughtering hundreds of prisoners, crucifying people on live camera, but because of the potential threat it represents in regard to the Saudi regime and the oil-elites in the region. As it was for Osama bin Laden, IS also declared the house of al-Saud ‘traitors’ and declared their overthrow to be a necessity.

Secondly, there’s a certain element of social critique and acts of despair in the political praxis of IS and the economic situation of poverty from which it grows. The ranks of ISIS are filled with overwhelmingly with young, desperate, radicalised men, often deprived of all rights and suffering oppression. Alienated from existing society, lacking perspectives and angry at what they see as a persecution of Sunnis they see IS as a way of fighting back. Although they are drawn into the reactionary revolt, which IS represents, there is the potential that this anger and frustration could turn against the wealthy on the Gulf. By financing IS and similar groups, sections of the Gulf elite hope they have bought off IS and also weakened enemies.

These elites on the Gulf, if you will, were the ones offering start-up financing, and now are expecting results, presented in the report. But building on this start-up financing, ISIS has managed to develop a relatively stable economic model, mainly based on looting and oil-smuggling. After the conquest of Mosul, IS forces raided the regional branch of the central banking, acquiring around 425 million US dollars. The sale of archaeological artefacts, looted in Syria on the Western black market, brought the group around 36 million US dollars. In the oil-rich regions IS controls, the organisation managed to develop – taking into account the circumstances – a stable oil economy guaranteeing the supply of east-Syrian and Iraqi oil. As for Syria, as the oil harbours are controlled by the regime, there is some kind of informal contract in place, guaranteeing that IS supplies the oil, the regime sells it and the profit is fraternally shared. IS is estimated to have a net-worth of well over two billion US dollars.

This is the financial basis on which IS is built. This highly profitable business enables them to recruit mercenaries and to fill their ranks with fresh fighters. As the economic situation of the region means that an increasing number of young people see absolutely no way to escape hunger and despair, fighting for ISIS can be seen as the only way out. The German news magazine Der Spiegel recently interviewed a young IS militiaman. Coming from a conservative, desperate, painfully poor neighbourhood in Istanbul, with no perspective for a job or a future whatsoever, he joined ISIS, now earning around 400 US dollars a month. There are reports of recruitment campaigns by IS promising young men 10,000 US dollaers for their weddings and a BMW X5 as bonuses to their usual wage, if they join them.

While neither the religious, fanatic impetus nor the religious, national and tribal divisions in Syria and Iraq should be underestimated, it is also necessary to take into account that at least one of the main forces on the ground happens to be, or at least act like, a profit-driven, capitalist corporation. Direct profit-driven military activity, not only as a proxy, but for direct private accumulation, brings in a new dynamic to the regional conflict. This is especially important, taking into account that there are significant western and Iranian interests at stake. The Iranian al-Quds-Brigades which are currently active in Iraq are not only a Shia force, fighting against Sunnis for political control, but also have their own business interests. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to which the al-Quds-Brigades belong, are not only a significant part of the Iranian army, but also own the largest corporations with significant investments in neighbouring Iraq, now under threat by IS.

IS and its economy is deeply interwoven with regional capitalism, in some respect even is a key element of regional capitalism. It is a result of a global and regional structural and acute economic crisis. The IS in a way represents not only a new kind of right wing political Islam but also a somehow new way of capital accumulation, not only in a rather primitive archaic form, like looting etc. what we have always seen in war, but as a state of the art capitalist corporation.

Perspectives for Kurdish independence

The current break-up of Iraq might be the biggest possibility for some time for the establishment of a formally independent Kurdish state. Peshmerga forces used a short military vacuum during IS’s advance into Iraq to take Kirkuk, an oil-rich city which has been disputed for a long time between Kurds and Arabs, and the Kurdish authorities have announced a referendum on total independence.

Western imperialism currently is showing massive support for the Kurdish authorities as they seem to be the only force on the ground at least somehow capable of fighting IS. Though poorly armed, the Peshmerga, linked to the parties running the automatous Kurdish region in Iraq, and especially the PYD, which are based in Kurdish areas in Syria and linked to the PKK, seem to have stopped IS’s advance for now. Thus they prevented the threatened mass murder of the Yezidi minority. As this struggle of the Kurdish forces against the IS deserves support, it’s also necessary to clearly state the dangers involved in the current situation, especially concerning the role of imperialism and the threat of deepening national and religious divisions.

Forces like IS can only be isolated and defeated by undermining their base amongst Sunnis, but for this to happen the mass of Sunnis need to see a future free from oppression and one which offers a better life. However none of the competing elites, whether they be Sunni, Shia or Kurd, can offer this to the mass of Sunnis or Shias and Kurds. This could only be achieved by the creation of a movement uniting the working people and poor of the region in a struggle against persecution, in defence of democratic rights and for a break with capitalism.

But currently there are no significant forces in the region that stand for such a programmer. Indeed there is the danger that western imperialism could use a semi-independent Kurdish state as a new operational base, a foot in the door, in the region. The current US airstrikes are not just intended to halt IS’s advance and prevent massacres but to re-establish the US military as a significant force in the region and to gain influence on the course of events (i.e. making the Kurds dependent on US interests and intervention). This has already been discussed prior to IS’s advance and was illustrated by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement of the idea of an independent Kurdish state, which was followed by a number of similar remarks of US-politicians. This happens in the context of the US’s desperate search for new allies in the region. Currently, Washington is in an informal coalition with the Iranian regime in defence of the Shia-dominated government in Iraq. This is a highly instable alliance which probably won’t last long.

As the CWI supports the Kurds’ – and for that matter any groups’ who consider itself a nation – right to be independent, but we also warn of illusions into an independent Kurdistan. If it materializes, it is going to be, as the autonomous region is now, a statelet, heavily dependent on Turkish and western imperialism. The autonomous region in Iraqi Kurdistan is currently effectively ruled by two rivalling Mafia-clans, the Baraznis and the Talabanis. Both have their own parties (KDP and PUK), their own banks, construction- and investment companies, militias etc.

At the same time there are very big hopes by Kurds in the region and in the Diaspora in the prospects for an independent state, which are fully understandable considering the almost 100-year-long bloody suppression and persecution of Kurds in the region. If a Kurdish state would take shape, the national honeymoon probably won’t last long. In Syria, there were already clashes reported between PYD (PKK) forces and those loyal to Barzani and/or Talabani. In the past, the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq have repeatedly allowed Turkish cross-border attacks against PKK-forces.

If the working masses of the various ethnic and religious groups fail to organize and take up the fight, it is very likely that the imperialist and sectarian onslaught will carry on. The imperial-drawn boundaries will collapse in the face of the current turmoil. But if they’re not changed by the working class, there will be new, sectarian boundaries, drawn in blood of the masses.

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August 2014