The self-styled Islamic State (IS) may be one of the few unifying forces in the Middle East.
A range of mutually antagonistic regional and global powers and non-state groups have joined the fight against them. While Western politicians’ pronouncements that the IS has declared war on the world are clichéd, they are echoed by the group’s own statements.
Not only are they hostile (to the point of genocide) towards non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims and the approximately 96% of Sunni Muslims who do not accept their Salafi interpretation of the faith, their pretensions to being a new universal Caliphate make them hostile to other Salafist groups that do not submit to their supremacy.
Given such antagonism towards not only all the political actors in the region, but also most of the population, their successes need explanation. The answer is in the promotion of religious sectarian division by the US occupation regime in Iraq, the Shia theocracy in Iran and the secular Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Assad.
In Iraq, the US promoted a Sunni-Shia civil war during its 2003-2011 occupation to thwart nationalist resistance. The regime that emerged from the occupation was based on Shia militias.
Explaining the rapid advance of IS forces into Iraq last year, journalist Anand Gopal told socialistworker.org on December 10: “Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki led a sectarian Shia government that systematically discriminated against Sunnis. In reaction, Sunnis rose up in a protest movement in cities of Anbar province, like Ramadi and Fallujah.
“This was initially a peaceful movement … to protest government corruption, sectarianism and the Shia militias. Nationalist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr praised the uprising and said, ‘An Iraqi spring is coming.’
“The Maliki government’s response was to open fire on unarmed protesters, arrest activists and raid encampment sites … killing dozens and sparking clashes that led to the deaths of hundreds.
“It was out of the ashes of this repression that ISIS was able to grow, capitalizing on the frustration and anger many felt towards the sectarian government. Initially, ISIS was welcomed as the lesser of two evils.
“Many of those people now realize that ISIS is no force of liberation, but the US-backed Iraqi Security Forces and Shia militias have nonetheless fuelled continued resentment and allowed ISIS to still have appeal. When the Iraqi Army and militias go into villages and ‘clear’ it of ISIS, atrocities often ensue … In Latifiya, the militias burned down homes and beheaded civilians.
“The biggest recruitment tool for ISIS is the US and Iranian-backed Shia forces.”
In Syria the Assad regime’s extreme violence has likewise helped recruit to the IS.
In August last year a US-led coalition began airstrikes against the IS in Iraq. These were extended into Syria in September. In a January 22 interview on Al Arabiya, US Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones said: “We estimate that the airstrikes have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.”
At a January 23 meeting of coalition partners in London, news.com.au reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry made similar claims.
“We are taking out (ISIS) fighters in the thousands thus far, single digits but thousands and 50 per cent of their top command have been eliminated, hundreds of vehicles and tanks which they captured have been destroyed, nearly 200 oil and gas facilities they were using have been eliminated from their capacity to sell and get revenue from them, as well as more than 1000 of their fighting positions, check points, buildings, barracks in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
A total of 1,480 air strikes have been carried out by the US and its coalition, at the cost of $1 million.
Yet, as in other “anti-terrorist” air wars in Pakistan and Yemen, airstrikes and drone strikes often kill innocent civilians but these casualties are passed off as terrorists. Such atrocities help the IS recruit.
Furthermore, in Syria many of the airstrikes have targeted the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front despite the fact that it is also fighting the IS.
If the military actions against the IS by various other forces are taken into account it appears that the coalition airstrikes have been about as effective as taking the whipped cream off a frappuccino.
The Nusra Front has been fighting IS since the latter attempted to take over the Syrian jihadi group but was rebuffed by the global al Qaeda leadership. In this conflict they have frequently allied with other Syrian armed groups that are also fighting both the IS and the Syrian regime.
In the brutal, multi-sided civil war that has been raging since 2011, the Assad regime has been fighting both the IS and the Nusra Front but the bulk of their firepower has been directed against their rivals in the armed opposition and against civilians.
Before the US-led airstrikes began, several of the armed groups fighting Assad had already won successes against the IS, then calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Some of these groups were receiving small amounts of Western assistance. The January 6, 2014 Al Akhbar reported that the Mujahadeen Army was created out of some of these groups specifically to target ISIS.
In Aleppo, the Mujahideen Army forced the Islamic State out of the area and forced them to retreat. Fighters from the Mujahideen Army told Al Akhbar, “For the first time, ISIS forces faced fierce resistance from the people of the region, who rushed to expel it after they suffered from its excesses.”
The now heralded liberation of Kobane in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) has been the most significant military set-back for the IS.
At a January 27 press briefing, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was quick to declare the victory a US one.
Kobane is one of three cantons in Rojava that have been liberated since mid-2012 when the mainly Kurdish population rose against the Assad regime, whose forces in the area were depleted by having to concentrate troops in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and Aleppo (the largest city) to fend off advances by other opposition forces.
Since then a social revolution has been taking place based on grassroots participatory democracy. The armed forces of these federated autonomous communities, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ), have had to fight off attacks from government and opposition forces.
The IS siege of Kobane began in mid-September, the same time that the US-led coalition began airstrikes in Syria. While Turkey, a NATO member, provided support to the IS, initially the US-led airstrikes did not target the IS forces around Kobane. The YPG and YPJ are aligned to the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Turkey was waiting with bated breath for the canton to fall.
The PKK is criminalised in the US, the European Union and Australia, and statements by Kerry about Kobane’s fall to the IS being inevitable suggest that the Western powers were as eager as Turkey to see their allies in Rojava annihilated. The tenacity of the YPG and YPJ defenders and increasing media exposure helped by global protests by the Kurdish diaspora and supporters changed this.
“The US stepped up its bombing in and around Kobanê just as immense international sympathy was emerging for the embattled city, especially the photogenic warriors of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). But before that, the US had made its indifference toward Kobanê all too explicit, even while knowing what the city and the countryside around it was facing. So the late expansion of its anti-IS operations to include Kobanê raises questions,” Errol Babacan and Murat Çakır wrote in the December 2014 Jacobin.
The February 10 International Business Times said: “There is no doubt that YPG's removal of IS is also the outcome of a joint effort by the US-led coalition airstrikes, local Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, volunteer youth groups from Turkey and the heavy weapons brought by the peshmergas [forces of the pro-Western Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq].
“However, none of these elements change the fact that the core achievement belongs to the YPG and YPJ fighters … Kobani became a graveyard for IS as it lost 3,710 fighters, according to the numbers released by YPG last week.”
The YPG and YPJ have not received direct Western aid and the PKK remains listed as a terrorist organisation. In response to their successes the Western powers have increased military support to the KRG’s peshmerga forces, which they can legally do because they are part of the Iraqi state. Western politicians often obfuscate by referring to both simply as “the Kurds”, but there is a marked contrast in their record against the IS.
In August “when the Yezidi people in the Iraqi Sinjar mountains were facing slaughter by the IS, they were left completely unprotected by the Peshmerga and the KRG,” Babacan and Çakır reported in Jacobin.
“The forces from Rojava and the PKK that rushed in to help were exactly those whose already long struggle against the IS had been actively weakened by the KRG. Although the unspeakable role of the KRG lies open for all to see, it was the KRG that was lauded as the Yezidis’ savior and received [Western] arms shipments.”