February 2016        

Islamic State and crocodile tears

Alan Hanlon

Hillary Benn, the British Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, made a striking statement in the House of Commons in the debate on British intervention in the civil war now taking place in Syria. He compared the situation to that of the Spanish Civil War; he justified support for British intervention as being the same as support for the International Brigades that supported the Spanish Republic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
     A number of issues arise from Benn’s statement. The first and most obvious is that the republican government in Spain in the 1930s was democratically elected. Fascists, led by General Franco, refused to accept the republic. He sought to restore the system as it was before the Republic, a system of landlordism and privilege for capitalists. In this the Francoists were supported by fascist governments in Germany and Italy. The ruling class in Britain in the 1930s was, in the main, pro-fascist.
     The only support received by the republican government in Spain came from the Soviet Union and the International Brigades. Britain, France and the League of Nations refused to give any support, despite the fact that the fascist governments of Italy and Germany were giving support to Franco.
     The International Brigades were volunteers from more than fifty countries—including Germany and Italy—who were willing to sacrifice their own lives in the defence of democracy. In the main they were communists, who saw the war in Spain as the first stage in a much bigger conflict in the war against fascism.
     To claim that the bombing of Islamic State by the British air force is comparable to the International Brigades defending democracy is naïve at best and sophistry at worst. The only people bombing civilians during the Spanish civil war were the fascist Luftwaffe.
     Benn is not the first social democrat to use the International Brigades as an excuse for bombing civilians. Ed Miliband, the previous leader of the British Labour Party, also advocated bombing Libya during that country’s civil war.
     Islamic State is a breakaway from Al Qa‘ida. When the Soviet Union was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan from the late 1970s onwards the US imperialists not only armed the Taliban but also brought in Arab fighters to support the Afghanis.
     Following the invasion of Iraq by the imperialist forces of the United States and Britain, they excluded Ba‘ath party members from government. In 2006 the “Islamic State of Iraq” was founded, subsequently renamed ISIS. It originally drew its support from the Sunni minority in Iraq, who were alienated from the Shi‘a-dominated government set up by the imperialist occupiers. It also attracted remnants of the secular Ba‘ath party.
     In Syria the Sunni uprising against the ruling Alawis (a Shi‘a offshoot) enabled ISIS to expand into Syria. At first ISIS had military success, but once the Kurds began receiving military support, the Kurdish fighters in effect brought an end to ISIS expansion.
     Engels drew a contrast between Islam and Christianity. The former is essentially conservative in nature and seeks to either preserve the status quo or revert to an idealistic version of reality. Engels made the point that
all these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses.
      This is essentially the situation today. The problem for the imperialists is that Iraq, Syria and other states in the region all arose out of the Ottoman Empire and were the products of artificial borders created by secret agreements expressed in the Sykes-Picot pact, exposed by the Soviet Union. The borders of these countries established as British or French mandates at the end of the First World War are fairly arbitrary, and are designed to exclude Iran as the main country in the region.
     The Kurds were excluded from nationhood but have a presence in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. They are therefore a problem. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are the main supporters of ISIS. Turkey is more interested in fighting the Kurds than fighting ISIS. Britain and the United States have more of an interest in maintaining the present situation than in forcing their client states in the region to withdraw support from ISIS.
     At the end of the day, maintaining the profit levels of monopoly capital by access to cheap oil and by supplying weapons is more important to the United States and Britain than defeating ISIS. The victims of terrorism in Paris or the Yazidi victims of ISIS are just collateral damage, despite the crocodile tears of the state-monopoly capitalists.

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