- Created: Thursday, 09 October 2014 09:13
- Written by Toby Harbertson
Forces of the Islamic State (IS) now control around one third of the territory of both Iraq and Syria. The CIA suggests that they command around 30,000 armed militants. A fundamentalist, jihadist group, their attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, videos showing the beheading of US and British hostages, and reactionary practices towards women have all been well publicised by the ruling class media. The group is well armed, organised, and funded. They have been attracting recruits from all over the world. Fifteen years ago however, secular Ba’athist governments were in power in both Syria and Iraq, where the rights of religious minorities and women were safeguarded. These functioning states with modern infrastructure put neighbouring imperialist client states to shame. So how did a group like IS come to occupy such a strong position in the Middle East? Toby Harbertson looks at its roots.
The simple answer is the destructive interventions of imperialism – primarily US and British. The roots of jihadist fundamentalism can be traced back to the NATO campaign against the Soviet Union, known as the ‘Cold War’. In 1978 a progressive government took power in Afghanistan in the Saur Revolution. The new government quickly allied with the Soviet Union. In response, the CIA organised, trained and funded a jihadist insurgent group which called itself the Mujahideen. This support was stepped up as the Soviet Army entered Afghanistan to fight the insurgency in 1979. US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explained in 1998 that the US saw this as an ‘opportunity [to give] the Soviet Union its Vietnam War’. The Mujahideen kept the Soviet Union bogged down in an expensive and bloody war, until Soviet forces withdrew in 1989. These ten years of experience and imperialist support had created the nucleus of the subsequent jihadist movement. Not under direct imperialist control, these militants would not always serve the shifting needs of imperialism, instead fighting for their own fundamentalist, reactionary objectives. They would go on to become Al Qaeda, as well as members of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Different forms of this imperialist Frankenstein’s monster would be called upon to fight for imperialist objectives, as in Libya and Syria; others, in Afghanistan and Iraq, would form the pretext for, and target of, brutal imperialist interventions.
In the 2003 Iraq war, the imperialist ‘coalition of the willing’, led by the US and Britain, intended to destroy the Sadaam Hussein regime and install a pliable client regime to control Iraq. This was intended to facilitate the extraction of oil and gas by their energy companies, at the same time blocking potential rivals (China, Russia) from these resources. The imperialists failed to meet all these objectives.
By 2010, Iraq was devastated, with sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims ignited and with no functioning state. Up to a million people had been killed; three million made refugees. Militants from the Mujahideen took advantage – this was the cradle of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the forerunner of IS.
The imperialist war machine turned to Libya in March 2011, with similar consequences. Fundamentalist groups were given the ideal situations in which to operate and recruit, and the weapons and training they needed to become significant fighting forces. Many of the forces nurtured in Libya then joined the imperialist campaign against Syria from 2011.
The covert campaign to destroy the Assad government, led by the US, Britain, and France, with enthusiastic support from the Gulf ruling elites, contributed directly to the rise of IS. The imperialist countries were averse to committing their soldiers on the ground, and Russia and China were stepping up their opposition to NATO interventions, so a covert strategy was implemented. With the co-ordination and support of US, British, French, and regional intelligence agencies, anyone willing to take up arms to fight against Assad’s government was paid, trained and armed. AQI took advantage of the conditions, moving their base from Fallujah, in Iraq, to Raqqa, in eastern Syria, and declared themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS or ISIL – later IS.
The imperialists insisted that they were only supporting ‘moderate’ rebels, but these ‘moderates’ became irrelevant on the battlefield, with the Syrian opposition becoming dominated by jihadist groups such as Jahbat Al Nusra, Ahrar Al Sham, the Islamic Front, and IS. ‘Moderate’ groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, soon lost their weapons to their jihadist rivals, and the distinction between the groups became blurred.
Much of the direct funding and arming of the fundamentalists was directed by imperialism’s allies in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. IS is widely known to have been supported directly by the Gulf monarchies. On 20 August 2014 German Development Minister Mueller accused Qatar of financing IS before being reprimanded by his government. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has admitted that IS was among the rebel groups in Syria that received support from the US and Britain and a former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, claimed IS was established by Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who was tasked with destroying the Syrian government (The Independent, 16 July 2014). Alongside this support, a flow of private donations from Kuwait and elsewhere further strengthened IS.
Turkey, a member of NATO and key imperialist ally, has long supported and trained militants, allowing free passage across its border with Syria. This strategy is intended to support IS and other groups in order to destabilise the Syrian government as well as weaken Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
In June 2014, IS advanced from its base in Syria and took control of one third of Iraq. This threatened imperialism’s oil-rich client, the KRG. Weaponry and equipment given by the US to the Iraqi army was captured. The imperialists’ strategy had not destroyed Assad’s regime, but instead created a monster which they cannot control.
The imperialists have always been willing to ally with any reactionary force which helps them meet their strategic objectives. They have always been willing to turn on their former allies with cruise missiles and special forces. The current imperialist intervention in Syria and Iraq will not stop the influence of fundamentalist forces in the region or elsewhere. Instead it will throw up new contradictions and obstacles to imperialist objectives.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014