Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State

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The desperate plight of tens of thousands of Yazidi people stranded for the past week and a half on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq, having fled their homes in the nearby city, has focussed the world’s attention on what has been happening in that region.
 
Threats of airstrikes from U.S. president Barack Obama in a region where U.S. intervention in such recent memory has already been responsible for the killing of up to a million people and the injuring and displacement of many more causes alarm bells to ring in the minds of all who care about a fair and just world.  This is further exacerbated by the knowledge that it is the stoking of sectarian tensions as a result of U.S. policy in Iraq that is largely responsible for the emergence of the fundamentalist and ultra-reactionary Islamic State organisation.
 
Getting a clear picture of exactly what is happening in the area of Syria and Iraq in which the Islamic State (the group previously known as ISIS) have recently established a new state called the Islamic Caliphate is very difficult.  There are stories, reports and rumours of massacres (including reports of hundreds of people being buried alive), abductions, torture and displacement of tens of thousands of people.  Many of these stories are true, some are rumour, some are exaggeration but sifting through them, it is almost impossible to separate fact from rumour or exaggeration.
 
One thing is for certain – there is currently no good news story emerging from the region, and the fallout from the sectarian carve-up of Iraq seems likely to get a whole lot worse in the short term.
 
Anti-Assad protests
ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), as it was then known, first emerged from the chaos that was the anti-Assad protest movement in Syria.  When the protests first broke out in March 2011, they consisted of mass popular peaceful uprisings which took their inspiration from the anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt.  These protests were brutally repressed by Assad’s forces.  Syrian army soldiers who refused to fire on peaceful protestors mutinied and formed the Free Syrian Army.
 
Regional Sunni monarchies took advantage of the protests and the fact that thousands of Sunnis were being tortured in Assad’s prisons to stir up sectarian divisions, and it was from this sectarian fundamentalism that the ultra-reactionary ISIS emerged.  Economic and political discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis in the years since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime meant that it quickly garnered support on the Iraqi side of the border too.
 
The Syrian Civil War has claimed 160,000 lives in the past 3 and a half years with huge parts of the country destroyed and an estimated 9 million people displaced from their homes.  The war and destruction in Syria continues but the Islamic State have managed to gain control over up to a third of the country.  They established the headquarters or capital of the Islamic Caliphate in the Syrian city of Raqqa in March 2013.
 
Iraq
It was only when Islamic State moved into Iraq in a real way, however, that the world began to sit up and take notice.  In June the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit were overrun by IS forces, and weapons and military vehicles which had been supplied by the U.S. to the Iraqi army were seized.  Within the space of a couple of weeks an area larger than Britain and home to more than 6 million people has been established as the Islamic Caliphate, with its frontiers expanding on a weekly basis.
 
Abu Bakr Al Balghadi has been installed as the Islamic State leader or “the prince of the faithful” as he is referred to.  Sharia law has been imposed and groups of armed men known as Hisbah (which translates as guarding against infringements) patrol the streets imposing everything from dress codes to alcohol bans to business and trading rules.  There are reports of those found guilty of theft having their hands chopped off, and even reports of opponents of IS being beheaded and crucified.
 
Non-muslims have been given the ‘choice’ of converting to the Islamic State's version of Islam or paying a non-muslim tax.  Those who refuse face execution.  Unsurprisingly many have fled in face of the IS advance, with up to 30,000 Christians reported to have fled Mosul alone.
 
Shi’ite muslims have also found themselves under attack, with reports of Shi’ite mosques being attacked.  The Iraqi army, the strong arm of outgoing president Nuri Kemal Al-Maliki, is dominated by Shi’ites and many Sunnis found themselves oppressed by its sectarian approach to law enforcement over recent years.  Many saw the arrival of IS as the chance for revenge.
 
Yazidis
This then is the political climate and background which has led to tens of thousands of Yazidi people fleeing Sinjar city in Northern Iraq into the nearby mountain.  The Yazidis, a people already well used to discrimination, faced a stark choice – flee or stay to face certain massacre.  In terms of a humanitarian crisis, this is huge as people are left stranded without food, water or shelter on the side of a mountain in baking temperatures.
 
The response to this humanitarian crisis and attempts at ethnic cleansing has been pathetically poor.  On top of that, the U.S. airstrikes and threatened further intervention will inevitably result in the deaths of even more civilians.
 
Understand
Without in any way intending to give support of any sort to Islamic State, it is important that we try to understand where this organisation has come from, and how and why it seems to have such a bedrock of support.  It appears that one of the principal reasons for such support is that IS is imposing a system of ‘law and order’ which in comparison to what has existed in the region over the past number of years appears ‘fair’ and seems to bring a degree of stability.
 
Looking at it from the relative comfort of the West, to describe what is happening as in any way ‘fair’ or ‘stable’ at first reckoning seems crazy.  But when we consider the horror and chaos that people have lived through for the past couple of decades or more, it is possible to see why a group promising stability could garner support.  The situation should perhaps be compared to that in Afghanistan at the time of the Taliban.  Many aspects of what go on are horrific, but what has gone before was also often horrific, and more unpredictable.
 
Into this mix we must also add the fact that what we see in our media and what gets reported in the West is selective.  The brutal patriarchal rules that are imposed by what are seen as ‘our enemies’ (i.e. Islamic fundamentalism) are laid before us but similarly brutal patriarchal rules imposed by those seen as ‘friends of the West’ are not exposed to our view.  There is, for example, very little difference between what IS is trying to impose and what is seen as the ‘rule of law’ in Saudi Arabia.
 
When we look at pictures of beheadings and crucifixions, and especially see the way in which IS fighters seem to revel in gory killings, we should of course rightly be horrified.  But if we want to understand why this is happening – why people are doing this and why they seem to have a degree of support - we have to move past the concept that is so often thrown at us through our media and political ‘analysis’ that portrays the peoples of the region as some strange 'other' forever manipulated by irrational emotions and sinister rulers. 
 
We have to take into account that these horrors are happening in places that have seen brutal organised mass murder for the past 20+ years.  It is well documented that as far back as the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. buried alive huge numbers of Iraqi troops who wished to surrender and were in trench systems that were bulldozed.  In addition, U.S. troops burned alive thousands or tens of thousands of Iraqi troops retreating down the highway from Kuwait.
 
Fallujah
It is probably far from coincidental that one of the places that IS emerged from is Fallujah, a city on which the U.S. army launched 3 brutal assaults, each considerably more ferocious than the recent Israeli assault against Gaza.  It is such ‘interventions’ and the unleashing of such military brutality on civilians that create the conditions which lead to the emergence of groups such as IS.  Long term warfare has the impact of escalating brutality as the horrific becomes routine and so new horrors are invented.  If you've seen family members burned alive by white phosphorus in Fallujah then beheading enemy prisoners probably looks quick & humane.  The idea that U.S. intervention now can be part of the solution, when it was those  interventions and their brutality that created the conditions from which further brutality emerged is clearly preposterous.
 
In a region with huge poverty and wealth disparity, the crude wealth re-distribution (administered through one of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat – charitable giving) which IS practices obviously makes them popular with the poor, as does their setting up of a system of arbitration for resolving disputes between neighbours.  This fits into a pattern seen elsewhere where Islamist organisations though providing basic charity are able to build a popular base in places where previous regimes were only interested in syphoning bribes off (witness the enormous wealth the US fed into Iraq that vanished into the pockets of the elite).
 
As I said at the outset of the article, there appears to be no good news emanating from the region.  All that can be said is that the idea that the U.S. will ‘fight terrorism’ and protect the Iraqi people given the previous history of U.S. intervention is laughable.  It is incumbent on us though to try to understand what is happening and not to buy either crude right-wing Islamophobic (‘sure what would you expect from there?) caricatures or ‘liberal’ responses that see the people of the region as victims in need of western intervention to save them.
 
Those of us that care about working for a fair and just society should oppose any U.S. intervention but the question that really faces us is what we can do in a practical way to further understanding of what is happening and ultimately to help halt the advance of sectarian fundamentalism and to provide a humanitarian response to the ethnic cleansing and barbarity of the IS forces.

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