A Marxist approach to war begins with the truism that war is the continuation of politics by other means.
What are the politics of the war on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh)?
ISIS is waging a political struggle first and foremost against the democratic revolution of Syria’s working and oppressed classes. Daesh’s most famous victims are journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and priests dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and therefore ISIS are enemies of the people. ISIS is also at war with:
- The fascist regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Syrian Arab Army and National Defense Force.
- The sectarian Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and its Iraqi Security Forces as well as allied Iraqi Shia sectarian militias, Iranian operatives, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
- The Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq and its peshmerga.
- The governing authority of Syria’s Kurdish areas and its People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are led by the feminist, secular-democratic, socialist Democratic Union Party.
- Every non-Sunni Muslim population it encounters. They will be forced to convert or slaughtered en masse and their women and children sexually enslaved.
The United States involved itself in this pre-existing war when ISIS threatened defenseless Yazidis (an ethnically Kurdish religious minority in Iraq) on Sinjar mountain in what the United Nations warned was an impending genocide by launching airstrikes on Daesh’s advancing forces. The peshmerga and YPG took advantage of these strikes and evacuated Yazidi civilians from the mountain. The U.S. then continued its air attacks until Kurdish forces re-took control of the Mosul dam in Iraq from ISIS.
Now, the U.S. is set to extend its air war on ISIS into Syria.
If the U.S. halted its air campaign immediately, the war on ISIS would continue and therefore the war is not a war of aggression by the U.S. (in fact, Iraq’s sectarian government requested U.S. airstrikes months ago and the U.S. declined). Nor is it an imperialist war: the U.S. will not gain colonies or pawns through military aid to local military forces fighting Daesh and its ability to control these forces is somewhere between weak and non-existent. Hysterical claims that the U.S. is ‘bombing Iraq/Syria’ are not even remotely accurate, as if the entirety of either country was being targeted by American airpower.
The pseudoleft refuses to investigate the origins of the war on ISIS. Its opposition to the war is based either on idiotic conspiracy theories or the faulty assumption that the politics of this war are mostly identical to George W. Bush’s post-September 11, 2001 ‘Global War on Terror.’ They completely ignore that the West’s part in the war on ISIS has not been accompanied by a massive campaign of jingoism, new legislative attacks on civil liberties, or qualitatively intensified Islamophobia on the home front (post-September 11 Islamophobia never fully receded but instead became culturally embedded). The law enforcement agencies of the advanced capitalist states are struggling to monitor far greater numbers of people than were sympathetic to Al Qaeda at its peak across multiple mediums (Facebook, Twitter, email, mobile phone) 24 hours a day in real-time to catch ‘self-radicalizing‘ lone wolves. Profiling, racial and otherwise, is useless against a movement that attracts Arabs, Chechens, Chinese, Indonesians, and non-Muslims from all walks of life, rich and poor, whose personal trajectories range from seemingly happy middle-class families to down and out former drug addicts and ex-convicts.
ISIS is a fascist organization and fascism is war. In fact, Daesh is more fascist in character than the Assad regime. Not only is ISIS guilty of genocide, it is also aggressively expansionist. If ISIS maintains its grip on state power in Syria, it will make completing the democratic revolution impossible in the medium term and set back the long-term struggle for socialism by several generations (at least). There are fewer protests in ISIS areas than in regime areas because the political superstructure they are building is not in contradiction with its economic basis (unlike the disintegrating Assad regime) and therefore Daesh’s murderous repression is more thorough, more vigorous, more vicious, and more effective.
Since the war on ISIS is not a case of imperialist aggression, the question is: do the world’s working and oppressed classes and peoples have a stake or an interest in this war’s outcome, in the political struggle between ISIS and every other force in the Syria-Iraq area (reactionary and progressive alike) that the imperialist powers can no longer stand aloof from?
As Trotsky argued in an oft-quoted but rarely heeded essay entitled Learn to Think:
“In 90 cases out of 100 the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In 10 cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign.”
Eradicating ISIS and eliminating its social roots should be the goal of every internationalist, of every socialist, of every democrat and friend of the Syrian people. That imperialist powers have opportunistically jumped onto the anti-ISIS bandwagon at the last minute only when Daesh’s growth threatened to permanently up-end the politics of post-occupied Iraq should not dissuade us from pursuing this objective. Does this mean we support U.S. imperialism, much less trust it? Of course not. “Watch over an ally as over an enemy” is an old saying Lenin cited in cases of forming temporary, limited, conditional blocs with hostile forces against more immediate enemies. Imperialism is not our friend and neither is Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, Hezbollah, and the other reactionary scum who are fighting ISIS, most of whom created the conditions for ISIS to flower in the first place thanks to their sectarian bloodletting.
The U.S. war on ISIS will mean $500 million worth of badly needed logistical, financial, and military support to the embattled Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, there is a built-in contradiction in the U.S. attempt to mold the FSA into a viable a counter-terrorist force since Syria’s revolutionary war is now a three-sided war between the regime, Daesh, and rebel forces. Fearful of the properly supplied and well-supported FSA in partnership with the U.S. that is only beginning to emerge, the regime is stepping up airstrikes on liberated areas like Idlib and nearly assassinated moderates like FSA Syrian Revolutionary Front leader Jamal Marouf and killed Hazm Movement commander Abu Hatem al-Duhaik in Homs. The U.S. can either allow its ‘partner’ against ISIS to be barrel-bombed into oblivion, in which case ISIS will never be significantly degraded much less destroyed simply because (unlike the FSA) the Assad regime has never taken an inch of territory from Daesh, or it can protect its ‘partner’ from air attacks with a no-fly zone that would probably kill any chance of the central objective of U.S. Syria policy since 2011 — achieving a negotiated settlement that removes Assad while preserving his state.
Either way, standing aside as neutral or opposing the war on ISIS on ‘anti war’ or ‘anti imperialist’ grounds and letting ISIS kill more Syrian revolutionaries, more YPG, more innocents with impunity is simply unacceptable. Not only do the oppressed and exploited the world over have a stake in the outcome of the war on ISIS but they have a progressive side in the war they can root for and support: the Free Syrian Army and the YPG who have (finally) begun to unite against their common enemy. The only hope of a terrorism, extremism, and sectarianism-free Syria rests with the military success of FSA and YPG in fighting and the political success of their civilian allies in governing, neither of which are guaranteed but must be struggled for.