Nearly four months in and the new US-led war in the Middle East is enjoying patchy progress at best.
At an official briefing at defence headquarters in Canberra on November 25, Australian Defence Force Chief of Joint Operations Vice-Admiral David Johnston said Australian-led air strikes Iraq the previous week had killed about 100 fighters from the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
However, despite these claims, the November 25 Sydney Morning Herald said the military “acknowledged that progress against the Islamic State group remains patchy, with the militants continuing to make gains in some areas even as they are beaten back in others”.
Since August 8, Australia has been part of a US-led military coalition against the IS. Australia and other Western allies of the US have confined their operations to Iraq. Officially, the US-led coalition is only fighting an air war, however special forces have been deployed to “train and assist” Iraqi government forces.
The US and some Arab regimes, led by Saudi Arabia, have also been bombing Syria.
The US military says that between August 8 and November 26, a total of 1077 air strikes were conducted. Of the 1006 air strikes, up until November 19, 561 were against targets in Iraq and 445 in Syria. There were 843 by the US Air Force and 163 by its allies, Military.com reported on November 26.
“The campaign against ISIS has been costing about [US]$8 million daily since President [Barack] Obama authorised increasing the troop presence in Iraq last June, according to the Pentagon,” Military.com said.
The “patchy” progress of the war against the IS reflects both its propagandistic nature and the political restraints the Western powers face because of popular opposition to the previous Western war against Iraq.
The 2003 invasion to topple the Saddam Hussein regime was part of a plan by the Bush administration to further reshape the Middle East further in favour of US interests,. Its aim was to weaken access to Middle East oil and gas for US rivals China and Russia, and to isolate Iran.
The plan failed. The lies used to justify the war ― most notoriously that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction” ― were widely discredited. The war was deeply unpopular in both the US and other Western countries that joined Bush’s “coalition of the willing”.
Obama was elected in 2008 on a platform of ending the war. He officially ended the occupation in 2011 and withdrew most US soldiers, but the withdrawing troops left behind a country now wracked with sectarian divisions.
The occupying forces had used divide-and-rule tactics to counter Iraqi resistance, deliberately creating conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslim communities that had previously lived together peacefully.
Both communities were terrorised by each others’ armed groups. Non-Muslim minorities fared particularly badly. Nationalist anti-occupation groups, drawn from all communities, were targeted by the occupation forces. However, sectarian forces, even those opposed to the occupation, were tacitly tolerated.
To achieve enough stability to allow for the 2011 withdrawal, the US accepted the dominance of Shia sectarian militias. This meant the regime that emerged from the US occupation was closely aligned to Iran.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, events took a different dynamic. Since the 1991 US-led war on Iraq, the region had de facto autonomy under US protection, ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
After the 2003 invasion, this region retained a high level of autonomy, including its own military forces, the Peshmerga. But it was integrated into the US-created Iraqi state as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The original plan of the Bush administration was for the invasion of Iraq to be a prelude to “regime change” in Iran and Syria. But not only did the Iranian regime emerge stronger in the region, the US was also unable to intervene in Syria even after the March 2011 uprising against the Russian-aligned dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
The ensuing civil war has left Assad tenuously ruling only half the country. Obama failed to win support for an intervention in Syria after Assad deployed chemical weapons against opposition fighters and civilians in September last year.
The extreme violence of the IS gave the US and other Western powers a convincing excuse to return to the region.
The violence of the IS is no greater than many of the other state and non-state military forces in Iraq and Syria (more than 250,000 people have been killed since 2011). However, the IS is unique in the extent to which it broadcasts its violence via social media ― including dramatic acts such as beheadings, crucifixions and mass execution of prisoners of war.
IS propaganda also celebrates its massacres of religious minorities and enslavement of non-Muslim women and children. IS fighters are predominantly Syrian and Iraqi Arabs, but Western recruits feature prominently in their violent propaganda.
The US and other Western imperialist powers exploited the opportunity the IS gave them. Australian PM Tony Abbott frequently characterises the IS as a “death cult” and the group’s own propaganda supports this claim.
Abbott has used it to introduce a fresh round of anti-democratic “anti-terror” laws domestically. These have been accompanied by highly-publicised paramilitary police raids against Muslim Australians accused of outlandish plots.
Despite IS propaganda stating the groups intent to bring its violence to Western cities, the evidence for such plots is underwhelming. A raid by more than 800 police in Sydney that allegedly thwarted a plot to behead random people turned up no more evidence than a plastic sword and a mistranslated phone call.
On the other hand, IS violence in Iraq and Syria is very real. However, there are good reasons to doubt that IS violence is the real cause of the new US-led intervention.
For instance, Saudi Arabia is the main Arab ally in the US-led coalition ― a world leader in public executions by beheading. Then there are the more than 1 million people killed as a result of the 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq.
Furthermore, it was the occupation's encouragement of violent religious sectarianism that helped create the IS.
While the West has formally supported the Free Syrian Army in the Syrian conflict, the reality is more complex. The FSA has become a brand name for a large number of independent brigades with differing ideologies and agendas. They all share, however, hostility to the Western-backed governments-in-exile, the Syrian National Coalition, that officially represents them.
Moreover, not only was promoting Sunni-Shia conflict the US strategy for controlling Iraq, it has been a cornerstone of US policy throughout the Middle East.
When the Syrian uprising took place, US hostility to the Assad regime was tempered by fear of the democratic wave that was sweeping the Arab world.
The US used selective military aid to promote the rise of Sunni communalist groups in the opposition. This suited the Assad regime, who contributed by releasing 1000 Sunni fundamentalists from jail.
US aid was designed to be enough to keep the opposition fighting, but not enough for them to win. Aid from or channelled through Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey generally went to extreme fundamentalist groups.
Some FSA brigades have a Sunni Islamist ideology while others are pro-Western, Baathist or lacking in ideology altogether.
By 2012, the FSA was becoming overshadowed by Islamist coalitions such as the Al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and the Islamic Front. In some instances this was facilitated by local FSA brigades becoming corrupt or predatory and losing popular support.
IS broke with Al Qaeda after it opposed the IS's bid to take over the Nusra Front. The IS invasion of Iraq in June put it on a collision course with both the West and Iran. Its declaration of a “global caliphate” also alienated other Sunni fundamentalists.
As a result of domestic opposition to the previous Western war in Iraq, the US and its allies are reluctant to commit ground troops. In Iraq, this has meant relying on the forces of the Iraqi government and the KRG’s Peshmerga.
But the Iraqi National Army is plagued by corruption and is dominated by violently sectarian Shia militias.
The rapid fall of Mosul to the IS in June was partly due to the Iraqi army’s unpopularity in the predominantly Sunni city. Since then, the IS’s harsh rule prompted some local forces to take up arms against it.
However, Rudaw.net reported on November 11 that, “Bashar Kiki, who is head of Mosul’s provincial council, says that Baghdad government has not supported Sunni tribes in the area that are willing to take on the Islamic State jihadists in Mosul.”
The IS has released videos of mass executions of prisoners of war belonging to these poorly armed militias.
The Peshmerga are a slightly more effective fighting force, but are also hampered by corruption.
The KRG capital Erbil only survived an IS attack with the assistance of the Kurdistan Union of Communities (KCK) and revolutionary forces aligned to it from the Turkish Kurdistan-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdistan based Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
The pro-Western KRG has a history of hostility towards KCK-affiliated groups.
The catalyst for the US-led war on the IS was the group’s brutal attack on the Yazidi community in the Sinjar region. The Yazidi are a non-Muslim Kurdish religious minority.
The IS vowed to annihilate the entire community. Hundreds of Yazidi were massacred and hundreds enslaved after the Peshmerga fled from advancing IS troops. The surviving Yazidi were rescued, not by Western forces but by the YPG, YPJ and PKK.
In Syria, the US-led war against the IS is even more patchy. In January, with Western encouragement, the FSA, Nusra Front and Islamic Front forces allied against the IS. The Nusra Front also lobbied to be taken off the US list of terrorist groups.
However, when the US began striking targets in Syria on September 22, the first group targeted was the Nusra Front, not the IS.
The November 24 Guardian reported that this, and civilian casualties, had caused the Nusra Front and other Islamist groups to ally with the IS. The FSA has opposed the US air strikes and has had its meagre supply of Western arms cease altogether.
The one area of success in the war against the IS in Syria has been in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava in Kurdish). However, here again this has been the achievement of KCK-affiliated YPG and YPJ.
In 2012, taking advantage of the dire situation of the Assad regime forces, the YPG and YPJ established three liberated cantons in Rojava that have become the scene of a revolutionary experiment based on grassroots democracy, women’s liberation, ethnic inclusivity and a post-capitalist communal economy.
They fended off attacks from the IS, the Nusra Front, the Islamic Front and some FSA groups while fighting alongside other FSA groups.
When the US began striking Syria, the IS was massing its forces around the YPG/YPJ-held border town of Kobane. The US was initially reluctant to come to Kobane’s aid. The PKK ― allied to and actively assisting the YPG and YPJ ― is on the US list of terrorist groups.
Turkey, a close US ally and NATO member, has long been in conflict with the PKK. It is so hostile to the Rojava revolution that it sealed the border to Kurds while providing material assistance to the IS. Turkey demanded a buffer zone that would include Rojava as a precondition for joining the US-led war.
However, the tenacious resistance of the democratic, secular, feminist YPG/YPJ forces, publicised worldwide by protests by the Kurdish diaspora, made it politically impossible for the US-led coalition to continue its war on the IS while ignoring the most successful resistance to the terror group.
At the start of October, US air strikes began targeting the IS forces around Kobane. The defenders, however, needed heavy weapons.
Turkey controls access between the cantons. At the start of November, under US pressure, Turkey allowed KRG Peshmerga forces with heavy weapons to reach Kobane.
Since then YPG and YPJ forces, along with a group of local FSA battalions who fled to Kobane after the IS attacks, have begun driving the IS back.
The West may be hoping that the pro-Western Peshmerga forces will dilute the revolutionary YPG/YPJ forces. But the role of the KCK-affiliated forces in the defence of Erbil and Sinjar has altered the relationship between them and the KRG.
In a phone interview Cochair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Asya Abdullah spoke about the November 29 ISIS attacks against Kobane.
The battle for Kobane is continuing ― with fresh evidence of Turkey assisting the IS.
Roar magazine wrote on December 2: “In the early hours of Saturday, November 29, on the 75th day of the resistance of Kobane, the militants of the Islamic State launched yet another attack against the city.
“In the 2.5 months that IS has been besieging the predominantly Kurdish city at the border with Turkey it launched numerous attacks ... but never before did it attack the city from the north, from the Turkish side of the border.
“For many international observers and Kurdish activists this fact confirmed once again that the Turkish state is in bed with the Islamist militants, and that the two are collaborating closely in their fight against the region’s Kurdish population.”
As the resistance forces in Kobane battle for survival ― against an IS receiving active support from a Western-allied nation ― the US-led forces continue to make patchy progress at best in its latest war on a long suffering region.