Wars Today: Iraq and Syria

The first of a series of three articles on wars currently going on in different parts of the world.

It was the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with a population of about two million people, to the army of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on 9 June 2014 that propelled the name of ISIS into the global consciousness. The fall of this strategic city on the crossroad between Syria and Iraq was seen as a turning point, and clear evidence that the war in Syria had spread into Iraq. In Mosul, ISIS captured government offices, the airport, police stations, the Central Bank holding 500 billion newly-printed dinars (equivalent to $430 million or €308 million), military equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters, Humvees, thousands of guns and ammunition rounds, and they freed from prison 2,500 Islamist fighters. It is estimated that ISIS which now controls swathes of first Syria and now Iraq has about $2 billion in its war chest.

On 29 June ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the new Caliphate and changed its name to Islamic State (IS). This new Islamic State is expanding by the day and now covers an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people. Baghdadi declared the Syrian city of Raqqa the capital and in celebration IS paraded a captured Scud ballistic missile in the streets of Raqqa. Baghdadi proclaimed ‘Rush O Muslims to your state. It is your state. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims. This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills’ (Washington Times 2 July). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, picked his pseudonym for its resonance with the first Caliph in AD 632 also called Abu Bakr, the first ruler after the death of Mohammed.

Sykes-Picot is dead

Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books (21 August) claims that ‘the birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War.’ In fact it is safe to say that as the Druze leader in Lebanon said to correspondent Robert Fisk of the Independent (13 June): ‘Sykes-Picot is dead’ considering that IS bulldozed the berm (‘berm’ is a level space, shelf, or raised barrier separating two areas) dividing Syria and Iraq which was the ‘border’ based on the 1916 Sykes-Picot demarcation of Arab lands, those artificial, arbitrary boundaries imposed by western capitalism. Cockburn concluded that ‘a new and terrifying state has been born.’ So, what had begun in Tunisia and Egypt, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as movements for economic and social reform has been well and truly hijacked by the Caliphate of the Islamic State. On 29 September Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad who runs the last Anglican church in Iraq, posted on Facebook ‘ISIS are now just 5 miles away from Baghdad.’

IS are not something from TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom; ‘a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed’ (Cockburn). IS are a military force capable of waging war on three fronts – south towards Baghdad in Iraq, west to Aleppo in Syria, and north and east towards Kurdish territories. On 2 August IS had also invaded Lebanon and was only pushed back into Syria after a five-day battle. IS is a religiously reactionary organisation, fundamentally anti-working class, which believes that the world’s Muslims should live under one Islamic state, a capitalist state ruled by Sharia law.

IS have taken over the capitalist state structure in occupied Syria and Iraq, efficiently running public services, administrative and military control systems, taking over banks, ministries, law courts and operating a taxation system which demands less than Assad’s Syrian government. IS effectively secure the water, flour and hydrocarbon resources of an area, centralising distribution, providing services, such as supplying bread, and activities including Koran classes for children, all run by ‘an effective management structure of mostly middle-aged Iraqis’ (New York Times, 27 August). IS control of Syria’s and Iraq’s oilfields has added wealth to its funds, it exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25-$45, some of this goes to Kurdish middlemen up towards Turkey, some goes for domestic IS consumption and some goes to the Assad regime in Syria. With grim irony only possible in capitalism IS ‘has also secured revenue by selling electricity back to the Syrian government from captured power plants’ (New York Times, 11 June).

Military effectiveness

The military effectiveness of IS has been possible because IS has established a military command of former Iraqi Army officers from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime which had been overthrown by the US military in 2003. These officers include two Colonels, Adnan al-Sweidawi and Fadel al-Hayali, from Saddam’s army. But more telling is that Field Marshall Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was Saddam Hussein’s Deputy of the Revolutionary Command Council, the ultimate decision making body in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, has been pointed out as one of the main commanders responsible for successful takeovers of North Iraq and the city of Mosul in June. It was reported that fellow Ba’ath generals Azhar al-Obeidi and Ahmed Abdul Rashid had been appointed as governors of Mosul and Tikrit. Izzat al-Douri is the most high profile Ba’athist official to successfully evade capture after 2003, he was the ‘king of clubs’ in the infamous most-wanted Iraqi pack of playing cards. After Saddam’s execution in 2006 he became leader of the now banned Ba’ath Party. IS have the support of many Ba’ath Party loyalists, former intelligence officers and soldiers in Saddam’s Republican Guard. This explains the battlefield success of IS, it is in effect a hybrid of Sunni insurgent rebels and a Ba’athist organised army. This combination of internationalist Islamic theocracy and the Bonapartist Arab nationalist secularism of Ba’athist Army officers rests on ‘not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant’ (Marx 18th Brumaire), and is a heady capitalist mix for the Middle East.


Mr Erdogan [President of Turkey] questioned the motives of the anti-Isis allies and accused them of meddling in the region’s affairs for the past century. “Do you think they come for peace, with their planes and their missiles?” he asked an audience at Marmara University, Istanbul. “No,” he said. “They do it to get the petrol wells under their control.” (Times, 14 October)


Respect MP George Galloway pointed out that ‘ISIL could not survive for five minutes if the tribes in the west of Iraq rose up against them’ (Guardian, 26 September). Largest sections of the Sunni Arab working class and peasantry in Iraq and Syria support Islamic State because IS promises them preferential treatment and better economic opportunities than they could ever hope for under the current Shia-dominated leadership in Iraq and Syria. Since 2003 economic deprivation has hit the Sunni Arab faction hard since it lost its former dominant position in society and the Sunni has now become the most oppressed section of Iraqi society and many ended up unemployed and even destitute. The Sunni peasantry has been hit hard by a series of poor harvests and food shortages in the last ten years which is ironic since Iraq is in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates but it has suffered severe agricultural decline, neglect and conflict. Agricultural productivity declined by a devastating 90 percent after the 2003 war, and there have been six years of the driest winters since 2004. Once a major exporter, Iraq is now reliant year-round on food imports while many Sunnis have been working hard on the land, and yet struggling to eat but perceiving metropolitan Shias in Baghdad and the east to be living in luxury. Thus IS have been successfully recruiting mostly young Sunni men who are poor, unemployed, lacking education and underprivileged.

The religious strictures applied by IS are also attractive to Iraqi Sunnis as the adherence to conservative conventions, and the clarity and simplicity of Sharia law always appeals to downtrodden peoples who tend to prefer robust law and order to instability. This and resentment of metropolitan Shias is reminiscent of what Engels wrote in 1894: ‘Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the ‘law’. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades’ (MECW Volume 27).

Financial support

Before IS gained access to oilfields in Syria and Iraq and later banks in Mosul, wealthy members of ruling families in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Persian Gulf countries provided financial support laundered through the compliant Kuwaiti banking system. IS also benefited from money smuggled via a Turkish border left deliberately unchecked. The then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stated ‘we hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the financial and moral support given to ISIS’ (Daily Telegraph,17 June) although German Development Minister Gerd Mueller said ‘who is arming, who is financing ISIS troops. The keyword there is Qatar’ (Reuters, 20 August). Günter Meyer, Director of the Center for Research into the Arabic World at the University of Mainz writes ‘the most important source of ISIS financing to date has been support coming out of the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia but also Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates’ (Deutsche Welle,19 June).

The Western capitalist powers, now with the support of Persian Gulf monarchies, are engaged in military air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria but there are some sane political voices even amongst bourgeois politicians such as backbench Tory MP Adam Holloway who pointed out ‘This is a political problem. ISIS in Iraq are Sunni tribesmen who were fed up with the Maliki government. They are international jihadis and they are former Ba’ath regime elements. The only way you are going to get rid of the foreign jihadis is if the Sunni tribes and the Ba’athists do it themselves. If your answer is to start bombing ISIS in Iraq then what you are actually doing is bombing the tribes and the Ba’athists who are exactly the people you are going to need to get rid of ISIS’ (Guardian, 25 September).

The capitalist Islamic State is an organisation, it is even a ‘state’, and is a hundred times larger and better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden. IS are insurgents not terrorists, al-Qaida did not attempt to solve the economic problems of the Muslim working class and relied on international terrorist acts which can only be described as ‘propaganda of the deed’ and did nothing for the Muslim working class. IS on the other hand are securing ground, creating a localised state structure and ensuring peasant and working class support through palliatives to the capitalist system shrouded in a theocratic conservatism. However, reforms to capitalism cannot solve the problems facing the working class regardless of whether the capitalist class wear ties or turbans. In the Middle East the ideology of the capitalist class opposed to western capitalism is now dominated by Islamic fundamentalism whereas in the recent past it was a leftist Arab nationalism rooted in state capitalism such as Nasser in Egypt, the Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq, and the PLO supported by the Russian state-capitalist bloc.

As for IS even Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff says ‘ISIS is not a small movement of middle-class kids like Baader-Meinhof. It’s a big political movement like ETA or the IRA which represents a genuine political strand of grievance’ (Guardian, 22 September).

Socialists are minded to agree with Engels who wrote ‘All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched’ (MECW Volume 27).


Next month: the war in Ukraine.


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