[Midden-Oosten] 1/2 Iraq and Syria: The struggle against the multi-sided counterrevolution

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Vr Jun 27 00:23:42 CEST 2014

The article below can be read online at:

Another (lengthy) analysis of the background to the rise of ISIS and the
crisis in Iraq and Syria which I recommend:

Bush, Barack & Bashar BFF to Islamic Extremists in Iraq & Syria
June 17, 2014
by Clay Claiborne

Part 1

Iraq and Syria: The struggle against the `multi-sided counterrevolution
June 25, 2014
by Michael Karadjis

As a coalition of Sunni-based forces, including the Islamic State of Iraq
and Sham (ISIS), took the major northern Iraqi city of Mosul and then most
of the Sunni heartland in the north and west of Iraq, regional and western
capitals went into crisis mode: the entire post-US occupation
stabilisation had collapsed in a heap.

And the coalition leading this revolt consists of none other than the same
forces which led the Iraqi resistance to US occupation throughout the
middle years of the last decade. Yes, once again the arch-reactionary ISIS
itself has revealed its brutality, with reported mass killing of captured
soldiers, a crime against humanity; in the same way that monstrous acts,
such as bombing work queues and Shiite mosques, were carried out during
the anti-US resistance by al-Qaida in Iraq (ie, what became ISIS);
horrific repression is partly to blame for breeding horrific reactions. In
both cases however, this most violent and irrational element does not
define the movement, still less explain its strength.

These events involve both Syria and Iraq, with their long, relatively
open, border occupied on both sides by ISIS. The rise of ISIS can be
connected to two momentous events: the American Guernica on Iraq
2003-2008, and the vast multi-sided Iraqi resistance to that invasion and
occupation; and the vast popular revolution in Syria, and the Assad
regime’s Guernica to suppress it over 2011-2014. In both cases, the
victims have been overwhelmingly Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arabs – the vast
Sunni majority in Syria, and the significant Sunni minority in Iraq.

It is in the context of this overwhelming disaster faced by the Sunni
masses of Syria and Iraq, and mass resistance to it, that ISIS has been
able to grow, representing the most extreme and most sectarian reaction to
this dual blitzkrieg.

Iraq and Syria: the forces ranged against both regimes and ISIS

It is important to understand, however, that in neither Syria nor Iraq is
ISIS the only opposition, among the disenfranchised Sunni masses, and the
popular masses more generally, to the sectarian-based capitalist regimes
in power. While the media focus has been about “regime(s) versus ISIS,” in
reality, in both countries, there are three main forces in contention:

1. The Bashar al-Assad and Nuri al-Maliki regimes. Both are
sectarian-based regimes: the Assad regime is a “secular” totalitarian
regime heavily based among the elite of the Alawite religious minority;
the Maliki regime is a sectarian, semi-theocratic, Shiite regime closely
aligned with both the former US occupier, that facilitated its rise to
power, and with the Shiite theocracy in neighbouring Iran.

2. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the most extreme Sunni
sectarian and theocratic movement in the region, which has set up its own
semi-state over parts of Syria and Iraq. A descendant of al-Qaida in Iraq,
ISIS was disowned by al-Qaida last year for being unnecessarily and
embarrassingly barbaric (though in fact the disagreement went back as far
as 2005). It represents an “opposing counterrevolution,” formed partially
from within the ranks of the uprisings.

3. In between, a vast opposition to the regimes which is also distinct
from ISIS, in open war with it in Syria, and on and off at war with it in

In Iraq, this consists of a range of “Sunni tribes” and other Sunni
militias which have, over the last year or so, alternatively been fighting
the regime alongside ISIS, or fighting against ISIS. This includes Sunni
militia that were part of the Iraqi resistance to US occupation, whether
pro-Saddam Baathist, Islamist or otherwise nationalist; and Sunni groups
that were mobilised by the US and Saudi Arabia into the “Sawha”
(Awakening) movement that helped defeat al-Qaida in 2007-8, but have since
become disenchanted with the Shiite sectarian regime they had been drawn
into propping up.

In Syria, this consists of all the armed manifestations of the Syrian
revolution, from the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA, based heavily among
the Sunni but not entirely, including some Alawite and Christian brigades
and officers), moderate Islamist groups like the Mujahideen Army in the
north and the al-Ajnad Union in the south, the Islamic Front, a loose
coalition ranging from moderate to hard-line Islamists, and Jabhat
al-Nusra (JaN), the official wing of al-Qaida in Syria, which however is
markedly less hard-line than ISIS since their split in May 2013. While a
favourite western media discourse is “rebel in-fighting,” in reality this
does not exist at all; rather, all these forces act in unison in their war
against both the Assad regime and ISIS; it is the war of all of them
against ISIS that wrongly gets labelled this way.

These two struggles are related but different. The Syrian struggle began
as a multi—sect democratic uprising which however has tended to become
more Sunni in composition largely due to the class realities in Syrian
society; the Iraqi struggle is explicitly Sunni against an explicitly
Shiite-sectarian regime, and evolved out of a nationalist resistance to US
occupation. The more advanced sectors of the Syrian revolution still hope
to win non-Sunni support for a rising against then regime, no matter how
unlikely that may now be; by contrast, the Iraqi revolt only aims to
liberate Sunni regions – the ISIS-led attempt to conquer Shiite-dominated
Baghdad or any other Shiite region would by definition by a reactionary
and sectarian action.

What accounts for strength of ISIS?

What then accounts for the particular strength of ISIS, given that most
accounts do not credit ISIS with superior numbers of troops to other
resistance movements (indeed in Syria at least ISIS is vastly outnumbered,
perhaps 10 to 1, yet in the second half of 2013 had taken control over
much rebel-held territory before being expelled in January 2014)?

One simple explanation is that the extraordinary level of barbarism of the
Syrian regime, and of the previous US occupation of Iraq, alongside the
growing sectarianism and brutality of the current Iraqi regime, will
naturally produce an extremist and sectarian mirror within the opposition.
This is certainly valid, yet does not entirely explain why the most brutal
and extremist force appears so visibly powerful.

Another important factor is the simple fact that it controls regions of
both countries that straddle their long border – when weakened on one
side, it can retreat to the other side. When it builds up semi-state
infrastructure when strong on one side, this can be used on the other side
of the border. This gives ISIS simple practical strength.

Why ISIS just happens to control these regions would seem to be related to
them being relatively economically backward, sparsely populated and partly
“tribal” regions, in northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, where its
unifying presence has brought a degree of security and some social
services to otherwise forgotten regions. In contrast, the allied forces of
the Syrian revolution, in one form or another, control liberated regions
in the more developed and populous south, north-west and scattered parts
of the centre, with their base among the peasantry and the urban poor in
impoverished regional towns and ringed around major cities.

Importantly, however, these backward regions ISIS controls do have
resources, including oil, which has greatly boosted ISIS funds, partly via
oil deals with the Assad regime.

Then there is the question of funding. As the descendant of al-Qaida in
Iraq, ISIS has been the recipient of significant funding from sections of
the Gulf bourgeoisie long sympathetic to al-Qaida. Not the Gulf regimes,
as is often brandished about with no evidence (supporters of the Syrian
and Iranian regimes tend to use “Saudi Arabia” as a form of demonology and
thus falsely attribute Saudi support to whoever they dislike); on the
contrary, al-Qaida views the Gulf regimes as arch-apostates and seeks
their overthrow. However, the anti-regime Gulf bourgeoisie is very
powerful – they oppose these narrow monarchical regimes which “lock out”
the majority of the bourgeoisie from political power; the US backing of
these regimes, and the regimes’ subservience to US imperialism, has
produced a fierce anti-imperialism among this oppositional bourgeoisie, no
matter how regressive the form it takes. In this sense, the question of
why ISIS is particularly powerful is no more or less complicated than why
al-Qaida became powerful enough to attack New York.

Then there’s the role of the Syrian and Iraqi Baath, in quite different
ways. The Alawi-led, “secular” Syrian tyranny may appear to be an obvious
enemy of ISIS’ theocratic semi-state; however, they have a common interest
in crushing the Syrian revolution, which is a threat to both due to its
liberatory message; and its forces also happen to control regions
geographically in between Assad- and ISIS-controlled regions, so there is
a practical aspect to Assad-ISIS collaboration. Speculation about this
underhanded collaboration between the two centres of reaction in Syria is
therefore widespread, the oil deals being only the most pragmatic part.

At the very least, the Assad regime’s past collaboration of with Iraqi
jihadists is well-established. Initially after 9/11, the Assad regime
collaborated with the CIA in “renditioning” and torturing “terror”
suspects for the US as part of the US ‘war on terror” from 2001 to 2003.
However, when the crazed Bush regime refused to reciprocate, by the
mid-2000s Assad was encouraging Syrian jihadists to go to Iraq to help (or
help undermine) the Iraqi resistance, partly to get them off his back in
Syria, while placing obstacles in the path of the more crazed wing of US
neocons who fantasised about taking their “success” in Iraq into Syria
This policy was later reversed again after 2007 and Syria returned to the
US “rendition” program between 2008 and 2011 after Obama came to power and
US-Syrian relations improved. At this point, prominent Syrian jihadist and
former key link to al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu al-Qaqaa, “was shot dead in
mysterious circumstances” and “his funeral was attended by members of the
Syrian parliament along with thousands of Islamists” (ibid).

However, after the outbreak of revolution in 2011, Assad again changed
course, this time not related to Iraq however. The regime released
hundreds of jihadists just as it was arresting thousands of democratic
oppositionists – a clear ploy to undercut the democratic revolution and
“sectarianise” the struggle. The fact that the Assad regime, and ISIS in
Syria, hardly fight each other, but both fight the rebel coalition, is
well-established: the regime can bomb schools, market-places, hospitals,
refugee camps, entire cities to rubble; but ISIS headquarters in Raqqa
stood proudly untouched by regime warplanes right up to a few days ago,
looking like this: http://imgur.com/r/syriancivilwar/ZfTLX0G. The governor
of Iraq’s Ninevah province, Ethyl Najafi, even claimed the Syrian regime
had helped ISIS take over Mosul

The role of the Iraqi Baath is different; unlike its Syrian counterpart,
it is on the same “Sunni” side of the “sectarian” divide. Some of ISIS’s
(ie, al-Qaida in Iraq’s) initial core came from the “Islamification” of
some of Saddam Hussein’s former military officer corps during the
resistance to US occupation; three of six top ISIS leaders were such
This layer of former Baathists brought with them arms, skills,
intelligence etc, a formidable backbone to the new jihadist group.
Importantly however, this should be distinguished from the Baathist
influence among some of the non-ISIS Sunni forces fighting today in Iraq,
which have collaborated with ISIS to defeat Maliki but are already coming
into conflict with it.

A Sunni uprising against a sectarian regime

It has become increasingly clear that the initial reports of an ISIS
takeover of Mosul and the north were far too simplistic, though ISIS may
be taking the lead role in places. It is now clear that the other
Sunni-based militia throughout the region had had a gutful of Maliki’s
sectarian repression and decided to temporarily throw their lot in with
ISIS to drive the “Iraqi army,” which they viewed as an occupation army,
out of the Sunni majority regions. While the purpose of this article is
not to detail this, this reality has been widely exposed; crucial
background on Maliki’s sectarian repression and Sunni resistance can be
found here for example:
Indeed, regarding Mosul in particular, it is a stunning fact that the
Maliki regime placed a known Shiite torturer and war criminal, General
Mahdi Al Gharawi, in charge of this largest of Sunni cities; his actions
were so brutal that even the US occupation regime and the Iraqi courts
themselves had tried to prosecute him last decade

Other Sunni-based movements involved in the uprising alongside ISIS
include the Sufi-Baathist Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN),
which includes many former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army; a variety of
other Islamist or nationalist militias, including the Muslim Scholars
Association/1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army (apparently
MB-connected), the Rashidin Army, the Iraqi Hamas, the Mujahidin Shura
Council, and the al-Qaeda-originated Ansar al-Islam; various Sunni tribal
councils, including those such as the Anbar Tribal Council which had been
part of the US-backed “Sawha” movement but have since become disaffected
due to Maliki’s sectarian rule; and new groups emerging from the protest
movement of the last year or so who have taken up arms to defend their
movement against the regime’s repression. Some of these forces have formed
various shifting coalitions.

On the one hand, many who initially fled Mosul have returned, and have
expressed a preference for even ISIS over the Maliki regime
Many claimed their initial flight was due to fear of being bombed by the
regime, as it had previously copied the US occupiers by again bombing
Falluja. In contrast to its barbarity in Syria, where ISIS is in many ways
seen as a foreign invasion, some reports suggested that ISIS in Iraq,
where it has a real local base, was acting in a more mild way towards its
Sunni constituents
in any case, as its current drive against the regime depends on
preserving, at least for the moment, its support among Sunni and its
alliance with non-ISIS forces, it is likely to temper its repression for
the moment. On the other hand, the breathtaking barbarity shown in the
apparent mass slaughter of regime soldiers indicates that ISIS is still
ISIS, and those forces in a temporary bloc with ISIS will have to confront
it quite soon to avoid simply falling into a sectarian quagmire.

This dual process led to understandable speculation about the rapid
collapse of Maliki’s “Iraqi Army” in Mosul. The relative openness of the
Assad-ISIS collaboration, the concurrent ability of Assad, Maliki and Iran
to use the bogey of ISIS to demonise all opposition to the two sectarian
regimes, and the continual refrain of US and other western leaders for
years that they couldn’t send even a bullet to the Syrian liberation
struggle because such arms might get into the hands of al-Qaida, and the
growing US chorus for military action against al-Qaida in Syria, led to an
understandable conspiracy theory: Maliki had ordered his army to run away
and leave Mosul to the tender mercies of ISIS, in order to goad the US
into launching air strikes “against ISIS” in Iraq and Syria, ie, against
the Sunni-based uprisings as a whole. Scot Lucas more or less implies this

While not every conspiracy theory is always false, it appears most likely
that reality was far more simple: the part of Maliki’s armed forces that
were sectarian-based knew it would be pointless putting up any fight
against the united Sunni insurgency in the overwhelmingly Sunni regions in
the north; and to the extent that conscripts were Sunni, they downed arms
and joined their brothers and sisters.

This temporary Sunni coalition is unlikely to last; tensions have been
there from the start, and as ISIS tries to impose its medievalist
theocratic repression on its current supporters, these tensions are bound
to spread. Former General Muzhir al Qaisi, from “the General Military
Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries” – apparently one of the coalitions –
which entered Mosul alongside ISIS, told the BBC’s Jim Muir that they were
bigger than ISIS, and that, moreover, he considered ISIS to be
“barbarians” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27853362). Violent
clashes have already broken out in some regions in the north between ISIS
and the Baathist Naqshbandis
while in other areas, local Sunni forces liberated themselves from Maliki
regime occupation without ISIS and have declared they will fight off
anyone from outside, including ISIS, trying to take over.

US-Iranian intervention?

Both the US and Iran have threatened intervention to shore up Maliki’s
tottering regime and beat back the Sunni uprising, under the guise of
defeating ISIS terror. Iran has already sent in units of the Qods Force, a
wing of the Revolutionary Guards, under its veteran commander Qassem
Suleimani; there are reports of up to 500 of these militia in Iraq, and
even possibly of 1500 paramilitary Basij militiamen arriving
Meanwhile, the US has moved the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, its
air wing, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Truxton towards
the Gulf, while on June 20 Obama announced that 300 “special forces
members” would be sent to Iraq to “train and advise the Iraqi security
forces” (on top of 160 troops which are already in Iraq, including 50
marines and more than 100 soldiers) and threatened “targeted” air strikes
against the Sunni militia
Despite their poor relations with one another, both the US and Iran have
expressed the view that they need to cooperate against a common foe here.
Last week, Obama said Iran can play a constructive role in Iraq
and US and Iranian officials met on the sidelines of nuclear talks to
discuss Iraq. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani likewise said that Iran
would “not rule out” working with the US on Iraq, while his deputy, Hamid
Aboutalebi, said “Iran and the US are the only countries who can manage
the Iraq crisis”

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian even went so far
as to claim the US “lacks serious will for confronting terrorism in Iraq
and the region” due to the US “delay” in fighting terrorism and Obama’s
remarks which only promised hundreds of advisors rather than immediate air

In reality, this is not as new as it sounds, certainly not in Iraq and not
even in Syria. From late last year, more and more US leaders and former
leaders began deluging the media with hints that Assad remaining was
preferable to the alternative, and that Iran could play a positive role in
Syria – in both cases focusing on the threat posed by the Sunni jihadists
(I documented some of this process, and the geopolitical turn in US policy
it entailed, here:

Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has also expressed solidarity with
Maliki and offered to jointly fight ISIS. Then on June 15, the Syrian
regime launched its most major strikes on ISIS in Syria for many months,
if not ever, the regime even destroying ISIS headquarters in Hasakah. As
if they didn’t know it was there before. Clearly, for Assad, it is time to
try to cash in; ISIS has been a useful ally against the Syrian revolution,
but as with Maliki and Iran, Assad also sees the value in using the horror
at ISIS’s brutality to encourage the US’ geopolitical turn to continue, to
hopefully again accepting Assad as a partner in the “war in terror” – as
all local counterrevolutionary forces use ISIS as the bogeyman to taint
the popular insurgency in both countries.

Assad has also spoken of what he sees as a shift in US policy, claiming
“the United States and the West have started to send signs of change.
Terrorism is now on their soil,” and therefore “current and former US
officials are trying to get in touch with us, but they do not dare to
because of the powerful lobbies that are pressuring them”
Assad even praised the US for being “more rational than the French”
regarding Syria
a clear note of thanks for the US towering betrayal of those it claims to

A US “war on ISIS”: a war on the Sunni uprising

The complication is that ISIS is itself a counterrevolutionary force; in
theory, if the US struck very narrowly at ISIS itself, it could boost the
non-ISIS forces among the resistance in both countries. And indeed, given
that the Syrian rebel alliance of the FSA and Islamist rebels that has
been the only force in the region actually fighting ISIS, it might be
expected that the US may decide to finally, after 3.5 years, begin
providing some serious weapons to the Syrian rebels to help them defeat
ISIS. Yet this appears the furthest thing from the aims of US leaders in
both countries.

This is very obvious in the case of Iraq. The US has provided the Maliki
regime millions of dollars worth of heavy military equipment, including
Humvees (armoured vehicles), tanks, helicopters and so on. Rather than try
to build bridges with the Sunni population, the regime has used its
weaponry to further alienate them by launching a brutal counterinsurgency,
which led directly to their current bloc with ISIS. In this context, what
does the prospect of US intervention “against ISIS” in Iraq mean in
practice? To examine this, it will be useful to look back at the US
invasion and the rise of al-Qaida in the resistance.

Many analysts have claimed the US deliberately stoked sectarianism in Iraq
after its 2003 invasion in order to divide and rule. However, while divide
and rule is certainly a well-tested imperialist device, this analysis is
too simplistic. It depends on the tactical needs of the moment. Sectarian
division, after all, was hardly absent in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which
was based narrowly around a small section of the Sunni minority; the
tyrannical regime had carried out large scale massacres of Shia,
especially after the mass Shia uprising in 1991.
It is true, of course, that this sectarian division was not so strong on
the ground, and that indeed, many tribes were mixed Sunni and Shia; there
was nothing of the kind of sectarian warfare that characterised the period
after the US invasion had destroyed the social fabric of the country.

However, the US relied precisely on the hatred the Shia majority felt for
the regime as a factor that would ease its invasion to depose Hussein, and
this cannot be ignored when analysing what happened next. Was it necessary
for the US to stoke even more sectarianism after its invasion? Soon after
the invasion, the mass resistance to US occupation centred among the Sunni
population, partly because it had been a Sunni-led regime evicted from
power by an imperialist invasion, and if the Hussein regime had had any
base left, it would only have been among the Sunni minority. Arguably,
therefore, the immediate US interest would have been to win over a section
of the Sunni, and therefore to discourage sectarianism among its Shiite
partners in the occupation regime.

But things went horribly wrong. First, occupation tends to create new
enemies; so if the Shiite ruling bourgeois stooges were working with the
occupation, happy to step in as the US evicted Hussein’s regime, the
Shiite masses, especially in the slims of Sadr City in Baghdad, felt the
brunt of occupiers’ everyday repression. The rise of the anti-imperialist
Mahdi Army, led by Al-Sadr, represented this new popular resistance.

Second, the US occupation carried out a radical change of plan. For 12
years, the CIA and other US strategists had stressed the need to maintain
the core of the Baathist regime, without Saddam and his immediate circle,
as an imperialist imposed regime would still need the actually existing
state apparatus of the Iraqi capitalist class to re-impose and
re-stabilise capitalist rule. Yet in 2004, the US colonial proconsul
ruling Iraq, Paul Bremmer, dissolved the Baathist police and armed forces
and carried out a radical “de-Baathification” of the entire state

It is hard to determine whether this was caused by a deliberate ploy to
stoke further sectarianism; or by the neoconservative regime running the
US getting caught up in its own “spread democracy” part of its rhetoric to
the detriment of realist-based imperialist interests; or was simply due to
inevitable class alignments, which then had unintended consequences.

I would argue that it was not the first of these. It is true that the
de-Baathification program drove mostly Sunni out of work and onto the
streets, thus intensifying Sunni opposition; and as it was a
Shiite-dominated regime that carried it out, this would have boosted
anti-Shia sectarianism among the Sunni. In fact, the first post-invasion
job of current leader Maliki was assistant to the director of the
de-Baathification program!


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