Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State - the shifting balance of power in the Middle East

The Islamic State (IS) made international headlines in May with the capture of the important city of Ramadi in Iraq and the historical site of Palmyra in Syria. Despite a ten-month bombing campaign led by the US, the group now controls 50% of Syria, and 30% of Iraq. US imperialism has been unwilling to commit the resources - including ground troops - required to destroy IS. The military priorities of US imperialism are shifting to Russia and China. US imperialism cannot continue to play the role of an unchallenged superpower. Local powers are now taking centre stage in the war, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side - in a tacit alliance with IS - and Syria, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah on the other.

Contradictions in US strategy

The long-term strategy of the US and its allies has been to publicly support Syrian opposition groups in their fight against the Assad government, whilst publicly preaching 'national unity' for Iraq, under a pliant government. Contradictions in this strategy were thrown open by the reality on the ground.

The recent declassification of a US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) document has revealed that US intelligence understood the jihadist nature of the Syrian opposition long before it became public knowledge. The document confirms that in August 2012, US intelligence knew:

  • of the sectarian nature of the Syrian opposition;
  • that Al Qaeda in Iraq (later to become IS) was a major driving force of the war in Syria from the beginning;
  • there would be a declaration of an ‘Islamic State’ across Syria and Iraq – two years before it happened;
  • that the Iraqi Sunni cities of Ramadi and Mosul would become bases for jihadist forces.

Despite this information, the US continued to encourage the situation, publicly denying that jihadists had influence in Syrian opposition groups, whilst giving them money and guns.

Iraq - the threat of division

The DIA also predicted that Iraq would be partitioned into Sunni and Shia states. Despite US talk of 'national unity', its actions in both Syria and Iraq have made the partition of Iraq an increasing possibility. Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, was captured by a force of around 200 IS soldiers on 17 May. The much larger Iraqi army force - around 2,000 - collapsed and fled. That such a small IS force could take Ramadi exposes the huge damage done to Iraq by the US, Britain, and other coalition partners following the murderous 2003 occupation. The secular nationalist Ba'ath party which ruled Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, had kept together a national identity and strong state structures. The ‘de-Ba’athification’ process led by the imperialist occupation forces - the complete dismantling of state structures (including the army) in order to get rid of any Ba'ath influence –– is behind the collapse of the Iraqi army. The sectarian civil war and repressive Shia-led government which followed, paved the way for the rise of IS.

IS has relied upon widespread Sunni dissatisfaction with exclusion under the Shia-led government, as well as the brutal suppression of dissent. Shia militias have recently been given licence by the government to fight in the mainly Sunni Anbar province, in the battle to retake Ramadi. Despite the need for some accommodation with Iran, the US ruling class is uneasy with Iran's influence over these militias, and plans to arm local Sunni militias are in progress. This could heighten the possibility of another sectarian civil war.

Syria: Turkey and Saudi Arabia sponsor Al Qaeda

Whilst the US attempts to accommodate Iran (see article on Yemen p.x) US regional allies are making their own moves to destroy Iranian influence - starting with the Syrian government. Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed in early May to arm and fund a new rebel initiative – Jaysh Al Fatah (JF) - with the focus on destroying the Syrian government, not IS. The majority of this force is loyal to Al Qaeda-linked groups – 90% is made up from Jabhat Al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and Ahrar Al Sham, whose leader has declared himself a senior Al Qaeda operative (Middle East Eye, 23 May). Renewed fighting on the northern front, around Idlib, led by JF, has stretched the Syrian army allowing IS victories elsewhere. JF and its backers have plans to take Aleppo and create a new Sunni state in north-east Syria.

Turkey's opposition party, the CHP, has accused the government of arming jihadist rebels, in a long-running political scandal. On 19 January 2014 several trucks were stopped at the Turkish border. Personnel from the Turkish National Intelligence organisation (MIT) were found on board with weapons shipments bound for Syrian rebels. President Erdogan called the searching of the trucks ‘treason'. More than 50 people involved in searching the trucks have since been arrested. Much of the weaponry flowing from Turkey will end up in the hands of IS.

Inherent Resolve?

To really challenge IS the US would have to commit combat troops on the ground for a sustained period which it is unwilling to do. Instead, fighting IS has been outsourced to an unreliable mix of proxy forces, from the Iraqi army to various opposition groups in Syria.

In the ten months of 'Operation Inherent Resolve' - the US bombing campaign across Syria and Iraq - an average of 15 airstrikes per day have been launched, compared to 800 per day in the 2003 assault on Iraq, and 50 per day in the 2011 destruction of Libya (New York Times 26 May). No airstrikes were launched on the heavily-armed IS victory parade through Ramadi's open streets following its fall. The historical site of Palmyra in Syria, close to important government-held oil and gas fields, fell to IS without any airstrikes from the coalition at all. Strikes have been used to contain IS in largely Sunni areas of Iraq, and away from Kurdish areas, with little concern for expansion into territory held by the Syrian government.

Conflicts in the Middle East are becoming multi-polar, as more regional powers move into the space left by US imperialism. IS will not be destroyed by Turkey or Saudi Arabia while it serves their interests. The imperialists have proved unwilling, or unable, to destroy it. Resistance has been left to those who have troops on the ground and have an urgent interest in rooting out IS - the Syrian army, Hezbollah, Iraq’s Shia militias, Iran and the Kurds.

Toby Harbertson


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