It is disappointing that many comments on the current situation in Iraq and Syria, including many made by those in the ‘peace movement’ and ‘the left’ ignore the suffering of the people who live there. There is a lot of talk about did Assad gas his own people? is it part of the plan to weaken Iran, oil pipelines, who funds ISIS etc. It is important not to loose sight of what this should be about – people being terrorised by religious fanatics, people and essential infrastructure – food and energy supplies being bombed. While the ‘pawns’ in where the ‘game’ that is being currently played by the regimes in Syria, Iraq, UK, USA, Iran, Russia etc are on the sharp end of this we are also ‘pawns’. They use the ‘threat’ that they were instrumental in creating to try to get us to support actions that are nothing to do with ‘humanitarian intervention’ or stopping possible terrorist threats to the people of this country – it is about them furthering their own ends.
ISIS needs to threat of western intervention in the area to maintain their support as much as the regimes in US/UK need ISIS to further their goals in the area.
Having said all of that it is important to look ‘behind the scenes’ at some of the things that have happened so I would just like to make a few points.
North West Iraq
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Shia dominated government there has been continued unrest in many Sunni areas where people feel that they have been politically and economically disadvantaged. The unrest led to the setting up of special units within the Iraqi police which carried out torture and death squad activities similar to counter insurgency activities used in El Salvador. The units where equipped and advised by the US1.
ISIS which was then just ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’ began to get involved in the Sunni rebellion. However, the some local Sunni fighters disapproved of the ‘foreign fighters’ hardline attitudes and tactic. This led to the formation of the ‘Sunni Awakening Movement’ (also know as the ‘Anbar’s Awakening’, ‘Sons of Iraq’…) who stopped their campaign against the coalition forces and fought against Al-Qaeda in Iraq eventually pushing them out of Iraq and into Syria. The Awakening Movement was armed and funded by the US Military. They made a significant contribution to the 90% drop in the sectarian violence in the area. It was planned to integrate these forces into the Iraqi Military, however this never happened2,3. Some of the Awakening leaders where later imprisoned or executed4.
Unrest in Sunni area increased in late 2012 and a protest camp was set up in “Pride and Dignity Square” in Ramadi. The protest quickly spread to other Sunni provinces. Near a protest site in Huwija a soldier was shot. The camp was encircled by the army for several days before a SWAT team moved in to clear the site and 44 protestors were killed5.
Several groups were involved in the protests – including former Awakening Movement members, Baathists and also ISIS supporters. However, many Sunni leaders and the Anbar Tribal Council supported the Iraqi government’s military action against ISIS. However, president Maliki accused the protest camps of being ISIS headquarters. Several raids against people seen as the ‘protest leaders’ were made, martial law was imposed and the protest camp in Ramadi was bulldozed. In response armed groups confronted the curfew by force5.
The tribal leaders who only a few weeks previous had supported military action against ISIS now worked with ISIS to fend off what they saw as the government attacks on the Sunnis.
The relationship between the Baathist regime in Syria is complex6. The Syrian regime was aware that following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were people in the US who had Syria next on the list7. The Syrian regime therefore actively supported jihadists entering Iraq to fight the occupation forces8. As with many other governments the Syrians were not adverse to supporting the Jihadists as long as they were causing problems in another country.
Inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 a civil uprising occurred in Syria which was brutally repressed by the Syrian regime. This allowed ISIS to regroup in the west of Syria where they later re-expanded back into Iraq.
Although the media talk about ISIS controlled areas it is important to look at this in context – first of all have a look at a population density map of the relavant parts of Syria and Iraq – they ‘control’ a lot of nothing. As made clear above they are not working in a vacuum and large parts of Iraq are controlled by local Sunnis with some ISIS presence.
What ISIS do provide is some connection between the various areas which are controlled by local militia. They also provide medical facilities and distribute food – something that wins support for other groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
1 From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads, The Independent 2013 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/06/el-salvador-iraq-police-squads-washington)
2 Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, International Crisis Group, August 2013 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/iraq/144-make-or-break-iraq-s-sunnis-and-the-state.aspx?utm_source=iraq-report&utm_medium=1&utm_campaign=mremail)
3 Who’s to blame for Iraq crisis, CNN, 12 June 2014 (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/12/opinion/pregent-harvey-northern-iraq-collapse/?c=&page=0)
4 Iraq Sentences Sunni Leader to Death, The New York Times, November 2009 (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/world/middleeast/20iraq.html?_r=0)
5 Maliki’s Anbar Blunder, Foreign Policy, 15 January 2014 (http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/01/15/maliki_s_anbar_blunder)
6 Suspects into Collaborators, Peter Neumann, London Review of Books, 15 April 2014 (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n07/peter-neumann/suspects-into-collaborators)
7 General Wesley Clark (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RC1Mepk_Sw)
8 Syria Condemns Unprecedented US Cross-Border Strike, CNS News, 26 October 2008 (https://cnsnews.com/news/article/syria-condemns-unprecedented-us-cross-border-strike)