The warmongers on all sides want a fight to the death. We choose life.

A cartoon by Steve Bell that perfectly sums up British policy on Syria. Used with kind permission.

A cartoon by Steve Bell that perfectly sums up British policy on Syria. Used with kind permission.

There has been a string of brutal, viscerally shocking attacks by ISIS and its affiliates in the past few weeks: the Ankara bombing, which crushed hopes of peaceful transformation in Turkey. The Russian jet in Sinai. The suicide bomb attack on a Shia neighbourhood of Beirut. The latest attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Today’s attack on the Radisson hotel in Mali.

But it was the attack on Paris last Friday that got the West’s attention.

Déjà vu

The attack created a level of hysteria we have not seen since 9/11, and indeed, it feels like déjà vu. Rightwing politicians have leapt on the attacks to push their agenda: Donald Trump wants to create a database of Muslims, there are calls to shut the borders and stop Syrian refugees, the Daily Mail has published a Nazi cartoon, and the ex-head of the CIA wants to hang Snowden.

Mosques have been firebombed and Muslims attacked.

This is much like the febrile atmosphere after 9/11, when conventional politics was suspended, and people were bullied into line behind the security establishment. We were told there was an ‘us against them’ war on terror, and Iraq was invaded.

Fourteen years later, the world is a far more dangerous place than it was then. Countless lives have been lost and opportunities squandered, and there is no end to terror.

In the UK, David Cameron, in an attempt to look macho in front of other tough world leaders, wants to bomb some one. Anyone will do – this time its ISIS, last time it was Assad. There is no strategy here – just a desire to take action.

Theresa May is using the crisis to push through her snoopers’ charter, and end encryption – the only tool we have to stop the government reading everything we write. This is despite the fact that the attackers did not use encryption, and were known to the police. The attack was a failure of conventional policing, due to insufficient resources – something to remember in the midst of Tory police cuts.

Before we allow ourselves to be bounced into a Third World War and a total surveillance state, it’s worth remembering some key facts:

  • All the attackers were European citizens, operating from and based in Europe. Why?
  • Syrian refugees were not involved, and the Syrian passport found was a fake
  • The attackers did not use encryption

What is ISIS?

To genuinely defeat ISIS, we need to understand what it is. ISIS is four sometimes contradictory things:

  1. A millenialist death cult. ISIS followers believe we are living in End Times, and that “The Crusaders” (the West) must be lured into a final, cataclysmic battle against the Islamic world. It’s this mythic quality which is so appealing to the disillusioned young people from all over the world who have joined ISIS. (This is quite similar to the Christian fundamentalist belief, common in the 1980s, that Armageddon would be a showdown between the US and the USSR over Israel).
  2. A serious attempt to seize and hold territory and create a genuine Islamic State to rival Saudi Arabia, which it sees as corrupt. In the cities ISIS holds, notably the capital, Raqqa, there is an economy and legal system, and a genuine attempt to establish a state. ISIS feels that Saudi Arabia are not worthy custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
  3. Protector and avenger of Sunni Arabs in a sectarian conflict. After the invasion of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, was installed as Prime Minister. His sectarian reign lead to a Sunni uprising that ISIS was able to capitalise on. In some Sunni areas of Iraq, ISIS draws its support not from religious fundamentalists, but from former Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein.
  4. A resistance movement against Western imperialism, Assad and other forces.
A Yezidi fighter after the liberation of of Sinjar earlier this month. Yezidi and Kurdish forces took the city back from ISIS. Photo: Kurdish Struggle

A Yezidi fighter after the liberation of of Sinjar earlier this month. Yezidi and Kurdish forces took the city back from ISIS. Photo: Kurdish Struggle

These things are contradictory, and in tension with each other. ISIS’ attempts to hold territory have recently faced serious setbacks after a number of advances by Kurdish forces, who are recapturing territory and cutting supply lines. This may be causing ISIS to lash out internationally.

How to defeat ISIS

Firstly, we must understand where ISIS comes from, and acknowledge the role played by the West. Islamic fundamentalism was sponsored by the US in the 1980s as part of its Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union – Bin Laden was an American ally until he felt betrayed by them.

Western policy in the Middle East is a major recruiter for ISIS, particularly the use of drone strikes. Drone strikes have killed hundreds of innocent civilians – 90% of those killed are “not the intended target”. Former drone operators say children are referred to as “fun-size terrorists” and killing them is seen as “cutting the grass before it grows too long”.

There can be no doubt that this is terrorism.

We also need to understand that their extremist interpretation of Islam has its roots in Wahhabism, an ideology still exported around the world by our ally, Saudi Arabia. Why is the West horrified by ISIS beheadings, but not Saudi ones?

Also, Assad is a brutal dictator, and ISIS was born out of resistance to his rule.

Secondly, we need to cut off ISIS’ supplies of funding, weapons and recruits. ISIS funds itself through donations, selling looted antiquities and through the sale of oil on the black market. Almost all of this passes through Turkey, a NATO member, which has the power to cut these supply lines. Much of the funding comes from the Gulf States, also our allies.

Thirdly, we need a coordinated international response to end the Syrian civil war, which is a three way proxy war. All the actors in this war need to be pressurised to stop funding their proxies. Some people have started to see Assad as the least worst option – and its true, he doesn’t launch terror attacks on the West. But Assad is still responsible for far more deaths than ISIS, and can’t be part of the solution.

Pictures like this prove that the worldview of ISIS is wrong

Pictures like this prove that the worldview of ISIS is wrong

Finally, we need to build the “grey zone”. The grey zone is the term ISIS uses for a world where Muslims coexist with the West, which they believe must be eradicated. The most powerful thing we can do is show that there is no clash of civilisations. Europeans opening their hearts to refugees is definitive proof that ISIS’ narrative is wrong. ISIS claims that it is building a new caliphate, a land for Muslims everywhere. But if Dar el-Islam is such a paradise, why are so many Muslims fleeing for shelter in Dar al-Kufr, the lands of the crusaders? The flood of refugees from Syria is the most powerful demonstration possible of ISIS’ lack of support and legitimacy.

This is why the French commitment to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attack is absolutely the correct thing to do.

What we can do

A Kurdish YPJ fighter destroys an ISIS signboard which instructs women to cover themselves with a niqab.

A Kurdish YPJ fighter destroys an ISIS signboard which instructs women to cover themselves with a niqab.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the wake of world historic events with complicated geopolitical causes. But ordinary people will be key to what happens in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. ISIS wants to provoke a major confrontation with the West, to prove that there isn’t room on this planet for both of us. Our politicians, and much of the media, are all to keen to help them.

It’s up to us to keep our heads and show that ordinary people, whatever their faith or country, have much in common. Most people, everywhere, want the same things: to live in peace and safety, to have food and shelter, and to be surrounded by friends and family. We hold these things in common and must insist we are not enemies. Even the ISIS capital of Raqqa is filled with 250,000 ordinary people living under occupation.

Here are some concrete things we can do:

  • Support the Kurds in their fight against ISIS and for justice in Turkey. There are existing trade union solidarity campaigns – get involved.
  • Hold our countries and politicians responsible for their role in the conflict, and pressurise politicians to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war.
  • Oppose the bombing of Syria and other calls for war.
  • Resist the calls for more surveillance and police powers, which will also be used against trade unionists.
  • Build the grey zone: defend Muslims from attacks, and show our solidarity with Syrian refugees

We must show solidarity with everyone suffering from war and conflict: refugees from Syria, victims of ISIS attacks in Paris and elsewhere, those suffering under British and American bombs in Yemen. The warmongers on all sides want a fight to the death.

We choose life.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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