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How did the sectarian nightmare come true in Syria and Iraq?

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Issue 2417
Islamic State fighters
Islamic State fighters

What led to the emergence of the Islamic State group?

People in the Middle East have suffered enormously from poverty, oppression and Western imperialism. With the retreat of the left in recent decades many looked at political Islam as an alternative.

But this is a broad and varied category—and both the US war on Iraq and the revolutions across the Arab world have changed the political agenda.

On the one hand there are mass organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah and Hamas. These recruit and organise ordinary people on a political agenda, even if they organise militarily as well.

In contrast, a group such as Al Qaida builds on political ideas, but without building a popular movement among ordinary people.

Like the Narodniks in 19th century Russia, it is a terrorist organisation in a traditional sense with the aim of destabilising the enemy.

Particularly since the occupation of Iraq, groups that merge these two traditions are growing. They adopt terrorist tactics at the same time as recruiting people politically.

Isis—the group that later became the Islamic State—and others such as Jabhat al-Nusra are examples of this.


How did groups such as Isis overtake other forms of political Islam?

The revolutions were full of contradictions.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced a terrible defeat after going into government and working with the regime. In Tunisia, An-Nahda had to retreat into opposition. Many of those looking to Sunni political Islam started to turn away from these established groups, as they weren’t able to deliver.

This allowed factional groups to emerge as a hardline alternative. Very organised, with funding and a clear programme, they were more attractive especially to the most radicalised militants. 

Meanwhile Shia political Islam was on the offensive, with support from Iran.  Lebanon’s Hizbollah has intervened from a very sectarian perspective to defend the dictatorship in Syria against the revolution. In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s government has led a wide offensive on Sunni areas.

Such factors combined with a continuing destruction of the social fabric in Iraq and Syria. This is down to both regimes’ heavy repressive and sectarian policies, and a bloody history of imperialism and regional interferences. 

This provided groups like Isis both a political momentum and a sectarian purpose. They also fed on the heavy destabilisation of Al Qaida’s bureaucratic structure.


Where did all their money come from?

Many forces are involved, from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to local and regional businessmen and possibly the US itself.

Funding for Islamist groups is always a very twisted affair. One group can get backing from somewhere, only to merge or get taken over by another—along with its money and arms. Their funding structures change and transform in relation to political or strategic shifts.

The CIA is involved in every country in the region. And the story of the West backing Osama bin Laden only for him to become their worst enemy has many echoes.

It’s not unusual for people who have passed through contact with the CIA later to pop up and become Islamist leaders. The Islamic State also gains arms and money with territorial possession. And now of course it also gets revenue from selling oil it controls.

Particularly in Syria, Isis was a product of local militias and groups consolidating into one powerful organisation.

This is very attractive to warlords and much of the petty bourgeoisie thrown up by the war, who need to control the streets where they operate. 


How did the Syrian revolution come to this?

The influence of Isis reflects the militarisation of the revolt from very early on. Bashar al-Assad’s regime unleashed horrible repression, and created the conditions for a civil war.

That regime is now emptied of any political substance. It has completely lost credibility on the ground, and is ruling purely by scaring people into obedience and helplessness.

Many of the Syrian activists and civilians who were part of early political protests are either in regime prisons or outside Syria as refugees. Others are in liberated areas, drained of resources from having to fend off both Isis and regime forces.

Syria has been emptied to polarise the fight between one threat and another, pushing back and fragmenting much of the mass movement—and that helped Isis. 


Was there an alternative to this degeneration?

There was, but you need to consider the broader context to see it.

When the revolution in Egypt started, there were protests in support of it all over the Arab World. But the small mobilisations we helped organise in Beirut were the only ones in support of the Syrian revolution.

At the same time, there is a history of deep segregation between the Syrian working class and the Lebanese working class, and there have been no political parties in Syria for the last 40 years.

Much of the wider left opposed the Syrian revolution. 

Hizbollah and others argued that the revolutions were only happening against regimes which collaborate with imperialism—and that the Syrian regime wasn’t like that. As if the revolutions weren’t also connected to economic crisis, repression and so on.

They closed down breathing space for the Syrian revolutionaries to propagate their politics or to build solidarity. So the Syrian revolution was besieged and isolated. Without that isolation, its degeneration into an armed conflict was never a given. 

Lebanon and Syria are interconnected. You cannot see a sustained movement in one without the other. 

You also need unity and solidarity between movements in the countries of the region. They cannot be limited only within national boundaries.


Can anything be done to stop the Islamic State?

The only way you defend yourself against forces like this is to organise people in a way that fends off sectarianism.

Sectarianism is a tactic used by the ruling class to attack the revolution. It has the potential to become a very organic culture, which just fuels itself into more and more killings.  

In 1990 Beirut was completely segregated between Christians and Muslims. But over ten years there was more intermixing.

By the 2000s, the potential to create a general aggressive culture of sectarianism was more limited because of common living and common experiences. Social movements developed and created links, and a space to organise against sectarianism.

In 2011, we marched into working class areas where sectarian militias occupied the streets. Families came from their homes and joined the demonstrations, because we used anti-sectarian slogans that spoke about their real worries and demands. 

You’re fending off the sectarian militias from controlling the area they are in geographically or psychologically. 

In Iraq it is harder because  the social and political decay left by the occupation led to fiercer segregation in mixed areas. But the left needs to intervene to create a real alternative and shift new generations from getting recruited by sectarian parties. 


What effect does US intervention have?

The US is on the defensive and trying to protect its own interests in Iraq. An intervention will inflame the situation and prolong the conflict. 

The Islamic State exists because of a lack of revolutionary politics. A movement from below which fends off the regime and fills the vacuum the Islamic State is currently filling could win people away from it.

You can point to Isis as being part of the counter-revolutionary forces which criminalise revolution. The line of struggle against both the regime and against these reactionaries becomes clearer.

But when imperialists intervene it gives structures like Isis more favourable conditions.

It galvanises regional rivalries which allows the further spreading of factional conflicts. This fragments the masses and besieges the working class in a war-driven economy.

And it limits the possibility of building political movements and mass mobilisations which offer the only real alternative against these sectarian forces.

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