We publish here an article by Roberto Sarti from the editorial board of Falce Martello, the paper of the Italian Marxists, on the question of Iraq and ISIS. Written before the recent decision by Obama to launch air strikes against ISIS in Syria, the article provides a thorough analysis of the interests governing the imperialists' actions in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East.
[This article was originally published in the Italian publication Falce Martello on 4th September]
In a press conference on 28th August, US president Barack Obama openly admitted that he did not have a strategy yet to combat the jihadist ISIS group in Iraq and Syria. Obama’s confession reveals the impasse the US are facing with the new, explosive crisis provoked in the Middle East by the advance of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The US bombing campaign, described as “humanitarian” like the ones carried out by Bush senior and junior in 1991 and 2003, is presented as a means of stopping the barbaric actions of the fundamentalist militias. The images of these terrible acts on the part of ISIS have been spread across all mass media outlets, provoking disgust and repulsion. The number of displaced people in the region has reached the hundreds of thousands and the dead can be counted in their hundreds if not in their thousands.
However, one thing stands out clearly. For the US government there are more important massacres and less important ones. While they are bombing Northern Iraq, they did nothing to stop Israel bombing Gaza which claimed over two thousands Palestinian lives.
The rise of ISIS, moreover, does not come from nowhere. It is the direct result of US imperialist policies in the region, of its allies in 2003 and of Washington’s choice to dismember Saddam Hussein’s state apparatus and to create a new one from scratch.
It is essential to remember that before 2003 Al-Qaeda was an unknown force in Iraq. In the most classical political strategy of “divide and rule” Washington gave its support to the Shia minority to govern the country. At the same time, they conceded large-scale autonomy to the Kurds in the north of the country. In adopting such a policy, the US carried out systematic repression of the Sunni minority, first through direct military occupation, and then (until a few weeks ago) through its unreserved support for the Al Maliki government.
Today we look on the barbarism of ISIS with horror, but can we describe US military operations in the region any differently? Between 2003 and 2011, the period of the occupation of the allied forces, it is estimated that almost half a million Iraqis died as a direct or indirect consequence of the “war on terror” (Agence France Presse, 15/10/2013). Furthermore, let us not forget about the white phosphorus and depleted uranium used by US troops in the assault on Fallujah in November 2004, which was reported by numerous journalists.
Obama’s intervention in Iraq is not to avoid a humanitarian disaster and neither is it to defend “democratic values”. The only real aim is to defend American interests in the region.
The nature of fundamentalism
First of all, we must remember that religious fundamentalism has been a weapon used by the ruling classes, both in the East and in the West – in particular after the collapse of Stalinism – to hinder the development of the class struggle. Fundamentalism is an ideological weapon, which found in Samuel Huntington and in his book Clash of civilizations its main ideologue, and was put into practice, financed and promoted in many countries. Today this weapon is turning against the American ruling class. The CIA and the Pentagon have created not one, but many Frankenstein’s monsters which they can no longer control.
If in Iraq the US are bombing ISIS as “the biggest threat ever posed to the West”, in Syria the Islamic State was not at all an enemy, but on the contrary it represented an ally in the attempt to overthrow the Assad regime. The CIA has helped train and finance Syrian rebels, through its Arab allies and Turkey, and it urged the rebels to allow fundamentalist militants into their ranks.
To this day, ISIS, which came into being in 2004 from the union of various jihadist and Salafist formations, receives large amounts of financial support from Saudi Arabia and, after conquering important oil fields in the North of Iraq, also through the export of oil with the tacit collaboration of Turkey. In fact its oil exports are bringing into ISIS’s coffers at least three million dollars a day! Saudi Arabia and Turkey are Washington’s allies, and the latter is even a member of NATO, but Obama has no intention of demanding sanctions against them.
Supporting Al Maliki has led to an increase in Iraq of the influence of Iran (the “axis of evil” in Bush’s times), something that could in no way be tolerated by the Saudis, historical enemies of Teheran in the Middle East. The financing and support for the fundamentalist Sunni militants on the part of Saudi Arabia was an inevitable consequence of the whole situation: in fact, these militias have pushed out, from a military point of view, any opposition in the country.
The situation is so paradoxical that the enemies of yesterday, Iran and Syria, have become the allies of today. This was the only way that the US could avoid being totally driven out of the region. As the 19th century British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerstone is famously quoted as saying, “We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests”. This succinctly sums up the real outlook of all ruling classes.
The decline of America as a power, together with the upheaval throughout the region following the revolutions in early 2011, has opened up greater room for manoeuvre for the local powers. Not only Iran, but also historical allies of the West such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are pursuing their own interests which do not necessarily coincide with those of the US and more often than not, in the recent period, go against US interests.
In Iraq then we are witnessing a proxy war, a civil war, in which each power uses the numerous ethnic groups and factions like pawns to realize their own objectives. The result is that the divisions within the country and the conflict itself will probably be long lasting.
The divisions we have seen in Iraq have become a reality in Libya as well. In 2011 the US, with other Western powers and their Arab allies, launched a series of attacks against the Gaddafi regime, trying to find a wedge with which to split the forces that had given rise to the popular upheaval following the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. Finally, they managed to remove Gaddafi, who was tortured and killed by a group of rebels (after being intercepted by the French air force), but the result of all this is that today Libya has disintegrated into a state of civil war.
The various militias – after a temporary and precarious unity – have gone to war against each other war for control of the country. With the ascent of the fundamentalist forces, and with the Cyrenaica region outside the control of the central government, ex CIA agent Khalifa Aftar tried to take power with a coup organized under the name “Karama”, which means “operation dignity”, with the direct support of the Egyptian government.
Today Libya has two prime ministers and two parliaments, one in Tripoli, guided by Omar al Hassi which has an Islamic majority supported by Qatar and Turkey, the other in Tobruk, of a secular character, controlled by Aftar and sponsored by Cairo. In the past few weeks Tripoli has scored some important successes, taking control of the airport in the capital and of the city of Bengasi. In the proxy war that is taking place in Libya the situation is extremely fluid and the outcome unforeseeable. Only one thing is certain: Washington and Paris, clumsy sorcerers’ apprentices, control very little of what is happening in this country at the gates of Europe.
The crisis of National States
The conflict that is spreading throughout the Middle East represents a qualitative change in the situation and has put into question borders and relations between the local powers that had been in place for decades. On the one hand we have the artificial borders that were the result of the divisions imposed by France and Great Britain through the Sykes-Picot agreement following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI – another poisoned fruit of imperialism. And on the other hand we now have an escalation of the conflicts that reveal the total inability of the national bourgeoisies of the Middle East, not only to develop harmoniously their economies but also to maintain the integrity of their national states.
In the 1950s and 1960s the colonial revolution had brought to power progressive governments in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and subsequently Libya, which raised national liberation and independence as their banners, arousing great hopes in the people. However, not wishing to go beyond the limits of capitalism (or of the deformed workers’ state in the image of the Soviet Union, as was the case of Syria), the revolutionary wave was eventually exhausted and a series of progressive reforms were transformed into their opposite.
The collapse of Stalinism, with the absence of any alternative to capitalism and imperialism, accelerated that process.
The crisis of so-called “progressive” bourgeois nationalism not only led to the submission of the Arab countries to the imperialist world and regional powers, but has also led to the disintegration of such states. The crisis today highlights more than ever the impossibility of finding a way out of the impasse of capitalism and the domination of imperialism based on “nationalism”.
On the Sykes-Picot agreement, the fact that ISIS has as its objective the reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire represents a tragic historical retribution for the Western powers. For all those – including on the left – who saw some sort of progressive content in the Western intervention in Libya and Syria (allegedly to export “democracy”), and who supported it, the rise of fundamentalism constitutes their final condemnation!
Iraq and the Kurdish question
Obama’s statements reveal the deep frustration of the bourgeoisie and demonstrate that imperialist intervention cannot solve any of the problems in the region, but simply renders them more acute, increasing the hatred of the masses towards the West, primarily of the Sunni masses, but not only. In fact in the recent period the conflict reached the Golan Heights, near the border between Syria and Israel. The extremely fragile equilibrium that was achieved in Lebanon is at risk of breaking down. The brutality of Israel against Gaza and the Palestinians can be understood only by seeing it as an attempt on the part of Netanyahu to flex his muscles in a context in which the traditional alliances of Zionism have been shattered.
In the same press conference of 28th August, Obama spoke of the necessity of creating an “international alliance” to sustain the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. But it is still not clear who is to be part of it. In Baghdad al Maliki “resigned”, but still holds firmly in his hands control of the military. Rumours of battles in Iraq in which Iranian troops have been involved are growing by the day. Western governments denounce the crimes of ISIS but they are not considering sending their men to Baghdad again, even though this hypothesis cannot be ruled out in the medium term if the military situation were to totally get out of hand.
In the meantime, Obama has decided to use Iraqi troops and the government of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan which has its own armed forces, the Peshmerga. Initially the Kurds tried to take advantage of the collapse of Iraq central government forces and of ISIS’s advance, by occupying Kirkuk, the Kurdish equivalent of Jerusalem, but, inevitably, they have been subject to the attacks of the fundamentalist militias.
In the last few years the Kurdish region of Iraq gained greater economic, military and administrative autonomy. The Kurdish elites of Iraq seem to think that the historical demand of Kurdish self-determination –which was denied in 1920 –has been solved by balancing between Turkey on the one hand (which is using the Kurdish question as an anti-Assad tool) and the US on the other. However, history teaches how dangerous it can be for small oppressed nations to place their fate in the hands of the great powers, which use them only as mere pawns in the bigger game they are playing.
What happened in the Balkans, with the bitter experience of the Bosnians and Kosovars, is a demonstration of this fact. Further confirmation of this is seen in the experience of South Sudan, which obtained its independence with the direct sponsorship of Washington and is now being torn apart by a bloody civil war.
In the context of the Syrian Civil war the YPG fighters, the armed corps of the PYD (the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), succeeded in liberating the Rojava region, putting in place an experience of self-government. The PYD is effectively the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, whose historical leader “Apo” Ocalan is languishing in a Turkish prison. YPG fighters have resisted ISIS assaults and are today among the main forces in the war against fundamentalist militias.
The courage displayed by the PKK fighters is admirable and the heroism of these men and women should be an example for all youth and workers. However, they represent a source of concern for the US which is refusing to directly arm the YPG forces and continues to keep the PKK on its list of terrorist organizations.
The strategy of the PKK leadership is two-pronged: firstly, the ongoing negotiations with the Turkish government aimed at ending the armed conflict in Turkey and the freeing of the political prisoners, and secondly the question of national unity with the other Kurdish political forces in Iraq.
While military coordination is an absolute necessity to defeat ISIS, we believe that appeals such as the one issued by Yilmaz Orkan, the representative in Italy of the Kurdish National Council, are misleading. In his appeal Orkan stated that “we call on the US to sustain a project of self-government in order to truly introduce democracy in the Middle East”.
The Charter of the Social Contract of Rojava (a kind of Constitutional Charter) states that the aim of self-government is to create “mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all layers of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.”
The experience of self-determination of the Rojava cantons should be extended to all Kurdistan and then to all the Middle East. In the Charter there is, however, no indication of what economic system should be implemented in the self-governed regions. We can only suppose that the leadership of the PKK has “two phases” in mind: the first being the democratic phase, in which Kurdistan would develop its own economy thanks to its abundant natural resources, and a second phase in which, after the war, a period of social reforms would open up.
From an economic point of view, the export of crude oil from the Kurdish region of Iraq is kindly allowed by the Turkish government, but it is only a temporary manoeuvre, since the Turkish bourgeoisie will never allow the self-determination of Kurdistan. From a political point of view, national unity is subject to the constant blackmailing on the part of the US, which finances, arms and directs the regional government of Barzani in northern Iraq. By any stretch of the imagination, one cannot describe the US as a country truly interested in supporting democratic values throughout the world. And finally, how would it be possible to legitimise national liberation obtained with the aid of the American invader in the eyes of the Middle Eastern masses?
The politics of the leadership of the PKK is moving on very unsteady ground and raises dangerous illusions. US imperialism and the Erdogan government will drop their support for the Kurds as soon as they are no longer of any use to their interests. It is naïve to ask that the US, Europe and the UN stop the support being received by ISIS. Even if they were to manage to reduce and divide ISIS forces, the imperialist powers would again use fundamentalist forces as they have already done so many times.
The self-determination of Kurdistan, in the same way as the fight against ISIS and other fundamentalist extremist forces, can only be realized by the masses themselves. The youth and workers should place no faith whatsoever in the imperialist bourgeoisie or in the Arab bourgeoisie, for they are the ones who are mainly responsible for the current barbarism.
Today, more than ever before, no solution can be found within the narrow confines of national states. Today what is really required is a second Arab revolution, after that of 2011, with a clear internationalist position which would unify the movements, overcoming national, ethnic and religious divisions on the basis of class struggle to overthrow the reactionary regimes and capitalism itself. Today this may seem a far off and utopian perspective. However, we saw how the so-called “realistic” position has led to reactionary and obscurantist scenarios.
Only a socialist Federation of the Middle East can solve the problems of the oppressed nationalities and offer a future of peace, free from barbarism and war.