[Marxism] Iraq and Syria: The struggle against the multi-sided counterrevolution

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Wed Jun 25 10:05:42 MDT 2014

Iraq and Syria: The struggle against the multi-sided counterrevolution


As a coalition of Sunni-based forces, including the Islamic State of 
Iraq and Sham (ISIS), took the major northern Iraqi city of Mosul and 
then most of the Sunni heartland in the north and west of Iraq, regional 
and western capitals went into crisis mode: the entire post-US 
occupation stabilisation had collapsed in a heap.

And the coalition leading this revolt consists of none other than the 
same forces which led the Iraqi resistance to US occupation throughout 
the middle years of the last decade. Yes, once again the 
arch-reactionary ISIS itself has revealed its brutality, with reported 
mass killing of captured soldiers, a crime against humanity; in the same 
way that monstrous acts, such as bombing work queues and Shiite mosques, 
were carried out during the anti-US resistance by al-Qaida in Iraq (ie, 
what became ISIS); horrific repression is partly to blame for breeding 
horrific reactions. In both cases however, this most violent and 
irrational element does not define the movement, still less explain its 

These events involve both Syria and Iraq, with their long, relatively 
open, border occupied on both sides by ISIS. The rise of ISIS can be 
connected to two momentous events: the American Guernica on Iraq 
2003-2008, and the vast multi-sided Iraqi resistance to that invasion 
and occupation; and the vast popular revolution in Syria, and the Assad 
regime’s Guernica to suppress it over 2011-2014. In both cases, the 
victims have been overwhelmingly Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arabs – the vast 
Sunni majority in Syria, and the significant Sunni minority in Iraq.

It is in the context of this overwhelming disaster faced by the Sunni 
masses of Syria and Iraq, and mass resistance to it, that ISIS has been 
able to grow, representing the most extreme and most sectarian reaction 
to this dual blitzkrieg.

Iraq and Syria: the forces ranged against both regimes and ISIS

It is important to understand, however, that in neither Syria nor Iraq 
is ISIS the only opposition, among the disenfranchised Sunni masses, and 
the popular masses more generally, to the sectarian-based capitalist 
regimes in power. While the media focus has been about “regime(s) versus 
ISIS,” in reality, in both countries, there are three main forces in 

1. The Bashar al-Assad and Nuri al-Maliki regimes. Both are 
sectarian-based regimes: the Assad regime is a “secular” totalitarian 
regime heavily based among the elite of the Alawite religious minority; 
the Maliki regime is a sectarian, semi-theocratic, Shiite regime closely 
aligned with both the former US occupier, that facilitated its rise to 
power, and with the Shiite theocracy in neighbouring Iran.

2. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the most extreme Sunni 
sectarian and theocratic movement in the region, which has set up its 
own semi-state over parts of Syria and Iraq. A descendant of al-Qaida in 
Iraq, ISIS was disowned by al-Qaida last year for being unnecessarily 
and embarrassingly barbaric (though in fact the disagreement went back 
as far as 2005). It represents an “opposing counterrevolution,” formed 
partially from within the ranks of the uprisings.

3. In between, a vast opposition to the regimes which is also distinct 
from ISIS, in open war with it in Syria, and on and off at war with it 
in Iraq:

In Iraq, this consists of a range of “Sunni tribes” and other Sunni 
militias which have, over the last year or so, alternatively been 
fighting the regime alongside ISIS, or fighting against ISIS. This 
includes Sunni militia that were part of the Iraqi resistance to US 
occupation, whether pro-Saddam Baathist, Islamist or otherwise 
nationalist; and Sunni groups that were mobilised by the US and Saudi 
Arabia into the “Sawha” (Awakening) movement that helped defeat al-Qaida 
in 2007-8, but have since become disenchanted with the Shiite sectarian 
regime they had been drawn into propping up.

In Syria, this consists of all the armed manifestations of the Syrian 
revolution, from the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA, based heavily among 
the Sunni but not entirely, including some Alawite and Christian 
brigades and officers), moderate Islamist groups like the Mujahideen 
Army in the north and the al-Ajnad Union in the south, the Islamic 
Front, a loose coalition ranging from moderate to hard-line Islamists, 
and Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN), the official wing of al-Qaida in Syria, which 
however is markedly less hard-line than ISIS since their split in May 
2013. While a favourite western media discourse is “rebel in-fighting,” 
in reality this does not exist at all; rather, all these forces act in 
unison in their war against both the Assad regime and ISIS; it is the 
war of all of them against ISIS that wrongly gets labelled this way.

These two struggles are related but different. The Syrian struggle began 
as a multi—sect democratic uprising which however has tended to become 
more Sunni in composition largely due to the class realities in Syrian 
society; the Iraqi struggle is explicitly Sunni against an explicitly 
Shiite-sectarian regime, and evolved out of a nationalist resistance to 
US occupation. The more advanced sectors of the Syrian revolution still 
hope to win non-Sunni support for a rising against then regime, no 
matter how unlikely that may now be; by contrast, the Iraqi revolt only 
aims to liberate Sunni regions – the ISIS-led attempt to conquer 
Shiite-dominated Baghdad or any other Shiite region would by definition 
by a reactionary and sectarian action.

What accounts for strength of ISIS?

What then accounts for the particular strength of ISIS, given that most 
accounts do not credit ISIS with superior numbers of troops to other 
resistance movements (indeed in Syria at least ISIS is vastly 
outnumbered, perhaps 10 to 1, yet in the second half of 2013 had taken 
control over much rebel-held territory before being expelled in January 


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