The Western coalition attacks on Iraq and Syria will only build support for the Islamic State, argues Simon Assaf, as the movement has grown out of the persecution of Sunni Muslims in both countries.
The Coalition-led bombing campaign on Iraq and Syria is being sold as a desperate intervention to push back the Islamic State (IS also known as ISIS and ISIL. In Arabic it is known by its acronym Daesh). The battle for control over the Kurdish-majority Syrian city of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) is portrayed as a possible turning point in this war.
The Islamic State is a sectarian outfit that has emerged out of the defeat of the revolution in Syria and ongoing sectarian wars in Iraq. It is natural that many people would back any force that stands up to it, among them the Kurdish and Shia Muslim militias, Iraqi (and Iranian) forces as well as Western firepower.
The reasoning behind this new war is that Islamic State fighters could be destroyed, cutting off the head of the “global Jihadi movement” and paving the way for more moderate forces to fill the vacuum. Central to this idea is that they are “outsiders” who have imposed themselves on the Iraqis and Syrians.
Arab journalist Hassan Hassan has unpicked many of the misconceptions about the Islamic State. He notes that in Syria the IS does not rule directly but through local alliances, such as promoting younger members of tribes who were part of the March 2011 uprising against the elders who supported the regime. It has also co-opted many of the local organisations that grew out of the rebellion against the regime of Bashar Assad.
Hassan told Syria Deeply, “There are some rebel fighters who have signed an agreement with ISIS to either fight on the front lines or give up their weapons. The other option is that they can…operate in the police or municipality or just provide services, but they don’t have control over the areas.”
The IS has a similar set up in Iraq. It has made alliances with local forces, some of the tribes and much of the old state infrastructure. It is these people who are dying under Western air strikes; the group’s core members remain hidden and as yet untouched. Hassan points out that for many people living in IS-ruled areas, “the international action is viewed as a threat rather than a rescue.”
The Islamic State is also in competition with other global Jihadist organisations, such as Al-Qaeda. But this is a side-show. Although many “jihadis” have flocked to its flag, they represent a minority of its forces. The majority are locals with much to fear from the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. The Islamic State’s persecution of Shias and other religious communities is brutal, as are the gruesome executions, often for trivial offences. Its treatment of women and its murder of activists and those who criticise it mean that it cannot be a force for liberation.
But behind the headlines there is another story, that of the vicious sectarianism meted out against Sunni Muslims by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, and the US and Western forces before them. The Islamic State is a mirror to the forces ranged against it. It is the persecution and treatment of Sunni Muslims that drive its recruitment.
According to a report produced by Amnesty International in October 2014, the spate of attacks on Sunni Muslims in Iraq by Shia militias and government forces is the worst since the height of the sectarian war in 2006-7.
Kidnappings, reprisal killings and massacres, although little reported in the mainstream media, have pushed millions of Sunni Muslims to look to the Islamic State for some form of protection. There are frequent reports of “bodies hanging from lampposts” and mosque massacres in cities such as Samara and Baquba where Sunnis are a minority. Baghdad has already been effectively “cleansed” by Shia militias. Those who remain are at their mercy.
Human Rights Watch has detailed some 255 cases of Iraqi security forces and their allies executing Sunni prisoners; the actual figure is probably much higher. Following the terrible massacre of Shia conscripts by Islamic State fighters in June, hundreds of Sunni detainees were said to have been killed in revenge. Many of them had been rounded up by security forces during the peaceful protests of the brief Iraqi Spring.
In Iraq Obama put a great deal of emphasis on replacing the sectarian leader Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi, who is said to be more “acceptable” to the Sunnis. The US reasoning is that, with a few cosmetic reforms to the sectarian setup it imposed, the Iraqi state could win Sunni Muslims over and provoke them to take up arms against the Islamists. Instead the air campaign both sides of the old border is deepening support for the movement.
There are few “good guys” in the chaos produced by the invasion of Iraq and the sectarian war launched by Bashar Assad. Many people have looked to the Kurds as an acceptable counterweight to IS. The Kurds have a long and legitimate claim to their own country, and have been attempting to carve out self-governed areas as a defence against persecution and discrimination.
Yet the forces on the ground, whether the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq or groups such as the PKK and Syrian Kurdish forces in the PYD, have become tragically embroiled in these sectarian and ethnic battles.
An Amnesty International report from the ethnically mixed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, seized by the Peshmerga over the summer, shows how the Kurdish forces are becoming drawn into ethnic and sectarian strife:
“Kirkuk has become a frontline city, with Peshmerga forces and Shia militias, at times backed by Iranian fighters, battling IS fighters, [who are] supported by some local residents from Sunni Arab and Sunni Turkmen communities… While Shia militias are operating openly, and in cooperation with or at least with the tacit consent of Kurdish Peshmerga forces.”
Kobane has become a symbol of the tangled forces battling for Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish majority town fell to the PKK and its allies in the PYD during the Syrian uprising. But both organisations have played an ambiguous role in the rebellion. Turkey is happy to see the PKK suffer; the organisation grew out of a rebellion among its Kurdish minority and had managed to wring concessions out of the Turkish state. As the IS fighters strengthened their grip over the city Turkish troops blocked PKK reinforcements, provoking Kurdish protests across Turkey. When they finally allowed in fresh troops it was from among their Kurdish allies in Iraq.
The battle for Kobane does not represent the popular rebellion against IS, but a desperate rearguard action by Kurdish forces. As long as the Syrian revolution was advancing the Kurds were safe; now they are joining the list of those suffering from the counter-revolutions. The Syrian rebels also failed to offer any assurances to the Kurds, specifically their demands for some form of autonomy, and missed an opportunity to win over powerful allies. At times the Kurds opposed the regime, or proclaimed their neutrality, and at other times fought against Syrian rebels. The PKK was for many years backed by the Syrian regime as part of regional rivalry with Turkey. Now they are trapped between the Turkish state and the Islamic State and are forced to rely on US air power to hold their ground.
Kobane is also the killing fields for US air strikes. Hundreds of IS fighters are said to have perished in these strikes, causing it to withdraw many of its forces from other parts of Syria. But apart from Kurdish fighters with a few light weapons there are no ground troops to chase the Islamic State back to its strongholds. The pressure of this war can only mean that sooner or later Western troops will have to be deployed. The US strategy behind the bombing campaign is flawed and can only strengthen the Islamic State. Part of this is Barack Obama’s refusal to target Syrian regime forces, which have taken the opportunity to launch new offensives on rebel areas using upgraded supplies of modern weapons. And by targeting Jabhat al-Nusra, the fierce enemies of the Islamic State, as well as other mainstream rebel groups, the coalition is driving many Syrian fighters into the ranks of the Islamic State.
There is a contradiction at the heart of this Western coalition. Beyond general distaste for the Islamic State and the threat that it represents to global intertest in the region, there is little agreement on which force is capable of delivering a victory.
Turkey sees IS as a way of weakening the Kurdish struggle, yet fears for its substantial capital investments in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq; Saudi Arabia is resentful of Iranian influence in the Arab world; while Iran’s interests in Iraq are in direct opposition to the US, yet they are cooperating in the war against the Islamic State. It is a tangle of regional and imperial powers in which the Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds are all losers. Hiding behind the US military-speak of the “long campaign” to “degrading the enemy” is the systematic destruction of Syrian and Iraqi infrastructure, from workshops to oil processing facilities, water treatment plants to civilian rescue buildings.
The areas that once rebelled against the Assad regime are now reeling under Western bombs. The destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure in the 2003 invasion paved the way for the chaos that followed; the results in Syria will be the same.