obama-mid-eastThe article below is the text of a talk delivered at the International Communist Forum in London in November 2014

A historical focus for Europe’s greed

Those familiar with the history of the region will recognise the features of today’s invasions and occupations in those of the bloody campaigns pursued by the European powers of the past.

The ruthless crusades of the Middle Ages during which western European feudal lords plundered the riches of the Middle East, initially claiming to be defending a small group of Maronite Christians living in what is now Lebanon, caused havoc. But partly due to their acquisitions and also to the development of sea routes to the far east and Americas, Europe’s attentions eventually – but temporarily – switched away from the region.

Of course, because the main overland trading route between Asia and Europe passed through the region, it always remained a focus for rivalries between the different western European powers, notably France and England, and later Germany. This meant that for nearly six centuries following the end of the Crusades, it was necessary for European rulers to come to terms with the Ottoman Empire, which dominated this whole region from the 13th Century right up until the eve of WW1.

In fact the name “Ottoman” is the bastardisation of the name of one of the founders of the Ottoman Empire – Osman Bey, who established a Sunni caliphate in the region of north western Anatolia in 1299.

Through the conquest of most of what are now the Balkan states of Eastern Europe and almost the whole Mediterranean region, the Ottoman Empire reached its height in the 16th and 17th centuries. And it is important to understand that despite being an Islamic state, it encompassed multiple ethnicities and language groups as well as many religious minorities. It dealt with different religious groups by imposing a special tax on them – in other words, tolerance was a financial transaction – but it meant that for most of the time everyone lived side by side in peace.

Strategic and financial interests first

In the 19th century however, the emerging western imperialist powers – France and Britain – began to make inroads into the spheres of influence of the Ottoman Empire. The French emperor, Napoleon III, led an expedition into Lebanon in 1860 under the pretext (again!) of protecting Maronite Christians against local Druze Muslims, turning it into a de facto French colony. In 1869, the 100-mile long Suez Canal was opened, linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and revolutionising sea travel to the Far East. While the building of the canal was a French operation, British financial institutions won a majority holding in the company and began to run the show. Of course British troops now moved in to occupy Egypt.

That said, before oil was discovered, the main focus of the imperialists was the taking over of the region’s finances by their bankers. By 1914, the entire banking system of the Ottoman Empire was in British and French hands, thanks to their manipulation of credit. London also took over the Iranian banking system from the Russians, after the 1917 Russian revolution.

When oil was discovered, or rather when it was found to be both necessary and useful as a fuel to run engines, especially for the British naval fleet, the fate of much of the region was sealed: it would be decided in the boardrooms of western imperialism.
In 1901 already, the Persian monarchy had granted a British businessman exclusive rights over oil prospecting and production. In 1906, the Anglo-Persian oil company came into being – later to become BP. British governments consolidated their hold over the region’s oil resources through a series of treaties imposed on local feudal lords in today’s Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, guaranteeing Britain’s exclusive rights to any oil found there. France and particularly Germany were left with oil stakes only in what is today’s Iraq.

Even before WW1 broke out it was obvious that the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of financial collapse. France and Britain embarked on a series of convoluted intrigues to secure the lion’s share of the Ottoman cake.

From Sykes-Picot. . .

In 1916, before the war was even over, the French, British and Russians made a secret agreement on how they would share a defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves. This was known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was revealed, to these countries’ great embarrassment, by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. The imperialists’ objective was to ensure that the region remained firmly under their control after the war – and that the Arab leaders, to whom they had made various promises which they had no intention of keeping, would remain in the dark as to their real aims for as long as possible.

It must have shaken today’s western leaders to read the tweet of ISIL: “smashing Sykes-Picot”, after it had just bulldozed a border post between Iraq and Syria, this October. In a video posted on YouTube called ″The End of Sykes-Picot″ it announced that the territory it had occupied in northern Iraq and into Syria was now a new caliphate, an Islamic state, run according to sharia law. They claimed they were merely removing the artificial boundaries created by Britain and France.

In fact Sykes-Picot had determined that a northern slice of territory, running from the Mediterranean to the Tigris river, covering today’s Syria and Lebanon, would go to France; and a larger southern slice, including Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt would go to Britain. This is what happened. Iraq was subsequently created out of three Ottoman provinces, which had had no borders previously, including the Shiite Arab lands around Basra in the south, the largely Sunni Arab districts north and west of Baghdad in the middle, and the Sunni Kurdish areas in the north.

The San Remo Conference in 1920 formalised the Sykes-Picot agreement, and brought the main victor of WW1, that is, the USA, into the picture. But it also sparked anti-colonial protests, especially in Iraq. This meant that Britain had to find a form of indirect rule over Iraq in order to placate the population. It was decided to appoint a king, and the chosen candidate was Faisal, the son of an old regional ally, Hussain, who had tried to proclaim himself king of Syria but had been duly thrown out. Faisal had no connection with Iraq whatsoever, but would at least do Britain’s bidding.

In 1922, after Saudi Arabian leader Ibn Saud raised the issue of Iraq’s ill-defined borders, the British High Commissioner took a ruler and drew some straight lines on a map. Thus the artificial construction which is modern Iraq came into being. The anomaly of the tiny state of Kuwait, which blocked Iraq’s access to the deep waters of the Persian Gulf was allowed to remain – because the British deal with its rulers was so advantageous to the oil companies. Iraq, on the other hand, was obliged to welcome the construction of British airbases on its soil and to undertake to repay its share of the Ottoman debt to British bankers.

France, in the meantime, had installed itself in Lebanon – its “Switzerland of the Middle East”, but to take ownership of Syria it had to bomb the resistance which erupted against its rule, into the ground.

. . . To major oil spoils

At San Remo, the US had not been allocated a share in Iraq’s oil. But it soon managed to use its influence in the League of Nations to remedy this. So shares in the Iraqi Petroleum Company were finally divided equally between Royal Dutch Shell, the British Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the French CFP (today’s Total) and what was to become the US company, Exxon-Mobil.

This imperialist oil-coalition triggered an uprising in Iraq in 1931, when in reply to the Iraqi government’s request for an advance on royalties owed, the Iraqi Petroleum Company demanded its concession be extended to the entire Iraqi territory. The regime capitulated, but the population responded with a general strike – forcing Britain to grant formal independence.

In the meantime, the US had made its own inroads into the oil wealth of the Saudi Peninsula. Chevron’s and Texaco’s precursors formed the Bahrain Petroleum Company, which they registered in Canada to get round a treaty which granted British companies exclusive rights over Bahrain’s oil. As to gaining access to Saudi oil, the precursor of Chevron bought a 500,000 square mile concession put up for sale by King Ibn Saud – who needed the money after a drastic fall in the number of pilgrims coming to Mecca, due to the world slump. With Texaco it formed the Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. US companies now had a monopoly of Arabian oil. The great “progressive US democracy” with its famous constitution upholding the rights of man did so literally, by having absolutely no problem with the treatment of women by the narrow, brutal and backward – feudal – Saudi regime, all in the interests of profit.

On the eve of WW2, eight companies controlled oil production in the Middle East – 5 American, 1 British, 1 French and 1 Dutch.

An anti-imperialist push

The post-WW2 settlement finally placed the US in its position as supreme world leader, allowing it to take the lion’s share of the Middle East’s oil resources. France had already been eliminated from the region during the war. This left Britain and the US as the sole imperialist powers in the Middle East.

The problem for imperialism in the post-war period was the rise of radical nationalist and communist parties everywhere, articulating the aspiration of the masses to throw off colonial oppression throughout the underdeveloped world, and particularly in the Middle East. In Iran popular demonstrations against the British and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was draining the country’s wealth, took place in the early 1950s. In March 1951, the government agreed under this popular pressure, to nationalise the country’s oil resources. A new leader, Mossadeq, was elected and the expectation was that he would implement this nationalisation. However the US and Britain moved to embargo Iran and then engineered a coup against Mossadeq, installing one of the most repressive regimes ever seen in the region, led by the Pahlavi clan. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company remained in imperialist hands, and was renamed BP. It retained 40% of Iran’s oil; Shell got 14% and the rest was divided 4/5ths to the US and 1/5th to the French companies.

In Egypt, in 1952, colonel Nasser led a coup to overthrow British rule there, inspiring a following for his brand of pan-Arab nationalism throughout the region, especially after Nasser set an example by refusing to sign the 1955 Baghdad Pact – which was an anti-Soviet Cold War alliance sponsored by the US and Britain signed by Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

As for Iraq, by the end of WW2, the military dictatorship in Baghdad was facing waves of strikes, many of which were led by CP activists. It was able to overcome the mass mobilisations, however, thanks largely to the policy of the Communists, which was to follow and support the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie against the imperialists, refusing to acknowledge or even articulate the specific interests of the working class and poor masses.

This allowed the pan-Arabist nationalists to take the lead of the struggle against British and American interests in the region. It took them another 10 years, however to gain power. A coup by General Qasim, in July 1958 led to the execution of the royal family and the declaration of an Iraqi republic. This was, however, in Qasim’s words “to uphold Iraqi unity, and uphold UN principles”. In fact it would attempt to represent the interests of the Iraqi national bourgeoisie pure and simple. But despite this, the space opened up by the forced exit of the colonial regime, along with its military bases, resulted in a political and cultural explosion. Eventually even the CP was invited to join the Iraqi government.

But this was too unacceptable to western imperialist leaders for it to last. In 1963 Qasim was overthrown by another military coup. And predictably, the CP faced a massacre in which the long fingers of MI6 and the CIA were visible.

It was the newly emerging Baath Party, which paid lip service both to Pan-Arabist ideas and a distorted kind of socialism, which was given a free hand by the new military regime to repress the communists. By 1968, five years later, the Baath was strong enough to seize power in its own name.

The new regime, first under al Bakr and then Saddam Hussein built a state machinery designed to maintain control over the masses, but with an embryonic welfare state which recognised the trade unions, as long as they observed a new code of labour laws. It was under Saddam Hussein that the Iraqi Petroleum Company was finally nationalised in June 1972. But it was also under Saddam Hussein that the Communist Party was crushed, once and for all, by using its own policy of supporting so-called progressive nationalist regimes against it. The CP was invited to participate in a government which launched a bloody repression against the Kurds – until Saddam turned against the CP too, finally subjecting it to imprisonment, torture and execution, so that it barely survived and was thereafter forced into a precarious underground existence.

Israel: custom-made policeman

The main plank of US order in the Middle East was of course the creation of the state of Israel. This was to act as imperialism’s Trojan horse.

Palestine had been a destination for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe for some time and after WW2, this is where survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and refugees from elsewhere went – not least because most of the western countries actually barred them from entry. On top of this the British authorities in Palestine also refused them entry, notoriously even sending back to Germany in 1947, a ship with 4,554 survivors of the holocaust on board.

The Zionists had already been organising in Palestine since the 1930s and already had several terrorist guerilla bands operating by the end of the war. By 1945 they were forcing Palestinians off their land and gunning down villagers, causing the Palestinian population to flee. Three years of civil war ensued, so that by the time the State of Israel was declared, in 1948, supported by the imperialists and the USSR, it was already a fact, born in the blood of the Palestinians who either went into exile or became second class citizens without full rights in their own land.

Of course this was an inherently unstable situation despite the fact that Israel was so strongly bolstered by US finance and military hardware. Its role as the US policeman in the region could not be tolerated by the populations of the surrounding countries, let alone the Palestinians themselves. And this has led to a state of almost constant turmoil and uprising, both in the Palestinian territories inside Israel and refugee camps outside, especially in Jordan and Lebanon – and a perpetual focus for political radicalisation of the region’s youth.

In Lebanon, the presence of tens of thousands of armed Palestinian refugees was a catalyst for the rebellion of its own population. From 1972 to 1975, a wave of social unrest swept the country. The Lebanese Christian far-right and its Phalangist militia, represented the most conservative section of the country’s ruling class. With the support of Israel, the Phalangists first targeted the Palestinians and then the Lebanese left, leading into a full scale civil war, which lasted until the late 1980s. Had Israel not intervened in this war, the progressive alliance of the Palestinians and Lebanese left might have been victorious.

But Syria also intervened against the progressive alliance in the Lebanese civil war, under the pretext of “restoring peace” – because the Syrian regime, just as much as the imperialists, feared its victory. At the time, of course, the US had no problem with Assad senior, who later went on to support the first Gulf War staged by George Bush senior, against Iraq. It was only after his son, Bashar Assad, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and insisted on maintaining his links with Iran – despite US attempts at isolating this country – that the Syrian regime’s repressive policies began to come in for some criticism.

Iranian turning point

By 1978, the Iranian masses could no longer tolerate the rule of the US puppet who flaunted his personal wealth and whose corruption was blatant, while the working masses and the poor saw no benefit from the country’s oil wealth. Students and workers began to organise in radical groups including the Communist Party, known as the Tudeh, which had wide support. The oil workers seized control of the industry. By January 1979, the Shah had fled the country. However the religious right which had been a government-in-waiting abroad, now stepped in behind a fundamentalist leader called Ayatollah Khomeini. While the US and Britain were struck a blow by this revolution, they could thus be satisfied that the revolution had been safely taken out of the hands of the left and the Moscow-backed communists.

Nevertheless, as far as imperialism was concerned, the new Iranian regime had stepped over a red line by overthrowing one of the pillars of its regional order. So an example had to be made, in order to remind the regimes of the region that no important political change should ever be made without the endorsement of the imperialist powers. So, the then dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, who was indebted to the western intelligence services for helping him to come to power, was encouraged to launch a war against Iran. It was calculated that this war would damage Iran much more effectively than economic sanctions.

After 8 years of war, the US then decided it should end. To ensure that there would be no winner – and therefore no border adjustments – in 1987, the US, Britain and France sent their warships into the Persian Gulf to enforce a UN call for a ceasefire. US missiles targeted 5 Iranian ships and shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus killing all 290 passengers and crew on board – and then claimed this was a “mistake”. The war did end. But its cost was utterly terrible for both Iranian and Iraqi populations. And all because of the Iranian regime’s defiance against the imperialist regional order and the consequent punishment imperialism decided to mete out through Saddam Hussein!

1991: first blow-back in Iraq

But then it turned out that Saddam Hussein wanted a reward for doing the West’s dirty work. The 8-year long war had left Iraq nearly bankrupt and in debt. He asked the US for more credit but was turned down. By now, Iraq’s oil industry was not doing so well because the market was flooded by rival producers, including Kuwait. This left Saddam Hussein unable to recoup his losses by selling more oil. And worse still, Kuwait, among other creditors, was demanding that he pay back a $9bn loan. It also refused Iraq free passage to its only deep water access to the Gulf, the Shatt-al-Arab canal, which needed to be rebuilt following the war. So, in 1991, Saddam Hussein decided he had no choice but to launch an invasion of Kuwait.

This allowed the imperialists, led by the USA, to intervene against him and cut him down to size, but also to uphold the absolute inviolability of the western oil multinationals.

This first Gulf War, which mobilised unprecedented force on the imperialist side, was a catastrophe for Iraq. Its towns and cities were cluster bombed. Its army was sent fleeing out of Kuwait and bombed to smithereens during its retreat, while the bombing set hundreds of oil wells in the region alight, polluting the air, land and sea for years to come.

As they were withdrawing their own troops, the imperialist leaders encouraged the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq and the Shiites from southern Iraq to rise against Saddam Hussein, misleading them into thinking that the West would back them up with its weapons. But the insurgents got no backing. The West looked the other way while Saddam Hussein drowned both uprisings in blood. Maybe the imperialist leaders had expected that the Gulf War disaster would lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But they wanted an “orderly” overthrow, by the Iraqi army, that they had armed and trained – not by some Kurdish or Shiite uprising which they could not trust to produce a reliable regime.

In any case, there was no regime change in Iraq. So the imperialist powers proceeded to blockade and bomb Iraq for the next ten years. Until a new pretext for intervention presented itself in 2000: the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon, which opened the era of the “war on terror”, allowing George Bush junior to put Iraq on his list of ″rogue states″. And the US prepared for a full scale invasion, which took place in 2003. It must be said that the very idea that Saddam Hussein’s exhausted and weak regime presiding over a war and blockade-devastated country since 1980, could have had any military resources or resources of any kind, at this stage – let alone the so-called weapons of mass destruction – was just ludicrous. But nevertheless, Bush and Blair told their respective publics that this was the case and launched the invasion.

The Western occupation and the rise of the militias

The real scale of the human and material damage caused by the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, will probably never be known. But its social and political cost is much easier to measure – and this is especially important today, because it provided, to a large extent, the soil on which the Islamic reactionaries grew.

The western troops would anyway have been physically unable to fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But the policy of the US authorities made matters even worse, because it prevented former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from holding public positions. As a result, the state machinery all but collapsed in a matter of weeks and there was nothing to replace it.

This opened a Pandora’s box. The power vacuum was thus filled by all kinds of forces vying for political power. And since, due to the disbanding of the Iraqi army, weapons were easy to find, these forces proceeded to set up their own armed militias.

The political scene was soon occupied by these various militias – some religious, others secular or nationalist and others still, formed around a town, or just to serve the ambitions of some local strong man.

To prevent a backlash after the brutal demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the US authorities chose to make use of – and build up – the forces of those who had been Saddam Hussein’s worst enemies. This was not an innocuous choice. The most reactionary among these enemies were the two main religious Shiite parties and their militias. At the same time, the US stepped up its repression against all those who were associated with the Sunni minority, which was considered the main base of support of the previous regime.

Initially, however, this didn’t work too well. The resistance to the occupation came from both sides of the sectarian divide. In the South, the Mahdi Army, a militia led by a cleric, Moqtadah al-Sadr, openly attacked the western forces, while in the centre and north of the country, Sunni militias formed by former members of the disbanded Iraqi army were doing the same.

But it was against the resistance of the Sunni militias that the US command chose to concentrate its fire power, in Salahadeen province, north of Baghdad – whose capital, Tikrit, stood as a sort of symbol of the defunct regime, since it was Saddam Hussein’s birthplace – and even more so, in western Anbar province.

In March 2004, the US authorities announced a full-scale offensive against Fallujah, the capital of Anbar province. However, this proved easier said than done. It took 8 months and three successive coordinated operations before the US-British troops gained full control of the town. By that time, Fallujah had been reduced to rubble by western bombs, including phosphorus incendiary devices. An official report reckoned that 72% of the town’s homes had been destroyed. The actual number of casualties will never be known.

As a result of this assault on Fallujah and the subsequent systematic hunt against alleged “terrorists” in Anbar – since anyone opposing the occupation was, by definition, a terrorist – several hundred thousand people fled the province, whether to other parts of Iraq or to the closest neighbouring country, Syria. Among them were members of the Sunni militias who were running for their lives. Only the most determined among these militias chose to go underground and remain in Iraq in order to continue their fight – and among these were some of the cadres of today’s ISIL.

But the occupation authorities’ apparent victory was short-lived. Just over a year later, it backfired. In February 2006, a bomb attack against a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sparked off a bloody, sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, which was to claim hundreds of thousands of victims and last several years.

This, however, had nothing to do with the protagonists being in the grip of some kind of collective hysteria or exotic fanaticism – as was portrayed by the western media at the time. From the point of view of the religious militias, there was logic in this apparent madness. For them, this sectarian civil war was a cold-blooded strategy aimed at shoring up their political positions. Indeed, religion had been relegated to the backstage for decades and, while many people were still religious, it was generally not considered acceptable to mix religion with politics. Besides, the religious militias needed to sideline popular rival secular forces. But the bloody sectarian tit-for-tat which followed was an expedient means of terrorising the members of each community into thinking that the armed presence of their own religious militia was the only way for them to protect themselves from the supposed “threat” of the other community.

A Sectarian Regime In A Devastated Country

After the initial wave of insurgency against their occupation, the sectarian civil war was a second blow-back for the imperialist powers. Despite a huge increase in bombing sorties over Iraq, they proved totally incapable of containing it. If this war eventually died down in 2008, it was because the Shiite religious militias had achieved their aims. Not only had they established themselves as the dominant forces on the political stage and on the ground, but they had also won the de facto recognition of the western powers which had promised to include them in the political process, provided they agreed to operate under the cover of legitimate political parties.

As a result, the political system which was put in place by the West was dominated by communal forces, and above all, by religious parties. However, while the occupation authorities delivered on their promise to the Shiite militias – including the most fundamentalist among them, the Mahdi Army, which now entered politics as the Sadrist Movement – many, if not most, of their Sunni counterparts were left out in the cold. As a result, the regime which was propped up by the imperialist powers was quite simply a sectarian regime, in which the Shiite religious parties were put in the driving seat, with a blank cheque to use communal patronage as a method of government.

The political settlement which followed the civil war shaped the day-to-day life of the population along sectarian lines, as was highlighted in this description of Baghdad published by US journalist Nir Rosen, just after the end of the civil war:

“There are fewer people dying today because there are fewer left to kill; Sunnis and Shiites now inhabit separate walled enclaves, run by warlords and militias who have consolidated their control after mixed neighbourhoods were cleansed along sectarian lines. Since April 2007, American forces have erected a series of concrete walls and checkpoints throughout the city to divide warring Sunnis and Shiites. Though these walls helped dampen sectarian violence, they may have bolstered sectarianism, isolating Iraqis from their neighbours and leaving them dependent on militias like the Mahdi Army for food, supplies and protection. . . in central Baghdad, the majority-Shia Washash neighbourhood sits in squalor. . .  The unpaved streets of Washash are flooded with filth and electric cables hang low from rooftops, criss-crossing like old cobwebs. The Mahdi Army men in Washash – who are notorious, even among the Sadrists, for their brutality – used the neighbourhood as a staging point for attacks against Sunni militants… and the neighbourhood was among the first Shiite enclaves to be surrounded by concrete walls; there is only one entrance for cars, guarded by Iraqi soldiers. Elsewhere a few narrow openings in the concrete blocks allow pedestrians to squeeze through, one at a time. Almost all of the Sunnis who once lived in Washash were forced out or killed by the Mahdi Army.”

By that time, material conditions had deteriorated enormously for the vast majority of the Iraqi population, regardless of their community. As Nir Rosen noted: “Before the war, 80% of Iraqis depended on the Public Distribution System, an efficient ration system. . . that provided essential items for all Iraqi families. But the system has now stopped functioning because of security problems, corruption and sectarianism. Most families do not even receive 50% of what they used to, and displaced Iraqis, especially Sunnis, receive nothing at all. In the meantime, the Sadrist movement has become Iraq’s largest humanitarian organisation.”

ISIL, the Syrian civil war and imperialism’s power games

In Syria, anger was simmering among the Iraqi refugees, due to their dire situation and continued forced exile, an anger both against the imperialist powers which were responsible for their fate and against the sectarian Shiite-dominated regime which had been put in place in Iraq. This anger was probably the most significant factor contributing to the growth of ISIL in refugee camps along the Iraq border.

There had already been a long-standing Sunni fundamentalist tradition in Syria. But the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which had founded this current, had been virtually wiped out as an organisation by Bashar al-Assad’s father, in 1982. Nevertheless, this current survived in an atomised form, with a number of local groups focusing on terrorist activities, while some of its original leaders set up shop in Saudi Arabia.

The precise origins of ISIL itself are the subject of speculation. Likewise for its supposed links with al Qaeda – since no-one knows what such links really mean, except that the imperialist powers had chosen al Qaeda as the number one bogeyman in their “war on terror”. What matters, is that as far as we know, ISIL′s cadres came out of the first Sunni uprising against the occupation of Iraq, in 2003, that they took part in the subsequent sectarian civil war and, eventually, moved to Syria where they built their organisation in its present form.

Once in Syria, the group of Iraqi fighters recruited among young Iraqi refugees, while maintaining a network of contacts within the eastern and northern Sunni provinces of Iraq, indulged in the “normal” activities of all militias – namely, fund-raising through racketeering and kidnapping for ransom, as well as various terrorist activities. But they also recruited activists among the various underground spin-offs from the suppressed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, thereby reviving this dormant current.

Then came the so-called “Arab Spring” in Syria. In the absence of any alternative policy on the ground, the brutality of the regime’s repression allowed the oppositionist Sunni fundamentalists to come to the fore. Their sectarian hatred against the Alawites – Assad’s Shiite minority – was promoted among those who supported the protest movement. And the ensuing civil war provided the refugee Iraqi fighters and their new recruits with a military training ground.

It was at this point that ISIL took its present form, although, in the process, it suffered a setback when some of its Syrian cadres split off to form today’s largest Syrian fundamentalist group, the al-Nusra Front. It was this split which, apparently, led ISIL to stop claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda. But it could also have been the fact that, according to some reports, al-Nusra accepted the financial help of the Baghdad government against Assad, with the endorsement of al-Qaeda’s masterminds, something which could not have gone down well with the ISIL leaders. In any case, despite this setback, ISIL managed to build a stronghold for itself against all the other anti-Assad militias, in eastern Syria, around the town of Raqqa and in the eastern part of Aleppo.

It can be said therefore, that the western occupation of Iraq spawned not one, but two, fundamentalist Sunni militias – one Iraqi and the other Syrian – which subsequently spread havoc in both countries.

From its Syrian stronghold, ISIL expanded its territory along the border with Iraq, taking over some oil and gas fields, thereby securing significant sources of income. It was during this period that the militia seems to have come to the attention of wealthy donors who wanted to weaken Iran’s regional influence in Syria and Iraq – especially donors from Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States. Some reports also claim that the Turkish authorities deliberately facilitated ISIL’s oil and weapon smuggling operations across its border. Either way, these countries were close allies of the imperialist powers and their benevolent attitude towards ISIL sat quite well with the West’s antagonistic policy towards the Syrian regime.

Indeed, the western leaders were not prepared, at this point in any case, to take the risk of a direct military intervention in Syria. This was partly for domestic reasons, because the human and economic cost of such an intervention would have been difficult to justify politically. But their main concern was the danger involved in destabilising a Syrian state which had played a decisive role in policing Palestine in the past and had hosted large numbers of Palestinian refugees. However, as usual, the western leaders wanted to have their cake and eat it. They wanted Syria to carry on playing its role as a regional policeman, but they also wanted to weaken Assad’s regime, which they considered too close to Iran. And for this reason, they saw no problem in allowing their regional allies to arm the likes of ISIL – assuming they did not provide some of the weapons themselves – as long as this would help to keep the Assad regime bogged down in an endless civil war – regardless of the cost to the Syrian people.

Except that, as it turned out, the ISIL pawn in the western power games moved far beyond the script it was meant to follow. Eventually its fighters crossed the border into Iraq and began to expand their territory well into its eastern and northern provinces, to such an extent that the same western powers had no choice but to launch a military intervention in an attempt to stop their advance.

Iraq’s social powder keg

The reasons for ISIL’s advance through Iraq cannot be reduced to its military capability, nor even to the blatant failure of the Iraqi army. It is also due to social factors, which mean that, despite its brutal methods, the militia has not been rejected out of hand by the Iraqi population as an invader. Otherwise, in this country where virtually everyone has weapons at home, an armed resistance against ISIL would have already developed among the population.

The fact is, that six years after the official end of Iraq’s civil war, the sectarian modus operandi of the Iraqi regime and the society it rests upon, has hardly changed. The religious parties have retained their monopoly over the political scene, as was shown again in the parliamentary elections in April this year, when only 3 of the 31 lists standing candidates identified themselves as “secular”! The government and state political institutions, but also the ministries and administrations, remain overwhelmingly dominated by appointees of the main religious Shiite parties. Most positions of responsibility in the army and police are still held by former cadres of the Shiite militias. It is still virtually impossible for someone from a Sunni background to get a public sector job. And this, in a country where the state has always been the largest provider of jobs and is all the more relied upon, given that today unemployment is around 50%!

The conditions of the population have not improved. In fact they are not much better than those described above by Nir Rosen, back in 2008. In 2013, it was estimated that a fifth of the population was living below the World Bank’s poverty line of $2/day. In Basra, despite its oil resources, almost a third of the population was in poverty. In the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, the figure was as high as 40%. An estimated 4 million people who had fled the country since the invasion, have not returned and half of them are living in other parts of the Middle East.

In the poor districts, basic amenities are at best unreliable – when they are available at all. The vast sums allocated to reconstruction projects seem to have melted away. In February this year, the German-based Iraqi news web portal, Niqash reported that in Baghdad, 700 projects in health care, sewage facilities and other vital services, had been frozen due to lack of funding; in Basra, the figure was 1,500!

And given the ostentatious wealth of the regime’s stooges, the disgusting living conditions of the poor majority become even more unbearable.

To quote the United Arab Emirates-based daily The National in an article published in November 2013 on the situation in Baghdad: “Iraq’s Shiite Muslim elite are offering cash for $1m homes in the capital’s sought-after Zayouna neighbourhood. Gilded mansions with jacuzzis in Italian-marble bathrooms and armoured vehicles parked in the drive are replacing the humbler dwellings of the former middle-class Sunni, Shiite and Christian inhabitants. . . In Zayouna, an influx of army officers has turned a once quiet neighbourhood into a heavily fortified cantonment, with patrols and security cameras keeping watch.”

Of course, behind this ostentatious wealth is the shameless corruption of the regime, from the very top of the government right down to rank-and-file police officers. In a country which, due to its considerable oil resources should be able – and was able in the past – to offer its population decent standards of living, the corruption of the local capitalists and their politicians seems to be soaking up every penny of the oil profits.
Among the Sunni population, a combination of deep discontent against appalling living conditions, hatred for Baghdad’s corrupt regime and resentment against sectarian discrimination, had been stoking anger for quite a while. Inevitably this anger was going to explode on the streets.

The Iraqi protest movement

Already from the end of 2012, there was a resurgence of terrorist attacks in the north and centre of Iraq, reaching a level unseen since the end of the civil war, four years before. The government’s own figures, which are likely to understate the severity of the situation, estimated that 5OO car bombs exploded across Iraq in 2013; half of them in Baghdad.

Unable to contain this resurgence, prime minister al-Maliki, in office since 2006, and leader of the Shiite religious party al-Dawa, turned against Sunni politicians, blaming them for the terror attacks. He instigated a blatantly sectarian repression, which was the spark that set alight the simmering anger in the northern and central Sunni provinces of Iraq.

In December 2012, after the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, were arrested on terrorism charges, peaceful protests broke out, involving tens of thousands of people, who used the opportunity to express their accumulated grievances: against anti-Sunni discrimination; against the imprisonment and torture of thousands of political prisoners under provision 4 of the Terror Law; against the corruption of the Baghdad authorities; against the expulsions of so many families from their homes by Shiite militias, often acting on behalf of real estate speculators; and, finally, over the lack of basic services and, more generally, the dire living conditions.
In a number of towns, the protesters, apparently inspired by the “Arab Spring”, established what they called “peace camps” – permanent settlements of tents set in the middle of a square to popularise their demands and defy the authorities.

It is worth noting that very little information filtered out about this in the western media at the time. Of course, no western leader wanted it known that the so-called “democracy” they had established during their occupation of Iraq was really a religious kleptocracy which was being democratically challenged by protesters in the streets – and the usual self-censorship of the media did its job.

In any case, at this stage, the Sunni fundamentalists do not seem to have played much of a role in these protests which, after all, did not fit in at all with their political agenda. But all they had to do was bide their time and wait for Baghdad’s response.

And predictably, the reaction of the ruling Shiite religious parties was extremely brutal. They could not tolerate such a challenge to their authority. The social content of the protests had the potential of attracting the support of the Shiite poor, who were just as much at the receiving end of the government’s criminal corruption as the Sunni poor. And this would be a direct threat to the sectarian set-up which was the basis of the Shiite religious parties’ power. Al-Maliki and his stooges in office sent the army against the protesters.

After a series of more or less serious skirmishes, an assault by government forces on a peace camp at Hawijah, south-west of Kirkuk, on 23 April 2013, killed 50 people and injured 110. This only succeeded in radicalising the protests, resulting in an escalation of the repression, to the point where the army resorted to sporadic shelling against areas in Fallujah and Ramadi, causing an exodus by tens of thousands of Sunni from Anbar province.

Given this, it should not come as a surprise that a significant section among the protesters should have seen no way forward, but to take arms against a government which was prepared to shed the blood of peaceful protesters rather than yield to their demands. In the absence of any other organised political perspective, the day of the Islamic fundamentalists had come, since they were the only force which seemed to propose a way of fighting back.

ISIL’s irresistible march

It is difficult to say exactly when the ISIL march into Iraq began. It seems to have been a slow process of infiltration at first, whereby the militia made initial contact with local armed groups to secure their active or passive support. And, in this, the repression carried out by Baghdad in Sunni areas during 2013 must have considerably facilitated the task of its emissaries. At the same time, the militia seems to have made recruits among the protesters, while it was setting up – or maybe reviving – dormant cells in several localities.

Without going into the details of the ISIL militia’s successful march into eastern and northern Iraq, there is a political and social dimension in these events which is worth considering. In this respect, the seizure of Fallujah by ISIL, is of special interest, because it is well documented and because it contradicts many of the lies peddled by the western media.

It was preceded, in late December 2013, by the arrest of a well-known Sunni MP and outspoken supporter of the protests, in Ramadi, the second largest town in Anbar province. During the arrest, the government hit-squad killed the sister and brother of this MP, together with 3 of his bodyguards. This sparked off a new wave of angry protests across Anbar province during the first week of January. But, this time, many of the protesters were armed and, in Ramadi itself, they took over the police stations.Within a week, the armed protesters were in control of whole districts in several towns in Anbar, including in Ramadi and Fallujah. Immediately the al-Maliki government blamed al-Qaeda, even though there had been no sighting of ISIL units so far.

The 11 January issue of Niqash questioned this official version in the following terms: “Were the thousands of gunmen who unprecedentedly appeared on Anbar city streets all members of al-Qaeda? More likely they were locals enraged at the dispersal of the protests and angered at the arrest of Sunni Muslim leaders. The al-Maliki government organized an amnesty for those who had joined Shiite Muslim militias but it didn’t seem to want to deal with formerly armed Sunni Muslims the same way. Sunni Muslims also complain that the Iraqi military is only 5 percent Sunni and that only one of the 14 most senior military leaders is Sunni Muslim, and that he is al-Maliki’s man anyway. They also say they are commonly denied government jobs because of their sect.”

The same issue described how anti-government fighters had taken control of Fallujah: “A secret deal was done between the tribes of Anbar and Sunni Muslim extremists this week – the result has seen extremists withdraw from Fallujah… ‘Only several dozen ISIL fighters actually entered the city in the first place,’ says Ahmad al-Jumaili, one of the tribal leaders in Anbar. ‘They were only carrying light and medium sized weapons with them. And there is no way they could control a city like Fallujah where all the people of the city have at least one weapon in their homes.’… How exactly did ISIL take control of a whole city like Fallujah in two or so days? It would certainly not have been possible under normal conditions. But the chaos generated in the city by the dispersal of Sunni Muslim protest sites that had been demonstrating against the government for almost a year provided more optimal conditions for a takeover. The general feeling in the city as a result of that dispersal – increased local antipathy toward the Iraqi government – also helped. . . .  Even if nothing else, the tribes of Anbar currently have one thing in common with. . . ISIL: many of them also want to confront al-Maliki and his government. The members of ISIL in Anbar seemed to be well aware of this; they realized that Anbar was becoming an incubator of bad feeling toward the al-Maliki government. . .”

This situation led to a stand-off between the Iraqi army and the armed protesters. It was as if the 2004 siege of Fallujah was being re-enacted, except that, this time, instead of being American and British, the assailants were Iraqis. Initially, the al-Maliki regime seems to have thought that it would get away with such a re-enactment. On February 1st, al-Maliki’s officials declared to the Reuters news agency: “Orders have been issued to start shelling the city with artillery and planes to detect the potential abilities of militants inside Fallujah and try to find a gap to get into the city.” However, no-one knows exactly what happened after that, except that the assault never took place.

Two weeks later, on 15 February, Niqash reported on the situation in Fallujah as follows: “Armed militias control the city and the Iraqi army stands guard outside. .  Medical and fuel supplies are running low. Six weeks have passed since the Iraqi government lost control of the city of Fallujah. . . Barriers made out of dirt effectively block all four sides of the city. Behind them there are hundreds of armed men, some with anti-helicopter weaponry, and armoured cars.” Then the newspaper quotes a resident describing how the insurgents had been preparing for a confrontation: “When the government was threatening to invade. . . the militants started planting improvised explosive devices around the four entrances to the city. Houses on roads leading into the city have also been mined in order to stop any attempts to enter.”

In the same issue, Niqash described the insurgents’ organisation: “Currently what is best described as a rebel military council controls the city’s security. It is composed of various Sunni Muslim factions. . . This includes the Army of Al Murabiteen, the Asadullah al-Ghalib brigades, Hamas of Iraq and a number of other Sunni Muslim brigades. Also on the military council though are local Sunni Muslim men who once served in the Iraqi army. . . ISIL is also represented on the council. . . All up, the council has 15 members including community leaders, tribal elders and members of the various armed factions. It meets twice or more each week to discuss the security situation in Fallujah. It makes decisions by voting. One of the most prominent members of the council is the cleric, Abdullah al-Janabi, who is known for his radical opinions; he is from Fallujah and in the past he was in charge of setting up Sharia religious courts in the city. Al-Janabi is also a Salafist.”

Given that at this point, 60% of Fallujah’s population had left the city, according to Niqash, this population obviously did not feel that it had enough of a stake in a confrontation between the militia and the Iraqi army to take part in it, on either side. But, at the same time, Niqash‘s account also shows that, at this stage, ISIL was one participant among others within an alliance of militias, some of which do not necessarily approve of its well-publicised and horrific methods.

A sectarian threat – in Iraq and across the region

By now, ISIL is said to be controlling significant parts of Iraq’s Anbar and Niveneh provinces – including the country’s second largest town, Mosul – as well as towns in Salahadeen province, including Tikrit and Samarra, and the border area with Syria. But we don’t really know what this control means. If the example of ISIL’s seizure of Fallujah is anything to go by, it is likely to rely heavily on alliances of convenience with local militias which have chosen to side with ISIL for their own reasons, but could just as easily change their minds. Besides, according to statements from both Baghdad and the US, a section of the Iraqi army- some say as much as one third -is still stationed in Anbar province, even if it remains safely out of ISIL’s reach.

What is happening on the side of the Iraqi government? As we know, its army has all but collapsed, despite its 900,000 troops, its air force, helicopter gunships and modern heavy artillery. The explanation being given for this by commentators is that the army is corrupt, from its top generals to its rank-and-file soldiers. As an Iraqi politician declared to a western journalist: “This is the harvest of total corruption. People pay money to get into the army in order to get a salary – but they are investors not soldiers.”

But this is probably only part of the story. As western soldiers experienced first hand during the occupation of Iraq, an army which faces the hostility of the population is likely to lose morale – and all the more so if its officer caste is corrupt to the point of being incapable of providing for the needs of the troops, which seems to be the case in the Iraqi army. If, in addition, soldiers are faced with the prospect of torture – if not beheading – if they get caught by the enemy, it should come as no surprise that they run away rather than fight.

In order to make up for the army’s collapse, al-Maliki and his successor, the new prime minister al-Abadi (who is also a leading figure of the Dawa party), revived the large Shia militias which had ostensibly been disbanded after the end of the civil war. But judging from the show of strength that they’ve already made in the country’s main cities, including Baghdad, these militias are not only massive in number, but also well-trained and heavily armed – which means that, in reality, their organisations had remained intact, outside the army.

Nor has the sectarian behaviour of these Shiite militias changed. There are more and more reports of how they are harassing any Sunni they can find in the mixed towns and neighbourhoods. Quite simply, this amounts to a return to the days of the civil war when the militias ruled over Iraq. Except that, today, the Shiite militias are recognised by the government as auxiliaries of the army and can officially do as they please.

Of course, just as during the civil war, the danger comes from both sides. The mass executions of Shiite soldiers which we see being carried out on YouTube by ISIL fighters and the rising death toll caused by the current wave of terrorist attacks against civilian targets – mostly governmental and Shiite – can only provide the Shiite militias with even more justification for going on the rampage. And this, in turn, will only help the likes of ISIL to mobilise popular support against them.

The situation has a logic of its own, which goes far beyond Iraq. Much publicity was given to those youth, who were born and bred in Britain, and who joined ISIL. Why did they do it? No doubt because they were misled into thinking that they would somehow achieve something this way – whether it be by fighting the imperialist powers which have been ravaging the Middle East for so long, or by taking their revenge against a society which has nothing to offer them. But if some of the youth here feel motivated to go down this road, how many more will do so in the Middle East, where the vast majority of the poor masses are likely to feel, in addition, that they have nothing to lose.

This, together with the Middle East’s unifying Arab heritage, means that what is happening today in Iraq is likely to be repeated, in various forms, in every part of the region. The declaration of a “caliphate” by ISIL, apart from being a gesture of defiance towards the West, was precisely aimed at appealing to the explosive anger which has been stoked up for so long across the region.

Already, the contagion has reached the Lebanon where Sunni fundamentalist groups seem to have been gathering strength and are taking their fight to the Shiite Hezbollah militia. In Jordan, Egypt and Yemen, there is a resurgence of terrorist activities by Sunni Salafist groups which are encouraged by the successes of ISIL – and it is spreading far beyond the region, to northern Africa. In Palestine itself, the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem probably reflects a similar phenomenon. Even in the Kurdish regions, where the population is relatively united by its national identity, several Shiite and Sunni fundamentalist factions are raising their heads in an attempt to challenge the dominant role of the traditional Kurdish nationalist parties.

Against the new imperialist aggression

When will this chain reaction, which was started by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, end? No-one can tell. But one thing is certain. The western imperialist powers will not and cannot be part of the solution.

Indeed, what better recruiting sergeant can the likes of ISIL find than the western drones and manned aircraft hovering over Iraq, Syria or Yemen, with their devastating bombs? Because, of course, contrary to the western leaders’ claims, there is no such thing as a “surgical strike” – people die under western bombs and not all of those killed are so-called “jihadists”, by far.

In fact, from the very beginning, high-ranking officers in the imperialist countries were already stating in no uncertain terms, that the western coalition’s air strikes against ISIL, were a waste of time and that the only “solution” to the problem raised by ISIL was to “put boots on the ground”. And, in fact, the US has already begun to do precisely that, despite denying it, by sending 3,000 so-called “advisers” to reinforce the 14,000 or so US private security contractors left on the ground since the formal departure of US troops.

Of course, after the disaster of the occupation of Iraq, the US leaders do not want to face the political and economic cost of yet another quagmire – and possibly a much larger and bloodier one. So, they’ve been trying to get would-be regional powers to do the dirty work for them.

Turkey would have been the best choice. However it has its own domestic problems. Its regime is far from being unchallenged as was shown by last year’s protests, and it is facing an on-going war in the Kurdish part of its territory. For Turkey to intervene directly in Iraq, its government would have to reach a long-term political settlement with the Kurdish nationalists, in Iraq and Syria, but above all, in Turkey – something that the current Turkish government has bluntly refused to do, so far.

The next best choice was Iran. This, of course, would require the US to settle its long-standing dispute with the Iranian regime and make some concessions, in particular by lifting the economic blockade which it imposed as part of the saga over Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. The election, last year, of Hassan Rohani to the Iranian presidency paved the way for a normalisation of US relations with Iran, but only up to a point. And this is quite simply because, no matter how much the US would like Iran to intervene militarily to nip ISIL in the bud, it cannot afford to upset its Sunni allies across the world – especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but also in Pakistan – by conceding too much to Iran. Conversely, the Iranian regime will not take the risk of being dragged into a full-scale war in Iraq, which would likely split the country right down the middle, along sectarian lines. So, for the time being, as one commentator wrote, “Iran is forming a coalition of one”, pushing its own pawns in Iraq – namely the Shiite militias – and providing them with all the weapons and expert advice it can, while carrying out the odd bombing against fundamentalist groups which are using the Iran-Iraq border region as a logistical base.

Outside Turkey and Iran, the imperialist powers are running out of options. Their attempts to get together an Arab intervention force have resulted in complete failure. So all they can do for the moment is to continue the arms-length intervention and cross their fingers in the hope that the profits of their oil companies will be restored at some point.

Some will object that, surely, something should be done about the present horrific situation – both in Syria and Iraq. And that, even if it’s not much of a solution, at least the current western intervention has the possibility of weakening the likes of ISIL.
Well, even if it is weakening ISIL, rather than reinforcing it – which remains to be seen – it is definitely fanning the flames of the fire. And this can only mean more long-term hardship for the population across the whole region – something that we, revolutionaries in Britain, in the heart of the imperialist world, should not and cannot condone.

Not every problem has an immediate solution in history. No matter how ″targeted″ they may be, western bombs can only spell more disaster for the people of the Middle East. Its future can only be shaped by its own collective, conscious intervention – to get rid, once and for all, of all the exploiters, imperialist and home-grown, who have been plundering the region for so long. Many times in the past, between the two world wars, immediately after WWII and again in the 1950s and 60s, the peoples of the Middle East demonstrated their capacity to fight together against the oppression to which they were subjected. In this capacity lies their future. And it is our duty, as revolutionary communists, to stand in solidarity with those who, in the Middle East are fighting against the stream for another world, free from the oppressive straitjacket of religion and from the exploitative stranglehold of capitalism.

The original version of this talk first appeared on the Workers Fight section of the Internationalist Communist Union site, here.  The ICU is a Marxist current whose most prominent organisation is the French Lutte Ouvriere; Workers Fight is the British group. 

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