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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.


 

The symbiotic relationship between Daesh’s fascistic appeal to Sunni identity politics and the Iraqi government’s anti-Sunni sectarianism can best be seen with regard to the protests that first erupted in Iraq in 2011 as part of the wider ‘Arab spring’ phenomenon. These protests were characterised by non-sectarianism, occurring across the country from Kerbala to Kurdistan, with general demands for reform of Maliki’s corrupt and authoritarian regime. The Maliki regime reacted with brutality and despite attempting to appease the protesters by saying that he wouldn’t run for a third term, his regime continued to portray the protesters, whether Shia or Sunni, as being part of some sort of plot to restore Baathism.

Maliki’s brutal response to the protests left tens of Iraqis dead, many more injured and arrested, and this brutality seemed at first to have worked, but in 2012 more protests erupted, this time occurring almost entirely in Sunni areas. The immediate catalyst for the protests was a raid carried out by sectarian militia forces allied to Maliki on the home of the Sunni defence minister Rafi al-Issawi, who was a member of the non-sectarian Iraqiyya political movement, and who had been brought into the government as part of Maliki’s manoeuvrings to cling to power. During the raid, ten of al-Issawi’s bodyguards were arrested on charges that they had been involved in ‘terrorism’ and Maliki said that the raid was the result of an investigation by the judiciary into allegations that al-Issawi was collaborating with Sunni terrorist insurgents. The fact that al-Issawi was a member of Maliki’s own cabinet was not enough to protect him, and the move was widely seen as another power grab by Maliki using an appeal to sectarianism, but it was seen by Sunnis as yet another indication that they were being locked out of the Iraqi political system.

The resulting protests began in the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah but soon spread to other Sunni-majority areas in the Anbar province, such as Ramadi, and then erupted in Sunni areas outside of Anbar, such as in Mosul, Tikrit and Samarra, as well as the few remaining Sunni areas of Baghdad. The protests were overwhelmingly non-sectarian, with the main slogan being ‘Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam’ (the people demand the fall of the regime) associated with the wider ‘Arab spring’. Indeed, despite Maliki’s immediate attempt to sectarianise the protests and slander the protesters as Baathists and Al-Qaeda, prominent Shia political and religious figures were declaring their support for the protests, including no less a figure as Muqtada al-Sadr, who warned Maliki that he bore ‘full responsibility’ for the protests and that ‘Iraqi spring was coming’, as well as declaring that ‘the legitimate demands of the protesters … should be met’.

Unsurprisingly, Maliki didn’t heed al-Sadr’s calls. Despite some half-hearted bureaucratic measures, such as forming useless committees that didn’t have any interaction with the protesters, Maliki refused to acknowledge the demands of the protesters, choosing instead to focus on the protests as a threat to national security. This went on for around four months, with the security forces periodically injuring and killing protesters, but things severely escalated in April 23, 2013, when government forces raided a protest camp in the city of Hawija. Under the pretext of clamping down on ‘Baathists’, Maliki’s security forces murdered around 39 unarmed protesters, while violently dismantling the campsite and burning tents, in scenes not dissimilar to the Al-Sisi regime’s liquidation of the sit-ins at Rabaa Square in Egypt. If there were sectarian militias present among the protesters that day in Hawija, Maliki’s regime did a good job of avoiding them; in fact, this brutal event merely empowered sectarian forces and sustained the ever-deepening belief among a significant section of Sunnis that armed struggle was the only way forward.

In a report on the situation of the Sunni minority in Iraq from August of 2013, just four months after the Hawija massacre, and before Daesh were a household name in the West, the International Crisis Group made the following observations about the consequences of Maliki’s sectarian intransigence and the aftermath of the brutality of Hawija:

“This [Hawija] sparked a wave of violence exceeding anything witnessed for five years. Attacks against security forces and, more ominously, civilians have revived fears of a return to all-out civil strife. The Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda’s local expression, is resurgent. Shiite militias have responded against Sunnis. The government’s seeming intent to address a chiefly political issue – Sunni Arab representation in Baghdad – through tougher security measures has every chance of worsening the situation.
Belittled, demonised and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, the popular movement is slowly mutating into an armed struggle. In this respect, the absence of a unified Sunni leadership – to which Baghdad’s policies contributed and which Maliki might have perceived as an asset – has turned out to be a serious liability. In a showdown that is acquiring increasing sectarian undertones, the movement’s proponents look westward to Syria as the arena in which the fight against the Iraqi government and its Shiite allies will play out and eastward toward Iran as the source of all their ills.
Under intensifying pressure from government forces and with dwindling faith in a political solution, many Sunni Arabs have concluded their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms. In turn, the government conveniently dismisses all opposition as a sectarian insurgency that warrants ever more stringent security measures. In the absence of a dramatic shift in approach, Iraq’s fragile polity risks breaking down, a victim of the combustible mix of its long¬standing flaws and growing regional tensions.”

In addition to the longstanding sectarian repression and oppression of Sunnis, this escalation represented an indelible gulf between the Sunni population and the Iraqi government. It was Daesh, this counter-revolutionary and fascist force, that now, thanks to its ability to entrench itself among and usurp rebels in Syria, thus giving it access to mountains of loot and, most significantly, barrels of oil, had the material resources beyond any other armed force on the ground to put its money where its mouth is and fill the gap left by the sectarian brutality of the Maliki regime with some sectarian brutality of its own. With extremist Shia sectarian militias, with direct or tacit support from the Maliki regime, mobilising against Sunnis and committing various atrocities, combined with Maliki’s hollowing out of the armed forces into a large sectarian gang based on patronage, the circumstances for Daesh to sweep Northern Iraq with terrifying ease were set.

This context, which is entirely missing from Andy’s analysis, is vital in understanding the ways in which Daesh can be confronted without relying on somewhat dodgy arguments about sectarianism being ‘deeply rooted’ within the Sunni forces, which actually, unwittingly in the case of Andy, serve to justify the sectarianism of the Iraqi government that has contributed to this crisis in such devastating fashion.

Contrary to Andy’s analysis, in which he casts the Kurds as the ‘only coherent opposition to the Caliphate’, which is itself an incoherent declaration given the Kurds’ understandable desire to primarily protect their own interests when it comes to the expansion of Daesh into Kurdistan, the only possible way for Daesh to be defeated is for Sunnis to take up arms against them, whether it is the tribal forces that formerly made up the Sahwat, or other non-takfiri forces. When Andy laments the now departed Maliki’s ‘racist attack’ on Kurds as ‘making a united front with Kurds now increasingly unlikely’, he betrays what is perhaps a certain naivety about what it will take to defeat Daesh.

Daesh are seen as a lesser evil by Sunnis to the sectarian order imposed over the last eight years. The Iraqi government’s current counter-insurgency policy, which, as mentioned previously involves working with Iran both directly and through its proxy forces in the form of Shia Islamist militias, and which has thus far involved the bombing of Sunni civilian areas with more than 75 civilians killed at least since June, combined with reprisal attacks on Sunni civilians by militias, most recently with the massacre of at least 68 innocent civilians by pro-government Shia militias in a Sunni mosque in the village of Imam Wais, will merely strengthen the twisted logic of Daesh and its appeal to Sunnis under assault.

The only plausible but hardly foolproof solution to combating Daesh is the Sunni solution, which will include the new Iraqi government making the concessions to Sunnis that they should have made back when the protests first began, such as integrating Sunni forces into the security apparatuses and prohibiting Shia militias from operating in Sunni areas, while also making assurances about a more inclusive political system and, in keeping with the Iraqi constitution, allowing further regional autonomy and democracy.

This isn’t some abstract idea and nor is it wishful thinking, it’s actually what has been proposed by several non-takfiri Sunni tribal forces, who have offered to support the new government of Haider al-Abadi, who belongs to the same Shia Islamist party as Maliki, and fight against Daesh, as long as the new government is willing to guarantee that Sunni minorities rights will be established and respected. The main danger is that imperialism once again comes swooping in under the guise of combating Daesh, but merely serves, as occurred in the earlier part of the Iraqi civil war, as a bulwark for the kind of sectarianism that is perpetuating the circumstances that has allowed Daesh to gain a foothold among Sunnis. Indeed, if Daesh and the tribes that are currently allied with it come under attack from the US in Mosul, Tikrit and other Sunni urban areas, which will undoubtedly lead to civilian deaths and other ‘collateral damage’, not only will this lead to a renewed hatred of the already-despised US, but it’ll serve to cast Daesh as the main resistance to US imperialism, Iranian-hegemony and the Shia government of Iraq. It’ll seem like yet another assault on the Sunni minority, this time with direct international participation.

There are no guaranteed solutions to this, and I agree with Andy that we might be witnessing at the end of Iraq as a nation state, but that does not mean that we should have any illusions about what has caused the country to fracture so rapidly and destructively, and Andy’s analysis at times comes pretty close to accidentally reinforcing the narrative of the Iraqi government and its backers.

Indeed, at one point Andy mentions the ‘threat’ posed by Daesh to Iran, but nowhere does he mention the threat of Iran to Iraqis and to a far greater and more brutal extent, Syrians. This is the main problem with Andy’s analysis – while he identifies Iran as a ‘sub-imperialism’, as he does Saudi Arabia, and he somewhat goes to town on the Saudis, he makes the erroneous point that Iran is somehow popular in Iraq merely because it ‘resisted the occupation’. This is simply not true, the Iranian proxy forces were involved in the Iraqi civil war, namely the Quds Force-run Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (which, as previously mentioned, is currently committing atrocities on behalf of the Iraqi government again) and the Badr Organisation, fought on the same side as the Iraqi government and US occupation forces. It was anti-Iranian and anti-US Shia militias, such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which offered the main resistance to the US occupation from the Shia side.

The myth of Iranian ‘resistance’, contrasted with the ultra-reactionary nefarious machinations of the hated Saudi Arabia, is something that many on the left need to overcome. Iran is not ‘influential’ in Iraq due to its perceived ‘resistance’ to US occupation or any other occupation, but rather because it is a powerful regional actor that acts amorally and brutally in the pursuance and maintenance of its own interests. While Andy would like to place all the blame for the rise of Daesh at the feet of Saudi Arabia, he doesn’t once mention what I would argue is the far greater role that Iran has played in fostering the conditions wherein an ultra-reactionary sectarian force like Daesh could thrive. Yes, it’s true that Saudi Arabia shares the same core ideology as Daesh, and it’s true that some Saudi nationals have probably at some point funded Daesh (however, it should be pointed out, according the best estimates foreign donations comprise only 5% of Daesh’s funding – it has its own internal funding structure, similar to a mafia organisation, wherein spoils are paid up the way to the leadership), but it’s not Saudi Arabia that has spent billions on aiding the Assad regime to commit what amounts to something akin to a genocide against Sunni Muslims in Syria and boasts about it.

Likewise, it's not Saudi Arabia that dominates the Shia Iraqi government so effectively that it has been able to facilitate the jihad of various Iraqi Shia death squads against the Syrian revolution, not to mention mobilising its proxies in Hezbollah with devastating effect, to intervene on behalf of the sectarian Baathist tyranny in Syria. One must always resist two-campism, whether it is of the variety that sees the US and its regional allies as an ‘axis of good’, or of the variety that sees the Iranian regime and its allies as an ‘axis of resistance’. The reactionary nature of Saudi Arabia does not mean that the Iranian regime is some kind of heroic, progressive actor in this – it has fostered the environment of brutal counter-revolutionary sectarianism to a far greater extent than the Saudis could ever hope to achieve.

Despite the tendency for some on the left to usually unwittingly (though, in some rather amusing cases, it’s quite witting) repeat what amounts to Iranian propaganda, such as this notion that everything is a Saudi plot to destroy Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’, an argument made with differing levels of sophistication, there should be no doubt that both Saudi and Iran belong in the same camp of regional amoral reaction that can, in different circumstances and for different reasons, sometimes support progressive causes, whether its Iran’s support for Hamas or Saudi’s support for Free Army brigades that have been on the front lines against both Daesh and Assad. Despite the latter being widely documented, you won’t hear many on the left discussing or referencing it, with most left analysis, even those which purport to be supportive of the Syrian revolution, substituting the complexities and contradictions of the revolution itself for some variant of the always facile ‘Islamist-secularist’ dichotomy.


This leads me on to the part of Andy’s article that deals directly with Syria, which similar to his analysis of Iraq, suffers from a tendency to over-simplify the current circumstances and the condition of the forces contained within. It’s completely true that Daesh has gone from strength to strength in Syria, with it now holding by far the largest area of land of all the non-Baathist forces; however, the actualities of how this occurred are of the utmost importance here. The best we get from Andy in this regard is the usual attempts at nudge, nudge, wink, wink ‘gotcha’ irony, the kind that those of us who have supported the Syrian revolution since the beginning have become all too accustomed to hearing from some of our comrades, such as his contention that in Syria, some fighters supported by Britain, France and the US as ‘moderate Islamists’ (he uses the ‘scare quotes’ that have become so beloved of many leftists when discussing the Syrian rebels, the implication being that there were never any moderates to begin with) are now voluntarily pledging allegiance to ISIS’.

Inasmuch as this is true, Andy never explicates on the main reason why rebels might defect to Daesh, namely because, and this is quite difficult to swallow for those who wield ‘anti-imperialism’ as an all-consuming dogma that necessarily relies on simplicity, distortions and, in the case of the Syrian opposition, slander and innuendo (I’m not talking about Andy here), the Syrian rebels, the moderate ones, to grudgingly utilise the clichéd language, have not received enough ‘support’ from Britain, France, the US or whoever else might be willing to give it. It takes a truly almighty level of incoherence to imagine that those who might have defected from Free Army brigades and the Islamic Front (IF), both of which are at war with Daesh, have done so because of too much support or, as some would have it, interference from the West. Whether we like it or not, the opposite is actually the truth.

Against an enemy that is not only supported by Russian imperialism, but also directly aided by the regional superpower Iran and its various proxies, most notably Hezbollah, combined with the counter-revolutionary threat of Daesh, which has spent more time attacking the rebels than the Assad regime, the Syrian rebels achieving a straightforward military victory would have always been an uphill struggle, even in the best of circumstances. However, in circumstances in which the US has not only refused appeals from the rebels to arm them with the quality and quantity of arms necessary to penetrate the Baathist lines and counter Daesh, it has also blocked other forces from doing so. The results have been devastating.

Not only has the lack of anti-aircraft Manpads allowed Assad’s air force, carrying the finest Iranian-made barrel bombs, to be able to keep up the ethnic cleansing of Sunni areas as part of his counter-insurgency, but it has also led to a bloody stalemate in which Daesh have grown supreme. Everything here is an interrelated catastrophe - Assad’s targeting of Sunni Muslims has led to the battle taking on an existential quality for that community, which has laid the groundwork for Daesh, with its state-building enterprises providing some kind of security and its simplistic, Manichean worldview appealing reassuringly to the sectarian aspect of the war. Furthermore, thanks to its centralised structure, the battle-hardened experience of its core fighters and its independence in terms of arms and funding, it is seen as an attractive prospect by some of those living and fighting through this nightmare.

However, despite all this, and this is not something that you would infer from Andy’s analysis, Daesh still remains numerically smaller than its adversaries in the Free Army brigades and the Islamic Front, not to mention Jabhat al-Nusra. The problem is primarily a material one, not an ideological one. Assad’s propaganda about the Syrian revolution being primarily about takfirism is no more plausible now than it was three years ago. The only real difference is that the moderate rebels are now stretched between two different forms of fascism: that of the Baathist regime and its allies and that of Daesh. The Syrian rebels simply do not have the resources to fight a war on two fronts. 

The most grim example of this came in January 2014, when after a series of incidents involving Daesh attacking and taking over Free Army territory and capturing and executing a popular rebel commander, coupled with fairly large protests by residents across the Aleppo governorate urging some sort of action against Daesh, the Free Army, in collaboration with the IF and Jaysh al-Mujahideen, eventually hit back and launched an offensive against Daesh. While the results of this operation were mixed, with the Free Army and IF gaining ground and forcing the withdrawal of ISIS in the Deir ez-Zor, Latakia and Idlib governorate, but losing out in Ar-Raqqa, the entire operation was a major victory in terms of showing the Syrian people and the world that the two main rebel forces, the FSA and IF, were willing to take on Daesh at the behest of civilian demands. Unfortunately, what was a victory for the resistance against this counter-revolutionary foe, also rapidly became a victory for the Assad regime. In March, it pounced upon the opportunity presented to it by the IF and Free Army’s diverted attention and resources towards Daesh, and launched a successful offensive backed up by Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias, to capture the city of Yabroud.

Andy, for whatever reason, takes none of this into account. After rightfully inviting debate on whether the preponderance of Daesh has ‘changed the nature of the uprising’, he then goes on to pose what is a quite unfortunate conclusion dressed up as question, asking, ‘can we unconditionally but critically support a Syrian Uprising when it’s victory would put ISIS in control of a territory stretching from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates?’ The obvious answer to this question is ‘no’, but why all of a sudden has supporting the Syrian rebels, who want to overthrow Assad and defeat Daesh, suddenly become synonymous with supporting Daesh uber alles? The problem with Andy’s question is that it suggests erroneously and dangerously that Daesh and the Syrian rebels are one hand, while also casting the Assad regime as a lesser evil.

The connotations of Andy’s question, perhaps unthinkingly, not only echo Assad regime propaganda, which would have us believe that barrel bombs in civilian areas of the rebel-held Free Aleppo, maiming and murdering indiscriminately, are somehow combating Daesh, but they also come very close, rather ironically, to the current imperialist Realpolitik arguments being made by establishment figures about some kind of unholy alliance with Assad against Daesh. The Assad regime isn’t waging a war against ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, it is carrying out a genocidal war to maintain its own power and destroy those forces who have risen up against it – this is the point that should never be forgotten. Not only has the Assad regime all too often tactically ignored Daesh in favour of bombarding rebel-held territories, but it is also the single greatest cause of it maintaining a presence in Syria. Those who think that they can choose the Assad regime over Daesh, one brutal fascism over another, on the basis that there are no ‘moderate rebels’, as they’d have it, will actually be endorsing an argument that would see those real forces who are opposed to both Daesh and the far greater evil of Assad crushed once and for all.

The logic of Daesh is provided most forcefully by the continued sectarian slaughter being carried out by the Assad regime and its allies, while the logic of the Assad regime, with its appropriation of the ‘war on terror’, is provided most forcefully by Daesh. There is a third alternative, but it is delicate and precious. It is this alternative that, as I write this, faces the twin evils of Daesh and the Assad regime marching towards it in Free Aleppo; that faces bombardment, beheading and besiegement on an unprecedented scale. Yet still it fights on, despite being, as Barack Obama rather sneeringly put it when rubbishing the claims that his administration made a mistake by not providing more arms to the rebels, made up of ‘farmers and pharmacists’. It’s this alternative that risks everything to rise up against Daesh in Deir ez-Zor, while also resisting a regime that is doing everything in its power to brutalise and exterminate them. The people of Syria and their revolution against Baathist tyranny and now also the theocratic tyranny of Daesh are still alive. This is the force that demands our unconditional support and solidarity, however much it’s worth, now more than ever.