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Editorial from the Socialist issue 826
Iraq and Syria: Stop the imperialist slaughter
US led bombings will worsen divisions
The brutal bombing onslaught led by US imperialism on 'Islamic State' held parts of Iraq and Syria is pouring more fuel on the fires of civil war. Abhorrence is felt by people across the globe at reports of Islamic State killings and forced displacement of Shias, Kurds, Sunnis and others; and in the west at the beheading of western hostages. But the air attacks will solve nothing. They will only multiply the atrocities, be seen by ordinary people across much of the globe as another round of imperialist slaughter and aggression, and lead to more recruits for the Islamic State on the ground.
Cameron's government, wary of repeating its shock parliamentary defeat when he sought to bomb the Syrian regime in August 2013, delayed a vote this time to make sure of Labour's backing. Also it confined the vote to air assaults on Iraq only - not Syria - and excluded any ground combat; though Cameron has made it clear that he favours widening the attacks to include Syria. Weighing heavily on the MPs' debate was what lay behind last year's parliamentary defeat: the catastrophic long wars on Iraq and Afghanistan with their massive destruction of life and on-going legacy of bloody sectarian division.
Journalist Patrick Cockburn commented in the Independent (26.9.14) that "going by David Cameron's speech to the UN General Assembly, the government has no more idea of what it is getting into in this war than Tony Blair did in 2003". Defence secretary Michael Fallon spoke of another "long, drawn-out campaign".
Yet only 43 MPs opposed it, with a huge 524 in favour. As the US does not need UK military help, "privately, ministers admit the UK's involvement is largely symbolic", said Andrew Grice in the Independent (27.9.14). But Britain's capitalists want to uphold their position and prestige on the world stage, as well as their interests in the Middle East, which together shifted them towards intervention, no matter that it increases the risk of terrorist attacks on British civilians rather than reducing it.
This new offensive is a turnabout in US and British policy in the Middle East, from making withdrawals following the terrible failures of the Iraq, Afghan and Libyan interventions, to embark on new attacks that could escalate in scale and last for years. Obama came under increasing pressure from sections of the US ruling class and from various other capitalist powers globally to act against Islamic State because of its aggressive and accelerating role in the tearing apart of Iraq and Syria and its contempt towards the world powers.
Over 40 countries signed up for the onslaught, including Saudi Arabia and a number of other Sunni Arab regimes. Wealthy donors in the Gulf countries had been helping to boost Islamic State as one of the forces against the Iran-friendly regimes based in Damascus and Baghdad, and no doubt some are still doing so. But overall the repressive Gulf elites now feel threatened by the expansion of Islamic State, which among its proclamations has called for the ousting of the al-Saud monarchy.
Also, Turkey's government, having allowed the movements of Islamic State and other Islamist militias across its border with Syria, is considering giving support to the US strikes, not least because of the instability being caused at its own border by Islamic State's present offensive on Kurds in and around Kobane, Rojava, in Syria and the influx of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees into Turkey.
The Turkish leaders may also view the US missiles as a way of taking some of the initiative away from the Kurdish YPG militia that is linked to the Kurdish PKK in Turkey; a force they are wary of due to its anti-imperialist, Maoist guerrilla roots.
Following the development of mass opposition to George W Bush's wars, Obama tried to create an anti-war image for himself and has declared that the US will not "act as an occupying power". But the US ruling class doesn't want to be seen as unable to defend its prestige and interests across the world - especially in this period of Putin's Russian interventions in Ukraine and China's military manoeuvres in the Asia-Pacific (which have arisen during conditions of stoked up tensions contributed to by interventions of the US in eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific, and of its regional allies). The Islamic State threatening the US capitalists' remaining interests in Iraq and those of their Middle East allies tipped the balance back for them towards renewed military intervention, although they are still struggling to find a strategy for it. They have been able to seize the opportunity provided by a shift in the public mood. Ordinary people's horror at the brutality and rapid spread of Islamic State - and it promoting its violence on social media - has led to majority support in the US and UK for the air attacks - though notably not for ground troops.
Virtually every media commentator points out that air attacks alone can't win a war against Islamic State.
With this in mind, US General Dempsey told US senators that the use of ground forces may have to be requested if air attacks aren't 'successful', and in the UK various military leaders and others - including the utterly discredited Tony Blair - argue likewise.
David Richards, Britain's former top general who retired last year, is among them; he said in an interview with the Sunday Times (28.9.14): "We have to view it as a conventional campaign, which means you have to have boots on the ground. This doesn't mean they have to be western, but you do have to have an army to contain, defeat and destroy. You can't do it by air alone. History cannot be rewritten. There's never been a campaign where that has happened."
But sending ground troops would mean again becoming stuck in an unwinnable war, with huge costs financially and to the lives of the intervening troops. So for now the imperialists' strategy is to send military assistance to the failed Iraqi army - widely regarded as a corrupt, largely Shia sectarian force - and to some of the militias already fighting Islamic State, including the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and the FSA in Syria.
However, the world and regional powers are not sending that assistance with humanitarian aims, but rather to fight a proxy war in their own interests on the ground and to buy influence over organisations that might hold territory after the war.
This is partially shown in US imperialism's and the Turkish regime's reluctance to assist the YPG Kurdish militias that are defending Syrian Kurdish areas in Rojava from Islamic State. They regard them with suspicion and as an unreliable, possibly hostile, force.
Furthermore, the very existence and growth of Islamic State is a direct result of imperialist intervention - the group first started in the early period of the US-UK occupation - and most of the heavy weapons it has seized and is using were previously supplied to the Iraqi army by the US and to the Syrian army by Russia.
Effects of US-led bombing
To say that the present military offensive is fraught with difficulties for the intervening powers is a massive understatement.
The New York Times reported that after the first six weeks of air strikes on Islamic State in Iraq, it still held sway over a quarter of the country.
Meanwhile civilians are also at the receiving end of the missiles - it is impossible for the bombers to target Islamic State only. In addition, oil refineries, grain stores and other businesses and institutions are being destroyed, devastation that will impact massively on civilians regardless of who controls their area.
Many insurgents fighting against both Islamic State and Assad's forces in Syria are incredulous and angry that the US strikes have enabled Assad to strengthen his position - he took advantage of them to retake a swathe of territory near Damascus. Some militias are also furious that the US decided to strike the Khorasan group, an al-Qaeda offshoot that works with the Syrian opposition Islamist Nusra Front.
A former FSA fighter from Islamic State-controlled Jarabulus was quoted in the Independent (26.9.14) as saying: "People don't know what's going on. A lot of them want to get rid of Isis [Islamic State], but not this way because they know what the US is here for and it's not to get rid of the regime".
The same article reported the head of an Aleppo based armed opposition group that has been fighting both Islamic State and the Syrian regime as saying: "Our rebel fighters will not accept to continue to fight Isis just to lose most of our strength so the regime can come and finish them off. If the US does not target the regime, we will not fight Isis on the ground".
In addition Assad has been using the US strikes as a propaganda weapon, arguing that the world is now joining his battle against 'terrorists' in Syria. But significantly, there have been reports of criticism directed at him in the areas he controls, for not sufficiently condemning the US missiles.
Another concern among his own forces and support-base is that the US military could move on to strike them. FT journalist David Gardner pointed out that because Assad's forces have attacked Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State, the US has "hinted" it will hit Assad's troops if this goes on (27.9.14). Also, US strategists may decide that trying to forcibly remove Assad is the only route to brokering a new 'unity' government in Syria that could potentially counter Islamic State.
In Iraq, despite the recent change of ministers to make the government appear less Shia-dominated, the bombing of Islamic State-held areas has the effect of aiding Shia and Kurdish fighting forces and making the Sunni population feel more vulnerable. It also aids the interests of the Iranian regime, which has close links with some of the Iraqi Shia organisations and government ministers and therefore can tolerate the US strikes.
Sunnis and Islamic State
US strategists want to try to encourage a Sunni opposition movement to Islamic State, as they did in 2007 against al-Qaeda, but Islamic State is more developed than al-Qaeda was, and learning from history it is using extreme brutality to keep the Sunni population in check in the areas it controls.
At the same time Islamic State poses as defenders of Muslims who accept its brand of Salafist/Wahhabi religious fundamentalism. Defence is a key issue for Sunnis in Iraq and Syria - in both countries they have suffered massacres from bombardments either by US-led forces or Assad's military, and in both they have suffered discrimination and sectarian bloodshed.
There is presently an upsurge of killings of Sunnis by Shias in Iraq as well as vice versa.
Patrick Cockburn summed up the situation for Sunnis when he said: "Many Sunni in Mosul and Raqqa, The Islamic State's Syrian capital, do not like Isis. They are alienated by its violence and primaeval social norms ... But they are even more frightened of resurgent Iraqi or Syrian armies accompanied by murderous pro-government militias subduing their areas with the assistance of allied air strikes" (26.9.14).
The alienation mentioned by Cockburn was illustrated in the Times, when on 17 September it reported that in Mosul, after Islamic State published a new religious-based school curriculum banning a number of subjects and separating boys and girls, parents kept their children at home when the schools re-opened.
It remains to be seen how enduring Islamic State's gains will be. Reports of it paying attractive wages to its fighters and the fact that a significant section of them are foreign, point towards potential problems in sinking strong roots - these are less firm in some respects than the Taliban's roots in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. But in Iraq other Sunni militias and groups have been acting in alliance with Islamic State - there are some features of a generalised Sunni revolt, with Islamic State trying to gain support for itself out of the widespread discontent.
There will be limits to how much territory Islamic State can take, but up to now success has been fuelling success to some degree, it has developed its fighting machine and expanded into new areas - it is reported as being only 40 kilometres away from Baghdad. It can also grow as a direct result of the imperialist onslaught as well as suffering losses from it. Thousands more jihadists are said to have joined its ranks since the US bombing began in August, and it will adapt its methods of movement and combat to take into account the risk of aerial attack.
However, it is the task of the Iraqi and Syrian people, including the Sunni communities, to counter Islamic State and not that of outside powers - global or regional - which will create an even greater nightmare scenario for the masses of the region. Working class people and the poor in Iraq and Syria - across all communities - need to build their own independently organised action from below, starting with democratically organised, non-sectarian defence bodies. They will need to discuss the taking up of socialist ideas, as the only path out of the horrors that capitalism and imperialism have unleashed on the region.
Workers' and socialist organisations internationally need to be at the forefront of spearheading movements against the rounds of imperialist intervention, and demand rights and decent conditions for refugees. We must also be ready to support and assist non-sectarian, independent, working-class based organisations in the Middle East, and uphold the necessity of protection of the rights of minorities and the right to self-determination.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 1 October 2014 and is a longer version than the one subsequently printed in The Socialist.