Iraq does not exist. Syria does not exist. The carve up of the Ottoman Empire by the entente powers in 1916 is all but undone. The president of the Kurdish Regional Government Masoud Barzani has said a “new reality” now exists. Those clean borders which were born from the Sykes-Picot agreement are out of date and the chaos we see in Iraq today are the bitter fruits of imperialist meddling. Tony Blair and the war-profiteer Dick Cheney may still claim that the situation is not their fault but the near one and half million silent dead tell us a different story. Here in Britain our key tasks are to oppose further military intervention by the USA, Iran and Saudi Arabia, back efforts to help refugees and support where possible secular, working class and women’s organisations.
The rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and allies shocked the mainstream media which generally failed to report on growing threat to the US/Iran backed government of Nouri al-Maliki and the crimes his armed forces were committing in Sunni dominated west of Iraq. For example, we see regularly the images of barrel bombs being dropped by the Syrian Arab Air Force on Aleppo and other cities yet little has been seen of the indiscriminate shelling and, yes, barrel bombs being used against the restive city of Fallujah. The city of Fallujah is a symbol of imperialist and sectarian destruction of Iraq as it bore heavy casualties in the first Iraq war with so-called smart bombs hitting markets crowded with civilians. It then became an abject lesson in imperial power with the US and coalition forces essentially razing the city in 2004. The weapons used by US forces poisoned the city increasing cancers and birth deformities massively. Following the defeat of the Sunni insurgency and the barbaric cleansing of Sunni neighbourhoods in the capital in 2006 the idea that a single Iraq under a Shia dominated government backed by Iran could bring long-term stability was a fantasy. ISIS and Sunni militants have broken that fantasy.
ISIS are now calling themselves simply the Islamic State, under the self-styled Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), and they are part of the sharp end of reaction in the Middle East with their forces committing atrocities across Mesopotamia and the Levant. There will be some alarm but also bemusement from commentators in the West over the announcement of a restored caliphate but it represents both an opportunist power grab and the culmination of years of work. The recent declaration of loyalty by Jabhat al-Nusra to ISIS is but the first of many that Baghdadi expects to receive from Islamist fighters in the region though it is unlikely that the larger Islamist brigades in Syria will fall in under the banner of ISIS. It represents a substantial challenge to the US and its allies, Iran and its allies and also Al-Qaeda central who have been diminished by the way ISIS has fought in Syria, the blitzkrieg in Northern Iraq and now the announcement of a restored Caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. The capital of the new state also sends a clear message and adds substantial legitimacy as Ar-Raqqah was the capital of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid.
Amongst all of this the Iraqi working class and the poor are stuck between the hammer of imperialism and the anvil of reaction. All sides in the war are heading down a sectarian path of further separation and further bloodshed. As Iraq is further dismantled the possibility of a humane society blossoming from the post US occupation seems impossible and it will be incumbent on socialist and working class forces to aid where possible the secular and progressive forces in Iraq against imperialism, Islamist reaction and tyranny.
Perfidious America and the break-up of Iraq
Whilst Iran benefitted from the removal of Saddam Hussein it has played a frantic role in aiding its besieged ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria to crush the Islamist dominated opposition forces. Saudi Arabia and co have long been intent on removing the Shia government in Iraq and the Syrian regime as a way to weaken the regional power of Iran. With money, arms and training steadily flowing to militias in Syria and Iraq they, the proxy forces of Saudi Wahhabi fanaticism, have smashed the fragile unity of Iraq with a military advance that stunned the media in the West but was an obvious outcome as Iraq’s cardboard cut-out army was never going to fight. Furthermore, it is unlikely many units had the organisational capacity to fight as corruption and poor planning led to shortages in ammunition with commanding officers abandoning their posts before their troops abandoned their positions. Such a collapse before a numerically and technologically inferior force has ensured the reformation of the sectarian Shia Jaish al-Mahdi and the further integration of the murderous Badr Corps into the Iraqi army ensuring that Iraq falls further into the sectarian abyss.
In the north Kurdish peshmerga have mopped up in Kirkuk seizing military bases, equipment and territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army and local security forces. The religious and ethnically diverse city is the first real test of Barzani and his government in winning ground and acceptance for an independent Kurdish state that has been a haven of peace compared to vast swathes of Iraq. Well organised, supplied and dug in peshmerga regulars have proven a harder test for ISIS and their allies in a number of skirmishes in the North. If Barzani scores success in an independence referendum then Turkey, Iraq and both the government and the rebels in Syria could see it as a step towards Kurdish cessations in their own countries and could act with force to stop it. The long and complicated struggle for a Kurdish state has taken a bold step forward through the current crisis.
At a political level the next steps will be decided in Washington, Riyadh and Tehran leading to the unlikely marriage of convenience between Iran and the USA who are both set to prop up the ailing government of Maliki with both sending “advisers”, read special forces, to try and put some fight in the Iraqi Army. The Iranians have had at least two units of the Quds Force battling ISIS and their allies to the north of Baghdad and, if asked, Iran will send more troops and equipment. For the Saudi’s the sight of their US allies siding with Iran in Iraq will not be a welcome sight and underlines the increasing fickleness of the imperialist hegemon where it is flexible enough to line up against Damascus, Moscow and Tehran in Syria but can line up with Tehran and Moscow in Iraq. Another tendency that been underlined by this crisis is that the semi-independent policy of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states since the Iraq war, the slow defeat in Afghanistan and the removal of pro-Western dictators during the Arab Spring the has meant that the USA is not able to dominate as it did after the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The redeployment of US forces back to the Western Mediterranean and the Gulf belies an uneasiness to get directly involved with boots on the ground or even air and missile strikes. Obama has rejected copying the “whack-a-mole” policy that has so utterly failed in Yemen and Pakistan for Iraq and despite Kerry’s attempt to forge political unity in Iraq it is Joe Biden’s 2006 plan that the Americans will come to favour in the end. It will lead to the carve up of Iraq into three distinct regions (Sunni, Shia and Kurdish) that will resolve nothing in the short-term but offers the chance to buy off the Sunni tribes again to isolate and defeat ISIS. However, such a plan may now be impossible as all the key regional players are pulling in opposite directions and with the crimes of Maliki and the Badr Corps fresh in Sunni minds cooperation seems unlikely even at the cost of opening a political space for ISIS.
The obvious outcome as Sami Ramadani has pointed out is that “the three regions would quickly fall under the rule of violent sectarians and chauvinists. Given how ethnically and religiously mixed Iraq’s regions are, particularly in Baghdad and central Iraq, a three-way national breakup would be a recipe for permanent wars in which only the oil companies, the arms suppliers, and the warlords will be the winners.” This of course is the Iraq where Sunni and Shia inter-married, where the ancient Christian population lived in relative peace and security and where Turkmen sent their children to the same schools as Arabs only over a decade ago before the USA and its allies brought death and misery to millions. It is only because of foreign powers, their local puppets and tyrants using divide and rule sectarianism that we have, and continue, to see crimes, ethnic cleansing and massacres.
For those of us who marched against the Iraq war we can take no pleasure in being right about how Iraq would fall apart and we again find ourselves looking on as regional powers tear up Iraq on ethnic and religious lines. In Iraq, like Syria and Libya, the working class is the missing actor with ethnicity and religion being used to tear communities apart. Iraq has taught us again that democracy cannot be imposed from above and that the USA and its allies have nothing to offer the people of Iraq. The immediate future looks bleak and our opposition to further military intervention is of the highest importance in terms of practical work. Yet the socialist left must not stop at that, as we witness the break-up of Iraq and the redrawing of the map on sectarian lines it is still possible to imagine a different future. We briefly glimpsed that future during the first pangs of the Arab Spring and though it was only an undercurrent it is a future pulling in the direction of the unification of the Arab world. Such a democratic transformation imbued with socialist aspirations is the future we should imagine even in the cold winter of reaction and war.