Today an armed Islamist force of “no more than 7,000 men” has swept across huge chunks of Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi army, built up over years by the most powerful military force on Earth, the USA, has crumbled before it despite numbering in the tens of thousands.
It looks partly like a re-run of the Syria crisis of last Autumn, when the US ruling class agonized between its desire to step up action in Syria, its own lack of self-confidence, and the complete opposition of the majority of people in the US. Obama has firmly ruled out “boots on the ground” but wants some kind of military intervention. Will it be drone strikes, missiles or bombs, or will the US ruling class confine itself to its usual dirty trick of quietly arming and training some gang of murderers?
Inside of a twelve-month period, very similar “to intervene or not to intervene” crises have engulfed world politics – first Syria, then Ukraine, now Iraq. The agony of the masses – exploited or unemployed, oppressed by brutal states, nationalities denied self-government – and the complete inability of the capitalist class to solve these problems, because as a class they can’t look beyond lining their own pockets, has led to a horrible situation of national and religious warfare.
The Arab Spring opened a crack through which we could see a future beyond religious war and imperialism. But it has reached a point characterised by obstacles and colossal problems. Why? In Tunisia, which has a strong trade-union movement, things have remained more on-track than in Egypt or Syria. This is because the idea and the reality of working-class unity can cut across religious and national division, and keep the struggle focused on the real enemy. The idea of a socialist alternative, in which the main sources of wealth are democratically owned and controlled by working-class people, offers a way out to the masses. The Communist Party and trade union leadership in Syria disgracefully tail-ended the Assad government rather than offering any kind of independent working-class pole of attraction to people.
By contrast, the idea of subjecting a country to some anachronistic vision of Islam can only mobilise a minority because it’s not a very convincing or concrete solution to the pressing problems people have. This minority can make gains in conditions where the majority are depressed and despondent, and where the establishment and the powers-that-be have nothing to offer but poverty and oppression. This is clearly what’s going on in Iraq right now.
But there’s a little more going on in Iraq that’s worth noting. This could be the partition of Iraq which has been talked about now for eight years, or it could at least be a harbinger of it. These arbitrarily-drawn borders in the Middle East are coming under intense strain. In a few years or decades, the name “Iraq” could hit our ears as some quaint old-fashioned name that older people still use sometimes by mistake, like Zaire or Yugoslavia or East/West Germany. Iranian intervention in the Shiite areas of Iraq is extremely interesting.
The mainstream media, while there is a strain of criticism for the Iraqi government of Al-Maliki (that its has persecuted Sunnis and been useless in the face of the present crisis) ignores what is possibly the most important point here. Obama can stand up before the world and shamelessly say: “We have enormous interests [in Iraq], and obviously our troops and the American people and the American taxpayers made huge investments and sacrifices in order to give the Iraqis the opportunity to chart a better course, a better destiny.”
Let’s talk about one of those “investments.” In 2004, with rebellion shaking every corner of Iraq, the US occupation brought in some of the mass-murderers who trained the far-right death squads in Latin America in the 1980s. Their mission: to train up Shiites in anti-Sunni death squads. Sectarian warfare and divide-and-rule imperialism was the “better course,” the “better destiny” that Obama is referring to.
Imperialism, authoritarian strongmen like Assad, and religious division offer no way out to the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. What is needed urgently are revolutionary socialist organisations willing and able to act independently of and against these forces, and a strong working-class movement organised in communities and workplaces. This is the next step forward for the process begun in 2010-11 with the Arab Spring. It has been widely forgotten what role Iraq itself played in the Arab Spring, with inspiring demonstrations and the prospect of a class rather than sectarian politics.