About 30 nations have gathered together to form part of what Tony Abbott has called the “coalition of the concerned” (the PM’s talent for catchy phrases and no follow-up suggests where his talents lie). They were particularly happy to have China aboard — the Middle Kingdom’s concerns about Islamist movements with a global reach and the possible effect in Xinjiang outweigh China’s continued delight at further damage done to the United States by chaos in Iraq.
Such a broad approach looks like success — Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) has been identified as an enemy of everyone, a group with whom no negotiation is possible, and with a positive appetite for violence as a righteous act. The world has turned as one. But of course such a commitment contains its opposite: the sheer unanimity of opposition grants the IS a recognition it could not otherwise achieve. Its statehood is brought into being by the process of trying to crush it.
This was unquestionably part of President Barack Obama’s much-criticised reluctance to act against it earlier. The only way in which Iraq could survive as a nominal state was to deal with internal threats as no more than that, and with Iraqi Kurdistan playing a subordinate role, while remaining part of the Iraqi state.
Post-2003 Iraq never existed as an independent state until US forces left. The key act of the “surge” — strengthening Sunni sheikhs and other regional leaders with massive bribery — had already weakened state power substantially. Iraq had been created in the 1920s by British negotiator Gertrude Bell obtaining the consent and submission of such people’s great-grandads to state power.
The “surge” undid that in a matter of months, and the actions by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Dawa Party in strengthening Shia power were not merely a chauvinist act (though they were partly that); they were a defence against the Sunni power that the US had revived — and which was reflected in Sunni political parties, who were simply clients of powerful Sunni sheikhs.
Thus the combination of US occupation, Sunni regional power, Shia boosting and increasing Kurdish autonomy (with a US blind eye) was to weaken the Iraqi state. The longer the US stayed, the weaker it would have become. The idea that an autonomous political sphere would develop within overarching US power was like expecting a bonsai forest to grow to full height.
How long was it proposed that the US stay in Iraq to ward off the IS? Fifteen years in Afghanistan have not killed off the Taliban, the last “death cult” but one we would obliterate, and now negotiate with. Al-Qaeda, the “death cult” after that, or its subsequent non-IS branch-offs, might now well sneak into the approved resistance forces the US will be backing in Syria. They will be fighting IS rather than Assad, and we are assured that arms and money will only go to democratic, progressive forces. But of course that suggests a pure division that doesn’t exist. There’s a spectrum of opposition in Syria, and much of what is being called progressive is Islamist to some degree — simply not as wantonly violent as al-Qaeda.
The plan in its ideal projection is to wipe out IS in Iraq. But even if that occurs, to be effective, state power must be consolidated in Syria too. Otherwise IS will simply retreat to the stateless northern areas and regroup. Furthermore, the group will be being pushed westward, towards Jordan. Jordan is a weak state, a pseudo-nation created as a consolation prize for the Hashemite kings when they didn’t get Syria or what is now Saudi Arabia.
Originally intended as Transjordan, a place to decant the Palestinians into and give Israel the entire west side to the sea, it has been taken over by an insurgent group before — in the late 1960s, when Fatah/Palestinian Liberation Organization took it over and used it as a state base to build their movement, before being violently thrown out in September 1970.
“But in realpolitik terms (not moral ones), the US — strategically and for domestic political consumption — has little choice but to act against IS, while knowing that it will expand the field of conflict.”
IS would also make a push towards Lebanon, equally weak as a state but host to at least one strong force — Hezbollah, another group designated as a death cult.
In the late ’60s, Israel was happy to see Fatah take over Jordan, since the Arab nations had not yet made a peace deal with Israel, and Arab infighting was a good thing. One can’t see them viewing the arrival of the IS with the same equanimity. Would that mean leaving it to the US to strengthen Jordan’s response? Or would they simply do what they think necessary for forward defence? The dilemma is even sharper in Lebanon. Would Israel consent to the US lending informal support to Hezbollah?
There’s no reason the US wouldn’t take this step. American air capacity is already giving cover to Iranian-backed Shia militias in eastern Iraq — and co-ordination with such militias is necessary to the defence of Baghdad. That pushes Iraq further to dismemberment by giving the Shias a distinct military identity — and it would be idle to think they do not have real links with Hezbollah.
The US backing Hezbollah — even informally — would be an impasse in relations with Israel, since it has already invaded Lebanon twice in a decade to deal with the group. Or would Israel find an IS incursion not unwelcome, at least in Lebanon? IS is anti-Jewish, and violent in that as in everything, but Israel is far from its main focus — which is on Shia, as apostates, and also Sunnis they disagree with.
How far will the violence and disorder expand? Take a look at the map. From the Iraq-Iran border — a real division between cultures — across to the Atlantic coast of north Africa, there is not a single border that was not created by Western fiat, sleazy deals and attempts to sequester and divide the Arab people. For a century the Arab nationalist movement was pan-Arabist in its ambitions, reaching its apogee with the United Arab Republic — the fusion of Egypt and Syria (and briefly south Yemen) — in the 1960s and ’70s.
The movement was anti-imperialist first and religious a very distant second, with most of its leaders combating Islamism and making no links with non-Arab Muslims per se. Partly to break the pan-Arabist-Marxist hold, Israel helped found Hamas, a creation that rapidly got out of control. Such movements, if they succeed, lay a base for stable political development (even if a fraught one). Libya, often incorrectly seen as part of this wider disarray, is the only place — due to a successful revolution — where secular forces can go toe-to-toe against Islamists in the standard civil conflict aftermath of a revolution.
But when they decompose, nationalism and Marxism prove thin motivators. Pseudo-religious in their character, they yield to the real thing easily — a balaclava, an AK-47, money coming in from diverse sources, and a promise of paradise in the next world, with fierce meaning in this one. The Islamic State is the beneficiary of the defeat of radical pan-Arabism — just as, for example, the Los Angeles gang scene arose from the violent crushing of the Black Panthers by the US state in the early 1970s.
When a more liberatory and abstract cause is removed, power and energy will flow to a more concrete and simply enunciated version of it — hence the strategic advantage of creating a cult of personality (Mao, Ocalan, Albert Langer/Arthur Dent) when dealing with a non-literate, or minimally educated, insurgent force. In the absence of that, when you combine a religious ummah with linguistic unity (imagine if everyone from Portugal to the Ukraine spoke the same language), a vast cable-TV media, a series of discredited political ideals, cookie-cutter state borders that enforce the power of client elites, decades of economic stagnation, and a movement that should win a Gold CLIO for its branding — then you’ve got a movement that could potentially pop up everywhere right across to Western Sahara and down to Niger.
Assessing that as a real possibility should be distinguished from regarding it as a certainty and a blank cheque for a world war — and a domestic completion of the national security state. But it can be said that nothing is more likely to assist that along the way than a full air-bombing territorial campaign against IS in areas where they have mingled with civilians. But in realpolitik terms (not moral ones), the US — strategically and for domestic political consumption — has little choice but to act against IS, while knowing that it will expand the field of conflict. In effect the Islamic State is not only being granted statehood by the attacks on it, but it is being assisted in bringing the caliphate into being — a non-territorial precursor form, carried on cable TV by black flags and legendary deeds.
That not only creates huge headaches for the Right, whose neo-imperialist ideals of the last decade are now in tatters of tatters, but will create a series of difficult questions for the Left too, since there may come a time when a default anti-war position cannot be a given. One thing is certain — IS’ current power and projection arises largely from the de-stated, deterritorialised nature of the Iraq-Syria region, which gave it a guerrilla “foco”. Absent of the destruction of Iraq, the movement would be bounded by the Syrian state, and far more oriented to action against it. This widening of the field of struggle is yet another result of the Iraq war and may prove its most significant to date.