The end of Iraq?

June 9, 2015

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has managed to withstand the combined assault of the Iraqi government forces, Shia death squads and an air war led by the U.S. government. It has retained control of Sunni areas across large parts of Iraq and Syria, recently seizing control of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province west of Baghdad. spoke to an eyewitness to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The eyewitness cannot be identified for fear of reprisal by the various military forces in Iraq.

WHAT IS the significance of the fall of Ramadi in Iraq?

IT MEANS that ISIS isn't going anywhere. Ramadi is a major city, and its capture is a significant setback--perhaps the biggest since the fall of Mosul last year--for the U.S. and the Iraqi government. Up until a month or two ago, the U.S. had been saying that it was making progress in the war. Indeed, ISIS had been pushed out of a number of areas over the past year, but these were mostly Shia and Kurdish territories.

But Ramadi, a city in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, is a different case. In such areas, ISIS has shown to be quite resilient in the face of American air power, the Iraqi Army, and allied Shia militias and death squads. This means that many predominantly Sunni areas are under ISIS control.

WHY HAS ISIS been able hold its ground in Iraq?

I THINK there are two reasons.

One has to do with the Iraqi army's lack of a "will to fight," as U.S. government officials put it. That's certainly true, but it's important to ask why soldiers lack the will. The reason is, in large part, because the predominantly Shia security forces are not willing to fight and die for a Sunni area like Ramadi. As the past year has shown, however, they are willing to fight and die for non-Sunni areas.

Refugees flee from the Iraqi city of Ramadi after ISIS's offensive
Refugees flee from the Iraqi city of Ramadi after ISIS's offensive

This demonstrates just how divided and sectarian Iraqi society has become after 12 years of war and occupation. Even though the state and its various armed appendages speak as though they are a national entity, in reality, they represent a Shia elite. For that reason, a lot of Sunnis in places like Ramadi actually view ISIS, for all its horrors, as the lesser of two evils to what they see as a Shia state and its militias.

This doesn't necessarily mean that ordinary Sunnis in Ramadi support ISIS or its ideology. Rather, it means that they actually fear the Shia state, its military and its brutal militias even more. So they keep their heads down and follow the harsh dictates of the appointed ISIS bosses, hoping to be left alone.

That's because they often feel that the state or the Shia militias won't let them just survive. I know many Sunnis in Baghdad, for example, who complained of family members being pulled off the street and disappeared, for no reason but their sect. So people are facing a very difficult choice, and they end up siding with or acquiescing to ISIS.

For this reason, the U.S. doesn't really have any local partners on the ground in a place like Ramadi. The Sunni tribes aren't willing to fight on the side of the U.S. or on the side of the Iraqi state, which they view as illegitimate or dangerous. So for those reasons, ISIS is able to exert dominance in these areas.

HAS ISIS been able build a functioning state, economy and society in the territories that it's conquered?

That's an interesting question. In Iraq, at least, they seem to be doing a pretty poor job of state-building--in large part because fighting is their primary activity at the moment. People I've talked to say that ISIS struggles to establish basic things like collecting taxes and administering services, but it still manages to rule because it is the alternative to the Shia state. In other words, the Iraqi state itself is seen as so bad that Sunnis are willing to put up with ISIS even though it's clearly doing such a bad job at state-building.

SO IS the U.S. strategy of conducting an air war to back up the Shia state a failure?

YES, IT is--on both the political and military levels, the strategy has been an utter failure.

Politically, the U.S. hoped to force the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to integrate the Sunni elite into the state. That has not succeeded--the state is still completely controlled by Shia sectarian parties.

Second, the U.S. planned to back up the Iraqi security forces' attacks on ISIS so they could retake Sunni territories. That, too, has failed, as Ramadi has shown. The sectarian nature of these forces and their allied militias has actually driven Sunnis into the hands of ISIS.

All the U.S. strategy can do is protect areas around Baghdad and other non-Sunni areas. Although there are some exceptions, it appears that in large parts of Anbar, ISIS will remain the major force for now. So Obama's policy is in complete shambles.

REPUBLICANS LIKE John McCain and other hawks have argued that Barack Obama needs to get tougher and redeploy combat forces to Iraq. Do you think there is a possibility that the U.S. will develop an alternative strategy in Iraq?

I THINK this is mostly just posturing. I don't believe that the U.S. is willing to stage a major intervention involving troops on the ground anywhere in the world, let alone Iraq. We're coming out of the period where the U.S. suffered two dramatic defeats in ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don't believe they are willing to risk yet another disastrous one all over again in Iraq.

If such an intervention were to actually take place, it would likely be a disaster. It would merely back up the Shia state, put U.S. troops on the side of brutal militias, further alienate Sunnis, and drive them into the hands of ISIS. I don't know any ordinary Iraqi--someone who isn't a politician--who thinks that a U.S. troop surge is in any way a solution.

ONE OF the most disturbing things that the U.S. establishment is doing right now is blaming Iraqis for the current situation. Who is really to blame?

THIS IS hypocrisy. The main portion of blame for what exists in Iraq today lies with the U.S. and its invasion and occupation of Iraq. That war is one of the great crimes of our lifetime. It killed hundreds of thousands, deepened the divisions between Shia and Sunni, and triggered a civil war whose aftereffects we are still witnessing.

Everything bad in Iraq flows from that invasion. Take ISIS. Much of its leadership spent time in American prisons. That's where they got to know each other. That's where they consequently were radicalized and emerged to join al-Qaeda in Iraq. This is another reason why it's a terrible idea for the U.S. to send troops in and expect they'll do it better this time around.

Other regional powers also bear a great responsibility for the crisis in Iraq, Iran especially. It is backing the Shia state as well as the Shia death militias that terrorize the Sunni population. Their support for the sectarian state is one of the conditions that allow groups like ISIS to find passive support among Sunnis.

HOW MUCH is the Shia elite responsible for the situation in Iraq?

WHILE THE U.S. is the main culprit, I do think the Shia elite also deserves their share of the blame. The sectarian government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which ruled from 2009 to 2015, systematically destroyed the possibility of a non-sectarian alternative in Iraq.

Maliki arrested his Sunni rivals and killed nonviolent protest movements, even non-sectarian ones. For example, Iraq had its own Arab Spring in 2011. Sunnis rose up against Maliki's regime and found some support from the Shia population, which had its own grievances with Maliki.

Maliki responded like his former master, the U.S. government, with a strategy of divide and rule. He essentially ensured sectarian nature of the Iraqi state through his maneuvering and forced the situation we see today where people in places like Ramadi feel like they have no place within the Iraqi state and turn to a group like ISIS.

Have the ethnic and sectarian divisions torn apart the country to such an extent that it does not exist as a nation state?

Yes. I think Iraq actually doesn't exist as a unitary country. There are really three Iraqs--a Shia Iraq, a Sunni Iraq and a Kurdish Iraq. The divisions are so extreme in the Arab section of the country that international journalists have had to hire two different translators, one Sunni and one Shia--they couldn't take a Sunni to a Shia neighborhood and vice versa.

And that's only in Arab Iraq. The Kurds in the north are increasingly a different country. So in many ways, Iraq is a broken state. It's broken from the occupation and has never been put back together. The current conflict looks like it's only going to exacerbate that situation.

WHAT ARE conditions like for regular people in Iraq today?

THE MOST obvious thing for anyone in Iraq is the extraordinary levels of violence that take place every single day, even in a city like Baghdad--much of which doesn't get reported on in the West at all. The violence is almost routine.

The state is heavily involved in criminal activity. Its security forces have ties to armed gangs and militias that terrorize the population. ISIS and other insurgent groups place car bombs in crowded civilian areas all the time. One went off quite close to me recently.

If you happen to be from the wrong sect or the wrong background, you can be pulled off the street, and questioned and killed. It's not to the extent that it was in the civil war 2006-07, but it's not that far off.

Those are the conditions under which people are living, and so people are desperate for any kind of security--which again is why people sometimes look to various sectarian forces to provide them with some semblance of security in their daily lives. That's why Sunnis tolerate a group as terrible as ISIS. Similarly, ordinary Shia end up supporting the Shia militias, because, again, they see the militias as a way of protecting them from ISIS's violent attacks.

WILL IRAQ survive out of this ongoing civil war and crisis?

I FIND it hard to believe that Iraq will survive. I also think that the Middle East as we know it is not going to survive. We're witnessing a period of revolution, counter-revolution and civil war that is restructuring countries and borders throughout the region.

Some have compared it to Europe in 1848. The comparison is apt in some ways. The whole existing order is being ripped apart. I don't think we're going to see an Iraq or a Syria or a Yemen in 10 or 20 or 30 years.

WITH THE weakening of the U.S. in the Middle East, other regional powers--especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Israel--are becoming more assertive. What impact is this having?

THE RIVALRY between Iran and Saudi Arabia is having an enormous impact. In almost every country you look at, these regional powers are supporting proxies, or taking advantage of the situation to weaken the other.

That's true in Syria where Iran supports the brutal Assad regime, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia support sections of the rebel forces. Similar dynamics are at work in Yemen, where Iran backs the Houthis and Saudi Arabia the deposed regime.

The same is true in Iraq. Iran backs the Iraqi state and especially the Shia militias who can act as death squads. There are prominent Iranian commanders on the ground in Iraq, helping the Iraqi security forces and militias fight ISIS.

Saudi Arabia as a state does not support ISIS. In fact, ISIS is fighting against Saudi Arabia in some respects. They conducted a couple of suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia recently. But the Saudi regime is happy to see Shia Iran and Iraq destabilized, as well as Syria.

So the region is being ripped apart by this rivalry and the various proxy wars that result from it. But the biggest power using proxies is the U.S. government, which is doing so throughout the region. And the masses of people are caught between them all.

FOUR YEARS ago, we saw the hope of some kind for an alternative, when the region's people rose up in unity for democracy, equality and self-determination during the Arab Spring. Now that seems like eons ago. Are there any signs of a revival of such forces today?

UNFORTUNATELY, I think we are in a moment of counterrevolution and sectarian conflict.

It is important to remember how we got here. If you take Iraq, for example, it, like the rest of the region, had an Arab Spring. There was an Iraqi Spring with non-sectarian protests and demonstrations. People even occupied their own Tahrir Square in Baghdad for a while.

But the Iraqi state acted very brutally to destroy this movement by dividing it--by picking off certain elements, by pitting Shia against Sunnis--to the point where the protests were extinguished, the encampments were bulldozed and the activists were killed or imprisoned. From those ashes emerged the latest version of the Iraqi insurgency and ISIS.

So there was a real sense of hope, even in Iraq. But that has been extinguished for now. The states of the region worked every step of the way to try to destroy the uprisings. As a result, I think the scope for hope right now is low.

One of the key reasons for the defeat of the uprisings was that there wasn't really any kind of political alternative on the ground. Baathism and Arab nationalism had failed long ago. There were few other secular socialist alternatives. So Islamists often filled the vacuum, to the great detriment of the struggle. Political Islam is not going to meet the needs of the people, and because of its religious nature, it falls into the sectarian trap that the regimes use to divide and rule the movement.

Amid this period of counterrevolution, activists will have to engage in the hard work of building a secular left alternative. That will take years, but it will be necessary. A new left in the region has to be built to lead the next round of struggle.

AMONG ACTIVISTS in the U.S., there is a debate about what we should do. Some liberals say we should support a negotiated solution brokered by the U.S. and the region's states--one that would inevitably include the current autocratic governments of various countries. Others on the so-called anti-imperialist left support rival imperial powers and regional opponents of the U.S. government--for example, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies in Iran. What do you think of those two options?

I THINK both of those options are deeply problematic.

Let's start with the idea of a negotiated settlement. An agreement arranged by outside powers will be in the interests of those outside powers. It won't be in the interests of the people in the countries of the region.

One big part of the reason why we are in this situation today is because of outside powers--from the U.S. on down to Iran and Saudi Arabia. They have used Iraqis and Syrians and others as a proxy for promoting their own interests. So any negotiated settlement will only further the interests of those powers, not those of people on the ground.

The idea of supporting imperial rivals to the U.S. or regional opponents like Assad's Syria or Iran is even worse in some ways. Russia and China back the repressive Assad regime, which has brutalized Syria's people. They are no solution.

Nor are the various regional opponents. Take Iran, for example. Iran is supporting death squads in Iraq and the brutal regime in Syria, which has killed thousands upon thousands of people. Iran, just as much any of the other states in the region, is not a force for liberation, much less one for protecting the interests of ordinary people.

The solution will not come from either the imperial powers or the existing states in the region, but from the people and their struggle for liberation. There's not much we can do to support them except to help keep our government and governments like Saudi Arabia and Iran from intervening and making things worse. If we can do this then, we can begin to give Iraqis and Syrians space to determine their own fates.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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