The sudden collapse of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in the face of a well-organized transregional attack by extreme jihadists allied with Baathist nationalists, illustrated once again just how big a defeat the US experienced in Iraq. For the forces that took over Mosul and swept down toward Baghdad were the very ones, rooted in the Sunni Arab minority, which had fought the US for six years. So much for the “shock and awe” of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld invasion and the “surge” under the bemedalled General Petraeus! All of which cost the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4500 US troops.
But this latest humiliation of US imperialism should not cause any rejoicing on the left, for it has brought to the fore some of the most reactionary forces in the region. In Mosul and several other cities northwest of Baghdad, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement has already cracked down on women and murdered Shia and other “apostates.” Anyone who wants to see what ISIS has in store for Iraq can simply look at the horrors it has already inflicted in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which it has controlled since 2013, after having displaced genuinely revolutionary elements of the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime.
It is certainly true, as some astute commentators have suggested, that ISIS is only a minority among those who rose up in June in Mosul, and that more secular Baathist nationalist militants seem also to have played an important role. But this should not reassure us, for the Iraqi Baathists have themselves committed genocide against the Kurds and, like ISIS, hold an eliminationist attitude toward Iraq’s Shia Arab majority. Even though Sunni Arabs comprise only 20% of Iraq’s population, their most conservative ideologues, whether Islamist or nationalist, continue to espouse their “right” to rule over the Shia Arabs (60% of the population) and the Kurds (20%).
But it must also be said that the US-installed — and Iranian-backed — Maliki regime in Baghdad has adopted a Shia sectarian policy, according to which all Sunni Arab political actors are terrorists in need of prosecution. Maliki has also deprived predominantly Sunni regions of basic resources, a mirror image of the policies of the former Baathist dictatorship. Maliki also repressed efforts to bring the Arab uprisings of 2011 to Iraq, efforts that were marked by a spirit that sought to transcend Sunni-Shia-Kurd divisions.
Despite all the shouting by neocons in Washington to the effect that Obama has “lost” Iraq, the danger of yet another round of bloody sectarian civil war is all too real. Certainly both Maliki and the ISIS/Baathists seem to be working assiduously toward such a result. This is why both the US and Iran are trying to ease him off the stage. Their tacit alliance over Iraq could represent a turn in world politics.
The Iraq crisis is already having ramifications inside Iran, with the regime gaining some public support by vowing to defend Iraqi Shias and their religious sites against ISIS.
It should not be forgotten, however, that the most immediate precipitating factor in the current Iraq crisis lies in Syria. There, the genocidal Assad regime, which is run by a rival wing of Baathist nationalism, has killed over 100,000 of its own people and driven millions into exile. The Syrian civil war began in 2011 as a mass democratic uprising marked by the same type of emancipatory aspirations as the rest of the Arab revolutions of 2011. Within months, however, the Syrian masses were forced into an armed struggle against a regime that met every protest with a massacre.
The Western powers cheered the Syrian uprising from the sidelines, but allowed no actual military aid to get through. At the same time, Russia and Iran armed the regime to the teeth and the latter intervened via its proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah. Here, the actions of the Western powers were reminiscent of Spain during the 1930s, when an international arms embargo denied the Spanish Republic the means to defend itself against well-armed fascists. The only aid came from Stalinist Russia, which made sure to strangle the truly emancipatory sectors of the Republic, like the anarchists and the left-wing Marxists. The situation in Syria was also similar to that faced by the Bosnians and the Kosovars during the 1990s, when the US and Europe prevented them from getting arms to resist the genocidal Serbian nationalists of the Milosevic regime, only to swoop in afterwards and impose ethnically based partitions upon them. During the 1990s, most of the global left disgraced itself by refusing to support Bosnia and Kosova, often adhering to the notion that Serbia was a locus of resistance against neoliberal capitalism. Many on the left have repeated the same error toward Syria’s Assad regime today.
In Syria, some of the most reactionary elements, backed by lavish funding from Saudi and Gulf state donors, have been able to bring arms and militants in through Turkey. Many of those jihadists are Iraqi militants who had fought against the US occupation.
Taking advantage of the despair and sense of isolation among the Syrian revolutionary forces, over time these reactionaries came to dominate large sectors of the revolt. The tactics of groups like ISIS soon caused revulsion among the Syrian people, seriously weakening the struggle against Assad. Still, ISIS has managed to hold some territory in eastern Syria, including along the border with Iraq. In a dramatic gesture, they have now taken over a swathe of Iraq as well, proclaiming their goal to be a regional caliphate.
It is unlikely they can take Baghdad, both because the forces arrayed against them are too great and because they will alienate the populations over which they now rule. But their uprising has skewed the entire politics of the region to the right, threatening to close off completely the new and emancipatory spirit that arose with the revolutions of 2011.
As Marxist-Humanists, we condemn the machinations in Iraq of the jihadists, both Sunni and Shia, of the Baathists, and of imperialist powers like the US, as well as subimperialist ones like Iran and Saudi Arabia. We call upon our comrades around the world to adopt a clear stance against all forms of fundamentalism, reactionary nationalism, and imperialism, and to support genuinely emancipatory forces in the region and the world.