When Mosul fell to the forces of ISIS on Wednesday June 11, the media of the imperialist countries portrayed this as a sudden victory by an unknown foe. The truth, however, is far from this picture.

Sudden victory?

The day after Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city with a population of about two million people, fell to the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Tikrit and most of Saladin province were also overwhelmed. ISIS has since captured several other cities in the Sunni-majority north and west.

These recent and quick victories are, however, the latest battles in a long-running war. ISIS captured and held Fallujah in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq, six months ago. As Fallujah is less than 70 kilometres west of Baghdad this helped it to set off bombs in the capital almost every day. During these months ISIS also took over parts of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, and tried to seize Samarra (which has an important Shia shrine).

For over a month ISIS insurgents had been massing near Mosul. The Iraqi army knew about this. The latest reports on what happened in places like Mosul are indicative of the sorry state of Iraq’s so-called ‘army’: the top commanders and other Shia officers were unwilling to fight to protect the mostly Sunni population. A total of around 230,000 soldiers have deserted their units. There were even two generals who took off their uniforms and fled to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s zone!

We should not forget that the Americans have spent $30 billion on training and arming what is supposed to be Iraq’s army. This once again, if any more proof were needed, shows that the armies of most bourgeois states are basically for repressing their own workers and the poor. They are absolutely useless when it comes to fighting other soldiers or armed combatants (and this is more so with a puppet regime like Shia-dominated Iraq).

By over-running Mosul, the lightly armed ISIS insurgents were then able to add six Black Hawk helicopters, many Humvees and thousands of guns and ammunition rounds to their arsenal. They also pocketed 500 billion newly-printed dinars ($430 million) and freed around 2500 hardened fighters from jail!

Since then they have taken over Tikrit and Tal Afar and have been fighting for days to capture Tal Afar’s airport and Baiji, Iraq’s biggest oil refinery, which produces 40 per cent of the country’s petrol.

Unknown foe?

Following US imperialism’s occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the ‘de-Baathification’ of what was left of the army and the state apparatus, the Sunni minority lost its former dominant position in society. The Sunni now became the most oppressed section of Iraqi society and many ended up unemployed and even destitute.

With the American invaders running amok many insurgent groups sprang up to fight them: various Shia, Sunni (including some Salafist outfits), nationalists and so on. Facing a Shia ascendancy some Sunni countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms, funded and supported insurgents to counter-balance Shia militias like the Mahdi Army and the influence of the Iranian regime. In addition, with imperialist forces occupying a country that had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, Muslims from many countries joined the fight against the Americans.

Confronted with defeat by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (and other insurgents) in Iraq, the US encouraged – including paid for – the Sahwa (Awakening), which was based on the forces of the Sunni tribes. The Americans also boosted their troop numbers under George Bush’s ‘surge’. By late 2011 the combined forces of around 100,000 Sunni fighters and US imperialism’s extra troops almost eradicated what was by then called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

This allowed the Americans ‘to save face’ and to leave Iraq after installing Nouri al-Maliki as ‘prime minister’. Now that the Shia majority had gained pre-eminence for the first time, and were heavily influenced by the Iranian regime, many anti-Sunni measures were taken.

First, Maliki not only excluded the Sunni from his government but also removed them from influential positions in the state apparatus and the army. He only installed Shia functionaries and officers who were loyal to him.

Second, he disbanded the Sahwa forces and further alienated the Sunni tribes. Many people from the Sunni tribes, Baath loyalists and other Sunni who were fed up of the Shia domination have joined ISIS. There are even claims that Izzat al-Douri, who used to be Saddam’s deputy, has been involved in organising the fighting against the Maliki regime.

Third, the Sunni had become the oppressed and they were made to feel this at all times. Iraq’s jails, where abuse and torture are still rife, became full of Sunni citizens (some estimates put this at 100,000). Furthermore, any protest by the Sunni against this systematic discrimination was dealt with severely, including shooting live rounds into the ranks of demonstrators (e.g., in April 2013).

But it would be wrong to pin all the blame for this situation on Maliki. Maliki and his masters in Tehran have definitely exacerbated the already unstable and volatile situation. They have even antagonised the Kurds needlessly.

Syria’s war spills over

In the past two to three years a new factor has also been added to this mix: the civil war in Syria. As part of their support for the armed opposition to the Assad regime Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others have been funding, arming and training various insurgent bands in Syria. Syria’s neighbours have allowed thousands of foreign combatants to enter the country. Turkey has even set up training camps for them on its own soil. These jihadi volunteers, including around 1000 battle-hardened fighters from Chechnya, are now part of ISIS.

We should bear in mind that the war in Syria is not just a simple civil war. Its outcome will have profound implications for regional powers like Turkey, the Iranian regime and Saudi Arabia, as well as the position of US imperialism in the Middle East. That is why Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf sheikdoms, have been pouring so many resources into toppling Bashar al-Assad and why the Iranian regime has helped with billions of dollars in loans, fighters from the Qods Force of the ‘Revolutionary Guards’ and leadership from General Qasem Soleimani. Many believe that it was General Soleimani who helped turn around the fortunes of the Assad regime in the past months. In addition to the regional powers Russia has been heavily involved in the conflict, primarily as the regime’s arms supplier (with a UN Security Council veto), and the United States has mostly provided covert help to forces fighting Assad.

In the past year Syria’s war has engulfed Iraq. The recent successes of the Sunni insurgents have meant that to counter them the Iranian regime has now had to send three battalions of the Qods Force into Iraq, with General Soleimani heading them (Wall Street Journal, June 12). And Saudi Arabia is still backing Sunni insurgents, including ISIS, against the Shia government of Iraq. A few days after the fall of Mosul a prominent Arabic newspaper, owned by a Saudi prince, published a feature article which concluded with the following: “Nouri al-Maliki is worse, and more dangerous, than ISIS and al-Qaeda. He is a bad person that is ready to commit massacres in order to stay in power – just like Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In order to achieve Iraq’s stability, it’s a must to get rid of Maliki and al-Qaeda.” (Asharq al-Awsat, June 14)

A history of imperialist domination

The best ‘analysis’ that most of the bourgeois media in the imperialist countries seem to offer is to blame the 2003 invasion. This has prompted Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and others who had a direct hand in the invasion of Iraq popping up everywhere and saying that the rise of ISIS has nothing to do with the invasion!

What is certain is that the invasion broke the only thing that was binding Iraq together: a vicious bourgeois dictatorship that had been created and supported by imperialism. But to understand the real roots of Iraq’s instability we have to look at what British and French imperialism – the two dominant imperialist countries in the region a century ago – were up to before the imperialist war was even finished.

In November 1915, while millions of European workers were killing each other to save their own bourgeoisie and its colonies, representatives of British and French imperialism began negotiations on how they were going to carve up the Ottoman Empire after its defeat. In May 1916, after the main outstanding issue of the fate of Mosul province was settled, the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed.

The artificial and arbitrary borders of today’s Middle East are largely based on this secret treaty. The frontiers were marked out in such a way that the Arabs were divided into several zones (subsequently ‘countries’), the Kurds were denied a homeland, and the fate of what became known as Palestine left to the final outcome of the war.

Based on this Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, became a British zone. After it gained political independence the imperialist countries maintained dominance, supporting one dictator after another.

So although the 2003 invasion is an important factor we need to look at what the imperialists did to this region a hundred years ago and how this imperialist domination continues today. Sykes-Picot is the underlying basis of how the Arab lands were carved up and how a stunted type of capitalism developed in the region. It shaped the economic, political and social development of all these countries. It is no wonder that the leader of the Druze in Lebanon said this to Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East journalist: ““Sykes-Picot is dead,” Walid Jumblatt roared at me last night – and he may well be right.” (The Independent, June 13). To the Arab leaders Sykes-Picot is not just a matter of historical curiosity. (For more on the Sykes-Picot Agreement see http://www.marxistrevival.com/?p=438)

The Americans are holding back

Although US imperialism wants the ISIS forces beaten back, it is now clearly using this opportunity to put Maliki’s Shia-dominated regime under pressure. Although yesterday President Obama announced that he is sending 300 military ‘advisers’ to help the Baghdad government fight ISIS he has turned down Maliki’s request for airstrikes on the insurgents. This refusal has been justified by saying that the Americans do not have enough intelligence in order to hit the correct targets! But a drone can fly over a target for about 10 hours – sending live video to its controller.

There is also the American embassy in Baghdad. This is the biggest embassy of any country anywhere in the world. Its personnel number over 5000 – most of whom are spies who have been gathering intelligence for years. (On June 17 the US announced that it was sending 275 troops to defend this important outpost.)

There are many other signs that the US is trying to bring about change in the Baghdad government, e.g., withholding re-supplying Iraq with Hellfire missiles (after these were all used up). According to the Independent US imperialism is now insisting that Maliki steps down from the office of prime minister and a government that gives some role to the Sunni is installed.

Maliki and his sectarian ways have also become unpopular among the Shia: in addition to calling on the Shia faithful to join a jihad against ISIS Ayatollah al-Sistani has talked of an “… effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.” As Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army – now rebranded as the ‘Peace Brigades’ – is gearing up to rebuff ISIS there have been conflicting signals from Tehran on the fate of Maliki’s government. The Iranian regime will be trying to cut a deal with the Americans that does not diminish its influence too much.

The effect of Islamist victories

The recent spectacular military successes of ISIS have had a profound effect on the left, both in Iraq and internationally. Clearly this is a thoroughly reactionary force and its advance presents a grave danger to workers, women, other religious and ethnic groups, and anyone who is considered an apostate or infidel by them.

However, we cannot separate ISIS – and other jihadi and fundamentalist groups – from their imperialist paymasters and other regional powers who created them – directly or indirectly. The funding, training, arming and other types of support that ISIS and all other Islamic movements receive, whether they are jihadi or ‘peaceful’, whether Sunni or Shia, whether run by the imperialist countries directly or by their stooges, allies or would-be regional allies; all serve to strengthen the right, and mostly the most reactionary shades of it, in the region. These forces have been used as imperialism’s ‘antidote’ to the revolts, uprisings and protest in the Arab countries. What began in Tunisia and Egypt as movements for economic and social justice have been hijacked by the Islamic parties.

Anyone who starts to think of any particular Islamic force as somehow not being as bad as another, because, for example, it would allow trade unions to remain active, would be committing a grave error. The role of revolutionary Marxists is not to assess which force is slightly better than complete barbarians. Our task is to raise awareness about the need for organising an independent front of workers and the oppressed against all these reactionary forces of capitalism, whether they wear ties or turbans. There is no scientific way of gauging reactionaries and saying which is less dangerous to the labour movement.

In fact the root of all this death and misery is the imposing of totally artificial boundaries and continued support for dictators. Even when imperialism overthrows dictators it makes sure that enough of the repressive apparatus of the state is retained to suppress the workers and the oppressed. We saw how George HW Bush encouraged the Kurds and the Shia to revolt against Saddam in 1991 and then abandoned them to the mercy of Saddam’s henchmen. US imperialism saved the Baathist state then (and made no mention of the chemical attack and massacre in Halabja in March 1988 until it was convenient for them to publicise it in the run up to the March 2003 invasion)!

ISIS bulldozed the berm dividing Syria and Iraq earlier this month. This was based on the Sykes-Picot demarcation of Arab lands. This is, however, the reactionary way of overcoming the divisions that have split the Arabs into many territories and states. We are also against these artificial and imposed borders of imperialism. However, the real way to smash these borders is for the workers and oppressed of Iraq to unite with their class allies: the workers and oppressed of Turkey, Iran, Syria and other countries in the region. What is needed is a radical, independent, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist front that can wipe out the frontiers as well as pave the way for the socialist revolution in the region. This is our duty, this is what we should do no matter how far away it may seem right now. We should not look for millimetric differences among bourgeois forces, particularly Islamic ones.

Morad Shirin
21 June 2014