Socialist Alternative

ISIS’s Waning “Caliphate”

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Imperialist solutions are no solution at all

Serge Jordan, CWI

Next month will mark the second anniversary of US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” against ISIS/Daesh in Iraq and Syria. US President Barack Obama recently boasted about the successes of this campaign. There is no easy way of independently verifying the figures provided by the Pentagon and other official governmental sources, but ISIS has undeniably lost important parts of its pseudo-caliphate over the course of the last few months, and seen its fighters, weapons, and funding shrink.

US-backed forces drove ISIS out of the northern Syrian city of Manbij last week, cutting one of its key supply routes, and triggering scenes of celebration by the local population, with men cutting their beards and women burning their niqabs. This is the latest in a number of military setbacks imposed on the group across both Syria and Iraq.

Yet Obama’s words will surely fall on the deaf ears of many Iraqis and Syrians whose relatives, friends or neighbours have been killed or mutilated in the “collateral damages” of the intensive bombing campaign. Imperialist hypocrisy is on display when western rulers pretend to care about human losses resulting from ISIS attacks, but impose a wall of silence on the growing death toll that their thousands of bombs provoke in the Middle East among civilians.

Few will regret the end of the thoroughly reactionary rule of ISIS in Manbij. But the siege over that city had terrible consequences for its population. On 19 July, away from the TV cameras, scores of civilians were killed in US air strikes on the city and on a nearby village, with some sources putting the number of dead as high as 117.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people continue to fall victims to ISIS or ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks across the world. The group still benefits from a large network of supporters in the Middle East but also in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe and elsewhere, It is trying to compensate its territorial losses on the ground by shifting towards more “conventional” terrorist methods, with particularly murderous actions aimed at impressing its enemies and boosting its support base.

On 3 July, over 300 people were killed in Baghdad in the deadliest terrorist bombing in Iraq since 2003. In the West too, terror attacks have been on the increase, graphically disproving the point that clamping down on democratic rights -the favoured method of the ruling classes- is an efficient response to the problem at stake.

This is especially true when it is combined with continuous austerity policies dramatically expanding the scope of social and economic marginalisation, with the support for theocratic Monarchies in the Gulf who are spreading the Wahhabi ideology across the world, and with the relentless bombing of predominantly Muslim countries which feeds straight into the poisonous and divisive narrative of ISIS. All this creates a climate exposing ordinary people further to the likelihood of terrorist blowbacks.

Waning caliphate

It was quite clear from the outset that ISIS would find it challenging to administer strong urban centres for a sustained period of time by the sole rule of fear. Their posturing of an invincible force was rapidly confronted with huge military pressure from the outside, as well as a growing discredit and popular anger from the inside. Last May, ISIS’ spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani proclaimed that his group “does not fight for territory”, visibly preparing its supporters for the possibility of further territorial losses.

But imposing military defeats on ISIS and eliminating the source of its growth are two entirely different proposals. It is actually far from the first time that grandiloquent proclamations are being made by Western imperialism about military victories in the battle against right-wing Islamist groups, to be refuted by the practical course of events later on. The example of the alleged defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 comes to mind. Now the Taliban are holding more ground in the country than at any point since that year.

An article published on in June of 2015 argued: “Of course, one cannot rule out the possibility that the Western-led coalition will eventually manage to impose some decisive military blows to ISIS and to kick the jihadists out of some of the key territories they control. But even in case this happens, if the underlying conditions that enabled ISIS to flourish in the first place are not addressed, other similar or even more barbaric organizations might well take its place.”

Parts of ISIS can metamorphose into a new movement. The social forces behind its existence are not going to just disappear, unless real change is brought about. Close observers of the Syrian battlefield warn of the growing influence of the fundamentalist group Jabha Al-Nusra (now rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), “far superior in fighting tactics, personnel and guns” to ISIS, according to the veteran British war correspondent, Robert Fisk. This group is leading the counter-offensive against Assad regime forces in Aleppo, with plenty of military and financial backing coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the two most significant markets for weapon sales by the United States.

Short-term military successes do not preclude long-term disasters. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was also declared finished following the “Anbar awakening” movement in 2007, when Sunni Arab tribes armed by the US army joined forces with the occupier to quell AQI in the Western Anbar Province. Today’s ISIS is nothing but the resurrection of AQI in an even more monstrous format. This demonstrates that the imperialist powers can win temporary military battles, but by keeping well in place all the economic, social and political conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place, they are only sowing the seeds for future calamities.

Inter-imperialist race

One cannot doubt that enfeebling ISIS is a real concern for the main strategists of imperialism. Questions of prestige but also of the stability for their countries’ corporate investments and influence in the region are at stake. The Middle East continues to occupy a key role in the geopolitical calculations of all the main capitalist powers on the planet. Ensuring control and political influence over this region remains paramount for access to markets and energy resources.

Behind the fight against ISIS lies indeed the pursuit of broader strategic interests. For this very reason, “fighting ISIS and terrorism” is also a convenient fig leaf behind which every capitalist power hides its intrinsic, imperialist goals. Hence the pretence of united purposes and cooperation in the global struggle against ISIS has been from the start fragmented by the competing agendas of the various powers involved, as well as their multiple proxies.

The current preparations to recapture the heartlands of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa (which is relentlessly bombed from the air by Russian, Syrian government, American, British, French and Jordanian air forces) are likely to bring these contradictions further into the open.

The race is on to decide who is going to call the shots in the areas the jihadists have been booted out from. This is also illustrated by the escalation of US military involvement. In April of this year, US President Obama sent two hundred and fifty US “Special Forces” into the North of Syria, adding to the fifty American troops already in operation. This is a small, but still the largest expansion of US troops in Syria since the beginning of the war.

Photos published by the BBC last week have brought evidence that British Special Forces were also covertly involved in the fighting in Syria. The use of so-called Special Forces is increasingly used by imperialist powers to circumvent Parliamentary oversight on the sending of foreign troops into terrains of war. The deaths of three French soldiers last month in Libya confirmed for the first time that Paris had secretly been carrying out military operations via Special Forces in that country for months as well.

In July, 560 additional American troops were sent to Iraq, officially to help retake Mosul. This brings the number of US soldiers in Iraq to nearly 5,000.

Obama took over the US presidency with the promise of bringing the troops back home; he is finishing it by deploying new troops to both Syria and Iraq. Serious military setbacks agaisnt ISIS have been imposed from the sky, but the Americans are well aware that they cannot fully benefit from these victories without reliable troops on the ground. At the same time, a full-blown military intervention at this point in Syria, let alone in Iraq, is politically inconceivable for them.


In Iraq, US imperialism has left behind an appalling legacy, from which it has never fully recovered. Despite the stomach-turning propaganda of ISIS and its orgy of violence, which has inevitably affected the consciousness of ordinary people in the West, polls have shown that a significant portion of Americans oppose sending troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. A consistent majority also think sending troops to Iraq was a mistake in the first place.

During the battles to recapture Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS, the US strategists were forced to come to terms with the fact that while US fighter jets would provide air support, the anti-ISIS job on the ground would be essentially outsourced to Iranian-backed Shia militias. Many of these Shia militias have distinguished themselves by sectarian atrocities perpetrated against local Sunnis. Several human rights organisations have detailed credible allegations of summary executions, torture, beatings, enforced disappearances, and mutilation of corpses by those groups. This violence can only help to fan the flames of sectarianism and play right into the hands of the likes of ISIS, who market themselves as a protector of the Sunnis against Shia-led persecution.

By sending additional American troops to Iraq, US imperialism is trying to regain some semblance of control and political leverage on the ground. This is also to cut across the spreading influence of Iran – while not generating the political outbursts that a major outpouring of US troops would inevitably provoke, in the region as well as at home.

In July, the Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, publically called its supporters to target American troops deployed to Iraq as part of the military campaign against ISIS. Similar statements have been made by other Shia militias. “They still hate us as much as they hate ISIS”, is how a former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq referred to these forces. Yet another indication that US imperialism is walking on a very tight rope.

But the real nightmare is for local Iraqis to bear. The replacement of the Sunni death squads of ISIS by Shia death squads represents certainly no genuine improvement in their lives. Many have not come back to their hometowns by fear of sectarian reprisals, or simply because their houses have been destroyed in the fighting. Reports indicate that all minority communities (Yazidis, Turkmens, Christians) express fear of returning to their areas once these have been “liberated” from ISIS for similar reasons. More than 3.3 million Iraqis are currently displaced across the country and many more are likely to be in the coming months. And the UN is already warning that the imminent battle for Mosul will lead to “mass civilian casualties” and to the “largest and most dramatic humanitarian crisis in the world”.


When it comes to Syria, most attempts by the US to gain leverage by backing, arming and training various rebel groups there have mostly ended up in an embarrassing fiasco. The outstanding exception to this has been their increasingly tight cooperation with the Kurdish militants of the YPG (People’s Protection Units), linked to the PYD (Democratic Union Party).

The latter have established a Kurdish enclave in the North of the country (Rojava), and have rightly been praised for their heroism and their successes in imposing military defeats on ISIS. There is no doubt that this determination on the battlefield is largely fuelled by their hopes of building a different type of society in Rojava, based on people’ solidarity, gender equality, and on the rights of the Kurds to determine their own future after decades of oppression.

But their success has not been missed by the main imperialist powers, who have opportunistically jumped on the YPG bandwagon. This came to a head when last year, the Washington-backed “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) were created, a broad military coalition involving some Arab tribes but in which the YPG units constitute the spinal column. The SDF is the military force at the origin of the recent ousting of ISIS from Manbij, even though this was done with heavy air support from the US-led coalition.

While temporary practical arrangements, exchange of weapons or military information can at times be necessary to fight the murderous gangs of ISIS, the CWI thinks that the PYD/YPG should have maintained a clear independence of action and program from all the imperialist forces, and vocally warned against their manoeuvres. The attempt by the US to influence the YPG’s course of action has as much to do with the campaign against ISIS as it has to do with a willingness to cut across the most radical and progressive aspects of the Syrian Kurds’ program.

The latest developments, unfortunately, tend to give substance to the early warnings made by the CWI about the YPG troops being increasingly used as foot soldiers for the war goals of US imperialism. Last May, American soldiers were even photographed wearing insignias of the YPG on their uniforms.

At the same time, the PYD leaders have also built close relations with the Russian rulers, including by opening an office in Moscow earlier this year, and by coordinating some of their military advances with Russian airstrikes in northern Aleppo. This is despite the devastating impact of the Russian bombings on local communities, which have killed scores of civilians and imposed wide-scale destruction on infrastructure.

“The PYD party has supported and welcomed the Russian campaign in Syria from its very first days”, declared Abd Salam Muhammad Ali, a PYD representative, in February. However, imperialist powers are not exactly well known for their gratitude vis-à-vis the Kurds. For instance, it cannot be ruled out that the recent rapprochement between Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin might trigger a shift in Russian foreign policy, turning against the PYD itself. On Thursday 18 August, Syrian regime warplanes carried out airstrikes in the northeastern city of Hasaka, the first time since the beginning of the war that a YPG-held area has been targeted on such a scale by Assad’s forces. This is a sign of all the twists-and-turns inherent to the war manoeuvres of the main regional and international powers, and acutely emphasizes the need for a principled, independent working class policy, with no trust given to capitalist regimes whose sole interests are greed, power, prestige and profits.

The fighters of the YPG cannot spare any efforts to avoid being identified with the imperialist violence, the destruction and massacre of civilians resulting from US and Russian bombs. These are the very type of crimes which provide the jihadists of all stripes with propaganda material and new pools of potential recruits. Not doing so can directly undermine their support and push them apart from the layers inhabiting the Arab-majority territories they strive to liberate from ISIS.

This is a critical question, as Rojava is being squeezed on all sides, with the Turkish regime in the north, ISIS in the south, and a hostile Iraqi Kurdistan government on the east. The only way to break this deadlock for good is by adopting a strategy that can win over the active support of the working class and poor internationally, across all ethnic and sectarian lines.

Mass struggle

This demands a programme guaranteeing equal rights for all peoples, but also campaigning for the vast wealth of the region to be owned and controlled democratically in order to provide a secure standard of living for all.

According to the US Department of Defence, as of 15 July, the total cost of the military operations related to ISIS since they started on 8 August 2014 is of $8.4billion. A democratic, socialist planning of the economy internationally would make sure that such a colossal amount of money is invested to improve people’s lives, not to destroy them further.

The majority of people in the Middle East are striving for a life free from the ruthless medieval rule of ISIS. Yet they are equally striving from a life free from the scourges of poverty, exploitation, sectarian governments, imperialist intervention and dictatorship. Most cities where ISIS has been kicked out are in ruins, and the number of refugees is soaring to new heights – the imperialist as well Assad’s airstrikes being a major factor in this situation. This shows at what cost “liberation” is to be achieved if it is brought by bombs, rather than by a mass uprising of the Iraqi and Syrian people.

Furthermore, once ISIS is driven out, the question of what comes next remains to be answered. Neither imperialist powers, the local capitalist regimes or their sectarian militias, are obviously interested in encouraging a struggle to challenge the masses’ living conditions in the region – the very same conditions which have allowed, in the absence of a clear alternative, ISIS and other reactionary jihadist groups to flourish. Relentlessly dropping bombs over heavily inhabited areas only makes these conditions far worse.

That is why the zones liberated from ISIS cannot be left in the hands of unaccountable army officers, imperialist military advisers, or any of the various sectarian militias and profiteering gangsters who try to enrich themselves from the spoils of war. They need to be put under the democratic control of the local people, via elected committees and councils composed of workers and poor inhabitants from all communities. Such committees could be in charge of organising people’ self-defence, on a mass and non-sectarian basis, against all reactionary militias and occupying armies, and be the lever to rebuild a united struggle to take on all the rotten capitalist and feudal forces who are making people’s lives a misery.

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