Iraq, The New Caliphate, IS and the Wider Imperialist Manoeuvres

Behind the ongoing Syrian crisis, another front has opened in the war-torn Middle East: the Iraqi one. After Mosul, the troops of Abu Bakr Ibrahim al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph and long-time jihadist, undisputed leader of Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have now won new positions in northern Iraq. He has gone beyond Zumar and taken the town of Sinjar and the oil fields of Ain ​​Zalah and Batma, close to the Syrian border where he already controls the eastern part of the country. Inside Syria, he has got his hands on the Shaer gas fields and Raqqa’s oil fields. This advance and its easy victories have inspired "the black caliph" to proclaim the birth of the Islamic State (IS) of Iraq and Syria. The territory has become "sacred", subject to the most intransigent interpretations of shariah. Politically ‘independent’, it is extremely aggressive towards surrounding Shia regimes. The coming into being of IS (Islamic state) could be the first step towards the (re)construction of the Caliphate whose boundaries would stretch from the Middle East to India passing through some parts of European Asia. The territorial conquests came so easily that not only was Nuri al-Maliki’s government surprised [the now former Iraqi Shia president, forced to resign after the defeat of his army and international political pressure], but also the administration in the Kurdish north of the country, just as Syrian President al-Assad had been surprised earlier.

If we retrace the story to the beginning of the millennium, at the time of the American attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the birth of a number of Sunni political- military organisations can be glimpsed – operating against the American presence and all the "apostate" Shia governments, up to and including that of al-Maliki. Amongst the organisations originally supported by local tribes and the first to be funded by the Gulf states, was Al Qaeda, the Iraqi branch of the one born in Afghanistan, under the "spiritual" and military guidance of Al Zarqawi. This is the Al Qaeda from which, under various successive names, the Isis of al Baghdadi would later be born.

Thus Al Baghdadi has not dropped from the sky like a meteor burning up everyone and everything. His arrival on the scene in the tragic Middle East theatre is also the result of a series of imperialist tensions and frictions which have now been running through the area for years, upsetting the whole political and economic set-up. Isis was born in Fallujah in Iraq in 2006, as a ‘crazy’ offshoot of Al Qaeda, three years after the US entry into Baghdad and the fall of Saddam Hussein. Having focussed the anger of hundreds before, it now attracted thousands of desperate people and controlled them via the usual nationalist-religious mechanism. For decades the various bourgeois factions fighting in the area have adopted religious ploys according to the political and economic particularities of their ambitions. Very often, if not always, this is under the ‘insignia’ of the local imperialism or in accordance with one or other of the various imperialist powers’ strategies for dominating energy. Thus, Al Baghdadi transformed a band of militants into an efficient army that has expanded into northern Iraq and eastern Syria, which has organisational offshoots in Lebanon and Jordan, and now in Algeria and Libya as well. All thanks to considerable military and financial support. It is even true, as pointed out by many observers, that the army of Islamic fanaticism has been strengthened and acquired cash during raids on villages and whilst cities are conquered. The most obvious example is after the conquest of Mosul when "the black Caliph" ordered the Central Bank of the city to be cleaned out as well as all branches within 50 kilometres. It is also true that the movement extracts oil in northern Syria and Iraq and brings it by trucks to market in Turkey. It has also profited militarily from the disintegration of the Iraqi army, taking over a substantial portion of its military supplies, including American tanks and heavy equipment. But, from the outset the bulk of the funding which has made Isis what it is in terms of organisation and political strength, has come from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, with a not insignificant contribution from the United States. The flow of money is difficult to quantify, but certainly enough to maintain an army and make it efficient and capable of being a dangerous loose cannon throughout the Middle East. America’s aim, when it gave its blessing to one side in this apparent Islamist ‘feud’, was to use its – not always reliable – allies against Syria in an attempt to undermine the viability of the ports of Tartus and Latakia and thus weaken Russia’s role in the Mediterranean, even though this meant plunging into a sea of risks and contradictions. The regime in Riyadh has, of course, always denied being one of the sources of funding and support for various terrorist groups in the Middle-East. It has maintained the same stance against Isis, but beyond the window-dressing statements, there has been intense activity on the part of the Wahabi kingdom, which has been particularly "generous" in terms of funding. The manager and prime mover of the whole operation which lasted for years was Bandar bin Sultan: head of the Saudi Secret Service, ambassador to the United States continuously from 1983 to 2005, on top of his role as high ranking politician entrusted with the most delicate international relations with various US governments at the same time as maintaining stable relations with representatives of the Republican Party. Bin Sultan collected funds from Saudi princes devoted to the Islamist cause. Large sums were allocated to fictitious companies that were owned by the government in Riyadh. The loot was diverted to the coffers of Kuwaiti and Emirate banks which are outside international money-laundering laws. From there it was relatively easy to find the "secret" way to finance al Nusra in Syria and Isis in Iraq. Typically these financial operations have been supported by the pro-active Senator McCain and his colleague Lindsey Graham, who had the task of checking the flow of money, contributing to its "collection" if it was judged necessary by American Intelligence. The same goes for Qatar, although the methods for collecting and strategic reasons for funding were different, if not opposed to the Saudi political logic. The governments of Riyadh and Doha have paid out tens of millions of dollars for Isis so that it is now capable of unleashing in Syria and Iraq and further worsening the situation in the Middle Eastern region. To date, it is believed that the financial assets of Isis amount to no less than two billion dollars. The reason for such magnanimity towards Al Baghdadi on the part of Saudi Arabia & Company is their mission, especially from the regime in Riyadh, to fight Assad's Syria, to weaken Iraq's al-Maliki, in order to get rid of hostile opponents and extend its own supremacy in the area. The prospect is that future friendly governments will enable them to control Middle East oil flows towards the Mediterranean and the east. Within this frame the number one enemy of Riyadh, its religious and oil antagonist par excellence is: Iran. Saudi waving of the Sunni religious flag against "heretic" Shiites, Iraqis, Iranians, or Alawites, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is nothing more than the religious instrument used to fight their own battle for imperialist supremacy ­­­­­– oil, financial and political ­– throughout the area extending from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea, including the Kurdish zones of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Like other jihadi groups, Isis is (was) nothing but an instrument in the hands of the Saudi Wahabi monarchy. Its destabilising actions are in line with the imperialist logic of Riyadh against Tehran and Damascus, and its military and political power remained useful to get results within that logic. So when Isis attempted to act on its own and go outside this logic, the imperialist balance of power in the region took another direction, as current events in Iraq and Syria are making clear. When the ambitions of the neo-Caliphate come up against Saudi hegemonic strategies and America’s imperial needs, the terms of this whole issue, including funding, have been completely overturned.

On the other hand, it is the same story with President Rohani’s "new course" for Iran except the other way round. Tehran flies the flag of Shi'ism exactly as Saudi Arabia does with Sunnism. Both are very aware that the trap of religion, with its devastating corollary of militant fundamentalism, is useful for their imperialist interests. And they do not spare aid, funding and political backing for military creatures who are invented out of nothing or who are nurtured beneath their protective mantle. Just as Saudi Arabia encouraged the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda, and more recently Isis in Iraq and Syria, so the regimes that have alternated in power in Iran have supported organisations such as Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon and other sects of Shiite persuasion. Iran’s objectives: 1) Get out of the isolation into which Iran was plunged after Khomeini's revolution. 2) Establish a set of economic, trade and political relations with 'similar' countries. 3) Present itself as a rival to Saudi Arabia in terms of oil exports. 4) Encourage the emergence of regimes that are in its own image and likeness, as well as politically subordinate. 5) Defend, even by force, countries like Iraq and Syria which are currently the subject of Isis – and therefore Riyadh’s – military attention.

This is not to overlook the fact that inevitably, it is the great imperialist powers who pull the strings inside and on the edge of this tangled web. They are the same powers who for decades have transformed these lands and their inhabitants into theatres for tragedies as they pursue their vital economic and strategic interests.

Changing Course: ISIS is No Longer Useful. Everyone Against Al Baghdadi

When the puppeteers lose control of the puppets things get complicated. The puppets can retaliate with some spiteful reproaches, in this case in the form of bombs and air raids. The tragic live television images of the beheading of Western hostages by IS (Islamic State) gave a golden opportunity to the former patrons and financiers of Al Baghdadi, to "redeem themselves" and start to punish their former ally. Or rather, they are now trying to weaken the lethal instrument they employed so shortly before and which has now sensationally escaped from their control. On September 11, 2014, President Obama launched a "crusade" against IS, calling it a terrorist organisation, dedicated to social crime, nothing more than a group of head hunters which should be erased from the face of the earth as a serious threat to both the Western world and the Muslim world itself. He took care not to mention previous reports, as if they never existed, or as if they no longer concerned him and his, now weak, administration. The American appeal evoked the support of France, England, Italy and some other European countries, plus ten states in the Middle East, including, "surprisingly" Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. They have all keenly come together but each has their own goals to achieve or defend. How is it that there is so much cause for concern from the former godfathers of the Isis? Why such an ‘about turn’ in strategy?

The first element to consider is the decision by Isis to go it alone, to escape from the protection of those who had been financing it, in an attempt to become the pole of attraction for the Sunni and wider Islamic world. Standing against Western corruption and false Muslims, the aim is to directly manage the rich booty in energy that the Middle East provides for economies of half the world, a booty still partly hidden in the form of deposits yet to be put into operation. At this stage, i.e. with the formal birth of the Islamic State, things got complicated for the United States as well as other countries in the area. As long as Al Baghdadi served as a spoiler against the enemies of Washington, Riyadh and Doha, everything was fine. Once the black Caliph started to take a different path, the attitude of the patrons totally changed. For Riyadh IS oil manoeuvres with Iran and Turkey could absolutely not be tolerated, just as it was not part of its plans that the newborn state would have the ambition to stand as a beacon of the Sunni faith, thus undermining Saudi predominance. As for Qatar, Al Baghdadi’s decision not to support the candidacy of Doha for the World Cup in 2022 reverberated very badly. Not that Al Baghdadi ­– head of a state that does not really exist, that has no boundaries and that is not recognised by any country, much less, by any international organisation ­– matters in the business of world football (contracts, commercial deals, sponsors and so on), but because his refusal was the alarming demonstration to Doha that could no longer count on his loyalty, despite all the loans. Not only that, but the birth of the Islamic State has highlighted a series of frictions amongst the Gulf states, further widening their imperialist paths. ‘War’ has broken out between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE over the question of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The previous Emir of Qatar, Khalifa al Thani had placed all his bets on Morsi with his ‘business proposition’ of the century: 100 billion dollars for a hundred years of administration of the Egyptian artistic heritage. Egypt would have immediately cashed in a large amount of financial capital to revive the asphyxiated economy of the country, Qatar would have had the opportunity to ‘productively’ invest a substantial part of its financial surplus resulting from its gas revenues. For Saudi Arabia and its faithful Emirates, the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organisation to be fought by all means and they have unreservedly supported the Egyptian army and its new leader Sisi, including the expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood from the government. Speaking of terrorists, Doha accuses Riyadh of being the most significant financier of the IS, while the Saudis have twisted the accusation towards the Qataris. Needless to say, both vigorously deny the allegations. Not surprisingly Al Maliki, former Iraqi president, has accused both of being responsible for the creation of Isis and the problems of his government. Meanwhile the United States, the prime agent and coordinator of it all, is silent and has abandoned the picture which until recently it used to paint in defence of ISIS. Typical contradictions of imperialism.

Sunni and US imperialists are thus having sleepless nights over a state which, although yet to come into being and without any clear economic and institutional definition, no one ever sought to promote. Now it has escaped the control of those who, unwittingly, contributed to its birth in one of the world’s most critical regions. The situation has immediately created acute friction amongst the ranks of former Isis supporters further rupturing the relationship of the imperialist parties in an already precarious balance of power. Indeed, it has reopened old wounds in the Islamic world, and has revived the Kurdish question from Syria to Iraq as well as Turkey. It has undermined old alliances, fostered the emergence of new ones and, above all, continually disturbed the delicate regional energy picture that, for at least two decades, has given rise to one war after another.

Talking of oil, the arrival of IS on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan has alarmed the entire cast in this latest episode of imperialist barbarity. Since the days of Saddam Hussein 60% of Iraqi oil is produced in the Kurdish zone. Major international oil companies including American ones operate there taking advantage, first of former President Bush's declared "no fly zone" before a Kurdish Administration was formed, and then under the leadership of the pro-American government of Massoud Barzani. The operation was to protect American interests and make the government of al-Maliki, who was too keen to establish good energy relations with Iran, toe the line. In fact, it opened a dispute over the exploitation and marketing of oil between the Kurdish Administration in the north of Iraq and the Baghdad government. And this is one of the reasons why, initially, American intelligence gave money and a free hand to IS as an anti-Iraqi as well as anti-Assad force. But IS has approached too close to Kurdistan and endangered the fragile balance so painfully achieved. In addition it brings in the delicate question of Turkey. Even though the government in Ankara, has adhered to the American request to mobilise, even with weapons, against the army of the “Black Caliph”, it has serious reservations about supporting military training for Barzani’s Kurdish peshmerga. To weep for the "old communism" of the PKK and to defend the new from the Ankara's current persecution forgets that the followers of Ocalan preach a national road to socialism, and continue to be political heirs of Stalinism, or rather of the counterrevolution in the USSR. That Ocalan and the PKK have been converted, as informed observers of Kurdish affairs tell us, to a kind of democratic anarchism, does not alter the issue. Recent events in Kobani have questioned the "peace agreement" of 2009 between the Turkish government and the new PKK, stoking the national question regardless of the ideological direction of Ocalan and company.

Support for "nationalism" in Kurdish Iraq would throw open a dangerous door to the Kurds at home, something the Turkish government wants to avoid at all costs. This makes the relationships within an alliance of convenience even more complicated. Their only common denominator is to get rid of a former client who has become disagreeable, but underneath there is no common purpose or shared interests to pursue. The only certainty is that IS has set in motion contradictory imperialist tensions which apparently were, and are, moving in unison.

Above all there is the oil question itself. The advance of the “Black Caliph’s” troops and the move towards an Islamic state are not only occurring in an area of strategic importance, but it secures the ownership and operation of major deposits of oil and gas in the conquered territories in both Syria and Iraq, as well as threatening those of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to many analysts, IS could have a daily income of $3m through trade on the black market of "its" oil and "its" gas. Based on sales figures, $1.2m is made daily from the market in Syrian deposits, and $1.8m from Iraqi oil sales. Oil and gas, going through Turkey, arrive all over the world in small amounts, including Iran. Thus a "net domestic product" of about a billion a year, at the moment, enables IS to cope with military spending and a small "welfare state" to handle the occupied territories and placate the population. Plus it has two billion dollars available in liquid finance. For the moment that is enough to cope with the sudden drying up of finance from their former allies. What further worries the governments – in Riyadh over oil and Doha over gas – is the unfair competition of the new Islamic state. When IS began to sell "its" oil on the international market the cost of a barrel was estimated at around $103-105. On the black market the price charged by IS fixers ranged between $18 and $40 a barrel which seriously harmed and alarmed an Arab world tied to oil revenues. For example, Saudi Arabia in the person of King Abdullah did take all possible measures via his Secret Services, to prevent the followers of the "Black Caliph" from any ideological and organisational penetration in the Holy Land of Islam and moved some thirty thousand troops to the border with Iraq. These soldiers will probably never operate on enemy territory, but they might be a significant deterrent to the new enemies of Riyadh. Qatar, which has an imperialist specific gravity much lighter than the Saudis, is limited to ex-communicating the Caliph’s followers by means of the theologian, Yusuf al-Qaradawi who, from the mirabs (pulpits of mosques) of Doha, pronounced anathema against those who violate the law of the Koran by committing all kinds of crimes in the name of Allah.

Towards a Preliminary Conclusion

The US, supported by just about every country in the Middle East headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, despite their conflicting aims, plus the support of Britain, France and Australia and the Gulf states, has performed a complete somersault and regrouped them all with absolute ease. This sends a clear message to the monster they have created and which "liberated itself" through a series of disasters which the Coalition is now trying to remedy. After the conquest of Mosul, after taking control of a major dam on the River Tigris near the same city and the seizing of some oil wells and gas fields by Isis, the United States has seen fit to intervene militarily by bombing the military positions of Al Baghdadi. Initially, the official excuse was to provide humanitarian support to refugees, especially Christians, to help with the distribution of food and water, which is very useful for Obama’s image with the American public given his current weakness in the polls. Then we come to a "war which is not a war" based on bombing but without sending one man, at least for the moment, to the conflict zone, leaving the "dirty work" of defending and conquering territory to the Kurdish Peshmerga against the army of IS threatening the city of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's oil and all the energy gains achieved by international imperialism so far. Meanwhile, Turkey is preparing, or rather, may be ready to intervene with its army but on two conditions. The first is Erdogan’s demand that the Coalition does not support the Kurdish troops of Masoud Barzani, and does not support Syrian Kurdish nationalism to avoid any risk of awakening the PKK at home. The second sounds like blackmail. He calls for a war on the ground against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and against the new Iraqi government if it continues its policy of energy cooperation with Iran as it did under the previous regime of Al Maliki. In this way Ankara has passed from words to (in)action. It did not lift a finger when the IS army besieged the Syrian city of Kobani, a few miles from its border.

Erdogan’s tanks have not moved and the Kurds have been left to look after themselves against the military superiority of the "black militia". In addition he has urged Obama to intervene heavily in Syria and “advised” him not to limit support and funding for the opposition Syrian Revolutionary Front, but to take direct action against the regime of Al-Assad. Then, and only then, would Turkish willingness to combat IS become operational. At the same time, having to crush the anger of 15 million Turkish Kurds, thousands of whom have demonstrated in Istanbul and other major cities of Turkey, leaving behind thirty dead, Erdogan promised to consider the possibility of provisional release for the historic leader of the PKK, Ocalan. Even Iran's "new leadership" has entered this archipelago of contortions, of reversals in the face of overt and covert blackmail, and false promises between the various actors in the imperialist drama. The new President Rohani said he was willing to support the war effort against IS terrorism on condition that the United States would consider the possibility of cancelling the embargo against Iran, otherwise any act of war against Iraq and Syria would be regarded by Tehran as a violation of international law. On the opposing imperialist front Russia and China continue to stand by Syria, quietly but anxiously supporting any contortions by Iran and its offshoot fighters in the various hotspots in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, because they all have the same strategic objective. What they share is the need to control and market energy but directed towards the east, towards China and the Asian markets. in the meantime however, the game is being played out now in the Middle East. In the midst of all this the capitalist barbarism of proxy war, civil wars, the "revolutions" of a religious nature, the "restorations", whether secular or vice versa, are growing enormously. The contortions of a capitalist world, which, in addition to producing hunger and misery through its economic crisis, is a source of atrocities and death in the four corners of the world through its devastating wars. To survive itself, in an attempt to manage its irreconcilable economic and social contradictions, it can only become more and more evil, aggressive, destructive to the environment that surrounds us, and a ferocious killer of entire populations who, despite everyhting, have to live in areas of economic and strategic significance.

Above all we must not forget that behind these regional "games", behind the banners of the opposing claims of religious fundamentalism or secular democratic freedoms, those who serve as cannon fodder for this or that oil bourgeoisie, for this or that imperialist interest, are always the working class, the dispossessed, who, without a political revolution, inevitably end up falling into the usual tragic trap, in the interest of the class enemy. The first step in getting out of the trap is to not make the usual mistake of taking sides, as it is now the habit with certain of the "left", both here and internationally. To be “for” or “against” leads to fatal mistakes. To be “for” the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad against the United States, just because it is attacked and is the weakest in terms of imperialist relations is one. To stand with the Coalition, led by the United States against IS because the latter are "brutal and ugly" throat-cutting barbarians, forgetting the crimes members of the Coalition have violently committed against the population is another. To support the Iraqi peshmerga because they are defending themselves from the aggression of the same cut-throat gang, failing to mention the fact that the latter are fighting for a slice of the oil revenues and the former are defending them as well as they can in the name of their own bourgeoisie and its national oil interests is one more. In addition, this hides the tragic fact that both are, or have been, the instruments of domination and control in the interests of large and small energy imperialisms throughout the region. To invoke the right to self-determination of peoples claiming not to know that, in the era of the domination of finance capital, the most complete phase of globalisation, imperialist power relations dictate what goes and there is no room for any nationalist claim unless it is useful for imperialism itself. In Iraqi Kurdistan too Massoud Barzani is the product of American interests in the most important part of the Iraqi oil industry. To defend the "communism" of the PKK from the persecution of Ankara forgetting that Ocalan’s followers preach a national road to socialism, that they are an offspring of Stalinism and the counter-revolution in the USSR, is still another. Whether Ocalan has been converted, as informed observers of Kurdish affairs tell us, to a kind of democratic anarchism does not alter the issue much. It is an appeal to the Kurdish question on the usual bourgeois nationalist terrain, as always invoking the self-determination of people, even if democratic and progressive, perhaps with a socialist adjective thrown in, as in the case of the Kurdish enclave in Syrian Rojava. Giving up in advance any attempt to build a revolutionary perspective is genuine class suicide. By dint of choosing which camp to belong to or the object of their alliances, this "left" which, in some cases likes to call itself “revolutionary”, does nothing but oscillate between the interests of one bourgeoisie and another, running from one imperialist pole to the other, never addressing the problem of the political revival of the whole of the proletariat in a revolutionary perspective involving a social as well as a political alternative.

For decades, millions of proletarians in these wretched territories have paid the price firsthand for these oil wars in defence of the interests of the different bourgeoisies and their imperialist backers, who are always looking for business, whether in terms of energy or not, for their own oil companies. And for decades Palestinian nationalism has clashed with Israeli nationalism. For too many years Palestinians workers have been fighting against those of Tel Aviv, both sides only playing the game of their own bourgeoisie. And for a lot longer Kurdish workers have been fighting against the governments of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq on behalf of the nationalist ambitions of their own bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie, in turn, has had to find an international "sponsor" to combine its national bourgeois interests with a compliant imperialism. The tragedy of the Arab proletariat, of the Middle East and Africa, is tied to this context of nationalist demands, of capitalist greed and imperialist barbarism. The long and arduous process of political recomposition of the proletariat, will either break the nationalist mould into which the national bourgeoisie and certain leftists continue to force it, by starting to give itself a programme, an autonomy in struggle, and a political organisation that is coherently able to express all this, or the workers will remain the same old "cannon fodder" that the various nationalisms and imperialisms will use for their own purposes. Otherwise it will be the mixture as before. For now it is to defeat Islamist terrorism, another time it will be better to support something "progressive" rather than more conservative. Still another because there's "democracy" to defend from the attacks of secular fascists or Islamists whoever they are, and that they themselves create and destroy, depending on circumstance and tactical convenience. Even these perverse mechanisms are an example of a political recomposition of the proletariat but, unfortunately, on the terrain of perennial preservation of a bourgeoisie which is ever adept at involving its class enemy within schemes that are useful for its continued class domination.


October 12, 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Prometeo - Ricerche e battaglie della rivoluzione socialista. Rivista semestrale (giugno e dicembre) fondata nel 1946.