Iraq/Syria: ISIS rout national armies at Ramadi and Palmyra

United working class movement needed to sweep away sectarian militias and reactionary politicians

Just days after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Ramadi, the capital of Anbar (Iraq’s largest province), the Syrian town, Palmyra, fell to the same Sunni jihadists. In both countries, a lightening advance by ISIS once again led to the rout of a national army, fleeing refugees and a major boost for ISIS.

According to the Baghdad regime and the US administration, ISIS was supposed to be on the defensive in Iraq. Earlier this year, ISIS were defeated by a combination of Kurdish resistance and US-led air strikes at Kobani, in northern Syria, and later driven from Tikrit in central Iraq. ISIS was forced to cede around 20,000 square kilometres of territory in northern Iraq.

Although Western bombing damaged ISIS, it could never compensate for Iraqi armed ground forces, which have proven to be incompetent and corrupt. Like the dramatic fall of Mosul city last year, the Iraqi army fled in the face of the ISIS offensive on Ramadi, abandoning artillery and ammunition. ISIS forces have gone on to attack Husaibah city, near Ramadi. The US policy of rebuilding the Iraq army and assisting it with air strikes to defeat ISIS lies in tatters, as does the plan to ‘activate’ Sunni tribes against ISIS.

In Syria, ‘elite’ forces loyal to President Bashar-al-Assad were meant to be committed to defending crucial gas fields north of Palmyra. But they surrendered the area to ISIS once the battle commenced in earnest, leaving large supplies of ammunition behind. ISIS now reportedly controls more than 50% of Syria.

The gains made by ISIS are more to do with the weakness of the state in Syria and Iraq, than with the strength of ISIS. The brutal Assad regime discriminated against the Sunni majority for decades and the Shia-dominated Baghdad regime is feared and despised by the country’s Sunni minority.

The fall of Ramadi and Palmyra has added to the long list of humanitarian disasters in the two neighbouring countries. Over 25,000 people fled Ramadi and about a third of the 200,000 population around Palmyra. Those left behind face the barbarism of ISIS rule. ISIS posted pictures on social media showing the bodies of men they executed in streets. Added to that, ISIS overran the UNESCO world heritage site at Palmyra. Given that the fundamentalist Islamic group demolished ancient sites in Iraq, the destruction of Palmyra’s ancient ruins is a real, imminent danger.

The Iraqi government is now relying on Shia militias to spearhead the resistance to ISIS and to retake Ramadi and the whole of the majority Sunni province of Anbar. This will only fuel sectarian tensions and atrocities. According to Human Rights Watch, Shia militias and Iraqi special forces committed war crimes, including looting, arson, torture and summary execution of Sunnis, when they captured Amerli city from ISIS last September. While ISIS’s monstrous acts of decapitations are loudly condemned by western governments, similar barbarities by the Shia allies of the US in Iraq go largely unremarked upon.

Within ruling circles in the US, there is debate about how to deal with ISIS. Some 5,000 US ground troops are in Iraq acting as “special advisors”. Voices in Washington call for a big increase in American troops on the ground. But Obama is resistant to getting the US embroiled in another long, bloody and costly ground conflict in Iraq, without any guarantee of success.

In Syria, the US is supporting, with air strikes, the so-called ‘moderate’ rebels against both ISIS and the Assad regime. Around $500 million is being used to train rebels. But given the ineffectiveness of a great part of the anti-Assad forces, this US aid, in effect, ends up in the hands the local Al Qaeda ‘affiliate’, Al Nusra, which is in conflict with ISIS.

Contradictions of western policy

The glaring contradictions and hypocrisy of US and western policy in the region are a consequence of a dozen or so years of imperialist aggression, illegal wars, bloody occupation and military bombing ‘interventions’, from Libya to Syria. It is estimated that over one million people died as a result of the carnage spawned by the actions of the US and other western powers, like Britain. The pursuit of vital geo-strategic aims, securing oil and raking in super profits for big business are the guiding lights for the actions of the western powers, not the lives of the peoples of the Middle East.

US policy in the region uses ‘divide and rule’ methods, turning Sunnis against Shias. But this creates Frankenstein’s Monsters, like ISIS. In its first incarnation, the Sunni jihadist force was part of the Sunni revolt against US-backed Shia regime in Iraq. After the so-called Sunni ‘Awakening’, when Sunni tribes revolted against brutal local Al Qaeda rule, many jihadists spilled over into Syria’s developing civil war. Some of these forces mutated into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and grew quickly as part of the anti-Assad forces, which were armed and financed by reactionary Gulf States (close allies of the US). Flush with battlefield victories against both Assad and competing jihadists, ISIS swept back into Iraq, gaining support in Sunni areas that suffered years of state repression and mistreatment under the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.

This bloody spiral shows that, 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 of this seemingly endless nightmare.

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 determined, 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. This saw the return of a military ‘strongman’ in Egypt and the derailing of mass opposition movements in Libya and Syria along reactionary, sectarian and tribal lines.


Yet the working classes of the region, through the bitterest experiences, will take to the road of mass struggle once more, in opposition to dictators and all sectarian forces. It is a measure of Sunnis’ deep hatred of the Baghdad regime that some of them welcome medieval ISIS rule or tolerate it, to a degree. They hope it can mean an end to Shia persecution and will bring a measure of ‘stability’ and ‘law and order’. But the reality of living under fundamentalist barbarism will eventually drive many Sunnis to resist ISIS. The Irish journalist, Patrick Cockburn, reported recently on the appalling situation facing Sunnis living under ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq, where girls are forced into ‘Jihadist marriages’ and everything from music and dancing to feeding pigeons is banned.

The working people and poor of Iraq and Syria and the entire region can only rely on self-organisation to end war and social misery. An independent, united working class movement is needed to organise self-defence of all communities and minorities. With a socialist programme, such a movement could find regional and international working class allies in its struggle to overthrow rotten regimes, expel imperialism, sweeps away all the sectarian, reactionary politicians and militias and for the democratic socialist reorganisation of society.

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May 2015