Islamic State: Permanent war in the Middle East

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The Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq presents a huge problem for the imperialists, right at the heart of one of the world’s most resource rich regions. Through decades of war and manipulation the US, Britain, France and other imperialist powers have created the social, economic and sectarian conditions for the rise of IS. Every state in the region has been shaped by its relationship to the imperialist system. But the crisis of the system is accelerating. Contradictions are throwing themselves up in the path of imperialist strategy. Reacting to new obstacles the imperialists are creating yet more problems – for their own interests and for the people of the region. Having let IS grow to challenge the Syrian government and Iran’s growing influence, NATO powers have created a fundamentalist monster they can neither control nor destroy. They were forced to take action when IS posed a threat to their oil interests in Iraq. Now they are left fighting an expensive and difficult war in Iraq and Syria, with a lack of commitment from regional allies and threats to their economic hegemony on the horizon. Toby Harbertson reports.

On 15 October the US military officially named their war in Iraq and Syria ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’. This is intended to send a message to the world that the US will commit to a long-term military presence. Other NATO powers are supporting the US, alongside local allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, and the UAE, as well as southern imperialist tag-alongs Australia and New Zealand. The US was initially keen for local allies to commit ground forces to the offensive, but none were forthcoming as many countries are hedging their bets on the future balance of power.

The US ruling class is also split on the scale of the intervention and is as yet unwilling to escalate open attacks on the Syrian state. Divisions with Turkey emerged – they will support anything that could bring down the Syrian government, even IS. Saudi Arabia does not have a problem with IS either – it has no time for democracy or women’s rights, and has carried out 59 beheadings in 2014 so far. It continues to fuel jihadist groups in Syria, keen to bring down the secular government and weaken its Shia rival, Iran. Along with Qatar, it needs a clear route for gas pipelines from the Persian Gulf to Europe via Syria. This would reduce European reliance on Russian gas and sabotage an agreed pipeline from Iran – important objectives for NATO.

Russia is attempting to restart peace talks. With President Bashar Assad in a position of relative strength, peace would mean work could begin on the Iranian pipeline. Whilst Syria is at war it cannot, but for the imperialists and the Gulf states any peace must come with a government in Damascus which is willing to make alternative deals. General John Allen, US envoy for the Coalition, summarises NATO’s long-term objective: ‘Eventually, of course, our policy intent for the US is that there be a political outcome in Syria that does not include Bashar Assad’ (ABC, 21 November). The imperialists are united with their local allies on the need to get rid of the Syrian government. What they disagree on is the reliability of IS as a partner for their plans.

Rearming Iraq

Fourteen countries are bombing Iraq. This includes RAF Reaper drones controlled from Lincolnshire. These strikes are having an effect on IS. The Baiji oil refinery was retaken from IS by the Iraqi military on 18 November, potentially marking the beginning of a reversal for IS in Iraq. The government of Nouri Al Maliki, Iraq’s ex-Prime Minister, marginalised Sunnis in Iraq and created a social base of support for IS. It is these areas of Anbar province, western Iraq, in which the Iraqi army, aided by imperialist advisers and weapons, is fighting. NATO delayed any action against IS until the Baghdad government made the necessary concessions. Iran gained influence in Iraq since Maliki came to power. Following the IS advance in June 2014, Iran immediately came to the aid of the Iraqi government with advisers, weapons, and Shia militias. However, the US forced Maliki to step down to limit Iranian influence, break support for Syria, and allow the US military free reign in Iraq. The US has suggested that in the key battle to retake Mosul, its troops could play an open combat role. Maliki has declared that the US is using IS as a pretext for keeping a military presence in the region.

Iraq’s army was rebuilt by the US and its partners at the cost of at least $24bn after the 2003 invasion. This did not stop it collapsing in the face of a much smaller IS force in June 2014. However, the US and Britain have seized on this new opportunity to rebuild the Iraqi army as a strong regional proxy, directed and trained by their own forces, and armed by their arms companies. This is necessary to protect the oil producing Kurdish Regional Government and other oil interests in Iraq, as well as threatening Iran and Russia. On 8 November, Barack Obama announced the deployment of 1,500 military ‘advisers’ to Iraq, bringing US troop levels to over 3,000. British soldiers are being sent back to Iraq for the first time since 2011 to train Iraqi forces. The White House has asked Congress for an additional $5.6bn for the war, with $1.6bn of this to train and equip Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

According to US military spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon has provided Iraq with $650m worth of ammunition and small arms this year. It has delivered 1,900 Hellfire missiles, with a further sale of 5,000 announced in July. US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin must be rubbing its hands. Other US deliveries include 19,896 rockets for helicopters and thousands of machine guns, grenades, sniper and assault rifles. A $600m sale of armour-piercing tank rounds is also planned. To manage its significant interests in Iraq, the US embassy in Baghdad is the largest in the world – larger than Vatican City. It cost $750m to build, and employs 15,000 people.

Undermining Syria

The bombing of Syria has so far been on a smaller scale than in Iraq, with the US, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE carrying out strikes. Any attempt to destroy IS solely with air power is doomed to failure. Strategists have talked of IS hiding amongst civilians. US-led air-strikes on Syria have targeted IS leaders, oil refineries, and military vehicles, but have also deepened the desperation of local inhabitants. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights strikes have so far killed 865 people, including 50 civilians (12 November). IS has no shortage of fighters, with jihadists joining them from all around the world. Civilian deaths from US bombs also increase sympathy with IS. At Mandbij, near Aleppo, on 28 September US bombs destroyed grain silos, killing only civilians. Strikes on oil infrastructure have ‘destroyed much of the civilian oil reserves as well.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October). Energy for heating and eating is out of the reach of many people in eastern Syria as the winter begins.

Air-strikes in Syria have led to an influx of new recruits to IS and alliances or truces declared by other rebel groups. The strikes have also targeted the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra (JN). Whilst IS and JN were once engaged in widespread power struggles, increasingly they have been working together. On 2 November leaders from IS and JN and other jihadist groups, met to discuss a full truce and co-operation against other rebel groups and the Syrian government. Groups which the imperialist powers have labelled ‘moderate’, such as Harakat Hazm, have defected to IS or JN, taking their US weapons with them. Abu Talha, a defector from the Free Syrian Army to IS explained to The Guardian: ‘Large brigades in Idlib, Aleppo, Derra, Qalamoun and south Damascus have pledged loyalty to Isis [IS] in secret’ (23 November). US attempts to train and arm thousands of ‘moderate’ rebels with Turkey, Qatar and others, are accelerating, but so far the attempts to build a strong force to fight IS and Assad have failed or backfired.

The ongoing war and sanctions are destroying Syria’s economy as intended. GDP has contracted by 40%, and imports and exports have been reduced by 90%. Income from oil production – once a major source of income – is now almost zero due to sanctions and the loss of oil fields. IS income from oil sales is estimated at $2m a day. The government has cut subsidies on necessities, resulting in the price of bread increasing by 70%, the prices of rice and sugar doubling, and massive increases in water and electricity prices. The sanctions are aimed to increase domestic opposition, but their main results have been starving the population and increasing the flood of refugees. Only huge financial support from Russia and Iran has kept Syria going. Iran provided $4.6bn in credit last year for the government to buy wheat and energy. Russia has offered up to $327m this year.

NATO is reacting to new obstacles with more war, money, arms and manipulation. More militarism will create more obstacles and chaos. They will be driven to permanent war as they scramble for dominance in an increasingly multi-polar world. The Syrian government has asked Russia to accelerate the delivery of an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to prepare for a NATO military offensive (Al-Akhbar, 6 November). Russia is considering another loan of $1bn. Permanent war may not remain confined to the Middle East.

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