1) Iraq: The fox set to keep the geese
As a start one needs to look at the results of the American war on Iraq:
For two decades Washington starved Iraq by a genocidal embargo in order to suppress the worn-out remnants of formerly proud Arab nationalism. In a certain sense we can read it as the continuation of the US strategy of “dual containment” pitting Iraq and Iran against each other by maintaining the balance in the Golf war from 1980 to 1988 and weakening both. After the end of the war the US continued to keep both states in check.
Driven by the hubris of the Neocons in 2003 the US went for “regime change” by direct military invasion. The result so far: their arch enemy Iran has been strengthened enormously and is now wielding decisive influence over Baghdad. This was the definitive end of the dual containment strategy which had worked well for the US.
Step by step the Baghdad regime acquired an openly sectarian character distributing the oil profits among the different factions of Shiite political Islam. So while among Shiites the regime remains largely accepted the Sunni population feels and actually is side-lined and excluded.
The previous regime, the Baath party, toppled by the US had itself a record of gradual transformation towards a de-facto Sunni sectarianism in a dialectical connection with the rise of Shiite political Islam. (The war on Iran with its propaganda had its share.) The mainly Sunni resistance against the US occupation was not able to cope with this heritage. On the contrary they further radicalized sectarian positions – to eventually founder on that. In 2006–7 Mesopotamia descended into a sectarian civil war that ended the resistance against the US occupation. It created the blueprint of today’s conflicts across the region. The final fallout is the Islamic State (IS).1
The US showed enough pragmatism to change course and seize the opportunities offered by the defeat of the resistance movement. They re-integrated and co-opted a section of the alienated Sunni milieu by means of the Sahwa militias. But Maliki discontinued this line and increasingly drove out Sunni representation. The growing protest movement was militarily suppressed. In this way those forces were directly driven into the arms of the IS.
Mosul could be labelled the stronghold of the old army and state apparatus in general. Hundreds of thousands former officers, state employees, teachers etc. live there. Besides Baathism there were also expressions of Sunni political Islam such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the total exclusion of the entire Sunni political elites by the regime in Baghdad, the Sunni elites seized the moment of the Jihadi insurgency to stage a kind of popular rebellion on Sunni sectarian lines. The leadership is composed of a coalition of Baathists, tribal leaders and various Sunni Islamist factions originating from the resistance movement accepted the Jihadi-Takfiri leadership by Daesh as the lesser evil as the latter does not offer them independent political articulation. Also the Sunni popular masses seem to prefer the Sunni sectarian Caliphate to the Shiite sectarian state of Baghdad. This is the only plausible explanation why a few ten thousand Jihadis in next to no time were able to conquer half of Northern Iraq – and also can keep it.
Seen by Washington’s eyes Iraq (and not only Iraq) got out of hands both on the Sunni as well as of the Shia side of the dividing line. Sectarianism, which in a certain period was fostered by the US, now contributes to destabilising the US order. The only reliable partner of the US that remains is the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.
2) Kurds: self-determination by means of imperialism?
The KDP regime in Erbil turned out to become the main ally not only of Washington but also of Turkey. The oil wealth is providing for a certain stability. Thus when the US and Israel were planning for an attack on Iran, Erbil would have played an important role as a launching pad and an adjacent base. For Turkey northern Iraq rose to the second important trading partner right after Germany. It served as a political counterweight to the PKK regarding the Kurdish question which Erdoğan vowed to tackle. In exchange for Western and Turkish support Erbil so far accepted to remain formally within the frame of Iraq and refrained from declaring independence. For the West fears the consequences of touching the colonial borders which would further contribute to the decay of the imperialist order. But conditions could arrive prompting the KDP to rescind its reserved stance.
In the first place the implosion of the Maliki regime in the North substantially helped the KDP to expand. While IS was marching towards the South, the Peshmerga took for the first time the petrol capital Kirkuk which Kurds and Arabs have been contesting secularly.
But when it came to a direct confrontation with the IS the KDP troops have been revealed to be helplessly inferior. They swiftly lost the Mosul dam to the Jihadis and needed US air power to retake it. The Yazidi Sinjar area they evacuated without combat and left the unloved confessional minority to be slaughtered by Daesh.
Here came the PKK has been suffering under the embargo the KDP imposed on their territories in Syria. Their militias opened a corridor for the enclosed Yazidis to eventually be evacuated. They also offered military support to the Peshmerga which the latter could not reject given their awkward situation. For the time being the Syrian PKK affiliate PYD proved to be the only force on the ground able to stand its ground against the IS despite their inferior arms. They are the only ones who can match the Jihadis in terms of conviction and morale.
If the US really wants to confront the IS, they will need the PKK at least indirectly, which puts into question the entire policy of isolation led by Erbil, Washington and also Berlin. But on the other hand Ankara will oppose any such a move which has the potential to jeopardise their entire Kurdish policy.
Actually it is Turkey which is the regional player that is most opposed to the anti-IS coalition led by the US. For them IS is still the lesser evil compared to their prime enemy, Assad. Meanwhile both Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar are taking their distance from IS which they cannot control any more. But for the AKP establishment in Turkey the stakes are too high in the power game Erdoğan has embarked on in the Syrian file. Should a re-configuration of the Sykes-Picot borders become unavoidable, then a kind of “Neo-Ottomanism light” may be conceivable. The difference to the version presented by Erdoğan before the Arab Spring is that is less democratic, more sectarian and only engulfing territories close to Turkey’s South while before Turkey had hoped to become the role model for the entire region across national and sectarian borders – a dream bubble long burst.
3) Syria: Assad as the midwife of the caliphate
Assad successfully cut the head of the Syrian Tahrir, the democratic and social movement of the popular masses. He rejected any democratic reforms let alone a power sharing model with Islamic and Islamist currents which for decades had constituted the main opposition forces. For his strategy to depict and to fight the opposition as an Islamist enemy he paid a high price: the further sectarianisation of his own regime to the extent of a de-facto partition of the country along sectarian lines. His intransigent line prepared the political hotbed in which Jihadism could thrive and side-line all other opposition forces. Put differently: by exterminating the democratic and social opposition he eventually got his preferred enemy. In a certain sense his regime constitutes one side and the Caliphate the other side of the same sectarian, militarist and authoritarian medal. Ironically this transformation of the Tahrir into a sectarian civil war has been co-produced with the Gulf monarchies.
The history of Baathism ends up in a catastrophic failure scorching all the earth around. Setting out to unify the Arab people against the Sykes-Picot order, the Iraqi and Syrian chapters of the Baath party turned into their mutual worst enemies and thus into the watchdogs of the colonial borders they had earlier vowed to overcome.
In their final stage of degeneration they both became fully fledged sectarian forces but again each on the other side of the divide in the sectarian civil war. In order to maintain power, the Syrian Baath is de facto heading towards a section statelet along the conceptions put forward by the French colonial administration against which its predecessors once successfully rose in arms. On the other side the Iraqi Baath tolerates and supports the Sunni Jihadi proto-state in Northern Iraq against the Shia Baghdad state.
Both reject by all means to compromise with the political Islam of the enemy sect, despite the fact of their respective mass following. There could be many variants and possibilities of integration or toleration ranging from authoritarian, elitist and authoritarian forms to democratic, popular and anti-imperialist conceptions. For them this would be simply treason to which they prefer sectarian warfare. Both sell their demarche as “anti-imperialist”. All of this recalls the Iraq-Iran war on a more generalised and less state-controlled base.
As long as the regime in Damascus does not extend a hand towards sections of political Islam and instead continues its hard line, the Sunni Islamic milieu will be further compacted under the leadership of some Jihadi extremist force – given the situation of regional balance and the outside support it entails. Only by offering political space to moderate tendencies, the Islamic and Islamist unity under Jihadi leadership can be broken.
The same holds for Iraqi. But the Baghdad regime is more dependent on Tehran and Washington and more prone to follow their orders. For them it is mostly about a deal and its conditions between those two decisive players.
4) Israel: Zionist extremism detrimental to the US order
The genocidal blockade against Gaza has been lasting for about a decade. Israel rejects any negotiations, for these would require the readiness for a compromise. Actually in Israel the Neocons continue to rule as if their global project had not failed. As weakened world power the US took an ordered withdrawal facing resistance movements and growing relative weight of other states. Why is Israel able to ignore this?
The most recent episode of their imposture was the refusal of the Palestinian unity government. Rather than conceiving the participation of Hamas in the collaborationist Palestinian authority as a possibility to integrate them weakening the resistance they continue not only to satanize Hamas but also to discredit Abbas. Given their overwhelming military superiority they believe they can afford this. In the short run unfortunately they are right.
In the long run, however, this line has a destabilizing effect on US rule over the region. True, the Arab spring has failed as a popular democratic revolt indirectly directed also against Israel. True, Hamas as the political leadership of the Palestinian resistance is more than ever isolated given the renewal of the dictatorships in Egypt and Syria. But the wrath of the people is accumulating. One expression of it is the Jihadi revolt.
Israel supported the position of the Arab elites not to allow any representation for the popular Islamic forces with within the political system. Thus they contributed to the Jihadi insurgency and the sectarian civil war currently raging. On an immediate level it is advantageous for Zionism to see its possible enemies fight and kill each other. But in a broader sense Israel depends on the stability of the US order which is jeopardized by the wars and by its authoritarian tenets. The extremist position of Israel weakens the legitimacy of Arab regimes and the overarching US framework among the Arab and Islamic peoples as they are asked to overtly or tacitly defend a system designed to serve Israel interest.
5) Islamic State leading a reactionary popular revolt
It is too simple to label the Islamic State as terrorist. It is following a known pattern of American ideology already applied during the Cold War and now in the “war on terror”. It expressed the position of the global rulers.
Is it really possible to conquer by pure terror and some billions of US dollars half of Iraq and Syria? Are some ten thousand of fighter enough to make the Sykes-Picot system tremble and to build a caliphate while the US army was not able to occupy Iraq despite its superior military power? No, a momentum of popular support or at least acceptance is obviously at work as well.
Iraq is marked by a resistance movement against imperialist occupation which failed to unify across the sectarian divides and failed address the democratic questions virulent in the past. Syria is characterised by a crushed democratic movement. Both societies descended into a sectarian civil conflict eclipsing any possibility of democratic expression. Especially the Sunni communal subject, constituted by the very conflict, is denied representation. This allowed the Jihadis and even the most radical Takfiri currents to fill the vacuum and to seize the leadership of the Sunni communities. It cannot be denied that they lead a popular revolt against the imperialist order even if their goals are reactionary and their tactics include a strong authoritarian and coercive element as well.
At the end Jihadism has no means to defeat imperialism and its local elites for it cannot unify the popular masses. Conversely it is dividing them, pitting them against each other. They benefit from the political vacuum created by Baghdad and Damascus, but eventually the caliphate will implode leaving a catastrophe.
Faced with the air assault by the US, the IS will probably not be able to maintain the proto-state for long. The Jihadis will be forces to revert to their specific guerrilla warfare losing a lot of prestige which helped them to surpass al-Qaida. (Their split came also over the immediate project of establishing a state.) On the other hand the US airstrikes will strengthen their anti-imperialist credential which so far has been thin, given the fact that they concentrated on eliminating their Jihadi rivals.
6) Is there any space left for a democratic, social and supra-confessional anti-imperialism?
There are anti-imperialist social revolutionary imperatives that must not be violated:
a) Do not take side in the sectarian civil war even if here and there legitimate interests of parts of the popular masses are being expressed.
b) The old order, serving the capitalist elites, must not be supported as a “lesser evil”. Islamism is to a large extent a reaction of its demise. (This is true not only for the pro-Western Sisi in Egypt but also for Assad who is allied with Iran and Russia.)
c) Do not call imperialism for military or political help as this never comes for free. Actually neither side nor their predecessors refrained from doing so.
The revolutionary democratic forces have suffered a severe defeat. Their room for manœuvre within the power struggle of the old elites and their sectarian armour have become very small. The spiral of generalized civil war is turning even if the remaining forces are committed to stop it.
The parties to the conflict are, however, unable to provide solutions in the interest of the popular masses. Sectarian civil war and restoration might endure for a while but not forever.
An important step is to embark on a de-escalation of the sectarian conflicts. This requires first to mutually recognize the other side which paradoxically means also to recognize to a certain extent the reality of sectarian political subjects.
From a social revolutionary point of view this means to help develop the differences within political Islam, to isolate the reactionary tendencies and to offer the more open and popular ones co-operation against the old elites – with the goal to either really develop such a co-operation if possible or to involve parts of their constituencies in the democratic and social struggle.
For anti-imperialist forces in the West the focus remains on the struggle against imperialist intervention, to defend the right to self-determination and to lend especial support to the social revolutionary forces.