Obama, Cameron and Hollande’s latest war, with the support of the elite oil-exploiting Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, is yet another act of barbarism against the mainly Arab and Muslim peoples of the Middle East. Indeed, the recent neocon-inspired wars have led to barbarism on top of barbarism, with the demolition of Iraq in 2003 leading straight to the effective collapse of the country.
The political weakness of the Arab Spring – a spontaneous upsurge beginning in 2011 against the degenerate nationalist dictatorships that dominate the region, with its lack of a coherent ideology or revolutionary centre, enabled its enemies to exploit its spontaneity and the illusions of the masses in forms of Islamic and pan-Islamic nationalism. They either cemented in place new dictatorships out of the failure of such movements, as in Egypt, or used their armed power to give a degree of self-serving support to the upsurges, manipulating them with the use of selective military intervention or the supply of arms to settle old scores with the more ‘radical’ dictators: Qadaafi and Assad. Not coincidentally, these were the only two Arab regimes left that, for all their own capitulations to imperialism, had not run up the white flag of open collaboration with Israel.
Such campaigns, which led to the collapse of Libya into chaos, and the funding of the same Al Qaeda-related forces in Syria via Saudi Arabia, in effect attempted to manipulate radicalised, angry young Muslims into doing the West’s bidding in Syria as they did in Libya. This has backfired spectacularly as the Syrian insurgency ultra-radicalised through the agency of the former Al Qaeda in Iraq – now Islamic State. This established sufficient synergy between the insurgencies in the two countries to overwhelm the crucial imperialist-created Sykes-Picot line. This was something the imperialist puppet-masters did not expect to happen. Oops – they fucked it up in a big way!
Meanwhile the threat of military action against Iran, and indeed Syria, has not gone away, even though at this particular conjuncture the imperialists need some sort of temporary military bloc with the Shi’a Islamic Republic in Iran, and even Assad, to try to restore the equilibrium of the region. The aim being to re-establish the regional balance of power that was symbolised by Sykes-Picot, the boundary between Syria and Iraq that was drawn up by the French and British imperialists when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered at the end of the First World War.
An anti-imperialist act
Despite the barbaric and reactionary nature of the forces of Islamic State, the act of obliterating this boundary is an anti-imperialist act, a political gain for the peoples of the Middle East, the first time since that period that an indigenous social and political force has broken with these boundaries that are part of the Balkanisation of the region. Gamal Abdul Nasser and early Syrian Ba’athists like Michel Aflaq only talked of doing such things, IS have actually done it. Therefore, if there were a force of revolutionary communists in that area, it would be strategically imperative for them to defend this attack on imperialist ‘order’ and their sacred prerogative of balkanisation. How exactly such a defence would take place is complex and requires real roots in the situation to begin to work it out in detail.
But the basic contours of a genuinely communist, anti-imperialist policy need to be spelt out now. This means that, in the face of an imperialist drive to destroy the Islamic State movement and re-establish the status quo, communists stand for the defence of the Islamic State, notwithstanding their brutal nature, insofar as they are able to mobilise any serious section of the Sunni Arab masses in struggle against an imperialist re-subjugation of these areas. If they refrain from such mass mobilisation, nothing can ultimately help them.
Obviously this means no support for Al Qaeda-style actions like bombings and massacres such as those that all sides frequently perpetrate in Baghdad, or even similar acts in imperialist countries. It would involve communist solidarity with a serious war of resistance against re-occupation. Indeed, only such solidarity would have any hope of breaking down the impotent rage at oppression that makes such Islamic radicalism attractive to the youth. As opposed to more imperialist barbarism that can only feed more such desperately flawed ‘radicalism’.
There are two principles involved here, which are not in contradiction, though they may at times appear to conflict for a while. One is absolute opposition to Western imperialist intervention in the region, and support for all mass struggles to drive them out. Their world-predatory nature and their qualitatively far greater economic muscle and fire-power means they are never the lesser evil to any of the indigenous forces with whom they come into conflict with in the imperialised world.
The other principle is that all peoples in the region should be protected from ethnic cleansing and massacre, and have the right to self-defence, and to expect working-class and communist solidarity for that. This includes minority peoples in the Sunni Arab-dominated North of Iraq and Syria, such as the Yazidis and others. It also includes the people of the Shia regions of Iraq who might potentially, though this is unlikely to materialise, be conquered by Islamic State.
But equally importantly, it includes the northern Sunni tribes, who undoubtedly provide Islamic State with a real base, due to the sectarian Shia rule that has been coming from Baghdad, with Iranian support. Islamic State, for all their current radical brutality are not inherently worse than any other of the many reactionary movements and regimes that are now being buttered up by imperialism as partners against them.
Recall that Al Qaeda, who a decade or so were the baddest of the bad, are now condemning some of the ‘excesses’ of Islamic State as ‘un-Islamic’. This shows is that such radical fervour, which has complex ideological roots and which is partly driven by an antipathy to imperialist oppression, eventually cools down, and is not stable. In time this will happen to Islamic State also. Communists cannot simply moralise about the brutality of such forces, the ‘radicalism’ that indulges in terrible actions like beheadings.
While it is right to condemn these acts against those who suffer such killings, many more have died equally brutal deaths, or worse: slow, lingering and agonising deaths, at the hands of the imperialists. Over a million died in Iraq since 2003, as well as over half-a-million Iraqi children through sanctions before 2003. Not to mention the 1991 war, where hundreds of thousands died, and numerous wars waged previously by the West’s allies, particularly Israel, but also Saddam Hussein when he was the West’s ally, and further back, the Shah’s bloody rule in Iran.
The brutal nature of these acts is a substitute for real radicalism and a strategy for liberation. It is trying to make up for the lack of a coherent direction with ‘the propaganda of the deed’. The drawing of radicalised youth, who are currently being demonised as monsters by imperialism, behind a revolutionary strategy that really can defeat the imperialists, would completely undercut the basis for such acts that will ultimately destroy those who carry them out.
Lack of imperialist strategy
The eruption of Islamic State was a sign of the lack of a coherent imperialist strategy in the region. They do not seem to know what they are doing, they stagger from one disaster to another and are unable to make durable alliances with client states that would provide them with a real means of domination by proxy. It is rather unusual for Great Powers to be so crippled in their ability to find stable clients. Yet there are no regimes in the region that would have any principled objection to becoming their allies and clients. There is little democratic space for the hostility from below to imperialism that expresses itself these days in Latin America, for example. In other parts of the world, the US has worked hard to develop client relationships with countries such as Thailand, The Philippines, India, Colombia, even where other coherent forces stand in its way.But in the Middle East, stable client relationships with states that have some kind of moral authority, elude them. Why?
They do have one apparently stable client in the region: Israel, itself a relatively minor imperialist state on a world scale, but a major imperialist power in the Middle East. This is actually key to understanding their difficulties: such is the nature of the US alliance with Israel that it has tangled them up in insoluble contradictions. It is more than just an alliance. Rationally, great powers need regional clients that can sew up a region for themselves. But any powerful client of the US in the Arab world would immediately appear as a threat to Israel’s shaky presence in the Middle East, built on land seized from the Palestinian Arabs, which as well as being a nation in their own right, are part of the broader Arab national movement, which also has a reality in mass consciousness.
The problem for the US is that Israel has a hammerlock on US foreign policy through an ethnocentric tie, based on common Jewish nationalist politics (Zionism), between the Israeli ruling class and a strategically important section of the US ruling class. And it is in Israeli interest that any state in the region not subservient to Israeli interests, which means tacitly approving of Israel seizing land from the Arabs, must be demolished. Hence potential US allies which are not simply dictatorships hated by the masses, and who are not prepared to be servile to Israel (as are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the petty Gulf oil Sheikdoms) have been demolished, or threatened with such, by the US.
Perfidious America and Israel
Iraq under Saddam Hussein was earlier such a US ally that it was able to get away with the ‘accidental’ destruction of a US warship, the USS Stark, in 1988. The US turned a blind eye and wrote it off as a mere mishap. The only other country that has been able to get away with such things is Israel, with the sinking of the USS Liberty during the 1967 war, which was hushed up likewise. Yet within a year or two, it dawned on the Zionist faction in the US ruling class that Iraq’s status as a burgeoning US client threatened Israel with a potent, powerful Arab competitor in the region, which would not be supine to Israel like Egypt under Sadat and Mubarak. Saddam needed to be crushed like Nasser before him.
But the political conditions did not exist for Israel to do the job, and Saddam in any case had acquired some serious weaponry, supplied by the West for use against Iran in the Gulf War, which made war with Israel alone very risky indeed. Something else needed to be engineered. Hence the contrived dispute with Kuwait, a minor US puppet oil-statelet, and the virtual green light by the US through its ambassador April Glaspie, to Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. Once the invasion happened, like Perfidious Albion of old, the US, acting as Israel’s enforcer, changed its tack dramatically, and put together an international coalition, including even Syria, to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and cripple it militarily, which they duly did.
The subsequent history of forcible Iraqi disarmament, genocidal sanctions, and lies about WMD, culminating in the conquest of Iraq by the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ in 2003 is well-known. As is the subsequent history of machinations for war against Syria, the exploitation of the Arab Spring to engineer the invasion of Libya and the killing of Qadaafi, and the decade-long campaign of sanctions and war threats against Iran. All these were done in Israel’s interests: there is no reason, otherwise, why the US could not be in a client relationship with the Islamic Republic as it is with, say, Colombia or India.
The regime’s conservative religious ideology, its sometimes neo-liberal economics, and its base of support, seem to make it an ideal ally. Instead it is frozen out and threatened with sanctions and war because it is a powerful rival to Israel. The US has even flirted with inciting a sectarian Sunni-Shia war against it, which backfired with the rise of the Sunni sectarian Islamic State. Now those states that were in the forefront of this incitement, notably Saudi Arabia, are in the forefront of the campaign to crush Islamic State, contradicting the earlier incitement.
This is not a coherent imperialist policy. For communists and partisans of the struggle against imperialist domination, knowledge of the nature and dynamics of the US and Western relationship with Israel is extremely important. This can spring surprises on the peoples of the Middle East, as happened with Iraq and Kuwait. But anti-imperialists too can learn to exploit the contradictions and irrationalities of this very ‘special’ relationship. The rise of Islamic State certainly shows how this can backfire. There will be other opportunities for the left to defeat them in this way. The enemies of imperialism need to break with the vulgar pro-imperialist prejudice that says that recognising this relationship exists is in some way anti-Jewish, to be able to exploit this phenomenon which exists in the real world, against our class enemies.