Iraq, Syria: US-caused 'blowback' as violence escalates; Kurds resist ISIS

Kurdish fighters resist ISIS.

By Tony Iltis

August 24, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, a shorter version of this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly -- Since August 8, for the first time since officially ending its occupation at the end of 2011, the United States has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq.

The strikes were aimed at the extremely violent multinational terrorist group that was until recently known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but which renamed itself simply the "Islamic State" on June 29, to reflect that its ambitions are global. The group originally emerged in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

International gangs of Salafi Sunni Muslim fundamentalists have been a feature of world politics since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989. To fight the Soviet occupation, the CIA, working with Saudi Arabia, had recruited a Salafi force from all over the world but having achieved this cut them loose. International groups of Salafi fighters began appearing wherever there was large-scale armed conflict in the Islamic world, while the mainly Saudi leadership of the network (prosaically named “the Base”, or Al Qaeda) engaged in escalating attacks against their former sponsor, the US, culminating in the 9/11 attacks.


In a recurring pattern of “blowback” from military adventures and pretexts for war that became self-fulfilling prophecies, the US-led invasion to overthrow the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, justified with fabricated evidence of an Iraqi alliance with Al Qaeda, made Iraq a favoured destination for multinational Salafi terrorist groups.

The US occupiers were less worried by this than by the prospect of a unified national resistance. In 2004-2005 the US ambassador to Iraq, and highest civilian figure in the US occupation, was John Negraponte, a veteran of the CIA’s “dirty wars” in Central America in the 1980s and expert in the creation of death squads. The US forestalled the emergence of a national resistance by fomenting a sectarian civil war between the Shia majority and Sunni minority (who had been dominant under Saddam and previous regimes, and during British and Ottoman rule).

By 2006, the US had overseen the division of Baghdad into Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods, and built walls between the two. The sectarian war seemed to be spinning out of control but with a “troop surge” the US occupiers maintained their position as the strongest military force and used the competition between the fratricidal Iraqi groups for their support to create a US-controlled balance of power. By 2011, this had stabilised enough for US President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, which, however, left behind a residual force of US military advisers and “security contractors” (mercenaries).

It also left behind an extremely fragile Iraqi state. Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north, retained the high degree of autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — an uneasy alliance of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan that had existed under US protection since the 1991 US war against Iraq. In the rest of the country sectarian militias continued to rule. While continuing to play various armed groups against each other, the US favoured Shia militias over Sunni ones, and among the Shia groups those of Nuri al-Maliki, who they installed as prime minister. More anti-occupation Shia forces, such as those of Moqtada al-Sadr, were sidelined.

Paradoxically, the regime installed by the US in Iraq had good relations with the main US rival in the region, Iran.


ISIS originated as the Al Qaeda franchise in occupied Iraq. Following the US withdrawal it turned its attention to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

The Syrian civil war began as a mass uprising against the secular dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The brutal military response of the Assad regime did much to turn it into a civil war, as did covert Western support to armed opposition groups. This was mainly indirect, originating in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich, Western-backed Sunni theocratic monarchies, particularly Qatar, and was facilitated by the regime in Turkey and right-wing Sunni militias in Lebanon.

Diplomatically, the West supported the Syrian National Council, a government-in-exile with no influence inside the country. Officially the military forces of the SNC are the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed by military officers defecting from Assad and local militias. However, in reality the FSA was never more than an uncoordinated network of independent brigades whose commanders often became little more than bandits and warlords.

A convergence of interests led to the conflict becoming a religious sectarian one. Assad, who along with much of the military elite, came from the Alawite minority presented his regime as the protector of religious minorities against Sunni fundamentalism and communalism. While the Muslim Brotherhood was the largest underground opposition prior to the uprising, the regime initially concentrated its repression on leftist and secular opponents. The West’s regional proxies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf kingdoms, Turkey and the right-wing militias in Lebanon, all favoured Sunni communalist and fundamentalist groups.

The West and Israel sought to weaken the Assad regime, particularly to stop it supporting the Lebanese anti-Israel resistance movement, Hezbollah, but a devastating civil war achieved this goal while regime change contained the risk of a stronger Syrian regime that could become a more implacable foe to Israel than the posturing dictator, Assad.

FSA brigades increasingly took a Sunni Islamist character while more hard-line groups emerged outside the FSA. ISIS broke with Al Qaeda when the latter supported its local Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front against an attempted ISIS takeover.

That the Assad regime is still hanging on to power in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo is in large part due to disunity among the opposition and to many opposition groups equalling, or even exceeding, the regime’s capacity for violence against the population, causing loss of support. It is also due to the opposition groups' strategy assuming a much higher level of Western support than was forthcoming.


In 2013, ISIS emerged as the strongest opposition group in Syria outside Syrian Kurdistan (Rojova). This alarmed the West because the group’s anti-Western rhetoric was matched by a history of having fought against Western forces in Iraq and because of its unwillingness to submit to any outside sponsor, even Al Qaeda. The West encouraged the FSA brigades and those of the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front to unite against ISIS.

Many brigades, however, defected to ISIS, partly because of its success and also in response to perceived Western betrayal. Most of the predominantly Chechen foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, both veteran Jihadis and new recruits (including Westerners), joined Islamist groups and most are now in ISIS.

ISIS also gained a reputation for extreme violence, even by the standards of other participants in the Iraq and Syria conflicts. Partly due to its uncompromising Salafi ideology, it also reflected the brutalising effects of the conflicts. This ultraviolence was visible when ISIS swept back into Iraq in June, releasing videos of the mass execution of prisoners of war.

This invasion also revealed the weakness of the Iraq state. The Maliki regime was at the time trying to hang on to power following elections and as the ISIS forces swept southward they were welcomed by many in Sunni Arab communities alienated by the violent Shia sectarianism of the regime. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Maliki deployed troops against attempts by rival Shia politicians to dislodge him.


At the beginning of August the ISIS advance turned north toward Kurdistan, and included genocide against Christian and Yezidi religious minorities in the areas they overran. The latter minorites are a small, mainly Kurdish, community who inhabit the area around Mount Sinjar. After forces of the pro-Western KRG fled, the population fled up the mountain, where they were besieged and lackied in food and water. Hundreds have been killed, including by being buried alive, while hundreds of women have been abducted as sex slaves and children taken for forced conversion.

However, most Yazidi were rescued by anti-Western Kurdish forces. These include the HPG, the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been struggling for the freedom of Turkish Kurdistan for decades, and the Peoples Protection Forces (YPG).

The latter are based in Rojova (Syrian Kurdistan). Led by the PYD, a party which shares the PKK’s left-wing ideology, these forces have held Rojova since June 2012, when Assad withdrew forces in the region to defend Aleppo and Damascus. They have since fought off attacks from the Assad regime, the Nusra Front, ISIS and the FSA, although they have an uneasy alliance with the latter. In contrast to the rest of Syria, and to KRG-controlled Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojova has undergone a revolutionary transformation. Local democratic control is reflected in the YPG being a unified force but with local community-controlled militias as its base. The high proportion of women in the YPG’s and HPG’s ranks reflects the social gains made by women in the areas they control.

US bombing began to block the ISIS advance on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. On August 7, advances by KRG forces were backed by Iraqi Air Force air strikes. Iraq lacks trained pilots. The US denied that its pilots flew these missions, which were possibly carried out with Russian or Iranian pilots. From August 8, the US Air Force has carried out strikes in support of the KRG. While Sinjar was recaptured from ISIS by the YPG, HPG and local Yezidi and Christian militias they have set up, the strategically important Mosul Dam was recaptured by KRG forces backed by US airstrikes. In Erbil, the KRG has reluctantly accepted TPG-HPG help in defending the city.

On August 15, the US finally prevailed on Baghdad’s political elite to replace Maliki with another pro-Iranian politician, Haider Al-Abadi.

'Anti-terror' laws

The violence of ISIS, its penchant for filming its own atrocities, and the appearance of Western fighters in this grisly propaganda, has led Western powers to bring in a new round of anti-democratic “anti-terror” laws.

In Australia, proposed laws will mean that anyone returning from a listed country will have to prove that they are not a terrorist. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s campaign for these laws, with his absurd yet totalitarian “Team Australia” rhetoric, was given a boost on August 11 when Australian Khaled Sharrouf tweeted an image of his young son cradling the severed head of an Assad regime soldier, with the caption “That’s my boy”. Sharrouf was imprisoned under existing anti-terror laws in 2007 and was involved with organised crime after his release before he fled with his family on a borrowed passport to Syria, where he joined ISIS.

On August 20, ISIS responded to the air strikes with the filmed decapitation of US journalist James Foley by a British-accented executioner. Foley was taken hostage by a rebel brigade in Syria in November 2012. He became a prisoner of ISIS either through his original captors selling him or joining ISIS. The May 3, 2013, issue of the newspaper he was working for, the Global Post, incorrectly reported he was being held by government forces. The Global Post later received a ransom demand for €100 million from ISIS but did not reveal this until after his murder. The US responded to this crime by increasing the tempo of air strikes.

A paradox of ISIS violence being used to promote new “anti-terror” laws is that in the US, the EU and Australia existing anti-terror laws have been used against the PKK, a democratic group that is fighting ISIS.

Another paradox of ISIS being the main justification for a new war is that ISIS’s enemies include not only the revolutionary Kurdish groups and pro-Western Iraqi and KRG regimes but also the West’s rival Iran and the Assad regime in Syria. On August 23, the ABC reported that Britain's foreign secretary Philip Hammond had rebuffed suggestions from retired British political and military leaders for an alliance with Assad.