ISIS Is The Child of Chaos, Not Religion

In the third week of May, ISIS took the city of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in two, big, high-profile victories. Though ISIS has constantly been in the news for years now, these two cities seem to return the sense of an unstoppable march of Islamist forces across the Middle East. As the beheadings began almost immediately in Ramadi, ISIS also bombed a mosque in Qatif, a Shia-majority city in Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers. Qatif, incidentally, is a place where Saudi armed forces and police have violated human rights with their usual impunity for years, detaining and even opening fire on protesters from the Shia community. From all of these reports, the sense given to readers is one of unstoppable momentum.

But as Ahmed Ali, in the NYT Opinion section on May 21 clarified, the situation is otherwise: “…the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extent Syria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed.”

So, ISIS has not had unstoppable momentum. After spending many months and many lives trying to take the Kurdish city of Kobani, Syria, they have been repeatedly repulsed since the beginning of 2015. Kurdish forces in Iraq have counterattacked them in Mosul and are keeping them under pressure there. And, although each time there is a battle in an Iraqi city, the Western media discuss the close proximity of that city to Baghdad, that does not mean that Baghdad is likely to fall to ISIS any time soon.

Syria, though, is another story. The stage in both countries is set not for ISIS victory, but for perpetual conflict.

Analyzing ISIS requires remembering some of the history and geography of Iraq and Syria, especially about the relationship between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia communities in the region. Both countries have always had large Kurdish populations, a language group that is divided by the national borders between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. There are debates within the Kurdish communities of each country about how to pursue autonomy and self-determination. In Iraq, this has entailed an autonomous Kurdish region currently ruled by Masoud Barzani. In Syria, it involves revolutionary experiments with local democracy and local self-defense – these are the forces that defended Kobani against ISIS. In Turkey, one of the most respected leaders, Abdullah Ocalan, is in prison, and not alone. The revolutionary Kurds in Syria have shown that they will not surrender easily to ISIS and that ISIS can be successfully fought. The Kurds in Iraq, after initial setbacks, are beginning to have some success as well.

Readers no doubt know that one of the many divisions within Islam is between Sunni and Shia, and that one of ISIS’s main obsessions is punishing those who don’t belong to its particular type of Sunni Islam (a type of Islam shared, non-coincidentally, with Saudi Arabia, the unshakeable Western ally, currently bombing civilians in Yemen with Western-supplied weaponry). In the areas where ISIS holds sway, Shia Muslims have suffered, as have Yazidis and others who don’t share ISIS’s beliefs. But the Shia are not defenceless either. There are well-armed, well-organized Shia militias in Baghdad (who have committed atrocities against Sunni civilians in the decade since the US invasion, just as Sunni armed groups have done against Shia civilians). The mainly Shia Lebanese group, Hizbollah, joined the Syrian government, entering Syria, to fight ISIS several years ago. These forces, too, have not been and will not be any kind of easy prey for ISIS.

Historically, the pattern has been that ISIS scores major victories when there is a local collapse of either the Iraqi or the Syrian regular army. The Iraqi army is a creation of the post-2003 US invasion. Such armies rarely perform well and always have serious morale problems. But the presence of these other (Shia and Kurdish) forces on the field limits what ISIS can do in Iraq.

The Syrian army was focused primarily on domestic repression for decades before the civil war started in that country in 2011, and has managed to kill mostly civilians in the civil war as well. If the Syrian army collapses like the Iraqi army has collapsed, the whole situation in the region will change a lot, and in unpredictable ways. The likely analogue is the Afghanistan of the 1990s, after the USSR left. The Afghan government held on against the mujahaddeen for three years (1989-1992) before collapsing. Then the mujahaddeen fell out amongst themselves and spent four years (1992-1996) destroying whatever had not been destroyed and dividing the country into regions ruled by warlords. The next five years (1996-2001) were spent with the warlords fighting one another and the Taliban. The Taliban, sponsored by Pakistan, controlled most of the Pashtun part of Afghanistan, and tried unsuccessfully to complete the conquest of the country. An alliance of warlords unsuccessfully tried to roll them back. Al Qaeda developed in this period, working alongside the Taliban between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then NATO invaded, put the warlords in charge, and stayed for 13 years. The Taliban are still there, and still backed by Pakistan.

The Syrian analogy goes like this: the Syrian army collapses, Hizbollah withdraws to Lebanon, ISIS holds a large part of Syria, other rebel groups hold other parts. A reconstituted regime holds on to part of the country with foreign support, and eventually, some multilateral Western force occupies Syria. In the chaos and the occupation are the seeds of the next ISIS, just like the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war provided the basis for this one, and the Afghan wars of the 1980s and civil wars of the 1990s provided the basis for al Qaeda.

But what explains the shocking, video-recorded horrors of ISIS? The right-wing New Atheists look for passages in scriptures that are used to justify the crimes; the criminals themselves claim to be acting in the name of religion. But people who genuinely want to understand would do better to look to other parts of the world where long-running conflicts have led to social collapse.

The war in Colombia, which is sometimes dated to have begun in 1948 and other times in 1964, has sometimes featured very grisly and demonstrative assassinations and massacres. The West African civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s also included ultra-violent behavior by various forces. In Central and East Africa, we have the famous Lord’s Resistance Army (remember #Kony2012?), as well as various Rwandan and Burundian forces operating in the Congo, alongside local militias and regular armies. Some of these forces have used rape and systematic mutilation as weapons. Dr. Denis Mukwege of the DR Congo has likened the use of rape in that war to a kind of weapon of mass destruction. Others have theorized along these lines – that irregular armies use atrocities to achieve the same psychological effect (inducing hopelessness and terror among those they wish to control) as Western armies can with their high-tech weaponry. This helps explain the amount of effort ISIS puts into hype.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many leftist guerrilla groups operated in different parts of the world. Some have held on, and a few have started up, but these are very rare in the world today. Some of these forces committed war crimes and crimes against civilians, but mostly they operated according to theories of guerrilla warfare (developed by Giap, Mao, Guevara, Castro and other communists) in which the relationship between fighters and the people was meant to be a close one, one of service, that precluded many of the tactics that are used by groups like ISIS.

Meanwhile the West, exporting weapons, running airstrikes, preparing troops for the next counterinsurgency effort, does not try to resolve conflicts, just manage them. The US started attacking Iraq in 1990 and is still doing bombing runs 25 years later. The US sponsored the mujahaddeen in Afghanistan in the 1970s and is still present 36 years later. Libya’s dictator was overthrown in 2011 and that country has been in managed conflict since. The list goes on and on, and will likely soon include Syria as a Western-managed conflict. Once a country is on the list, it can take decades to get off it again. In the chaos of these collapsed states, the next ISIS are being created.

First published at TeleSUR English:

The Reordering of Iraq and Syria

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24.

How far back do we look to understand the breakup of Iraq and the declaration by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 29, 2014 of a caliphate?

Do we start 11 years ago, in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq (in the operation called Operation Iraqi Freedom), occupied it, put Nouri al-Maliki’s government in power, and has supported it since?

Or do we need to start a decade earlier? The 2003 invasion was preceded by a 13-year regime of sanctions, starting in 1990/1, and periodic bombing that prevented Iraq’s economy from functioning, or developing. And the sanctions regime was preceded by a devastating bombing and invasion conducted by the US in 1990/1, Gulf War I (called by the US Operation Desert Storm). The death toll of Gulf War I and the sanctions is at least in the hundreds of thousands; The toll of Gulf War II and the occupation is estimated to be close to one million.

But let’s not forget that the 1990/1 Gulf War I, conducted by US President Bush I, came just two years after the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war, 1980-1988, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in each country (by conservative estimates) and devastated both.

Or, does it go even further back, to the post-WWI arrangements that imposed artificial, colonial boundaries on the countries of the region?

Not all of the blame for Iraq’s thirty years of war can be blamed on the US, or the West. Yes, the US supported Saddam Hussein in the war on Iran’s then-new regime in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. Yes, the US conducted a multi-decade assault on Iraq starting in 1990. Yes, after the 2003 occupation, the US reorganized Iraq and its oil industry for its own ends. In spite of all that, much of what is happening in Iraq today are unintended consequences, rather than planned or anticipated consequences, of US actions.

But whether the explosion today in 2014 of the order the US imposed after 2003 was foreseeable by US planners then, or not, the US has been incrementally steering Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the region towards an order that, however horrific for the people living there, is tolerable for US power. That order consists of transnational refugee populations ministered to by international agencies, helpless civilians trapped in sectarian states or statelets, perpetual, low-level civil war on the ground, and US surveillance and assassination technology in the sky and on the sea.

When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, it deposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who ruled over a country whose divisions he suppressed using the tools of a police state. Even though he favored one group (the Sunni) over the others (Shia and Kurdish), it was the US occupation that created the ‘security dilemma’ that forced everyone into sectarianism. By supporting Saddam’s opponents, the US effectively supported the Kurds in their movement towards autonomy and eventual independence, and the Shia, al-Maliki’s group, who are the demographic majority and who are close to Iran. A Sunni-Shia civil war broke out on US watch, and it was never resolved, except through a de facto partition – a separation of the populations who had before lived among one another.

A decade after the 2003 invasion, the government of Iraq, now nominally sovereign and no longer occupied, is in the strange position of being supported by the US and also by Iran. Their common enemies are Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which has diverse threads, among which are those ousted by the 2003 invasion, as well as al-Qaeda and other religious and sectarian groups.

While supporting the increasingly sectarian (Shia) leadership of Iraq, and its Iranian ally, against the increasingly sectarian (Sunni) insurgency, the US also continues its decades-long absolute support for the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These monarchies have their own sectarian agendas in the region, opposed to the Shia, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and against the ‘Alawi, a minority in Syria, to which the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, belongs.

This leads us to the name of the group that has declared the caliphate, ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Even though the Arabic rendering does not include the name ‘Syria’, the English rendering of the group’s name is accurate enough. ISIS’s most spectacular military breakthroughs have come in Iraq, but they grew strong fighting alongside (and, alternatingly, against) al-Qaida and other insurgents against Assad’s regime in Syria’s now three-year old civil war, which has itself had hundreds of thousands of casualties. Assad’s external backers include Russia, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and the US’s ally in Iraq, Iran. Syria’s insurgents are backed by US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. So, the US is on both sides of this conflict.

This is not the only conflict that the US is on both sides of. The US invaded, occupied, and established a government in Afghanistan in 2001/2, overthrowing the Taliban, who retreated to Pakistan. The US spent the next decade fighting the Taliban from Afghanistan and also supporting Pakistan’s government, whose military establishment covertly supports the Taliban (as do the Gulf monarchies, also supported by the US).

What does it mean for the US to be on both sides of a conflict? Is the US working against itself? Does one hand not know what the other is doing?

Not exactly. For all their complex and contradictory dimensions, these conflicts have many important consistencies: the ones mentioned at the outset of this essay. They feature weak states, unable to protect their political sovereignty. Their economies are dysfunctional, unable to regulate or control multinational corporations that can operate freely according to rules they make up as they go along. Their populations are helpless, forced to work in the informal, illicit, and conflict economies, and for the educated, in the conflict-management and NGO economies. At the (literally) highest level, their military affairs are controlled by remote control US technology. The pattern is found in many countries: Afghanistan, Haiti, Palestine, the DR Congo – these are the models for the future of the region, and they are being steered methodically to that outcome.

The problem for Iraqis and Syrians is not artificial borders. All borders are artificial, and no re-partitioning of the countries will solve it. Nor are Iraq and Syria’s conflicts the outcome of a new, multipolar world order that is a result of collapsing US power. US power is not absolute and it may, indeed, be collapsing, but the strategy of the collapsing power might just be to ensure that everyone else collapses first. The shattered statelets of the middle east won’t fail to provide continued access for profit-making, humanitarian intervention, high-tech surveillance, and control.

Justin Podur blogs at and is based in Toronto.

Ultraviolent conflicts

Between economic austerity and riot stories, my reading is out of sync with the headlines. I’ve been reading more about African conflicts, especially very recent and ongoing ones. Specifically:

-Allen and Vlassenroot’s book on the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

-Jason Stearns’s book on the Congo war, “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters”.

-My friend Lansana Gberie’s “A Dirty War in West Africa” on Sierra Leone, and a book he critiques, Paul Richards’s “Fighting for the Rainforest”.

-Assis Malaquias’s “Rebels and Robbers” on Angola’s civil war.

Continue reading “Ultraviolent conflicts”

The Genocide Option in Iraq

An important commentary by Ed Herman on ZNet, where he makes the comparison to Vietnam that actually matters: that the US pursued genocidal policies in Vietnam and is moving towards the same in Iraq. I’ve written before that I dislike talk of how the US was “defeated” in Vietnam and I dislike any talk of “quagmire” for imperialists – the US walked away from Vietnam after having killed several million people and no one in the US answered for it. As for “quagmire”, it is an inversion of reality, implying that the US “can’t” leave for some reason, when in fact it can leave whenever it decides to, and isn’t leaving because it doesn’t want to. There is nothing to celebrate in these “defeats”. Iraq is deliberately created chaos, in which hundreds of people are being murdered every day. The planned US operations for the next few months are going to make things worse. Mass murder is occurring while we watch. It seems that our desensitization is proceeding on schedule.

Christian Peacemaker Team abductions in Iraq

I have traveled to quite a few places where I’ve encountered volunteers with Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’ve never been to Iraq, so that’s not one of the places. But I can say this, which is what others have been saying since some of the CPTers (as they are known to anglophones) were abducted in Iraq last week. The CPTers might have the word ‘Christian’ in their name, but they are no missionaries. They might have ‘peacemaker’ in their name, but that isn’t a euphemism for imperialism the way ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘peacebuilding’ can be. They are people of conscience who are very much anti-imperialist in the most important way – in their actions.

They should be released unharmed. Sign a petition here.

The Iraq Election

A radio link from Dahr Jamail seems to point out the obvious. The elections aren’t free. If you’ve been following the debate between Gilbert Achcar and Alex Callinicos, which has some interesting parts in it, you’re familiar with some of the things that have been said. Schwartz’s media guide was interesting and useful as well.

Continue reading “The Iraq Election”

US and Quentin Tarantino

I realized yesterday after writing my previous post on the US vs. Holy Matrimony that the inspiration for the wedding party massacres might have come from Hollywood. How many readers have seen Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’? The premise of the movie is that an assassin who has given up the assassin’s life to get married and live peacefully in Texas (Beatrix Kiddo) gets hunted down and killed at her wedding rehearsal by her old boss (Bill) and her assassination squadmates, who kill everyone present with automatic weapons. But she doesn’t actually die — she recovers 4 years later and stalks and kills all of her former teammates and Bill. The opening scene of Kill Bill and Kill Bill 2 is the same gruesome, gory scene of Bill delivering the coup de grace to Beatrix. It is horrific to watch, actually. Maybe ‘Kill Bill’ is providing the doctrine for US military action in Iraq. The whole thing does look like a mafia hit, as the more detailed story in the Guardian shows.

Hearing about my mystification at the Chalabi house raid, a reader was kind enough to point out Andrew Cockburn’s Counterpunch article on the topic.

What makes a scandal, scandalous?

This is a question that’s been puzzling me.

This morning, Rahul Mahajan’s blog provided a link to the video footage of the helicopter pilots murdering helpless Iraqis from a distance with heavy machine guns. Rahul has also been scrupulous about republishing the photos of the abuse (don’t call it torture, whatever you do) that have been coming out in the mainstream media.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard this was going on. Actually that’s not true. I was surprised, in fact — surprised that it got out into the mainstream media. That is what surprises me about these ‘scandals’. How do ‘scandals’ become ‘scandalous’? Why do the media choose to leak things when they do? And why do things that are shown become scandals?

I ask this because on April 10, weeks before the torture– oops, sorry, I meant abuse — became a scandal, and just before the Fallujah massacre — oops, I meant combat — occurred, the UTS blog published a warning. Part of that warning was a video clip that came from CNN. That clip shows a soldier murdering a wounded man as he writhes on the ground, and then screaming, celebration, and commentary afterwards. Presumably, this was broadcast on CNN without any fanfare and no ‘scandal’, and yet the clip of the helicopter shooting couldn’t be aired on most networks.

What’s the difference? I found the CNN footage more appalling, not less, than the other. How did the latter become ‘scandalous’?

Why wasn’t the invasion itself a scandal? The occupation itself? Why isn’t the imprisonment of Palestinian children a scandal, or the starvation in Gaza? Or the massacres in Colombia… or in Haiti…

There’s something here I don’t understand, I guess. Journalists sometimes believe that if some explosive piece of information were to reach the public, that something would happen. Or that if it were to reach the media, they’d break the story and something would happen. But there’s plenty of explosive information reaching the media all the time. They don’t bother to pick it up and often when they do, there’s no reaction from the public.

I suppose if I understood scandals better, I’d set about trying to make scandals out of the many scandalous events that go on constantly.

Back to factual matters tomorrow.