What the U.S. war on ISIS looks like from Iraq

December 10, 2014

Journalist Anand Gopal has written from Afghanistan and other Middle East war zones for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, and has reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper's, The Nation, The New Republic, Foreign Policy and other publications. His new book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and War Through Afghan Eyes is a finalist for the National Book Award.

After returning from assignment in Iraq, Anand talked to Ashley Smith about the situation today as the U.S. continues its new war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

WHAT ARE conditions like in Iraq today?

THE CIVIL war that the U.S. invasion helped unleash has not really ended. Rather, it continues in a different form.

Pro-Iran parties dominate the government, the number of Shia militias and death squads has skyrocketed in the past six months, and large parts of central and northern Iraq are under the sway of ISIS or other Sunni insurgent groups. In Baghdad, neighborhoods remain divided. Nearly daily, Sunnis are picked up by Shia militias, and their tortured bodies are delivered to the morgue. In reprisal, Sunni insurgents wheel car bombs into crowded Shia areas, killing dozens, almost all civilians.

HAS OBAMA been effective at all in his stated strategy of building unity between the elites of the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities in Iraq?

VERY INEFFECTIVE. His administration is prioritizing a very narrow version of counter-terrorism to defeat ISIS over political reconciliation and state-building. As a result, Obama has backed the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi army, which work hand in hand with Shia militias and Shia death squads. This has actually sharpened sectarian divisions throughout the country.

A camp flooded with refugees from the ongoing disaster caused by U.S. imperialism in Iraq
A camp flooded with refugees from the ongoing disaster caused by U.S. imperialism in Iraq

For example, there's a highway running from Baghdad up to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. Before the rise of ISIS, there were Iraqi army checkpoints along this highway. Last year, ISIS swept in and took swathes of territory along this highway. The Iraqi security forces have since retaken it from ISIS, but they have allowed Shia militias to set up checkpoints to harass and repress Sunnis. The net effect over the past year is the replacement of army checkpoints with Shia militia checkpoints.

When ISIS took Mosul in June, it became an excuse used by the Iraqi government to sanction new Shia militias--as a result, they have bloomed in the past six months. Driving through Baghdad, you see billboards for Iranian-backed Shia militias everywhere. There are posters of current Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei in many parts of the city.

In many ways, these Shia militias are no different than ISIS. They behead, they torture, they kill Sunnis or anyone who disagrees with them. The difference is that the U.S. supports them, and so the media doesn't highlight their atrocities.

WHAT IMPACT have these militias had on ISIS's recruitment of people from the Sunni population of Iraq?

TO UNDERSTAND why ISIS has grown, you should look back to the period before the movement's current rise.

For the last several years, Iraq's former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki led a sectarian Shia government that systematically discriminated against Sunnis. In reaction, Sunnis rose up in a protest movement in cities of Anbar province, like Ramadi and Falluja.

This was initially a peaceful movement. Protesters occupied squares and erected roadblocks. They set up tent cities to protest government corruption, sectarianism and the Shia militias. Nationalist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr praised the uprising and said, "An Iraqi spring is coming."

The Maliki government's response was to open fire on unarmed protesters, arrest activists and raid encampment sites. In Falluja, rock-throwing protesters were gunned down. In Hawija, the army invaded a protest encampment, killing dozens and sparking clashes that led to the deaths of hundreds.

It was out of the ashes of this repression that ISIS was able to grow, capitalizing on the frustration and anger many felt towards the sectarian government. Initially, ISIS was welcomed as the lesser of two evils.

Many of those people now realize that ISIS is no force of liberation, but the U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces and Shia militias have nonetheless fueled continued resentment and allowed ISIS to still have appeal. When the Iraqi Army and militias go into villages and "clear" it of ISIS, atrocities often ensue. In Diayala, for instance, Shia militias massacred 34 Sunni civilians gathered in a mosque (video link to the massacre). In Latifiya, the militias burned down homes and beheaded civilians.

In effect, the biggest recruitment tool for ISIS is the U.S.- and Iranian-backed Shia forces.

WHAT IMPACT has the U.S. air war had on Iraq?

ISIS HAS lost its momentum since the summer and can no longer be said to be gaining ground or posing an existential threat to the central government in Baghdad.

But the American air war's effect has been pretty minimal. The U.S. has struck some ISIS command centers and convoys. But in reality, the area where ISIS has lost the most ground is where the Iraqi Army and the Shia militias have come in and imposed their rule. This has mostly occurred in Shia and Kurdish areas--not in Sunni regions such as Anbar. Neither American air strikes nor the Iraqi Army nor Shia militias have succeeded in dislodging ISIS from the province.

WHAT ABOUT the Kurds in Iraq and their threat to declare independence?

THE U.S. has long been opposed to the Kurdish right to self-determination and independence. The Kurdish officials I've talked with made it clear that Obama's war has stymied their drive for more autonomy and independence.

The U.S. elite doesn't want Iraq to disintegrate. They want the Kurdish region's oil to remain under the control of the Iraqi state. So they have made every effort to stop any further development of Kurdish autonomy.

IS THE situation any different in the other theater of U.S. military operations, Syria?

THE U.S. has attacked ISIS, but not the Assad regime. This has angered many Syrians who think that if you're going to bomb anybody, you should bomb the regime. But they're not, they're bombing ISIS. And they've also bombed other rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which, though it is Islamist, is a fairly popular rebel group.

Obama's decision to do this has put him essentially on the same side as Assad and against the Syrian people. One of the horrible results of this fact is that it has actually given legitimacy to the hardline Islamist groups, and even to ISIS itself.

This has, in fact, been an effect of U.S. policy since the beginning of the uprising. For example, when the U.S. put Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, on the list of international terrorist organizations, the next day, there were protests around Syria, with people--most of them not necessarily Islamist--holding up signs saying, "We are all Jabhat al-Nusra."

So the American war in Syria is, in fact, bolstering the very groups they're trying to fight. That's a disaster. And unfortunately, the secular forces and the forces that support a democratic Syria are now few and far between.

HOW WOULD you describe the state of the Syrian Revolution against Assad at this point?

LET'S STEP back a little bit. The Syrian Revolution began as a mass popular uprising of the country's people against the regime. Initially, there were peaceful protests. The Assad regime tried to crush them, killing tens of thousands of people. The regime forced people to take up arms to defend themselves and their families. The army split, with large numbers of soldiers and some officers going over to the side of the revolution, providing it with weapons and expertise in armed combat.

But once the revolution became militarized, people were forced to find sources of arms, ammunition and other resources to supply their groups. Saudi Arabia and Qatar took advantage of this situation for their own aims. They injected funds and supplied weapons, and in this milieu, Islamism grew.

Meanwhile, some of the leading non-Islamist groups were forced to turn to corruption and even thievery to make ends meet and keep themselves supplied, alienating segments of the population and further promoting the influence of the Islamists.

At the same time, Assad promoted the growth of the most hardline Islamists. Back in June 2011, he opened his prisons and emptied them of radical Islamists, a Machiavellian move to brand the opposition as terrorists. Many of these ex-prisoners got access to the funds and weapons from the Gulf states.

Very quickly, the democratic and secular forces were out-resourced, and the sectarian Islamists became very strong. This set in motion the devolution of the country into a sectarian and ethnic civil war that is similar in many respects to that in Iraq. Today, eastern Syria is largely under the control of ISIS. Northern Syria is mostly under the sway of Jabhat al-Nusra. And in southern Syria, the Free Syrian Army has a toehold.

The hopes of the revolution have become largely lost in this tragic situation. The Assad regime has sought this from the very beginning, hoping to divide and conquer Syria's religious, ethnic and national groups.

WHAT IS the American endgame for its war in Syria, and will that quell the people's desire for fundamental change?

I THINK Obama wants a political solution in which the bulk of the Syrian state remains intact, but at the same time, some token representatives from the opposition are incorporated. They want minor changes at the top of the state to stabilize the country, which would in effect mark a return of the very policies that precipitated the revolution.

The Syrian people rose up, in part, in opposition to the effects of neoliberalism. They wanted a thoroughgoing revolution that overturned the way politics and economics has been structured in the country for many decades. Initially, they wanted jobs, they wanted subsidies, and they wanted a better livelihood. Those things are not going to be addressed by a political solution at the top.

Today, with many of those early hopes of transforming society gone, many simply want security for themselves and their families. But that means an end to the Baathist regime's torture state that has imposed so much suffering and indignity on the Syrian people. That's why many Syrians I speak to oppose any solution that calls for a negotiated settlement between elites at the top of Syrian society.

WILL THE new Kurdish resistance against ISIS offer an opportunity to re-galvanize the revolution?

FOR A long time, the Kurds played a contradictory role in the uprising, because many of the Kurdish groups didn't oppose Assad--or if they did, they didn't ally with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the popular movement in Syria. In large part, this was because the Syrian Arab resistance had a poor position on the question of Kurdish independence. The only positive side to the rise of ISIS is that it has actually brought some Arab and Kurdish groups together. That has provided hope for some activists I've spoken to.

But having said that, we still have to recognize that the Islamist side is much better funded and armed, and a lot of the people who were the backbone of the revolution's coordinating committees have been killed. Others have fled the country. So while there may be some hope in the Kurdish areas, it's a dire situation for the revolution in other parts of Syria today.

SO DOES the U.S. care about the Kurdish fight for autonomy or independence in Syria?

NO. THE U.S. isn't interested in Kurdish independence, nor are its allies, Iraq and Turkey. And the U.S. certainly doesn't want to support leftist resistance groups like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian sister group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which support Kurdish autonomy and social justice.

Many Kurds are well aware of American opposition to their struggle for self-determination. So there's a debate among them about how to regard the American military attacks. Some activists I've spoken to say that they should accept U.S. support and use it to their own ends, while others insist that because the U.S. doesn't have Kurdish interests at heart, ultimately, Kurds themselves will have to win this fight.

That's something resistance fighters in southern Syria are finding out. There, the CIA has been giving out arms not to the FSA as a whole, nor to any Syrian resistance group, but to individual commanders. By doing so, the U.S. risks creating warlords, like it did in Afghanistan. This also creates corruption, something that has driven people away from the FSA, and into the arms of Islamist groups.

WHAT ARE some of the regional dimensions of the Obama's war in Syria and Iraq?

FIRST OF all, the U.S. has, for a while, backed the Sunni Gulf states against Shia Iran. These powers have taken opposite sides in Syria and Iraq. Iran is supporting the Shia militias and the Iraqi government in Iraq. In Syria, Iran supports Assad and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which is fighting on behalf of the regime.

On the other hand, the Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting extremist Sunnis in Syria. So in many ways, there is proxy war going on in Syria and Iraq between Iran and the Sunni Gulf States.

Second, this is all taking place in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Throughout the region, people stood up and tried to reclaim their lives and overthrow oppressive dictatorships, and in most cases, they have not succeeded for a variety of reasons.

Look at Egypt. They replaced the Mubarak regime with an equally dictatorial (if not worse) regime. In the case of Libya, the revolt backed by American air power toppled the Muammar el-Qaddafi dictatorship, but replaced it not with a better government, but with civil war and anarchy.

All this seems like a defeat of the Arab Spring. But I actually think it's not that. Rather, I believe it's a consequence of the fact that there are no progressive forces strong enough to provide an alternative to the Islamists' sectarianism.

So the Islamists have filled a vacuum. But at the end of the day, these Islamist groups, as we saw in Egypt, are not going to be able to address the fundamental problems that people rose up to change. They will not put an end to the authoritarianism and class inequalities that sparked the revolt. So there remains space for an alternative to emerge, even if it may take many years or a generation.

HOW MUCH is there an inter-imperialist dynamic at play in this war?

THERE CERTAINLY is an inter-imperial dynamic, particularly in Syria, between Russia and the U.S.

Initially, the U.S. seemed committed to overthrowing Assad's regime, which Russia backs. But the U.S. focus on ISIS seems to have changed that. The U.S. is so focused on ISIS that it's retreated from almost any plan for regime change. Instead, all you hear about now from the U.S. is ISIS. I think it's one of these cases where America's short-term project of anti-terrorism has preempted its long-term rivalry with Russia and China.

WHAT IS Obama aiming to achieve with this war?

THERE ARE multiple aims. First, there is the general aim, which is independent of the particular moment, to make the Middle East safe for American interests. Obama, like Bush before him, wants to cultivate client states in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

However, the U.S. didn't account for the Arab Spring. It didn't account for the fact that Syrians would rise up. It didn't account for the Sunni rising in Iraq. As a result of these events, the Obama administration has been forced to adjust its long-term aims in order to achieve short-term ones.

The U.S. is committed to defeating ISIS and forging alliances to accomplish this short-term objective--even though this objective is, in a sense, at odds with long-term aims. For example, the U.S. now seems willing to accept a Baathist state in Syria, albeit with token representation from the opposition.

In Iraq, the U.S. is prepared to rely on the Iraqi government, which is very closely allied with its archenemy Iran, even though this government and its militias are largely responsible for the current incarnation of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Nevertheless, the U.S. is redoubling its support for the Iraqi government, which means, in effect, also supporting the Shia militias. By doing so, the U.S. is inadvertently ensuring that there will be continued chaos in the Middle East for many years to come.

WHAT SHOULD people in the antiwar movement and committed to social justice be saying about this whole situation?

FIRST, WE should remind people that this disastrous situation is the result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Its invasion and occupation is the cause of today's crisis. ISIS grew out of the Sunni insurgency that was a response to that invasion. To defeat that insurgency, the U.S. turned to divide-and-rule tactics to keep the Sunni and Shia resistance apart, setting in motion the sectarian logic that led to civil war.

When I was in Baghdad, I was struck by how deeply divided that city still is. If you are Sunni, there are whole Shia neighborhoods that are still too dangerous for you to go to. You can get dragged out to the streets and killed. This is the legacy of the civil war that the U.S. unleashed.

Second, further intervention will likely only make the situation worse. People often ask what can be done about groups like ISIS? As the situation in Syria shows, Syrian activists and revolutionaries are capable of heroically resisting ISIS, and we can help them in that effort by exposing the problems caused by the current U.S. interventions.

But exposing is only the first step. Stopping these interventions would require a mass antiwar movement--including among American soldiers--like the type we saw during Vietnam. We're a very far way off from something like that, but without it, the havoc will likely continue.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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