There was a time, just over a decade ago, when the leaders of the United States and Britain promised the world a quick victory in Iraq in order to put an end to an unhinged dictator, halt the Islamist threat and, crucially, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Afterwards there was even a big party on the USS Abraham Lincoln with President George W Bush arriving in a fighter jet to proclaim that the mission was over, the world was safer and a vicious dictator had been removed. Luckily for the Iraqis a nice interim administration was on hand to see the transition to democracy and prosperity with a new national army trained, equipped and partially funded by the US and its allies. But better still, all that oil that was just lying around could now fuel a huge rebuilding programme that Western and Gulf companies were on hand to help out with. Perfect situation for Iraq, dictator gone, Islamist threat suppressed, democracy and a return to the international community as a friend of the undisputed superpower.
In those heady days around 1 May 2003, apparently nobody in the US administration foresaw that the US-led invasion might develop into a situation where the country was fractured along sectarian lines, with hundreds of thousands of refugees, one and a half million dead and endless violence. Now we have seen the collapse of the Iraqi Army, the sudden rout of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces and the start of a bombing campaign by the US Air Force to hold back the forces of the Islamic State whilst they retrain and rebuild Iraqi forces. Since US air strikes began on Islamic State fighters Kurdish forces have retaken some of the positions it lost in the initial onslaught but those successes have forced the Islamic State to adjust their posture, move their heavier artillery to built up areas or to Syria, move out of indefensible positions and focus on consolidating control over Anbar province. Now the US and its allies are vowing greater involvement from regional and world powers to put an end to the Islamic State or at the very least contain it.
In 683 C.E. the victorious army of caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyah’s sacked and looted the holy city of Medina and damaged the Ka’ba during the siege of Mecca, yet this did not mark the consolidation of the Ummayyad caliphate but accelerated its decline and eventual collapse in 750 C.E. Today the US and its allies are finding their power slipping away in the Middle East. The crimes committed in Iraq by the US-led invasions and occupation left no basis for a democratic society and through the massacres in places like Fallujah across the Iraqi Sunni heartlands ensured that a political space would open for those Islamists who could demonstrate an ability to inflict losses on the US and Iranian backed central government. In Iraq this became the Islamic State or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham).
Why is the aftermath of Yazid’s victory in 683 C.E. relevant to what is happening in Iraq today? The lesson is not an obvious critique of the Caliphate, its imagined history held by the medievalists of the Islamic State or even the Daily Mailesque “they’ve always been killing each other” argument but that even in victory the greatest military power in the 7th century – like the greatest military power today – is seeing its dominance slip from between its fingers because of the crimes committed, political miscalculations and the rise of new political and military powers. The USA won in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Libya but saw its political influence wane in the entire region.
The decline in power for the United States has gone hand in hand with failed military interventions, regime changes from above and its general policy in the Middle East can only be described as desperate and chaotic. So desperate is it, in fact, that it relies on the Islamic Republic of Iran, Shia death squads, Kurdish nationalists and socialists to save the Iraqi state it created. Even that may not be enough, as the Islamic State seeks to strangle the Iraqi capital after inflicting defeat after defeat on the Iraqi army.
The two threads that run through the wars in Syria and Iraq are, firstly, the decline of US power as its failure in Iraq and the the wider region (Middle East/ North Africa) underlines. Here the long-term meddling by the imperialist states that split the Arab world has given political Islam space to flourish whether in state power like in Saudi Arabia or as an ongoing attempt for actual state power that the Islamic State wants. Secondly, the collapse of the Arab Spring whose democratic aspirations were either snubbed out by tyrants or Islamists of one variety or another has for a moment closed an opening to democratic change in many Arab countries. In all of this the working class is politically nowhere in the region, politically absent or stuck on the sidelines or fodder for the forces of reaction of many different stripes.
In civil wars where the working class is politically absent it is inevitable that those on the left will make mistakes if they are not cautious. At the beginning of the uprising against the Assad dictatorship in Syria it was clear that any democrat and socialist with a brain should back the protests but as the civil war took shape and Islamist militias overtook the secular civilian and military organs of the uprisings it has become harder to understand and assess the situation. Some have opted to support the Assad dictatorship as a supposed anti-imperialist bulwark (that just happens to be backed by imperialist Russia) whilst others have backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian opposition in exile who have received sporadic support from the Western powers with a variety Islamist forces backed by the Gulf states and Turkey. Likewise, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal state began with protests inspired by the movement in Tunisia but was soon transformed by the Gulf powers and NATO leaving Libya a fractured society with a civil war dominated by Islamists and the remnants of the military who defected during the NATO bombing campaign to the rebels. The hopes of the protests, and the Arab Spring generally, were left in tatters and seemingly another dead end.
Despite all of this and in the darkness of the brutal civil war in Syria a bright light of hope, reason and solidarity has emerged in northern Syria. Kobani. Rojava. Two words that no mainstream commentator knew, nor who the people were that used them or why they would become so important. For those of us on the internationalist left who have watched from afar the struggles of the Kurdish cantons in northern Syria (Western Kurdistan) against the Islamists, the Assad regime, the Turkish state and also sections of the FSA, the drawing of attention to Kobani in the world’s media and the consciousness of billions is definitely welcome. Yet as this process happens and as the media sketch a romanticised struggle of Kurdish fighters against the forces of the Islamic State something is at risk of being lost in transmission. What is being lost is that in the cantons of Rojava a great experiment is taking place to build a society based on individual rights, social solidarity and democracy.
We see the pictures of Kurdish women taking an active part in the fighting against the Islamic State but the struggle for equality by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) goes much deeper. Apart from the long history of women having a leading role in politics and war across the Kurdish nation there is an attempt to make political equality as much as a reality as is possible. The political, civic and military bodies of the Kurdish cantons of Rojava enforce a strict quota to ensure the representation of women at all levels of society. Further, the society they are trying to build recognises all religious faiths and ethnicities and ensures political and civil rights are accorded to all equally. A stark contrast to the gangsters around Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, who want “Kurdistan for the Kurds”. It is here that the nuance gets lost in the mainstream media where we have a left-wing Kurdish movement that struggles for national rights but is opposed to Kurdish nationalism and nationalism generally.
So who should we support in the nightmare that is choking the Levant and Mesopotamia? In Syria we must support those activists around the Local Co-ordination Committees and other democratic and secular organisations as well as workers’ and women’s organisations who are opposed to Assad and political Islam. It is only through the mass mobilisation of the working class, farmers and the dispossessed masses that real change can come about, which is why we should support YPG/YPJ forces. They are fighting for a society based on social solidarity, democracy and the mass participation of the population in all areas of public life; a society that is the most democratic and open in the region; that stands out against the dictators, warlords and religious fanatics that are slaughtering hundreds of thousands. In this darkness the forces of the YPG/YPJ stand as a bright light and everything must be done to ensure their voices are heard, their stories are told and that they receive all the support they need.
We should have no trust in the United States and its international coalition to confront the Islamic State, Assad or support genuine democratic change. As we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan, regime change from above has been a nightmare for supposedly liberated populations. In Syria today the US and its allies are playing a cynical game with Kobani. They know that the longer the siege continues the more resources the Islamic State will expend in Syria and not in crushing the encircled Iraqi army and Shia death squads in Anbar province in Iraq. Turkey’s Erdogan is keeping his tanks quiet for now but, like the Red Army on the Vistula in 1944, is ready to pounce once the slaughter has cleared away political opponents.
This is not to say that the Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamists are wrong to welcome and ask for more air strikes by the US-led, anti-Islamic State coalition. No military force would reject US help when facing massacres. However, what we should recognise is that military aid only comes from imperialist powers when it is advantageous to them and that means despite at times having immediate objectives that coincide we should reject the idea that those who had a big role in creating the chaos in the region can solve the political and social problems through air strikes.
What is needed is arms, not the rusted Peshmerga weapons the USA has been dropping to the YPG/YPJ, and accidently to Islamist fighters, in Kobani but sophisticated modern weaponry that can put the Kurdish militias on an equal footing with the Islamic State who sport US-made weapons looted from the shambolic Iraqi army. For those of us in the West, we can do more than just look on, write messages of solidarity. We must continue to build the demonstrations that have taken place in dozens of cities for Rojava, spread awareness of the social upheaval taking place in Rojava and organise and campaign for humanitarian aid to reach those displaced by the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Further, as an internationalist left we must not sow illusions in the role of the USA and its regional allies and be clear that against the Islamists, the warlords and the dictators only a movement from below of the workers and the dispossessed can bring about real democratic change in the region.