The forces that are fighting to drive the Islamic State (IS) thugs and terrorists out of the Iraqi city of Tikrit and to open up the road to Mosul are seemingly a mixed bunch. The 3,000 Iraqi army soldiers reportedly engaged in the battle for Tikrit are supplemented by 20,000 Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) militiamen plus a few hundred sunni tribesmen.
Battle for Tikrit: Washington plays a dangerous game
The largely shia militias of the Popular Mobilisation, backed by Iran, were formed in response to a call from Iraq’s most senior shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, after the Iraqi army’s ignominious collapse under attack from IS. Yet this remarkable coalition of forces is now attempting to do in mere weeks what US-led efforts have failed to do in months – to the consternation of those who fear Baghdad’s increasing gravitation towards the axis of resistance.
True, Washington may be calculating that leaving most of the heavy lifting involved in dislodging IS from Tikrit to the shia militias and Iran’s revolutionary guard will kill two birds with one stone: get the job done with minimum cost to the US whilst plunging both sides into a mutually debilitating struggle. What threatens to disturb this pleasant reverie, however, is the fear that, so far from acting as proxies, the Iranian-backed forces may be starting to take the fight against Islamic State far too seriously for Washington’s own liking, encouraging the Baghdad government to enhance its independence and cleave ever closer to the axis of resistance.
If the primary role of IS is to act as a cast-iron pretext for imperialism to intervene anywhere it pops up on the planet, the last thing Washington needs is to see its fake ‘foe’ decisively routed and the prestige of its real enemy, Iran, raised higher.
Whilst some profess to see the absence of US air cover for the advance on Tikrit as the result of a tacit understanding with the Baghdad administration, others have a different tale to tell.
As the rapid push into Tikrit gathered momentum, dissenting voices were heard within the militias. How come all the US planes were grounded for the duration of this crucial engagement? And, having played such a hands-off role at that crucial juncture, what then gave Uncle Sam the right to barge back in to dictate the timetable for the coming battle for Mosul?
Commented the New York Times:
“Tensions between Iraq and the United States over how to battle the Islamic State broke into the open on Tuesday, as Iraqi officials declared that they would fight on their own timetable with or without American help, and as United States warplanes conspicuously sat out the biggest Iraqi counter-offensive yet amid concerns over Iran’s prominent role.
“On Monday, Iraq launched a politically sensitive operation to oust Islamic State militants from Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, without seeking American approval, officials said. Even as Iraq was taking a first step into a bigger battle to oust the Islamic State from the northern city of Mosul, it was also signalling that its alliance with the United States might be more fraught than officials had let on.
“American officials, for their part, voiced unease with the prominent role of Iran and its allied shiite militias in the Tikrit operation … The operation comes against the backdrop of Iraqi irritation with American officials after they declared that the assault against the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq’s second ¬largest city, would begin in April and then backpedalled, saying Iraqi forces would not be ready until Fall, if then.
“Ali al-Alaaq, a close aide to Prime Minister Haider al¬-Abadi, said that Iraqi forces could march against Mosul without the Americans if they had to. ‘If the Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country, Iraq will liberate Mosul and Anbar without them.’” (‘Iraqi campaign to drive IS from Tikrit reveals tensions with US’ by Anne Barnard, 3 March 2015)
Tut-tutting from the US about the supposed sectarian character of the shia militias is sickening hypocrisy, given that it was imperialism that deliberately cultivated sectarian divisions in the first place, to throw obstacles under the feet of the anti-occupation resistance.
In a recent interview with Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the US foreign-policy establishment, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad explained how the particular difficulties faced by Iraq in defending its sovereignty from attack flow directly from the years of imperialist occupation of the country.
“Paul Bremer didn’t create a constitution for the state; he created one for factions. Whereas in Syria, why did the army stand fast for four years in spite of this embargo, this war, tens of countries around the world attacking Syria and supporting the rebels? Because it has a real constitution, a real, secular constitution. That is the reason. In Iraq, it is sectarian.”(‘Syria’s president speaks’, Foreign Affairs, March 2015)
It is particularly galling for Iraqis currently engaged in a life-or-death struggle to extirpate Washington’s own Frankenstein’s monster to be subjected the while to lectures on how and when it is permissible to fight back – especially when the US’s own performance is so lacklustre (and its intended target so ambiguous).
The purposeful advance of the forces struggling to drive Islamic State out of the strategic town of Tikrit invites invidious comparison with the phoney war pursued by US air power in both Iraq and Syria – a war whose target is supposed to be Islamic State but which in practice attacks the sovereignty of both countries.
Commenting on the US antics in Syria, President Assad pointed out that, so far: “We haven’t seen anything concrete in spite of the attacks on Isis in northern Syria … What we’ve seen so far is just, let’s say, window-dressing, nothing real.”
Even in the case of Kobane, where US airpower allegedly was a factor in the expulsion of IS by Kurdish fighters, this was hardly a great advertisement for the seriousness with which Washington was fighting against terrorism. “Kobane is a small city, with about 50,000 inhabitants. It’s been more than three months since the beginning of the attacks, and they haven’t finished. Same areas, same al-Qaeda factions occupying them – the Syrian army liberated in less than three weeks. It means they’re not serious about fighting terrorism.”(Ibid)
Imperialism is bombing Iraq and Syria, not Islamic State
What the imperialists are serious about, of course, is attacking Syria’s infrastructure – with special attention given to oil refineries. Refineries are targeted on the flimsy pretext that oil smuggling is a big earner for IS – an explanation which conveniently ignores the role of Turkey and the West as end-users for this illegally-traded oil.
It also fails to explain why the war planes don’t opt to destroy the oil trucks, if it’s really the illegal trade that bothers Washington. The exposed terrain is hardly the most hospitable for the clandestine transport of huge quantities of oil.
In the same interview, President Assad explained the difference between Iran’s role in Iraq and the US’s interventions in both Iraq and Syria.
Assad’s inquisitor quoted from an interview in the German paper Der Spiegel with a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who said that Iran plans to build and operate missile plants in Syria. Unfazed, the president explained that this is all with the full knowledge and consent of Damascus – as is every aspect of Syria’s relations with Iran.
“Iran doesn’t have any ambitions in Syria, and as a country, as Syria, we would never allow any country to influence our sovereignty. We wouldn’t accept it, and the Iranians don’t want it either. We allow cooperation.”
Against this model of neighbourly relations, Assad set the arrogant role of the USA and other imperialist countries. Asked for his reaction to the US decision to train up 5,000 Syrian terrorists – killers that US General John Allen claims are hunting IS, not Syrian government forces – President Assad was straightforward.
“Any troops that don’t work in cooperation with the Syrian army are illegal and should be fought. That’s very clear … Without cooperation with Syrian troops, they are illegal, and are puppets of another country, so they are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army.” (Ibid)
In short, the Syrian leadership is in no doubt: the so-called war on Islamic State is really a desperate imperialist attempt to maintain a stranglehold on the Middle East. Every bomb that the US drops in Iraq and Syria is an act of aggression against the sovereignty of those nations.
Bearing this in mind, it is not hard to see why Washington would be less than ecstatic about the progress towards liberating Tikrit currently being made by the Popular Mobilisation and others.
Gloomy prospects for imperialism
Worse will follow for imperialist pretensions in the Middle East. Not only do the formerly subordinate authorities in Baghdad seem in danger of severing what remains of their strings and more fully lining up with Tehran, Hizbollah and the axis of resistance, but also the mainstream media are all gloomily concluding that, despite four years of proxy subversion, funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others via Turkey, President Assad is here to stay, like it or not (and they definitely don’t).
Here is what Reuters spat out between clenched teeth: “Assad seems more likely to survive the Syrian crisis than at any point since it began four years ago. Iran’s support is as solid as ever to its confident-looking ally in Damascus …
“Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hizbollah is backing the southern campaign and Iranian advisers are in the field – mirroring the situation in Iraq, where they are helping to oversee operations against Islamic State …
“A confident-looking Assad has meanwhile embarked on a public diplomacy campaign, giving five interviews since December. Three were with organisations based in the western states most opposed to his rule: the United States, France and Britain.”(‘With help from his allies, Syria’s Assad looks set to stay’ by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam, 10 March 2015)
And whilst militarily Syria is rooting out the remaining terror nests, in the diplomatic arena the country is also setting the pace. When the Foreign Affairs interviewer asked Assad whether he would agree to the interim ceasefire and freeze on hostilities in Aleppo proposed by the UN’s Staffan de Mistura, the President quietly replied:
“Yes, of course. We implemented that before de Mistura was assigned to his mission. We implemented it in another city called Homs, another big city. We implemented it on smaller scales in different, let’s say, suburbs, villages, and so on, and it succeeded. So the idea is very good.”
Imperialism: the dog in the manger
Imperialism cannot win in Syria, but it is prolonging the agony of a criminal war sooner than accept this unacceptable fact. To this end, it is making sure that the terror supply lines from the reactionary Gulf states via Turkey are kept well greased, has supported the last two years of sporadic aerial bombardment by Israel, and has itself now taken on the task of training and equipping terror recruits.
Yet at every bloody step, imperialism digs itself deeper into a hole and creates ever more enemies for itself.
President Assad summed up the USA’s quandary admirably. “You are the greatest power in the world now; you have too many things to disseminate around the world: knowledge, innovation, IT, with its positive repercussions. How can you be the best in these fields yet the worst in the political field?
“This is a contradiction. That is what I think the American people should analyse and question. Why do you fail in every war? You can create war, you can create problems, but you cannot solve any problem … Launching war doesn’t make you a great power.”(Foreign Affairs, op cit)
> Iraqi Campaign to Drive ISIS From Tikrit Reveals Tensions With US, The New York Times, March 2015
> Syrias President Speaks, Foreign Affairs, March 2015
> With help from his allies – Syrias Assad looks set to stay, Reuters, March 2015