Socialist Worker

Syria—who lit the fire?

Western politicians claim that they’ve launched a war in Syria to fight a “fascist” threat posed by the reactionary group Isis. Socialist Worker looks at what’s really behind the rise of Isis—and why bombing will only inflame the chaos caused by Western imperialism

Issue No. 2483

What is Isis and where did it come from?

Isis is a thoroughly reactionary and sectarian outfit. It has grown through its successful military resistance—but its sectarian nature means it is incapable of defeating imperialism.

Isis mirrors the environment that produced it—the US-led war and occupation of Iraq and the Syrian regime’s counter-revolution.

Western imperialism has inflicted horrors on a whole different level to Isis.

Its wars and sanctions in the 1990s and 2000s in Iraq have killed two million Iraqis.

In 2003 the US shelled the Iraqi city Fallujah with white phosphorus chemical weapons and tortured civilians.

To face down a national resistance movement, the US turned Shias and Sunnis against one another.

It supported sectarian Shia politicians, who quickly consolidated their position using nepotism and corruption.

This created the space in which Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), Isis’s forerunner, could grow.

But its sectarian attacks alienated other Sunni organisations so the US promised Sunni groups “power sharing” in exchange for crushing it.

It never fulfilled this promise and kept Sunnis out of Iraqi politics.

There was a chance that this sectarianism could be overcome when the ripples of the Egyptian revolution reached Iraq in 2012.

But the advance of counter revolution after 2013 eliminated hope of a revolutionary alternative.

While AQI was beaten in Iraq, it was able to cross the border and regroup in Syria.

In response to the Syrian revolution Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a sectarian civil war.

Isis was able to become the dominant faction and crossed the border back into Iraq.

Is Isis a fascist movement?

Fascism is based on mobilising large layers of the “petty bourgeoisie”—small-time capitalists—in a mass movement to destroy the working class’s ability to fight.

European fascist movements arose in response to revolutions that swept Europe after 1918.

Labour warmonger Hilary Benn argued during last week’s parliamentary debate that “we” are “faced by fascists”.

But while Isis is violent and reactionary, it isn’t fascist.

It isn’t trying to build a mass social movement to smash the working class.

This isn’t new. Politicians often talk of a “new Hitler” or invoke the idea of fascism to drum up support for wars.

Isis is an armed faction that emerged in the context of a civil war.

It operates as an army that claims state authority, rather than as a political movement with an armed wing.

This context is significantly different to the one that European fascist movements arose in—and the context that today’s fascists operate in.

Decades of war, sanctions and occupation in Iraq lay behind the political success of Isis.

Iraqi society was smashed during those decades and Syrian society has been uprooted by civil war.

What’s more, bomber Benn is not some principled anti-fascist. His speech was aimed at soothing the consciences of Labour MPs so they would vote for war.

Why were some of Britain’s rulers so keen to bomb Syria?

Since the collapse of the British Empire, Britian’s rulers have sought to preserve a global role by hanging onto the coat tails of the US.

David Cameron was humiliated when he lost a parliamentary vote to bomb Syria in 2013.

He has been determined ever since to prove his imperialist credentials and keep Britain’s place at the top table.

Imperialist powers have been eyeing Syria and Lebanon since they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during the First World War, Britain and France looked to divide the spoils between them in the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The carve-up saw France take control of Syria and Lebanon, while Britain occupied Palestine, Iraq and Jordan.

But even as they haggled over the small print with France, British officials were encouraging Arab nobles to revolt against the Ottomans.

In 1920 French troops crushed the Arab king Faisal al-Hashimi’s bid for Syrian independence.

He was hastily packed off to Baghdad by the British to become king of Iraq.

The new war in Syria is not based on what impact Britain’s tiny air force will have.

It’s about proving Britain’s usefulness to the US ruling class and protecting its interests.

If Isis is so barbaric it must be bombed, why isn’t Britain targeting Saudi Arabia?

Isis beheads opponents, oppresses women and instils fear in populations under its rule through brutal acts of public violence.

Our rulers say Isis must be bombed because it is such a barbaric force.

But many of these things also apply to Saudi Arabia.

So why is Saudi dictatorship an ally, not an enemy, of the British government?

Saudi Arabia is supporting at least some of the jihadist factions that are fighting in Iraq and Syria.

It has used the civil war in Syria to extend its regional influence and weaken its great rival Iran.

All West’s hypocritical talk of supporting democracy in the Middle East is exposed by the very close alliances that the US, Britain and France maintain with the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia’s importance as a secure source of oil has increased as the Middle East has grown more unstable because of the West’s imperialist wars.

The Gulf States have also developed into an important centre of global capitalism.

They invest heavily in the advanced capitalist countries and the rest of the Middle East.

Along with United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, Saudi rulers have acted as a bulwark against revolution.

They have helped to crush uprisings and restore dictatorial regimes across the region.

The Saudi National Guard invaded neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 to stop a revolution there.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait between them pledged

£8 billion to fund Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s counter-revolution.

The West won’t be bombing them any time soon.

Who is Bashar al?Assad?

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000.

His ruling Ba’ath party was founded in the radical atmosphere when France was booted out after the Second World War.

It represented a section of the middle class that wanted Syria to develop into a modern capitalist state.

The Syrian Ba’athists came to power in a coup in 1963.

They combined anti-imperialist rhetoric and support for Palestinian guerrilla groups with state capitalist policies to develop their national economy.

Israel—the West’s watchdog in the region—occupied Syria’s Golan Heights as part of its decisive victory in the 1967 Six Day War.

This defeat and Syria’s failed military intervention into Jordan in 1970 caused a political crisis.

Another coup that year placed Hafez al-Assad’s military wing of the Ba’ath firmly in control.

The Ba’athist regime has used severe repression against any resistance.

When the town of Hama rose up in 1982 the military butchered tens of thousands of people.

The regime joined the US invasion of Iraq in 1991 as it wanted to realign itself with the West.

Despite continuing state repression the West cheered Bashar al-Assad as a reformer.

After 9/11 the US even outsourced torture to Syria as part of its rendition programme.

When Syria was blamed for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 the US imposed sanctions on Syria.

It accused the Ba’athists of aiding the Iraqi resistance.

Syria is Russia’s main ally in the region.

The war in Syria emerged from a genuine popular revolution that swept the country in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Assad’s sectarian civil war has helped to preserve his regime.

But he’s lost control of large swathes of the country as rival imperialist powers jockey for position.

Won’t the West’s bombs help the Kurds?

The plight of the Kurds has been used as justification for Western intervention.

And some on the left argue we should support Britain arming them against Isis.

But if Kurdish resistance groups become imperialist pawns in the spiralling conflict, only Western imperialism will benefit.

The Kurds were one of the main losers in the imperialist carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.

They were denied the right to self-determination and scattered between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

They have been fighting for Kurdish liberation ever since. Socialists support this struggle.

The Assad regime abandoned the Kurdish areas in the north when it launched the civil war.

The YPG group—affiliated to the Turkish Kurdish PKK—took control of them and is fighting fierce battles to defend those areas from Isis.

Kurdish fighters in Syria have proved to be the US’s most effective military ally.

So when Turkey’s warplanes started targeting them in the summer, its Nato allies complained.

But Turkey has no interest in seeing the Kurds grow in strength.

It has fought a guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists for a decade. And it is determined to deny the Kurds autonomy or independence.

The US has attempted to make sure the Kurds in northern Iraq are strong enough to help US interests, but too weak to threaten Turkey.

The Kurds once again risk being victims of manoeuvres between imperialist powers and local ruling classes, as they were a century ago.



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