Don’t Bomb Mosul: The Reasons Why


American planes bombing Ramadi in October, 2015

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

An assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul by the United States, Iran, the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces and Shiah militias looks imminent. We can expect massive bloodshed and the destruction of most of the city.

Mosul is now held by ISIS. Different estimates suggest that between 600,000 and 1,500,000 people are still in the city. In the last year Iraqi and Iranian forces backed by the US bombs have retaken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS. In both cases, the whole city was flattened by American bombs, and almost all the people became refugees. Those two cities remain destroyed, and almost empty.

Because ISIS holds Mosul, every reactionary power in the world will welcome the bombing. On present form, almost the whole of the European and North American left will do nothing to protest the bombing, and many leftists will support the assault.

The position of most of the left makes us sick at heart. Do Muslim deaths not matter?

Mosul is another Aleppo, on an even larger scale. It is also the sequel to Aleppo. Because the Russians and Assad have been able to do whatever they want to Aleppo, the Americans are confident of doing the same to Mosul. Iranian military forces have been fighting alongside the Russians in Aleppo, and they are fighting alongside the Americans in Mosul. Russia and America have divided bombing the region between them. Russia bombs secular and Islamist resistance groups in Syria, and America bombs ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq.

However, many people who campaigned for many years against American wars in the Middle East have now changed their minds. For many on the left, the black flags of Al-Qaeda are a greater enemy than American bombers. We do not feel the same way.

This article will give the case against American bombing of Mosul. To understand our case, we need to present the history in some detail. We will argue that what America has done in Iraq since 1980 has wrecked far more destruction than ISIS has. Indeed, the scale of American destruction and the shape of American policy are the central reasons why so many Sunni Arab Iraqis have rallied to the support of ISIS.

We are being told that a tiny minority of ISIS fighters have trapped the population of Mosul, and are using them as a human shield. Unfortunately, civilians and children will be killed in the crossfire. This is what we have been told about Aleppo too. And before that we were told the Palestinians use children as human shields. Believe it again if you want to.

The truth is that many Sunni Arab people in Iraq have supported ISIS. Other people will be trapped, unsure and torn.

We write as socialists and feminists. We do not believe that it is possible to win people away from right wing ideas by burning their homes, massacring them, and bombing their children. Mosul may be destroyed. But the survivors, and millions of other people across the region, will not forget, nor forgive. Bombing Mosul will is not a solution to a slowly growing global civil war. It will be one more cause of that war.

The rest of this article is taken from an earlier post on this site:


This section explains who the Islamic State are, why the Americans are bombing Islamic State held areas in Iraq and Syria, and why foreign fighters have flocked to join Islamic State.

We start with a contradiction. First, there is the matter of class. The Palestinian Abdel Bari Atwan, a wise and honest print and digital journalist, puts it this way:

With most of the world’s media carrying an agenda with regard to IS – whether the conservative Arab nations’ campaign against it or Islamic State’s increasingly slick proselytising – it is difficult to get any sort of true picture of public opinion. I have therefore tried to find out for myself. In recent travels throughout the Middle East, I have talked to hundreds of people, from ‘ordinary’ men on the street to government officials and top politicians. I have also engaged in online conversations with everyone from key players to ‘ordinary’ residents within Islamic State. Arab governments are, without exception, entirely opposed to Islamic State, from whom they have much to fear. Among the people, however, my impression is that opinion is polarised. The liberal middle classes are violently opposed to a fundamentalist group that seeks to restrict their freedoms and impose the burqa on their women; for the first time there is widespread support among this class for a Western military intervention to prevent the further expansion, and ultimately destroy, Islamic State (many I spoke to had previously demonstrated against Western actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya). Where there is sympathy, on the other hand, it is characterised by vigorous enthusiasm and appears to be more widespread than support for Al Qa-ida, even in its heyday…         Members of a third group are more guarded about their opinions but, one surmises, secretly celebrate the ‘achievements’ of Islamic State. If it were to come to a town near them, I deduce they would not oppose it.[41]

In short, all the governments of the Middle East and the global empires see the Islamic State as the enemy. So too do many people who think of themselves as progressive or liberal members of the middle class. Typically, these people are educated, affluent and close to the ruling class because of their connection with the state and state bureaucracies. In Iraq opinion is split among ordinary people like workers and small farmers. But a proportion of them support Islamic State fervently, and another large proportion passively. This is a class polarisation, across the region in general.

Second, however, many ‘ordinary’ people in particular places have found themselves in bitter opposition to Islamic State. The Afghan Taliban, for instance, now find themselves at odds with the Islamic State and fighting them in the eastern part of that country. Large parts of the Syrian resistance have found themselves at war with Islamic State, and so have Kurds, Yazidis and Shias in Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State is a dictatorship whose leaders rule with a cruelty similar to the methods and massacres of other regimes in the region. Islamic State also have a great deal of support. Large numbers of people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, but also from many other countries, are prepared to die, and to kill, for them.

In what follows we try to explain all three of these things: the class nature of support and opposition to the Islamic State, the fervour of many of its supporters, and the way Islamic State divides and weakens resistance in many places. Our aim is also to explain why we are against the American bombing of the Islamic State.

Iraqi History

The American bombing of Islamic State is usually discussed in terms of Syrian politics. But Islamic State is basically a group of Iraqis, and the American war against Islamic State is about control of Iraq. Moreover, many of the more brutal features of Islamic State do not make sense without understanding the long suffering of the Iraqi people over the last thirty-five years and the utterly disproportionate force deployed in the US occupation.

            Iraq, like Syria, was a country created by European colonialists out of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. Iraq was formally independent, under the rule of a king installed and in practice dominated by the British.[42] Unlike Syria, however, Iraq had vast reserves of oil. By 1945, the Iraq Petroleum Company was owned by a consortium of British, French, Dutch and American oil companies. In 1958 there was a revolution against the monarchy and foreign control. A million people, led by the Communist party, demonstrated in the capital, Baghdad. A military coup, with mass popular support, overthrew the king and established the Republic of Iraq.

Then officers aligned to the Ba’ath party staged coups in 1963, and again in 1968. The Ba’ath was an international Arab socialist party that also produced Assad Senior in Syria. In 1972 the Iraqi government took full control of Iraqi oil, including the oil wells and the refineries. From the mid-1970s on the Ba’athist head of the secret police, Saddam Hussein, worked at concentrating power in his own hands. In 1978 he took power formally.

The American, British and French oil companies were furious over the nationalisation of Iraqi oil, so the Ba’athists and Saddam Hussein allied themselves with the Soviet Union. At this time, the USSR, despite its communist rhetoric, ran a state capitalist empire. That empire depended in part on oil imperialism, and it competed with the American empire in the Cold War. With the support and approval of the Soviet Union, the Ba’athists and Saddam then imprisoned and tortured the Communists who had led the popular revolution in 1958, and thus destroyed completely the faith of those communists who survived.

The class nature of Saddam’s Ba’ath regime was not unlike that of Assad’s Ba’ath regime in Syria. Some of the new elite were upwardly mobile people from modest backgrounds, and some came from the old bourgeoisie. But what was different from Syria was that the Iraqi economy was so dependent on great wealth in oil, now controlled by the state. That meant the central force in the ruling class were the people at the head of the regime and in control of the oil.

Compared to Afghanistan, or even neighbouring Syria, the Iraqi regime was able to rely on a well-educated population, with affluent professionals, relative equality of women and men, and many women professionals. But above them, Saddam and the leading figures in the regime and their cronies became fabulously wealthy. For a generation, Iraq was ruled by fear and torture.

Saddam Changes Sides

Then, in 1980 Saddam deserted the Russians and switched sides in the Cold War. This had to with what was happening in neighbouring Iran.

Iran too was an oil rich country. In 1951, a popularly elected government had tried to nationalise Iranian oil. Two years later a MI6 and CIA-backed coup brought Mohammad Reza Shah back to power. The Shah was a right-wing, capitalist dictator. In the end, it was not possible for the Shah to reprivatize completely Iranian oil. Instead, the oil was controlled by a compromise consortium of Western oil companies and the Iranian state oil corporation. For the next twenty-five years, the Shah, with American backing, ruled at the head of a brutal, secular regime. By the 1970s, the great majority of Iranians hated him, hated his secret police and hated the wealthy, modernized, secular elite associated with the dictatorship.

In 1978 there was a popular revolution in Iran, and the Shah was deposed in early 1979. The Shia clergy, other Islamists, Iranian communists, Kurds, and an enormous proportion of the population joined in massive demonstrations. The decisive turning point was a strike by the oil field workers.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Islamists would win, but they did. At the end of the revolution, the Shia clergy came out on top, and with great brutality they put down the secular and religious opposition, the socialists and new workers movement for free unions.

The Iranian revolution did not just depose America’s client, the Shah. The success of the Islamic revolution in Iran meant that the Iranian state oil company took control of the oil wells and refineries away from the Western oil companies. That in itself was enough to enrage the American ruling class. But as the clergy consolidated their power, Iranian students occupied the American embassy in Tehran and held it for 444 days, more than a year. The embassy occupation humiliated the American ruling class, ended the Presidential career of Jimmy Carter and turned the Americans into a global laughing-stock. Even more important, across the Middle East people looked to the example of Iran, and support for Islamist parties began to build. The US ruling class wanted to punish the Iranians and bury their example. However, in the wake of Vietnam War, no one in America could contemplate a war against Iran. So the Americans launched a proxy war. They encouraged Saddam Hussein in Iraq to open a land war with neighbouring Iran.

Saddam had his own reasons for going to war. The Islamist revolution in Iran was deeply threatening to his own rule, still branded as socialist and secular. Moreover, the vast majority of Iranians, like most Iraqis, were Shias. Right-wing Arab monarchies, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf were also terrified of their own people following the Iranian example. So they agreed to lend Saddam vast sums of money to bankroll his war on Iran.

Saddam invaded Iran, and with this war the suffering of the Iraqi people really began. The war lasted eight years, the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. Between 200,000 and 500,000 Iraqis died, out of a population of 14 million. A million Iranians died, out of a population of 50 million. It was a bloodbath – trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War. And in all those eight years, the front lines hardly moved.

By 1988 it was clear that the Iranians were winning. At this point the American ruling class intervened decisively. The US Sixth Fleet moved towards Iran, and the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people on board. The US did not apologise, and it was clear that an overwhelming Iranian victory over Iraq would mean war with the United States.

Iran negotiated. A peace agreement produced almost the same border as at the start of the war. This agreement put Saddam Hussein in an extremely difficult position. The moment of losing a war is dangerous for any dictator. About one in fourteen adult Iraqis had died in the war. Everyone was mourning someone who had died for nothing. And Saddam was deeply in debt to the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Gulf regimes which had loaned him money for the war.

All this was happening at a time when an enormous reordering of imperial relations was taking place. The game-changers were the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 which left the United States unopposed as the single global super-power.

Saddam’s hold on Iraq was precarious and he needed money. With regional and global alliances in flux, in 1990 Saddam dared to invade the oil rich kingdom of Kuwait to the south of Iraq. Iraq had a long standing territorial claim to Kuwait, the rights and wrongs of which are of no importance now. The American ruling class was outraged at what they took to be his rogue aggression, and so were all the oil kingdoms of the Middle East. This outrage could not stand, or no oil power would be safe.

President Bush the elder organised a grand American-led military coalition to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. And in early 1991, Saddam’s army was swiftly dispatched. About 200,000 Iraqi soldiers died, a large proportion of them killed from the air while in desperate retreat.

At the same time, American backed-radio and TV stations had been encouraging Iraqis to rise against Saddam. Many people in Iraq, and in the wider region, expected US troops to push on into Iraq. Expecting American military support, the mostly Shia Iraqis around Basra in the south of the country rose against Saddam’s regime, as did people in the Kurdish areas in the north. The US troops stopped at the border. The American government did nothing to support the rising in the south, which Saddam’s elite Republican Guard put down with great cruelty. However an American ‘no fly’ zone ensured the effective independence of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north from then on

There was an argument in Washington about whether to push on into Iraq and help the uprising. This argument is now hard to understand because it was not held in public, and all the participants have since restated their positions in the light of the American invasion of Iraq twelve years later.

But the 1991 Gulf War is not really comparable to what happened in 2003. In 2003, the Americans invaded in Iraq, dominating the country within days. In 1991 the legacy of the Vietnam War was still too fresh. The American military did not dare ask their soldiers to fight a war that could last for years and kill large numbers of Americans. So in 1991 they decided others would have to do the fighting on the ground. In the north, the Kurdish leaders could be trusted to do that without turning on the Americans. But in the south there was a mass popular uprising against Saddam.

American air support would certainly have meant that the uprising would overthrow Saddam. But most people in the south were Shias, and the potential leaders were Shia Islamists allied to Iran. So the possibility of a successful uprising frightened the Americans. On the one hand, it would be similar to the Iranian Revolution twelve years before, while on the other, it would be a repeat of the way American support had brought the Mujahedin to power in Afghanistan two years before. And most important, a victorious uprising in southern Iraq might well light a fire across the Middle East. On balance, the American military and government decided it was not worth the risk to try and take back control of Iraqi oil. Indeed, in any case, a successful uprising would be unlikely to end with the Americans gaining control of the oil.

In the six months between Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and beginning of the American air war in January 1991, there was little opposition to the possibility of war in the West. The history of US collusion with Saddam had been buried, and his monstrous character was linked with his utterly outrageous attempt to annex the territory of a US ally. And when the televised war started, the spin was smart bombs and on surgical strikes, which dominated even the horrific images of the massacres of Iraqi soldiers fleeing down the Basra Road to Iraq.


The Iraqi people had now lived through two major wars and a defeated insurrection. Worse was to follow. Saddam remained in power in Iraq, and that exposed the limits of American power in the region. To reassert their authority, the Americans organized for international sanctions to be imposed on Iraq in 1992 and were maintain until 2003.

The sanctions devastated exports, led to deep cuts in the cost of living, and widespread malnutrition, and made it very hard to get hold of medicines.[43] The United Nations Children Fund estimated that child mortality was higher in the sanctions years by 4,000 a month, leaving more than 500,000 dead children over the whole of the period of the sanctions. More than a million adults also died as a result of sanctions. All of those deaths were horrible, but we also need to consider the effect on families who were unable to find or afford medicines, or did not or could not feed their children properly, or had to make decisions about who to feed properly, or went to relatives for help who then refused aid.

In the midst of all this want, the upper ranks of Saddam’s regime enriched themselves. The sanctions opened up large possibilities for complex smuggling operations, and these were dominated by people linked to the regime. The lost wars, the defeated insurrection, the dead children and the endemic corruption also meant that the regime was very weak, and they knew it. They doubled down on the arrests, the torture and the fear.

We must pause for a moment, now, and think what all this meant for the daily lived experience of ordinary Iraqis. By 2003 the population of Iraq had grown to 20 million. But between half a million and a million people, mostly adults, had died in wars and defeated insurrections. About another half a million children and one million adults had died because of the sanctions. All those died for nothing. Moreover, Iraqis had lived through forty years of an increasingly cruel, and increasingly corrupt, police state. To live in such a state is not just to be oppressed. It is to be afraid, and not to know who to trust among your family, friends and workmates. It is also, for very large numbers of people, to collaborate in ways small and large, in order to survive and in order to hold a job. Forty years of that produced people who felt fearful, watchful, untrusting, dirty, guilty and enraged. And then the Americans and their allies invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003.

The American Occupation

Vice-President Dick Cheney was the oil industry’s representative in George Bush’s administration, and spoke for a resurgent neo-conservative movement in the Republican Party. From the moment of the 9/11 bombings of the Twin Towers in 2001, Cheney knew what he wanted to do. First invade Afghanistan, the easy target. Hopefully that would be an easy victory, and working class Americans would forget about Vietnam and grow accustomed to sending troops abroad again. Next Cheney planned to invade Iraq and take back the control of Iraqi oil. And once that was done with shock and awe, his intension was to invade Iran, avenge the humiliation of the Iranian Revolution, and take back control of the Iranian oil as well.

But this was not just about oil. This was the age of neoliberalism. The nationalisation of oil all over the Middle East from the late 1960s to the early 1980s had been a last great move to public ownership. With America the sole super-power, this could be the final great privatisation. Arguably, however, America had considerably less hegemonic power than previously. In particular, the economic power of China and Europe was growing to rival that of the American empire. But America was still a far greater military power, and a victorious war would confirm American dominance in the new century.

It did not work out quite that way. The invasion of Afghanistan went ahead in 2001. But many people in America, and across the world, balked at the prospect of an Iraqi war. The great anti-war demonstrations of Feb 2003 – the largest global demonstrations the world has ever seen – did not stop the US or Britain from invading Iraq. But they meant a subsequent invasion of Iran was off the cards.

After the 2003 Iraq invasion, the Americans only trusted returning exiles to assume the main government positions. And among the exiles only those who were prepared to collaborate with the invaders, and follow their orders – only those men and women were allowed to become the new rulers of Iraq.

Fof the invasion, there was resistance in Iraq, and it grew rapidly in the next few months.[44]  There were three wings to the Iraqi resistance. There was a Shia resistance led by Muktada Al-Sadr, a radical Shia cleric. His strongest base was in a working class and mostly Shia part of Baghdad called Sadr City. It was named for Muktada’s father, and three million people lived there. Muktada had a political party, and also an armed militia – the Mahdi army.

There was also a secular resistance in Sunni regions outside Baghdad. This was largely led by former Baathists, and former soldiers and officers were particularly important in this group. The American occupiers had disbanded the army and thrown them all out of work, and they were armed and furious. Their politics were largely secular and nationalist, although they were of course also Muslims.

Both the Shia resistance and the secular Sunni resistance fighters led urban insurrections. Most of the fighters were working class people, but any unity between them was fractured by growing sectarian lines of division between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The other main Sunni resistance group were a network of Salafis – Islamists who drew on the traditions of puritan Wahhabi politics in Saudi Arabia. They looked to a caliphate, not a democracy. Crucially, the Salafi Islamists saw both the Shias and the American imperialists as the enemy.

The south of Iraq was the home of predominantly Shia Arabs. Predominantly Sunni Arabs, and some others, mostly Sunni Kurds, lived in the west and parts of the north. Overall, about 60% of Iraqis were Shia Arabs, 20% Sunni Arabs, 15% Kurds, and 5% other minorities and religions.[45] But in all areas people lived mixed together, particularly in the cities, and above all in the capital – Baghdad.

The split between Sunnis and Shias began with a dispute about the succession to the Caliphate in Baghdad in 632 AD. There were at times further serious conflicts between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq up until the thirteenth century, after which there was 700 years of reasonable peace. However, the split remained a possible line of division in certain circumstances.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the divisions between Shia and Sunni were not crucial to Iraqi politics. But gradually, things changed. During the Iran-Iraq war, two underground Shia Islamist parties had opposed the war and had gone into exile in Iran, and gained the support of the Iranian government. These parties had had some resonance in Iraq, but not much. After the suppression of the largely Shia uprising in the south in 1991, they had more. Saddam sometimes tried to present himself as more of a Sunni hero, and among many southern Shias there was a resentment of his Ba’ath party as mainly Sunni. But there were also many Shias in the leadership of the regime.

Divide and Rule Works

By March, 2004, the American occupation were embroiled in a bitter war with all three resistance groups. The Americans were fighting a brutal battle for control of the largely Sunni city of Fallujah in the west, ruthlessly dropping white phosphorus on the city in an obvious contravention of UN treaties about chemical weapons. And as the shocking video leaked by Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks revealed, the American military were encouraged, not disciplined, for enjoying the power to kill unarmed men from the air.[46]

Most of the city was destroyed in that battle, and most of the residents fled. Al Sadr, the Mahdi army, and many Iraqi Shias expressed support for the Fallujah resistance, and the American occupation was in serious trouble.

Washington sent John Negroponte to Baghdad as ambassador, with a mission to divide and rule. Negroponte had been the chief American strategist of death squads in El Salvador back in the 1980s. By the winter of 2004, death squads were carrying out wide scale assassinations of Sunni resistance leaders in Baghdad. There were also bombings of Shia mosques and neighbourhoods. Some of these death squads and bombings were the work of American special forces teams, but some were also the work of copycat death squads organized by both Sunni and Shia militias.[47]

It is not possible to tell what the balance was between American and Iraqi killers in the beginning. But as time went on, Iraqis dominated the killing. Local units of the Sadr’s Shia militia murdered to drive Sunnis out of largely Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad. The Salafi wing of the Sunni resistance did the same to Shias. There was a spiral of revenge.

This sort of spiral is not the result of fanaticism or primordial hatreds. It happens when political entrepreneurs want to create an ethnic or sectarian war. A few men can carry out a sectarian killing – say of Sunnis in a Shia neighbourhood. What is crucial is what happens in the next 24 hours. If a strongly grounded local organisation in that neighbourhood announces their opposition to any revenge, and posts guards on the houses of local Sunni families in the neighbourhood to protect them, decency can be defended. But absent that swift response, someone will strike back, and then the spiral begins.

In Baghdad the spiral was particularly brutal for an odd reason. Saddam Hussein’s government had fed the Iraqi people on rations available from their local shops. When the Americans took over, they continued this policy. This was necessary in a time of mass unemployment and chaos. It was not publicised in the US because in the United States itself millions of Americans went to bed hungry. But this increased the brutality needed for sectarian cleansing, because people who left their homes lost all access to their local shop and food for their families.

The increasing killing outraged many Iraqis. It was not just wrong. It is also terrifying to live in that kind of sectarian carnage. By 2008 the killing was largely over. One reason was that neighbourhoods had been cleansed and there was almost no one left to kill. But another was that as the wings of the Iraqi resistance turned against each other, many Iraqi people turned against them, and the resistance lost moral authority.

Sadr’s militia and his party did not go away, but they lost support and stopped fighting the Americans. Among secular Sunnis, the American occupiers began to gather support. First, there was the surge in numbers of American soldiers. More important was that the Americans were now willing to pay small salaries to unemployed former soldiers who came over from the resistance. But the key was that the former soldiers, and the larger urban Sunni communities, were appalled by the sectarian war that the Salafi Sunnis welcomed. So the former Baathists turned in the Salafis to the Americans.

Better the Americans, many people felt, than the horrors of sectarian civil war. This was a reasonable thing to think. By 2008 the Iraqi resistance was defeated, and the Salafis isolated. Some of them fled to Syria, some laid low in Iraq, and some were in American prison camps.

Six years later, these defeated and discredited Salafis returned to Iraq as the Islamic State, with a great deal of popular support. Why?

In 2010 there was an election in Iraq. Maliki, favoured by the Americans, promised to bring the country together, make peace, and treat both Sunnis and Shias fairly. But when he became Prime Minister Maliki then broke those promises and presided over an increasingly sectarian Shia dominated state, closely allied with Iran.

By the end of 2011 American troops left Iraq. Washington had assumed that they would be able to leave some troops in the country, and in effect supervise Maliki and the Iraqi state. To do that, though, they required a treaty that all American troops in Iraq would be immune to prosecution in Iraqi courts. This was a matter of principle for Washington and the Pentagon – they require such an agreement wherever American troops are stationed. Given the level of anger among Iraqis at previous American atrocities, the Americans could not give way on this. Maliki, encouraged by his Iranian allies and under pressure from Iraqi parliamentarians and people, refused such a request. The American troops left.

The US had invaded Iraq to take back control of oil and the Middle East. They had not been defeated by the resistance. But they left with little remaining influence. In the north of Iraq two Kurdish groups controlled what was for many purposes an independent, oil-rich country. They were in alliance with the US, but also Turkey. Economically, Turkey dominated the Kurdish north.

In the south Iran dominated politically. The Iraqi government retained control of the national oil company. But from 2011 concessions were leased out for different oil fields to, among others, Exxon Mobil, China National Petroleum Corporation, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Italy’s EniSpa, Occidental Petroleum, Korea Gas Corps, and Malaysia’s Petronas.[48]

The US had been humiliated. The Maliki government cut off the small cash payments for the men in the Sunni resistance who had deserted the Salafis and come over to the Americans. Those men were furious. They had been betrayed, and now how would they live. Iraq became more and more of a Shia state. That meant little access to public sector jobs for Sunnis. It meant that Sunnis had been largely driven out of Baghdad, while Bangladeshi immigrants clean the streets. And it meant increasing repression by the police and army to keep Sunni areas in line.

Meanwhile, Maliki and his cronies worked systematically to turn the state inside out. The state infrastructure and bureaucracy have merged with the militias of the Shia and Kurdish parties. These militias have no interest in dissolving the state. Rather the state acts as a funnel for oil and other revenue, and offers a structure round which to divide the spoils. Thus, for the past four years at least, it would seem that the Central Bank in Bagdad is run by four men, Maliki and another Shia, a Sunni from Anbar province and a Kurd, who organize weekly auctions of state revenue in US dollars which are bought by the competing militias operating on the ground.

So when the Arab Spring began, there were large public protests across both Sunni and Shia areas of Iraq. But these were strongest among Sunnis in western Iraq, who staged their own, very large, protests against the government. Maliki’s government suppressed this movement with violence. When the United States began to make formal overtures towards Iran in 2013 that further strengthened Maliki’s hand.

Throughout 2012 and 2013 the Islamic State resistance began recruiting followers and allies among Iraqi Sunnis. They were able to say: ‘We were right. The Shias, Iran and the US are the enemy. And they will not let you rest in safety, or protest peacefully’.

Now, in spite of the spin which suggests IS are nothing but blood-thirsty savages, it seems clear that the Islamic State organization is actually running a state bureaucracy. They now have a volunteer army of something like 100,000 to 200,000 fighters. They rule over a population of several million people. They are not dependent on external subsidies. They tax the population they control, they take hostages for ransom, and they sell off antiquities. Most important, they control a number of small oil fields, and sell the oil at discounted prices through the already existing oil smuggling networks.[49]

In June 2014, the Islamic State organization launched an offensive from the Syrian border through the Sunni areas toward Kurd-controlled Mosul and Baghdad. The Iraqi army fled. Neither the Shia nor the Sunni soldiers were willing to die in order to control Sunni areas. And many Sunnis rallied immediately to Islamic State. The IS took control of large areas of the west and north, in alliance with local organisations. Many of the secular fighters in Sunni towns, the ex-soldiers and officers who had once been Ba’athists and then gone over to the Americans out of disgust with the Salafis, now made alliances with the Islamic State. They might despise the Salafis, but they had also decided the Salafis were right about the sectarian Shia government of Iraq.

So, faced with the Islamic State onslaught, and the collapse of the Iraqi army and police, there were torrents of top-down spin from the Americans about training and incompetence. It is more likely that the reality was that very few soldiers, Sunni or Shia, wanted to die so that Malaki’s sectarian government could oppress Sunnis.  Even the Pesh Merga, the Kurdish militia who had fought with great bravery over many years, fled from largely Arab cities the Iraqi Kurdish parties had seized. Ordinary Kurds too, seemed unwilling to kill and die for the oil fields of a greater Kurdistan.

Islamic State took Mosul in the north from Kurdish control. The fact that Islamic State have been able to take and hold a city of that size – two million people – is proof of little public opposition and possibly considerable positive public support. Within days Islamic State was close to Baghdad. At that point Maliki’s government summoned up Shia militias to protect the capital. The Shia and Kurdish militias who had been unwilling to die to oppress Sunni areas were however willing to die to protect their own homes and neighbourhoods from sectarian Salafis. At this point, the conflict became a civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shias.

But it was not a simple civil war. The United States and Iran both invaded Iraq, the US for a second time and Iran for the first time. The US and Iranian governments were both appalled by the idea that the capital of Iraq could fall to an Islamic Sunni army with extreme Islamist policies which was also a part of the Syrian resistance (as we discuss in more detail in the next section on Syria). And the US and global oil companies would lose control of the oil fields.

So together Iran and the US went to war against Islamic State. American planes bombed towns and cities held by Islamic State, and Iranian soldiers and American Special Forces fought together on the ground. A new global alliance was forming in the Middle East.

The American bombs accomplished very little. The US and Iranians spent four months retaking Tikrit. They said it took so long because a few hundred Islamic State fighters were well dug in, and the American bombers had to flatten much of the city. Further advances have stalled partly because the Shia militias are ashamed of using air support – everyone in Iraq understands what American bombing means. Another reason is that the Americans are afraid to rely heavily on Shia militias, because of the looting and massacres they commit when they take Sunni areas. Such massacres would make it impossible for the Americans to win over Sunni allies to replace Islamic State in Sunni areas.

For the moment, the Iranians and Shia Iraqis hold Baghdad. For the moment, Islamic State holds large areas of western Iraq and Eastern Syria. However, most of this land is desert. Driving through it, you can see that there is not much there, and certainly it is not terrain suited to guerrilla war.

The leadership of Islamic State has declared a Caliphate. The Americans, helped by the British, the French and the Russians, have flown thousands of bombing runs against the people living in Islamic State controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria.

The Destruction

There is considerable cruelty on all sides now – by Shia militias, Shia parties, the Iraqi government, and Islamic State. But there are two things to be said about this cruelty.

First, it is not because Iraqis are like that. The cruelty has to be seen in the context of the American imperial role in the history of the last 35 years lived by ordinary Iraqis – the losses during the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War and failed insurrection and the decade of devastating economic sanctions, all before the 2003 American invasion. There are no certain estimates of the death toll under the Americans, but, as mentioned earlier, it was roughly a million, many killed by bombs dropped from airplanes. There were particular horrors and shames of sectarian killings, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. There was the helplessness, and the fear, the secret police and generalised corruption under the Americans that replaced the same experience under Saddam.

Moreover, most people in Iraqi public life have been compromised in almost everyone’s eyes by collaboration with the Americans, or with sectarian murders.

There are also the consequences of the American gulag in Iraq. We have written elsewhere at some length about the horrors in Abu Ghraib, the rapes and endless sexual abuse, the constant beatings and torture, the murder of prisoners by interrogators. And about the odd fact that the wives, sisters and children of the male detainees were kept on the cell blocks without paperwork, where they could hear and sometimes see the torture and rape of the men. But Abu Ghraib was only one of many prison camps in Iraq, an archipelago of torture.[50]

As Atwan has noted, most of the middle and upper leadership of Islamic State had spent years in these camps. They are survivors of months or years of torture. Most of the present day leaders of Islamic State were military officers under Saddam who became Salafis, usually in a torture camp. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph, has a doctorate in Islamic law. But of his two deputies, one was ‘a senior special forces officer and a member of military intelligence under Saddam.’ The other was a major-general in Saddam’s army.  The senior military leader was a lieutenant-colonel in Saddam’s army intelligence. All three men were prisoners alongside al-Baghdadi in the American Camp Bucca. And the four leaders of the secret police of the Islamic State, were ‘all high-ranking officers in Saddam’s … notoriously cruel security services.’[51]

Many people have commented on the particular style of Islamic State videos and public executions as a sort of theatre of cruelty, designed to glorify power and terrify people who might resist. This style has three obvious sources. One is American – the photographs and stories of the horrors in Abu Ghraib, with the dogs unleashed on men, the naked bodies of men writhing in piles, a crucified dead prisoner hanging in the shower.

Another obvious source is the public style and design of Saddam’s regime. A third source are terrifying fireworks videos of the American ‘shock and awe’ bombing of central Baghdad in 2003. These were shown as news footage, either as an aesthetic justification for unleashing such gruesome force, or as if the violence was of no more consequence than that in a Hollywood action movie.

People across Iraq knew what was happening in those camps, and the effect of generalised fear and collaboration with such an obscenity effected everyone. One sign of the degradation of political life is the homophobic campaigns and murders of gay men organised by the Shia political parties in government and allied to the Americans. Islamic State, too, has imitated homophobic campaigns and killings on a smaller scale.[52] But none of these atrocities are on the same scale as the continued American bombing. There is now a fashion to believe that small numbers of ‘traditional’ beheadings are worse than ‘civilised’ bombs burning alive and maiming  hundreds of thousands Iraqis. We do not agree.[53]

Syria and Foreign Fighters

Islamic State is also an organisation in Syria. Their role there is complex, and often destructive. We discuss the Islamic State further in the next section on Syria. But Islamic State is fundamentally an Iraqi organisation. Most of the people under Islamic State control are in Iraq, and the core of its leadership is men who have been fighting American imperialism in Iraq since 2003.

Finally, a word about the foreign fighters. At least 30,000 men and women have journeyed to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, many of them from Europe. It is not hard to understand why. For fourteen long years, for all the conscious lives of many who journey to Islamic State, they have seen Muslims who resist invasions bombed and burned and tortured. The voices raised in the anti-war marches of 2003 are much fainter now, and the carnage is worse, and is spreading into more and more countries. In Europe, the domestic effects of recession and austerity have increased inequality and turned a spotlight on the ruthlessness of privileged elites, while the shriek of Islamophobia is louder than ever, and increasing. In this situation what many young women and men see is that Islamic State is made up of people who are resisting the endless imperial machine of mass murder.

The deep problem with Islamic State, the tragedy, is that they are a product of the triumph of divide and rule. But American bombing will only reinforce the message of divide and rule, and drive frightened and desperate people, Sunni and Shia, into further division.


We turn now from Iraq to Syria. In Iraq we saw the consequences of great suffering, and of a resistance that accepted divide and rule, and was ruled.          Here we write about the resistance in Syria, arguing that this resistance is against a tyrannous state and is part of the Arab Spring, and that we want the defeat of the Assad regime and their Russian backers and all the aerial bombing by the imperial powers to stop. Let us begin, as in the previous two case studies, with the history.

In the 1960s, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current dictator, was a senior member of the Ba’ath party in Syria. The Ba’ath party were socialists, secularists, and Arab nationalists. Once in power, from 1966 on, they took the land from the great landowners and gave it to the farmers. They were opposed to British and French colonialism, American imperialism, Arab monarchies and Israel.

In 1970 Hafez al-Assad became the ‘one party, one family’ dictator. He ruled until his death in 2000, and his son Bashar al-Assad has ruled since.[54]

Syria is not a rich state, and never has been. There is some oil and gas, and a piece of Mediterranean coast line. Cotton and wheat are grown along the Euphrates, but a lot of the country is desert, and most of it is short of water. Beyond that, the economy stagnated under a state capitalist regime which depended on Soviet support and widespread corruption, among regime cronies, the army, and associated with the trade in drugs and arms across the region.

From 1970 to 1990 Syria was allied with the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet Union fell, the Syrian government switched to the American side. This was a key turning point. When Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Americans put together a coalition to drive his forces out of Kuwait. Syria joined that coalition and sent a token force, and the country became one of the war winners. The country was opened up to neo-liberal development, and the Syrian regime came in from the cold. From 1990 to 2012 it was allied with the United States, and from 2012 with Russia again.

Obama was caught between wanting to be on the winning side if the revolutions of the Arab Spring were successful, and a fear of the consequences of supporting radical Islamists in the Syrian resistance. He did nothing but say that Bashar Assad needed to step away from power and that his regime should not use chemical weapons on the Syrian population. Not surprisingly, Assad turned his back on the Americans and returned for support to the regime’s former imperial champion, the USSR, reincarnated now as the Russian state.

From the 1970s on, a new ruling class formed around the Assad dictatorship. Members of this new elite included Alawites from Assad’s own Shia sect. Others, among them Shias, Sunnis, and Christians, were also part of the new ruling class. They included senior military officers, business owners in the construction industry, merchants, capitalists, and smugglers. Some were upwardly mobile from poor families, and others were drawn from the previous ruling class and bourgeoisie.

The oppressed have been the blue collar and white collar workers, farmers, and the self-employed. Many professional and business people collaborated with the regime. They had to do so to live. But a large majority of Syrians hated the regime.

Throughout the last 45 years, the regime has been extraordinarily repressive, with many people disappeared, killed in secret prisons.[55] The public measure of the brutality took place in 1982, when there was a popular uprising against the regime in the major city of Hama, led by the Muslim brotherhood. This was quelled by Assad (the father) by bombing and killing some 20,000, perhaps even 40,000 citizens. The violence was so comprehensive, and effective, that it has never been possible to establish exactly how many Syrians perished. This episode was known internationally, but more or less ignored. Inside Syria, the massacre in Hama served to terrify the population, who remained more or less quiescent until 2011.

The Assads ruled through the ferocious, and deliberately random exercise of terror. As a citizen, you never knew who was watching you, or when something terrible would happen. Nancy did anthropological fieldwork in Damascus in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As she was told then,

‘Don’t ever talk of anything political near an open window.’

‘Never talk politics when there are more than two people in the conversation.’

‘If you’re ever in trouble in the city, scream with all your might.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because nobody who isn’t close to the regime would ever call attention to themselves. So anyone who is pestering you will run like hell.’[56]

When the Arab Spring began in 2011, the Syrians were almost the last to join in. This is because they knew the regime, and the extreme cruelty it was capable of. Perhaps because they knew this when they began, they are still fighting.

The Arab Spring

The Arab spring began when protesters in Tunisia brought down the dictatorship there in late 2010. The Egyptian people took heart. In January 2011 demonstrations began in Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo, and the Mubarak dictatorship fell 18 days later. Protests and uprisings centred on city squares spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, and parts of Saudi Arabia.

The uprising was most bitter in Syria, where the regime was most repressive. From the start, everyone in Syria knew that an Arab Spring would not be like Tunisia or Egypt. People waited. In March protests began in the provincial city of Daraa. Protests spread to Damascus. All the regime’s secret forces of repression appeared on the streets. Samar Yazbeck was in Damascus:

Security patrols are dense in the streets; everywhere I go cars are coming and going, fast and slow; giant buses are jam-packed with security forces; men wearing helmets and military uniforms fan out in the markets and squares, in the broad intersections and anywhere else demonstrations might break out.

Men in plain clothes congregate here and there, but the size of their presence gives them away…

Suddenly I start to notice strange figures I haven’t ever seen before materializing in the street. Oversized men with broad and puffed-out chests, their heads shaved, wearing black short-sleeved shirts that reveal giant muscles covered in tattoos, seething at everything that moves. Glaring as they walk, their hands swinging at their sides, figures that sow terror wherever they go, thickening the air around them…

Everybody knows the city’s calm before was not a natural calm since nobody could challenge the power of the security apparatus… Suddenly the streets are transformed into a carnival of horror. Chaos is everywhere. Security forces watch the people: some flee, others get arbitrarily eliminated. The gangs sprouted out of the ground just like everything around here, out of thin air, without any rhyme or reason. How could armed men suddenly appear and start killing people?[57]

Because they had always been there. And this is how regimes of terror work.

The most important repressive force was the army. From the beginning, they were ordered to open fire, and killed large numbers of people, again and again. If soldiers refused to fire, their officers shot them.

But more than half the enlisted men were conscripts. All Syrian men were required to serve a year and a half in the army at the age of 18. The soldiers began to desert, taking their weapons with them. The Free Syrian Army was born.

Because so many young men, mostly conscripts, had to make the decision to desert so quickly, the Free Syrian Army reflected Syrian society as a whole. They were largely nationalists, working class, not very religious, and not very political before the conflict began. Many of them assumed that the United States would back them, and democracy, and their liberation movement against the most cruel of dictators.

In Syria, the politics of the rebels reflected more generally the politics of the general population than in other places. The young men who now constituted part of the Free Syrian Army tend to have generally Arab nationalist and socialist ideas. They also value secularism, and they are Muslim by religion.

Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were the most important force in much of the Arab spring. This is less the case in Syria. The regime’s vicious repression of all dissent ever since the bombing of Hama in 1982 meant that no Islamist party was able to build an effective opposition.

The way the resistance was created meant that it was also a communal resistance. In town after town, in suburbs and villages, the local community moved swiftly to secure food and water supplies and set up an alternative government, but one mostly not dominated by any one group. Support for the Syrian resistance was wider, and deeper, than in other countries. It was also a civil war from the beginning.

Great Power Reactions to the Arab Spring

Now we have to place the Syrian revolt in the wider context of competing imperialisms. The Arab Spring threatened dictatorship and repression throughout the region. But the example spread much further. Mass occupations of city squares challenged governments in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan, and Spain. Many people saw other movements, like the strikes in Greece, the Walk-to-Work protests in Uganda, and the long student strike in Quebec as part of the same upheaval. And Occupy Wall Street brought the movement to America. Governments across the region and beyond were threatened by the Arab Spring, and they reacted to protect their power.

The hostility to the Arab Spring in Israel, and from the dictatorships in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, needs no explanation. The deep knee-jerk hostility is a response to the increasing popular unrest throughout the region in the previous decade.

These conflicts were not identical, but were each directed against state elites, and provoked increasingly desperate state responses. Thus, there occurred in 2005 the largely middle-class Lebanese Cedar Revolution against Syrian occupation. Then came the Hizbollah – Israeli War in Lebanon in 2006. And throughout the decade there has been the repeated resistance and ever more vicious repression of the Palestinians in Gaza, including most horribly the winter onslaught by Israel in 2008 which saw more than 2000 civilians killed. So too had the Iranian government recently defeated another, largely middle-class revolt, the ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009-2010.

And on a whole other scale, the Russian and Chinese imperial governments have reasons to fear and hate both movements of Muslims and uprisings in the squares.

Russia has fought more than one war against Muslims in the south of Russia itself, and [as the USSR] lost a long war in Afghanistan to the Mujahedin resistance. The Russian rulers fear unrest in the Muslim republics in Central Asia. And there have been movements in the squares in Moscow and Kiev. China has serious lasting unrest among the Muslims of western China. And the Tiananmen protest in 1989 was the mother of all occupations of public squares. That remains the nightmare of the Chinese ruling class.

The American position was more complicated. The Arab spring threatened American-backed dictatorships and American domination over Middle Eastern oil, and it was encouraging revolt across the world. So the American ruling class also feared the Arab Spring.

But from 2011 to 2013 Washington pursued a complex strategy. They wanted an end to uprisings, but they also thought the uprisings might win. And if the uprisings won, Washington wanted to be friends with the new governments, and re-establish old alliances.

Crucially, the US could not simply invade any more Middle Eastern countries. After the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq the American people were not going to accept that. Enlisted military personnel and their families were particularly opposed to new wars.

So Washington tried to surf the wave. In Libya they bombed the dictator, Gaddafi’s forces in support of the uprising. In Yemen the American embassy brokered a deal where the dictator would leave but the rest of the old regime would survive. In the Gulf, Washington backed a Saudi army that invaded to put down the occupations and marches in Bahrain.

On the other hand, Washington told the Egyptian military to allow democracy. As soon as there were elections, Egyptians voted for a government of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party. They did so because the Brotherhood promised a more equal society, and for a generation had long been the main underground opposition to the dictatorship. Washington then tried to work with the Brotherhood.

In 2012 and the first half of 2013, much of the Free Syrian Army were hoping and waiting for American support. After all, the Americans were making all sorts of noises about democracy and overthrowing Assad.

In practice, there was an argument going on at the top of the Obama administration. Some of his advisers said that the Syrian resistance was probably going to win. So it would be best to arm the ‘more moderate’ among them now. That would give the US friends when the resistance won, and it would strengthen the moderate, pro-American wing of the resistance. Other people in the Obama administration said maybe the rebels were not going to win. And in any case, there were a lot of Islamists and jihadis in the resistance. The ‘good’ secularists in the Free Syrian Army might well share American arms with the ‘bad’ jihadis. From Obama’s point of view, there was a lot to be said for both arguments. So the administration dithered, making anti-Assad noises but not sending weapons. The ‘moderates’ in the Free Syrian Army began to despair.

Divide and Rule

To defend the dictatorship, Assad and his generals turned to divide and rule. Their strategies to divide the uprising intersected with American, Saudi, Russian and Iranian ruling class policies in complex ways.

Syria is an artificial state – you can see that from the mostly straight line borders. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were all carved out of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after World War One and divided between French and British empires. As an area it has always been mixed ethnically, and in terms of religious affiliations, but people have been getting on more or less well for hundreds of years.

However, over the twentieth century, the habits of Ottoman tolerance, and the socialist and communist ideals which inspired unity were systematically undermined and discredited by the politics of divide and rule from the top.

Among ethnic divisions, about 2 million Syrians (10 percent) think of themselves as Kurds and speak a Kurdish language. There are also Palestinian refugees, Druze and Armenians. If you think of people as divided along sectarian lines, about 75 percent are Sunni Muslims. Another 10 percent are Christians of one sort or another. But most people lived intermingled, particularly in the cities.

Assad himself belonged to the Alawite sect, an unorthodox branch of Shia Islam. About 13 percent of Syrians are Alawites. Assad and his father, the dictator before him, had long relied particularly on members of his tribe within the Alawites for close associates. Initially many Alawite Shias supported the resistance, then Assad mobilised Alawi militias to launch sectarian attacks against largely Sunni villages and neighbourhoods that supported the resistance, and the cycle of terror and revenge began.

Other ethnic and sectarian groups within the country were also divided. Most Syrian Christians, another large minority, had long had an ambivalent relationship with the regime. On the one hand, they feared Muslim persecution and looked to Assad for protection. But they also feared the regime.[58] Now some Christians backed Assad, some backed the resistance, and many others fled.

And it took little time for international players to join the fight. Assad had a long standing alliance with Iran and with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a Shia militia and political party who had fought and defeated the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. For years Iran, a majority Shia country, had sent money and arms to Hezbollah through Syria.

As the Syrian resistance grew, Iran and then Russia armed and funded Assad. Neither the rulers in Tehran nor Moscow wanted a popular uprising to win in Syria. And the Iranian leaders and Assad called in the debts Hezbollah owed them. Hezbollah sent many fighters to Syria to attack the resistance. The Hezbollah militia were brave, organised and battle seasoned and they won battles where the Syrian army could not, or would not. Their intervention was decisive in turning the Syrian revolt into a sectarian civil war. On the ground, everyone understood that the Hezbollah fighters belonged to a Shia group come to kill Sunnis.

Other powers took different sides. Saudi Arabia had long feared Iranian domination in the Gulf, and Iranian encouragement of revolt by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia itself. For the Saudis, this was a proxy, and satisfyingly sectarian, war. So Saudi Arabia, and various small Gulf states, backed al-Nusra and other right-wing Sunni Islamist rebel groups against Assad’s Syrian government.

In this way the resistance was fractured through the ethnic cleansing of villages and neighbourhoods. On the one side were Alawites, Christians and Shias. On the other side were Sunni Arabs, and Kurds in northern Syria.

This did not mean that the majority in any community approved of sectarian murder. They did not. Their revulsion delayed the spiral. But in many areas they could not stop it. As the spiral grew more intense, many became sectarian, others kept their heads down and prayed they would get through, while several million desperate people sought refuge in Lebanon and Turkey.

By late 2013 the resistance was mostly Sunni. But this did not mean that only Sunnis opposed the regime.

Meanwhile, the US continued to sit on the fence. Washington expected the Assad regime would fall, and they wanted to be friends with the victors. But Washington also feared the Islamists among the resistance. So the US kept saying they would help with arms and bombing, but did nothing.

The result was a stalemate and bloodbath, with 200,000 dead, over 200,000 in Assad’s prisons, and at least 8 million driven from their homes. This was entirely acceptable to all outside parties – the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and also China. It was useful to them that Syria became an example of the terrible things that can happen if people tried to make a revolution.

Everything Changes

Then, on 30 June 2013, General Sisi led a military coup in Egypt that replaced the elected government of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Everything changed. Sisi is running a classic military dictatorship, condemning all opposition as terrorists. The army and police have broken the movement of Tahrir Square, the heart of the Arab Spring. The streets have been cleared of demonstrators, with three thousand killed. At least 30,000 have been jailed, and large numbers have been tortured.

After the coup, the US government was no longer fearful of the Arab Spring. They no longer had to surf the wave of revolution. Things came to a head in August of 2013, just after Sisi’s coup in Egypt. Obama threatened to bomb Assad after a poison gas attack on rebels. The American military as a whole was opposed to such an adventure, and so were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Republican controlled House of Representatives, and the UK parliament. Crucially, a solid majority of the American people wanted no more interventions in the Middle East.

Obama backed down. Instead, he seized the moment to begin a working alliance with the government of Iran, and began to swing towards support for Assad. There was now, effectively, a coalition of the US, Russia and Iran supporting Assad.

Why these strange new bedfellows? There was a simple explanation. They had come together to bury the memory and hope of the Arab Spring. It was a massive and inspiring popular movement. So it will take great cruelty, killing and repression to break the memory of it and the possibility of any resurgence. And each of the governments in the alliance has strong reasons for wanting to bury the Arab Spring very deeply indeed.

‘Hijacking’ the Revolution

In 2013 the governments of the US, Russia and Iran assumed that with their tacit agreement to support the Assad regime by doing nothing, the regime, with the support of Hizbollah and the Shia militias from Iran and some Russian money and arms, would be able to crush the resistance. But they were wrong.

That resistance has been split into four broad wings. One is the largely secular, community based units of the Free Syrian Army. The second is a broad range of Islamist organisations. The third is the Islamic State organization. The fourth wing is comprised of the Syrian Kurds who have recently allied themselves militarily with the United States.,

Until recently the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist groups have done almost all the fighting against Assad’s army and Hezbollah. Islamic State organization in the east and the Kurds in the north have both had effective truces with Assad’s forces, in part because the Syrian regime is defending its heartland, and they are furthest from Damascus and Latakia.

The Free Syrian Army and the secular groups have fought with great courage and endurance, but their support has drained towards the Islamists. There are two reasons this has happened. One is that many units of the FSA, and some Islamist organisations, have hoped and asked for American backing and American bombers. When, however, this backing failed to arrive, the Islamist organisations, who said from the beginning that the Americans were the enemy, gained support.

A second reason has to do with the nature of war. Because of the way the revolution began in Syria, most of the resistance started as local community groups. This was true of those more secular in flavour, and those of a more Islamist turn. That was an enormous social strength, because such groups were also quite democratic. But centralisation, unified command, mobility of forces, and obedience to officers are crucial to success in war, which, of course, is another reason warfare is inimical to human decency and equality.

The Islamist groups with links to experienced international jihadis, like al-Nusra, were much better at these tyrannies of war than the community groups. And the Islamic State is the best organised military group by a large margin, and they began to recruit more Syrian fighters.

As we described above, the Euro-American media and many politicians, academics and others are deeply hostile to the Islamists. And there are many explanations of how Islamic State suddenly tricked masses of people. Sometimes it is claimed they only have power because they have money from the Gulf to pay poor, unemployed men. Other times it is claimed that in 2013 Assad released hundreds of Islamic State leaders to create another front against the Free Syrian Army. Others say that Assad, or the Americans, or Israel really founded the Islamic State.

There is probably some truth to some of these accusations. Certainly Assad and the Americans are not above divide and rule, nor are the leadership of Islamic State above compromise to gain a breathing space. As we noted, many of the core leadership of Islamic State were once officers and secret police in Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. Their roots and experience are not that different from Assad’s Ba’athists. But they have been clear – they plan to take all of Syria.

Meanwhile, Assad’s alliance is composed of Islamic State enemies: Iran, Shia Hezbollah and Shia Alawite militias. Nor can the Islamic State organization compromise with a Russian occupation of Syria, not least because many of their core leadership who are not Iraqi ex-soldiers, and many of their fighters, are refugees from the Russian war in Chechnya and the cruel secular dictatorships of ex-Soviet Central Asia. As we describe in the next section, since the Russian invasion in September 2015, Islamic State troops have been fighting hard against both Assad’s forces and Russian troops.

And above all else, the point of the Islamic State organization is that they have been at war with America for twelve years.  And that war with America, and the war with Iran, Britain, and France, still rages. Whatever else they do, they are at war with both the American and Russian oil empires.

Crucially, the accusations of ‘hijacking the revolution’ allow people to conceal from themselves the popular appeal of Islamic State. It is not hard to understand this appeal. In Syria they say, ‘We told you: the enemies were the Americans, the Iranians and the Shias. Now look, that is exactly what they are’. In Iraq they say almost the same. In both Iraq and Syria they say, ‘Look our justice is swift and hard but fair. You can live in peace, free from the death squads, the gangs and the warlords’. This is a message remarkably similar to that of the Taliban, and in desperate circumstances it is a promise which offers some hope.

In both Iraq and Syria, and across the world, the Islamic State propaganda says, ‘Look, we are stronger than jihadis have ever been. We have conquered land. We have a state’. The dream and the fear are linked. The dream recruits the fighters, and the fear makes enemies buckle down or flee. And it is enormously important that on the horizon there are no likely alternative forces willing to take on the oil imperialists.[59]

The Russian Invasion of Syria

Whatever their attraction and ambitions, for the moment the Islamic State is doing the fighting in Iraq, and the other Islamist and secular groups are bearing the burden in Syria. And they have been winning.

By September, 2015 Assad’s forces were dwindling, exhausted and retreating on almost all fronts. And Assad’s foreign backers knew that something had to be done or Assad would fall. At that point, Putin’s Russia intervened to save the Assad regime. They opened military bases in Syria, and sent bombers and helicopters. They also sent troops to protect the bases, Special Forces, and forward air controllers to direct the bombers from the ground.

Since that time the Russian planes have flown thousands of bombing runs, and Russian ships have launched cruise missiles into Syria. The carnage is terrifying – whole areas have been flattened. Yet it is important to note that the great majority of these Russian bombs have been dropped on the broad alliance of the resistance, and not on the Islamic State. This is because the broad alliance, not Islamic State, is the main and immediate threat to Assad’s regime.

In the wake of the bombing, the Assad regime has announced a ground offensive against the resistance. Several different forces have joined this offensive. These include what is left of the Syrian army, some fighters from Syrian Alawite militias, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, Shia militias from Iraq, Iranian government troops, and some Russian soldiers. This advance has been gaining ground, but much more slowly than most people expected.

The American planes are now supported by bombs from France and Russia in Syria, and from Britain in Iraq.[60] The American and Russian military keep each other informed of their flights and bombing runs, so no one shoots down other countries’ planes.

All this leaves American policy in a deep contradiction. Imperialism always has two faces – it is both a system of competition between imperial powers, and a way of controlling subject populations. The American ruling class is now torn between these two imperatives.

They are torn because they cannot send troops. This is a consequence of the strength of a group of people we have hardly mentioned up until now, workers in America. Ordinary people in the US by and large supported the American invasion of Afghanistan. They were divided over Iraq, and as the war continued a large majority were in favour of withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The picture is complicated. After the election of Obama in 2008, the anti-war movement formally dissolved. Liberals, and much of the left, have put support for Obama ahead of support for peace. Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq, then sent them back, ran down the numbers of American troops in Afghanistan, and then halted the withdrawal. He has extended the American air and drone war greatly in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Yet there has been a resounding silence about such imperial aggression from liberal America, although this may be changing with the Sanders campaign.

The strong opposition to war has come from enlisted military people, their families, and their friends and neighbours. The US has a career army, and the numbers of soldiers are limited, so soldiers and marines have had to do four, five, six or seven tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In previous wars the main danger was death, and the people in danger were combat troops. In these wars the main danger is IEDs (homemade bombs) and mines. Both combat troops and the much larger number of support troops are in danger. Most people are wounded, not killed, by the bombs and mines. The chances of this happening over six tours of duty are high, and the soldiers and their families know this every day for years. The common injuries are tinnitus, back pain, and brain damage because the shock waves of a bomb smash the brain against the skull. The loss of a limb or paralysis are less common, but people think about them a lot.

In the last few years, 45% of American veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan have applied for permanent disability payments.[61] The majority of these disabled veterans have physical damage, and a minority PTSD. But the doctors are beginning to realise that many of those PTSD cases are in fact people with organic brain damage.

American soldiers and their families have lived for years with constant anxiety because of these high casualty rates. It has produced a general conviction against war. This comes out in complex ways. On American country western music stations over the last few years, many songs express similar sentiments – We support our troops, we honour them for their service, but that does not mean we support war, and why is it always people like us who have to go?

It is no coincidence that Republican members of the House of Representatives were against Obama’s plan to bomb Syria in 2013. Those Republicans are more likely to represent the southern and small town constituencies where military families live.

All this means that sending large numbers of troops to Syria would not just be politically toxic in the US, it might split the military. So Obama, and the American ruling class, have compromised. They will send few, if any, troops. This does not mean that they will stop killing. But they will do it from the air, increasingly with drones, so that no Americans die, and of even more importance, so that American soldiers are not maimed.[62]

Any such policy of air death requires troops, administrators and supporters on the ground to permanently secure the bombed areas. That job now has to be done by proxies. But in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria the local soldiers are refusing to do that job, in different ways. That means more reliance on gangsters, militias, and sectarian death squads in all three countries. But that reliance increases the loathing of most people for any local politicians or regime associated with the Americans. Continued air death has the same effect.

Moreover, a quarter of American drone pilots quit every year, because they see death so up close on their screens, so many times. Former drone pilot Heather Linebaugh has written that she just wanted to ask the politicians:

How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?’ And: How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?[63]

So the US ruling class was prepared to cooperate with Russia and Iran in Syria as long as Russia supplied the arms and money, Hezbollah and Syrian militias did the fighting, and Assad’s air force did the bombing. When Russia sent troops and planes into Syria, and led a ground offensive, that changed. Now Putin is demonstrating graphically the weakening of an American power that has no troops on the ground, at the same time as he increases Russian power in the region. American imperialism has lost face.

It is not clear how long Putin will be able to keep this up, and how many troops he can lose. The economic situation in Russia is already dire. Russia is deeply entangled in Ukraine. The Syrian resistance is unlikely to collapse. There have already been anti-war demonstrations in Russia, and while there may be support for successful military adventures, a long running war like Afghanistan in the 1980s would be quite different.

But for the moment, the American ruling class is losing the imperial competition. Yet preventing a victory for the Syrian resistance remains of central importance to Washington, because both the Arab Spring and the kind of resilience shown by the Taliban pose such a threat to imperial control of the oil and the people in the Middle East.

Some people in the Syrian resistance have called for an American no-fly zone to protect the resistance. It is easy to see why they are asking for this. War is a terrible thing, and people in a war take whatever help they can get. But the Americans have not put up a no fly zone for the past four years, because they do not want the Syrian resistance to win. Now if they put up a no-fly zone, it would lead in hours to an air war between Russia and America, which would not be limited to Syria. The American military is not going to do that, and a large majority of Americans would be appalled and frightened if they did.

At the moment, the American military are bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the Russians are bombing the resistance in the rest of Syria. The US and Russian military provide each other with information on their flights, and the Russians inform the Israelis as well.

Splits in the Resistance

There is an important split in the resistance in Syria. The Islamic State organization in the east argue that the main enemy is the Americans, the Iranians, the Russians and the Shias. Most of the rest of the resistance argue that the main enemy is Assad and anyone who supports him. Most Syrians support the latter position, and most resistance groups understand the necessity of keeping unity between the more secular fighters and the more Islamist fighters.

In some areas this split has led to bitter fighting between Islamic State and other resistance groups. In other areas, local groups on each side have managed to keep a fragile peace. The effect of prolonged American and Russian bombing is likely to increase the number of people on both sides of the split calling for some form of truce or unity.

The last twelve years in Iraq are a terrible warning of what happens when a resistance movement is divided along sectarian lines. That way lies defeat and cruelty. American and Russian bombing of the Islamic State will only increase sectarianism and Sunni bitterness. Moreover, it will kill a lot of people who support Islamic State because they oppose American planes and Assad’s regime.


 To summarise, don’t bomb the Taliban, don’t bomb Islamic State, and support the Syrian resistance. However, there are a few points we need to add now at the end of our case studies.

The first concerns the question of inequality – between oil empires and the people who run them and ordinary people. This inequality when experienced in war is staggeringly great – homemade bombs against 2000 lb. daisy cutters, a drone pilot’s life in the suburbs of Nevada against that of a young suicide bomber’s death in Baghdad. But war is war. Those who dare to speak out or fight back against the oil empires know this. They know also that the scale of the tragedy, of lives lost and families destroyed, is disproportionate and unspeakable. And they know that their only real strength is in numbers, in being the majority, in having overwhelming popular support.

It is not only the people in resistance areas who suffer. It is a fantasy that in these times you can bomb ‘the other side’ with impunity. The victims of these wars include the ordinary people who died in the Twin Towers in 9/11, in 7/7 in London, in Charlie Hebdo and the Ankara bombings and the recent Russian airliner, and in an unending stream of suicide bombs. They include the ordinary American, Russia, British and Turkish soldiers who have died, and been paralysed, and will die and be paralysed. For nothing. Or worse, for the price of oil.

Our second point is that people change. In 1965 the voters of Kabul elected Anahita Ratebzad, a woman, a Communist and a nurse, as their member of parliament. In 1978 many in Kabul welcomed the Communist coup, though it was less popular in the countryside. In 1980 the civil servants in Kabul went on strike against the Soviet occupation, and all across the city people went onto the roofs of their houses and shouted ‘God is Great’.

In the 1980s most Afghans more or less supported the Mujahedin. In the 1990s they turned bitterly against the Mujahedin, and many of them welcomed the Taliban. By 2001 few were prepared to fight for the Taliban. Most people accepted the Americans, and a majority voted for America’s ally, Hamid Karzai. By 2015 the Taliban have support in and control most of the countryside.

As in Afghanistan, so in Iraq. People change. In 1958 the secular Communist Party could bring a million people onto the streets as part of a revolution. By 1987 the socialist Ba’ath Party was widely hated. By 2003, after years of sanctions, people hated the American invasion too, and, in response, a resistance rose almost immediately. By 2008 the great majority of Iraqis had turned away from the sectarian death squads of the Shia and Sunni resistance. By 2015 most of those same Sunnis were prepared to accept the Salafi Islamic State, and the Shia militias were fighting alongside the Americans.

In Syria the story is the same. People learn from experience. They change, and they change sides. That is how they make history. And for more than seventy years the people of the Middle East have been rising, in wave after wave of resistance, looking for a more equal world, trying to find a way to be free from the boot of empire and the tyranny that has come with the riches in oil.

Our third point concerns the real contradiction which lies behind the politics of the Middle Eastern wars.

This article has been written, in part, in response to changes of the political left in Europe and North America. Support for American or Russian bombing has been growing across that left, and in liberal and progressive circles more generally. Islamophobia is also increasingly common in these circles. But if we do not side with the resistance against the vast and disproportionate power of the capitalist empires, we miss the only chance there is to break that power.  And we may also miss the only chance we have to put an end to the folly of the oil imperialism which will also burn our planet to a cinder.

We – Nancy and Jonathan – are feminists, socialists and revolutionaries. People like us cannot change the world without the support of the majority of workers, small farmers and the poor. We cannot have that support if we have proven ourselves their enemies.

However, things are not simple when there is a clear class struggle, but the leaders of the oppressed are also committed to inequality. This is the situation across much of the Middle East. As we have tried to show in detail for the Afrghan example in our longer  piece, a central reason for this situation is that the ‘left’ has been on the wrong side, and aligned and allied themselves with the oppressors.

If the left and feminists double down, yet again, to support the dictators and the empires against the common people, there will never be an escape from tragedy of oil imperialism. The only way out is to reach across the divide. This does not mean joining forces with the right- wing leaders of popular movements. It does not mean accepting the oppression of women or the massacre of Shias. All that we have to do is oppose the carbon empires and the local dictatorships.

In one way, it is not hard to take a position that marks you out from the empire, the dictators, and right- wing leaders of the resistance – and marks you out in such a way that you retain the respect of the oppressed. Of course, the penalty is often prison or death, from one side or the other. Sometimes one can only say such things in secret, or from exile. But it is not hard to think such things. And for feminists and the left in Canada or Britain, there is no such price to be paid. But it does require not assuming everything in a vastly complicated political arena like the Middle East is tidy, black and white, good and bad.

Finally, another way of looking at political change is to challenge the popular assumption that the American or Russian empires are all powerful. This is not the case. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria the popular resistance has been winning. The empires push harder, and kill more, and the outcome is uncertain. But for the moment, the empires are in retreat. This makes them more cruel. But if you support one bombing, you are on the road to supporting all that follows, abandoning the resistance, abandoning the common people to their fate, and abandoning the possibility of a socialist revolution.


 Notes 1 to 40 were in the longer article from which this piece is taken.

[41]  Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Saqi, 2015, 13-14.

[42] For background on Iraq, the place to begin is with Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq – a Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes, Saqi, New edition, 2004.

[43] H. C. von Sponeck, A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq, Berghahn, 2006; and Geoff Simons, The Scourging of Iraq, Palgrave, 1998.

[44]        For the experience of the American occupation, start with Greg Muttit, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, Bodley Head, 2011; Zaid Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence  and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy, Yale University Press, 2014; Dahr Jamail, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Reporter in Iraq, Haymarket, 2007; William Rivers Pitt and Dahr Jamail, The Destruction of Iraq, Truthout, 2014; and Atwan, Islamic State- The Digital Caliphate, Saqi, 2015.

[45]        The numbers are estimates. There are no reliable statistics. Moreover, as so often, large numbers of people did not fit into just one of these categories. They were in, or children of, mixed marriages, or they denied the relevance of ethnic and religious labels.


[47] See Zaid Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy, Yale University Press, 2014.

[48]       Dahr Jamail, ‘Western Oil Firms Remain as US Exits Iraq’, Al Jazeera English, 7 January 2012.

[49] See Atwan, Islamic State; and Tamsin Lee-Smith, ‘How does IS fund its reign of terror’, Channel 4 Fact Check, 9 November 2015,

[50] See Ryan Ashley Caldwell, Fallgirls – Gender and the Framing of Torture at Abu Ghraib, Ashgate, 2013; and Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, ‘Gendering Abu Ghraib’, at Sexism Class Violence, 2015,

[51]        Atwan, Islamic State, 139-140.

[52] Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale, ‘ISIS, Sexual Violence and Killing Gay Men’, at Sexism Class Violence, 2015,

[53] The subject of the important new documentary film, Concerning Violence, is the relation between colonial violence and violent resistance. The film focuses on the resistance movements in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s in Africa, and looks at the process of decolonization through the text of Frantz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth. The arguments of the film are of direct relevance to the neo-colonial (aka anti-imperial) struggles going on in the Middle East today. See

[54] For background on Syria, a good place to start is Patrick Seale, Asad, I.B. Tauris, 1988. For the inner life of the elite and professionals in the early 1990s, see Nancy Lindisfarne, Dancing in Damascus: Stories, State University of New York Press, 2000.

[55] The photographic evidence of the extent and horror of torture and murder in Assad’s prisons is overwhelming.

[56] Nancy Lindisfarne, ‘Postscript: The Pirates Socks’, in Dancing in Damascus.

[57]        Samar Yazbeck, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, Haus, 2012, 2 and 6-7.

[58] Panagiotis Geros,  ‘Doing Fieldwork within Fear and Silences’, chapter 4 in Armbruster and Laerke, Taking Sides, is very good on explaining this contradiction.

[59] Meanwhile, Prevent is a British government programme aimed at stopping young women and men, outraged by the wars in the Middle East, from joining Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. It is part of the government’s counter-terrorism clampdown on dissent and ‘non-violent extremism’. However Prevent has angered many British Muslims who see it as another aspect of the increasing Islamophobia in the country and it has barely touched the morality and hope driving IS recruitment. See Alex Preston, ‘The Long Read Interview with Sara Khan’, The Guardian, 28 October 2015, 31-33.

[60] In late October 2015 David Cameron, the British Prime Minister was discouraged from asking the UK Parliament for formal support to bomb IS, the Islamic State organization, in Syria, as it seemed unlikely he would win a parliamentary majority for the project.

[61] Marilyn Marchione, Us vets’ disability filings reach historic rate, US Today, 28 May 2012, So far only about half these claims have been agreed, because there is a very long wait for decisions on claims, but in the long run almost all are approved. See also National Public Radio and Pro Publica’s impressive series of over twenty programs from 2010, Brain wars: how the military is failing its wounded, at

[62] For drone warfare start with Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars, Avalon, 2012.

[63] Heather Linebaugh, ‘I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on’, The Guardian, 29 December 2013,; see also ‘Why Are Drone Pilots Quitting in Huge Numbers’, In These Times, 10 March 2015,

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