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Peering into the faultlines: a response to 'New faultlines in the Middle East: ISIS in a regional context'

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At one point in Andy Cunningham’s piece entitled ‘New fault lines in the Middle East: ISIS in a regional context' published on the rs21 website, he mentions the demand by ‘Revolutionary Socialists in the region (being the Middle East) that while a response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, or, as I will be referring to these counter-revolutionary fascists, Daesh, which is the colloquial derogatory term for them and one that they are known to hate) is necessary, ‘any outside involvement in Iraq is unwelcome’. This sentiment might at first seem fair enough but, setting aside questions about the actual necessity of US air strikes in order to aid the Yazidis who were stranded on a mountain in Sinjar after being chased away from their homes by the takfiris (those who accuse others of being unbelievers and apostates) of Daesh, it’s a sentiment that is unfortunately rendered hollow by Andy’s regrettably simplistic take on the root causes of the rise of Daesh.

If anybody, revolutionary socialist or not, wants to see Daesh defeated or weakened without relying on or appealing to imperialism, then we must deal with the realities and complexities of the balance of forces of Iraq since the invasion and occupation by the US and its ‘coalition of the willing’. Narratives that advertise the identification of ‘new fault lines’ in the Middle East, but then end up relying on old formulations such as advocating ‘working class independence’ against Daesh, are usually those which necessarily stay as far away as possible from reality. Perhaps, following on from the usual line of regional Revolutionary Socialists, we ought to conclude that the only solution to Daesh is revolutionary socialism?

Andy correctly identifies the primary cause of Daesh having any meaningful presence in Iraq as being the fault of the US and UK invasion and occupation of the country, with the Bush regime compounding what was surely one of the worst crimes of our age by overseeing the complete destruction and dismantling of the the security apparatuses and civil infrastructure of the country. This led to a gaping security vacuum that allowed jihadists from around the world to infiltrate Iraq, most of whom were drawn towards fighting with the so-called ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’, led by the Jordanian jihadi gangster Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which was, in reality, a coalition of different takfiri militias that, like its brutally charismatic leader or figurehead, Zarqawi, had always displayed a sense of heterodoxy and independence from the Al Qaeda leadership. This was the predecessor organisation of Daesh. Its relationship with Bin Laden and Zawahiri was never an easy one, with Zarqawi accepting the ‘Al Qaeda’ title and swearing loyalty to ‘Sheikh’ Bin Laden only as a means to attract the maximum amount of foreign jihadis with the Al Qaeda ‘brand’, while Bin Laden could act as if his organisation was on the front lines against the United States.

Behind closed doors, Bin Laden had zero operational control of the group, as its leaders, Zarqawi in particular, often focussed more on targeting and murdering non-Sunni religious groups than resisting the occupation forces, which enraged Bin Laden who saw this tactic as being a good way to alienate the jihadi fighters from the Iraqi population. Even early on, Daesh was concerned with ‘cleansing’ those it deemed to be kuffar (unbelievers) and rafidah (rejectors), as opposed to focussing solely on resisting the occupation, which is something that it would repeat with much more success and savagery in Syria a few years later.

 

Andy then completely skates over the fact that during and after the sectarian civil war that erupted following the invasion, the predecessor organisation of Daesh was weakened to the point of defeat not by the US-led occupation forces or sectarian Shia militias, either pro or anti-government, but rather by other Sunni insurgents. The US began to recognise that they as a foreign occupation force could never fully penetrate or win over the Sunni communities in Iraq, and further recognised that the advance of sectarian Shia militias, which, similarly to the takfiris, committed a range of atrocities against Sunnis sometimes with or without government consent, had the effect of further entrenching Al Qaeda within these communities.

Instead, the US formed an alliance with non-takfiri and non-sectarian Sunni insurgent militias, mostly drawn from initially anti-US tribal forces, whereby the militias would lay down their arms against the US and would focus on attacking the invasive and intransigently sectarian Al Qaeda affiliated forces, for which they would receive arms, training and salaries from the US Army. These forces were known primarily as Harakat al-Sahwa (Sahwat) and they successfully managed to push Al Qaeda out of Sunni areas and weaken them to the point of practical defeat.

So how then does Iraq find itself in the position of having lost most of the Northern and Western areas of the country to this force that had been so severely limited and weakened by the Sahwa militias? Andy, who doesn’t mention the existence of the Sahwat, merely, and rather bafflingly, puts it down to ‘sectarianism becoming deeply rooted within Sunni militias’. Given the decidedly non-sectarian raison d’etre of the Sahwat, Andy’s contention is remarkably glib and/or naïve about the level of sectarian violence and repression that Sunni Iraqis have faced over the past eight years and its role as a causal factor in the rise of Daesh.

The government of Nouri al-Maliki, of the Shia Islamist Islamic Dawa Party, represented not a government of all Iraqis as it claimed, but rather something akin to a government of the conquerors over the conquered. While the US-led ‘de-Baathification’ had managed to ensure that the Hussein regime would never rise again, it also became a by-word for a whole host of sectarian crimes against Sunnis, ranging from institutional and economic discrimination to ethnic cleansing – if Saddam Hussein justified his savagery against Shia Iraqis in terms of the being a fifth column, then the new Iraqi Shia-dominated government and ruling classes were going to do the same with Sunnis.

My highlighting of this is no quibble. The sectarianism of the Iraqi government has been the single most important factor in the rise of Daesh and its easy sweep of the North. Any analysis of Iraq that fails to take this into account risks not only being written off as inane but also comes close to strengthening the sectarian arguments made to justify the Iraqi government’s brutal Iranian-supplemented counter-insurgency, which has thus far equated to the collective punishment of Sunnis, with barrel bombs falling in Sunni civilian areas of Northern Iraq, a savage piece of continuity with the sectarian slaughter across the border in Syria, and which has also led to massacres and abductions of hundreds of Sunnis in so-called ‘revenge attacks’ by pro-government Shia militias.

After the Sahwat had defeated Al Qaeda, the US abandoned them under the illusion that they, as non-sectarian anti-takfiri Sunni militias, would have their salaries maintained by the Maliki government until they were eventually integrated into the Iraqi security forces. Maliki had other plans. Instead of maintaining this bridge with the Sunni communities and working towards a non-sectarian and unified security apparatus, Maliki instead, in a show of the petty, paranoid sectarianism that was characteristic of his catastrophic reign, decided to stop paying the salaries of most of the Sahwat and further refused to integrate them into the national security apparatuses, which had by this point become little more than a hollowed out, US-armed sectarian gang.

In a tragically ironic, but massively significant, twist of fate, while Maliki was subverting democracy by blocking the non-sectarian Iraqiyya political movement, which had won the 2010 election garnering more votes than any other political force in the country including Maliki’s own, from forming a government, a move that was criminally supported by the Obama administration, many of the Sahwat rank and file, facing a future of unemployment and sectarian discrimination, were drifting towards more extreme forces, namely Daesh. It’s uncontroversial to say that Daesh is a barbaric and reactionary force, but the actualities of its counter-revolutionary nature and praxis are unfortunately absent from Andy’s analysis.