The “Islamic State” and the counter-revolution

Issue: 147

Ghayath Naisse

According to the world’s media outlets and major heads of state, a new threat has been looming over “world peace” since June 2014—the threat of ISIS. ISIS was presented as an imminent danger and, far from being constrained to the Arab world, it threatened the “national security” of Western and Eastern imperialist states, leading the UN Security Council to adopt resolution 2170 on August 15 2014, authorising the use of force against ISIS and the Al Qaeda aligned Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra)—described as terrorist organisations—and sanctions against whoever supports them or assists them in any way. In July 2014 ISIS declared an Islamic Caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria that it controlled. In the following, I will address the structure of ISIS and the conditions that allowed for its sudden expansion in the region particularly in a context of socioeconomic devastation and retreat of the revolution in Syria. I will argue that ISIS displays fascist characteristics of a particular type, and conclude on the implications for Syrian revolutionaries.1

Iraq, a devastated country

Iraq was ruled by the Ba’ath Party from 1968 until 2003, first under Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr before Saddam Hussein took power in a coup in 1979. This regime, at the helm of a country with abundant natural resources—oil in particular—crushed the workers’ and Communist movements inside Iraq, which were some of the largest and most active in the region. It did everything possible brutally to suppress the Kurdish national liberation movement, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Halabja.

Despite clear similarities in savagery and brutality, the Iraqi Ba’ath regime distinguished itself from its rival and sister organisation in Syria by the chauvinistic Arab nationalist rhetoric it used against the Shiite ethnic majority and the Kurdish population. The two ethnic groups formed the main body of the impoverished masses and thus formed the backbone of the workers’ and Communist movements. The Shiites were regularly accused of being Persians—an accusation typical of Arab chauvinism—while the Kurds were accused of being Israeli “agents”.

Iraq has effectively been in a state of war since 1980, more than three decades that have had disastrous effects on its society at every level. The bourgeois dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein waged its first war against Iran in 1980, a conflict that lasted eight years and caused massive destruction inside Iraq. The estimated damage to the country’s infrastructure amounts to between $200 and 350 million.

Two years after the end of the war with Iran, in the context of a Saudi political shift against Hussein’s regime and territorial conflicts with Kuwait, the regime invaded its small neighbour in August 1990. The United States used this aggression as a pretext to reaffirm its hegemony over the region and the world as the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union were in the process of disintegrating. It launched a devastating war against Iraq and destroyed its armies in Kuwait in what became known as the Second Gulf War. This bombing campaign is estimated to have caused a further $232 billion in damage to Iraqi infrastructure. Imperialism then enforced a murderous blockade of the country that lasted until the 2003 invasion—the Third Gulf War—which decimated what was left of Iraq and its society. One and a half million Iraqi soldiers’ and civilians’ lives had been claimed by the First and Second Gulf Wars alone.

The total losses sustained by Iraq as a result of wars since 1980 amount to an estimated $1,193 billion. In other terms, Iraqi oil resources have been pre-sold for the next 85 years. However, US imperialism was defeated and forced to retreat in 2011, after a zealous resistance by Iraqi masses from all political backgrounds. Before its retreat it established a weak and corrupt political regime, divided along sectarian lines. Its policies only exacerbated the catastrophic socioeconomic conditions for most Iraqi people. Large sectors of the population have been politically and socially marginalised for sectarian reasons; what is more, the policies of “de-Ba’athification” of the state have led to hundreds of thousands of state workers as well as the army officers being dismissed from their posts, turning them into enemies of the new US-imposed regime. However, the officers’ hostility to the sectarian regime expressed itself not as a political opposition but as a sectarian reaction, fuelling in turn Nouri al-Maliki’s own sectarian and corrupt policies.2

The founding of ISIS

It is notorious and repeated in most publications that the initial group of what was to become ISIS was the “Unification and Jihad” group founded in 2004 by the Jordanian Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi (real name Ahmad Fadel al-Khalaila) in the aftermath of the US invasion which saw the influx of many jihadis. After it had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, the group was renamed “Al Qaeda for Jihad in Mesopotamia”. However, after the assassination of Zarqawi on 7 June 2006 the formation of the “Islamic State of Iraq” was announced on 15 October of the same year. On 19 April 2010 Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Mujaher were appointed as leaders of the organisation before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was nominated as leader, and later proclaimed Caliph.

The “Islamic State of Iraq” was one of the leading organisations on the Iraqi scene, as it had attracted dozens of Ba’athist officers of Saddam Hussein’s regime, particularly after the dissolution of smaller groups in which they were active such as the 1920 Revolution Battalions, the Islamic Army, the Army of Muhammad and the Army of the Naqshabandi Brotherhood; the latter had Ba’athist origins but adhered to Islamist principles to market itself to a Sunni community that found no political expression under the regime created by the American occupation.

These groups distinguished themselves with a religious or sectarian rhetoric that favoured their emergence. But the country’s socioeconomic disarray and the political and sectarian discrimination directed against Sunnis by the sectarian regime have also led to protests against growing inequality. One of the Ba’athist officers credited for his role in the improvement of the organisational, military and intelligence capacities of the Islamic State of Iraq is Colonel Haji Bakr (real name Samir al-Khalifawi). Others include Brigadier Abu Mohannad al-Sweidani, Colonels Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abdurrahim al-Turkmani and Ali Aswad al-Jabouri, Lieutenant-Colonels Abu Omar al-Naimi, Abu Ahmad al-Alwani, Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi, Abu Aquil Mosul and Abu Ali al-Anbari. All are part of the ISIS leadership.3

This fusion between Ba’athist officers—bred at the hands of a despotic and dogmatic regime with chauvinistic and nationalist ­credentials—and a Takfiri current4 adopting Al Qaeda’s jihadi stance, against the chaotic backdrop of post-invasion Iraq, has given the Islamic State of Iraq (which became ISIS) a distinctive character setting it apart from traditional jihadi organisations. ISIS aims to establish a state—the Caliphate—in its most ferocious and reactionary form, following a clear military, political and communication strategy, while crushing everything that is democratic and progressive in society.

The structure of ISIS

Early on in the revolution the Syrian regime understood the threat posed to its survival by the peaceful mass protests; it therefore set out to undermine them by painting them as terrorist and Takfirist. During the first year of the revolution the regime’s intelligence services used social media to diffuse video footage of the regime’s own brutal torture and murder of demonstrators, while putting forward the sectarian character of their acts in order to portray the revolution as a Sunni sectarian uprising; this deliberate policy was carried out with cunning cynicism. Towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 the regime also freed hundreds of jihadis that it had detained in previous years after their return from Iraq.

The original nucleus of what became the Nusra Front was already active in the “Islamic State of Iraq” organisation who subsequently sent them to Syria to establish a branch of Al Qaeda. What became known as the Nusra Front quickly gained notoriety and influence in Syria, due to the zeal and discipline of its fighters, as well as the quality and quantity of its military equipment which far surpassed that of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). For those reasons, it appealed to many young Syrians who were eager to fight back against the regime. Back then there was no public talk of any project to establish an Islamic State.

In April 2013, after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—then head of the Islamic State in Iraq—ordered the fusion of the Nusra Front with his organisation there was a split in the Nusra Front between those who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and joined what became known as ISIS, and those who aspired to remain as a separate organisation. This split soon turned into an open armed confrontation between the two groups who, in spite of similarities in their reactionary and terrorist ideologies, had nevertheless conflicting material strategies and interests. To paraphrase the Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola: “Ideas don’t fall from the sky and nothing comes from dreams.”

Further to understand the divergences between the two parties, it is useful to emphasise the influence of the fusion between Ba’athist nationalists and jihadi Salafists in what became ISIS. When Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri called for the dissolution of ISIS in June 2013 to restore the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq’s distinctive organisations and respective margins of manoeuvre, Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani replied: “If we accepted the decision to dissolve the State (ie ISIS), it would be a recognition of the borders of Sykes-Picot”.5 Indeed, in one of its propaganda campaigns, ISIS widely distributed footage depicting the symbolic destruction of part of the border fence between Iraq and Syria, in early June 2014.

The ISIS blend of “nationalism” and extremist Islamism goes beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, to invoke the far-gone past of a Muslim Empire. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi said on 30 July 2013: “We will renew the era of the Umma [Muslim nation], we shall not rest before freeing the Muslim captives anywhere they may be, we shall retake Jerusalem and Andalusia and we shall conquer Rome”, aiming to flatter nationalist and religious feelings, and present himself as an enemy of the Zionist state and the West, albeit in a very reactionary fashion. In his message he emphasised ISIS’s fondness of combat and violence, even when it came to religious preaching: “Combat is part of preaching too, and we shall drag people to heaven in chains”.6

Adnani, in his August 2013 speech, insisted on the importance of the edification of the Islamic State; he did not oppose other jihadi organisations who have “embraced real Islam in faith and practice”, but demanded their allegiance to the Islamic State before it was even proclaimed. However, he fiercely condemned Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—who Zawahiri had called “my brothers”—describing them as “nothing but a secular party with an Islamic cloak, they are the worst and most repugnant of secularists”.7

We can therefore note that the ideology and the politics of ISIS ­constitute a rupture with a whole series of other Islamist reactionary forces, including jihadi groups like Al Qaeda and its Syrian branch. We have already discussed the material origins of this rupture, which cannot be reduced to contrasting interpretations of religious texts or “sectarianism”, as the analyses of the conflict by liberal opponents would have us believe. Karl Marx wrote in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “We cannot judge a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life”.8 Most of ISIS’s combatants and leaders are not Syrian, distinguishing them from the largely Syrian ranks of the Nusra Front; this can partly explain the latter’s acknowledgement of the specificity of the Syrian situation. What is more, the two organisations compete and fight for material influence and resources such as oil fields and border crossings.

The rapid conquest and occupation of Mosul in Iraq on 10 June 2014, along with neighbouring Yazidi and Kurdish regions, and the hideous ­massacres committed against civilians and soldiers, were the forerunners to the proclamation of the Islamic State and the allegiance to Al-Baghdadi—on 29 June 2014—that the organisation had been openly calling for. This has given ISIS effective control over a large territory in Iraq and Syria, amounting to a third of the surface of both countries.

Extremist Islamist groups have progressively come to dominate armed struggle in the “liberated” areas in Syria, because of the FSA’s weakness of organisation and lack of armaments, after the “Friends of Syria” had broken its promise to arm it.9 Actually, they never intended properly to arm the FSA, but had sent it some light weapons that could only prevent it from being exterminated. At the same time, regional countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as nebulous pro-jihadi networks in the Gulf region provided the extremist jihadi groups with a quasi-unlimited supply of weapons and finance; this allowed those groups to impose their hegemony over the vast majority of the areas that had fallen out of the regime’s hands, as became evident in 2014.

The growth of ISIS in Syria

It is necessary to put the increasing domination of the ­counter-revolutionary forces—ISIS, the Nusra Front, Ahrar Al-Sham and other reactionary jihadist groups—in the “liberated” areas in the temporal context of spring 2013. It must also be related to the social conditions of the Syrian masses in liberated areas: they had suffered a bloody war waged by the regime’s forces that destroyed the social infrastructure, neighbourhoods, city councils and all the components of civilian and agricultural life. This war was fought against the poorly-armed and under-organised popular forces called the “Free Syrian Army”.

We can consider the suffering of the masses in the liberated areas at the beginning of 2013 as the objective conditions that have partly allowed the growth and progress of extremist jihadist reactionary forces, with ISIS at the helm. A report published in October 2013 by the Syrian Center of Research and Studies entitled “Socioeconomic realities in the light of the Syrian ­revolution” sums up the situation in the liberated areas in March 2013:

In the case of Syria, military operations, bombings, arrests and mass displacements have affected the humanitarian and economic conditions of the Syrian people. In spite of the growing role of civil society, the crisis has led to a deterioration of social relations and a propagation of extremism and fanaticism; it has affected negatively social norms and values, and stirred up vengeful ideas and demeanours. All this has caused tremendous loss of social harmony and solidarity, as well as human resources in the socio-cultural sense, on an irredeemable scale. It has contributed to the growth of violent illicit gains, reinforcing factors of inversed development.10

Naturally, the socioeconomic situation has worsened since then, and it is estimated that 6.7 million Syrians have fallen below the poverty line since the onset of the revolution, meaning that today more than half of Syrians are poor. By spring 2013 more than 2.3 million state and private sector workers had lost their jobs, with national unemployment levels estimated at around 50 percent today.

Workers took part in the demonstrations since the onset of the revolution, but not as part of a workers’ movement, because of the absence of independent trade union or revolutionary political structures; indeed, the ruling clique only tolerates the Ba’ath party or its satellites, like the Bakdash Communist Party11 and its various spin-offs, all characterised by the same opportunistic policies and treachery towards the working class. The Syrian Centre of Research and Studies report indicates that:

More than 85,000 workers were sacked in the first year of the revolution. Half the layoffs concern Damascus and its suburbs. This number does not include the regions of Homs, Hama and Idlib where, according to official figures, 187 private sector companies had closed between 1 January 2011 and 28 February 2012. It is worthy to note that these figures lack credibility, as the number of workshops and factories that were closed is closer to 5,000, excluding markets and trade establishments that were looted and destroyed in Homs, Aleppo or other regions.12

At the beginning of 2013 half a million homes were completely destroyed and as many were damaged, constraining a third of the Syrian population to seek refuge in neighbouring countries or safer regions inside Syria. By 2014, half the Syrian people were considered displaced or refugees. In these conditions of socioeconomic devastation, of social disintegration and human desertification, ISIS and other reactionary jihadi groups were free to grow and impose their hegemony. The other condition for their development was the crushing and marginalisation of the Free Syrian Army as the essential form of popular resistance to the violence and savagery of the Ba’athist regime.

The crushing of the popular democratic movement

The city of Raqqa, which was the first to be liberated from the regime’s forces in March 2013, can be considered a central model to study ISIS’s dealings with the popular movement. Raqqa’s cultural, political and popular movements were flourishing after its liberation before it fell under ISIS’s yoke. Sunday Telegraph reporter Richard Spencer reported from Raqqa on 30 March 2013:

The city of Raqqa is dominated by liberal opposition groups. This city in northern Syria has seen the emergence of numerous philosophical and political discussion circles, and one of the groups was taking part in the planting of trees and green plants to protect the environment, in a greenhouse in the city centre. The intensity and vitality of those activities are nothing short of impressive. Activists have launched various campaigns (“Our streets breathe freedom”, “Our flag”, “Our bread”), an exhibition of handicraft and artistic work whose proceedings went to the families of martyrs, as well as a weekly cleaning campaign of one of the city’s main roads called “Our Raqqa is a paradise”.13

The situation in Raqqa mirrored that of most liberated cities and areas before they were taken over by ISIS. Armed groups, Islamist and otherwise, have of course committed acts of violence, including arbitrary arrests and summary executions, against militants but ISIS has distinguished itself by its brutal and systematic suppression of any form of independent or democratic activism, and its imposition of totalitarian and reactionary social practices on the populations that have fallen under its control.

The United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published a report entitled “Reign of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria” on 14 November 2014, stating that ISIS “has spread fear in Syria by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity”.14 It has demanded that ISIS leaders be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The report, building on the testimonies of 300 victims and direct witnesses, says that “the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or states that challenge its ideology”; it “has undertaken a policy of imposing discriminatory sanctions such as taxes or forced conversion—on the basis of ethnic or religious identity—destroying religious sites and systematically expelling minority communities”.15 The report adds that “ISIS has beheaded, shot and stoned men, women and children in public spaces in towns and villages across northeastern Syria” and “the corpses are placed on public display, often on crosses, for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents. Witnesses saw scenes of still-bleeding bodies hanging from crosses and of heads placed on spikes along park railings”.16 The report reveals rapes committed against women, leading families to marry their underage girls for fear that they would be forcibly married to ISIS fighters. It also mentions the public application of “legal punishments”, like severing the hands of “thieves” or stoning to death and crucifixions to spread fear among the local population.

This commission’s findings reveal that this barbaric organisation, whose ranks are mostly constituted of foreigners, “prioritises children as a vehicle for ensuring long-term loyalty, adherence to their ideology and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life”.17

The ISIS state… “We shall drag people to heaven in chains!”

Unlike other Salafist jihadi groups, ISIS has the immediate project of building a state and a society of a certain type, by force of arms and violence. After fighting the FSA and competing jihadi groups, ISIS consolidated its sources of finance, namely oil fields and border crossings. It has forced thousands of members of the Shaitat tribe in Deir Ezzor to flee, after brutally murdering hundreds of them in the process of taking control of two oil fields in July 2014, one of them the al-Amor oil and gas field, the largest in the Deir Ezzor province. The Middle East Onlinewebsite reveals in a report published on 13 August 2014 that ISIS had 50 oil fields in Syria under its control and 20 more in Iraq; the Iraqi army has taken back some of those oil fields since, but ISIS can nevertheless count on an estimated $3 million a day in oil revenue. It also raises an estimated $60 million in taxation every month—mainly from traders—not counting other sources of revenue such as hostage ransoms, proceeds from selling stolen archaeological artifacts on the black market, or funding from sympathisers in the Gulf countries and Europe.

Violence and terror are not the only means ISIS uses to secure popular consent in the regions under its control. After committing massacres against the Shaitat tribes, the organisation distributed electricity, fuel and food to the impoverished inhabitants. After it put an end to looting and theft, and punished “thieves”, ISIS gained some relative popular support among the most impoverished and marginalised. It has also started paying meagre salaries to the unemployed and $300 a month to its fighters for whom it secures accommodation and other basic needs, whereas the local population lives in dire conditions. ISIS has therefore become something of an attraction to those socially marginalised groups who have not found any adequate political expression of their class interests.

ISIS manages and intervenes in every aspect of the people’s daily lives in its capital of Raqqa as well as in any region it controls. Its members patrol the streets of Raqqa with AK-47s and handguns—they are the only ones allowed to bear arms. ISIS has established two distinct police forces (Islamic police) tasked with the surveillance of men and women. The “Al-Khansa” brigade is made up of armed female members of the organisation, who have the right to stop and search any woman on the street, and “Al-Hasba” does the same for men; the two police brigades are also responsible for the ­imposition of ISIS’s version of Sharia (Islamic law).

But ISIS went further in the establishment of state institutions, and formed a government in Raqqa with ministries of education, public health, water and electricity, religious affairs and defence. These ministries operate from old Syrian governmental buildings.

Back in 2013 most Syrians in the aforementioned regions considered ISIS to be a “foreign” and “occupying” organisation as described by a Deir Ezzor based activist: “a settler movement, like Israel has occupied Palestine with settlers”.18 This remains the dominant view among the population of these regions. However, ISIS has succeeded in finding a minimum of social support. In a revealing statement on the “Raqqa is being silently slaughtered” website, a local activist notes that ISIS had not proposed a nationalisation project or indeed any law limiting the cupidity and rapacity of the large monopolistic traders with whom the organisation enjoys good relations.

What is “Daeshism”?

A quick study of the evolution of ISIS as an organisation issued from the milieu of jihadi and ultra-reactionary Islamist currents would not be enough to explain its ideological and practical specificity when compared to the vast majority of jihadi organisations such as the dominant Al Qaeda. This shows that the very emergence of ISIS constitutes a rupture with those Salafist jihadi groups, to the point where ISIS was seeking to liquidate those other groups. On the other hand, one can notice a tendency towards the “ISISisation” of entire sections of jihadi organisations, the most important being the Nusra Front; indeed, it seems to be divided into two distinct groups, one emulating ISIS’s practice and stances, and the other remaining “true to itself”. The Ahrar al-Sham movement appears to be maintaining its Salafist Jihadist identity, even if some of its brigades are eager to adopt “Daeshism”.19 But the worst aspect of these tendencies is the fact that many reactionary jihadist groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its Caliphate throughout North Africa and other regions.

Some will argue that there is no political or practical interest in trying to research and reveal other characteristics of ISIS, insofar as it constitutes one of the aspects of the reactionary counter-revolution. But this “novel” phenomenon cannot be understood, as we have seen above, outside of the material and socioeconomic context in which it thrives. It is not possible to oppose ISIS politically without firstly understanding the material conditions that have led to its emergence and expansion, before elaborating appropriate policies to confront it from the point of view of the oppressed and exploited classes, ie from a Marxist point of view.

We have presented here the genesis of ISIS in a specific context, as a reactionary and counter-revolutionary force, and the expansion of its ­influence in Iraq and Syria. It is necessary to recall that we have focused on the established regimes and their brutal reactionary politics of marginalisation as one of the essential causes, along with imperialist intervention, that allowed for the emergence of ISIS. The US occupation of Iraq destroyed what remained of the country’s infrastructure and social fabric, and created conditions for the development of such movements. What is more, the “War on ISIS”, with the US at the helm of an imperialist coalition, will not defeat ISIS but will give it anti-imperialist credentials that it will use to attract popular sympathies.

The emergence of ISIS, taking into account its specific character when compared to traditional jihadist groups, its sudden and surprising appearance in the context of a revolutionary process in Syria and the fact that it has crushed all manifestations of the revolution within its territories, imposing an ideological and social way of life on their inhabitants, and the construction of its “own” state, invites us to examine ISIS as a phenomenon through the experience of fascism. This approach does not refer to the details of fascism within Europe, but in relation to the new fascist movements, within a specific and limited context.

This dangerous turn in the course of the Syrian Revolution and the country’s history has surprised many, and so “historical and individual fate suddenly became identical for thousands of human beings, and later for millions. Not only were social classes defeated and not only did political parties succumb, but the existence, the physical survival, of broad human groups suddenly became problematical.” That is how Marxist revolutionary intellectual Ernest Mandel described the rise of fascism.20 The definition given by the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern) in the 1930s and the common acceptance that fascism is “nothing but the power of finance capital” does not apply to ISIS, and in any case it was not enough to interpret either the emergence of fascism in Europe at the time or the new fascist movements that are progressing in Europe or elsewhere.

Leon Trotsky was the most eminent Marxist intellectual to have explained and analysed the emergence of fascism in Europe. Not only did he say that fascism “is carried to power on the shoulders of the petty bourgeoisie”, but he provided a deep and thorough analysis of that ­phenomenon. The social layers upon which fascism draws support are what he calls “human dust”, which he defines as town artisans and traders, civil servants, clerks, technical personnel and the intelligentsia, bankrupt peasants, to which we may add the unemployed.21

Trotsky analysed fascism from the point of view of a class analysis of society, and used his deep understanding of uneven and combined ­development—where structures of production inherited from previous centuries, along with their relations and ideologies, can coexist with more modern structures, relations and ideologies. In his book Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought Mandel sums up Trotsky’s profound grasp of the fascist phenomenon:

Trotsky understood—along with other Marxist writers like Ernst Bloch and Kurt Tucholsky—the desynchronisation between socioeconomic forms and ideological forms; in other terms, that very strong ideas, sentiments and depictions inherited from the pre-capitalist period continue to exist in important sections of the bourgeoisie (particularly in the middle classes under threat of impoverishment, but also in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, the declassed intellectuals and even in various fringes of the working class).22

Better than anyone else, Trotsky drew the socio-political conclusions: in conditions of increasing and unbearable socioeconomic class contradictions, significant sections of the aforementioned classes and layers—whom Trotsky sagaciously called “human dust”—can fuse and form a powerful mass movement. Fascinated by a charismatic leader and armed by sections of the capitalist class and their state apparatus, such a movement can be used as a tool to destroy the workers’ movement by means of bloody terror and intimidation.”

Trotsky also insisted on the distinction between fascism and Bonapartism and other forms of dictatorship. Fascism is a “specific form” of a “powerful executive apparatus” and an “open dictatorship” characterised by the total destruction of all working class organisations—including the most moderate like the social democratic organisations. “Fascism attempts to materially suppress any form of self-defence of the organised working class, by completely pulverising the working class. To argue that social democracy is laying the ground for fascism in order to declare social democracy and fascism to be allies, and banning any alliance with the former against the latter is therefore a mistake”.23

The depiction of the fascist phenomenon as a movement that rests on the masses of “human dust” applies entirely to the process of ISIS’s formation. Fascism usually forms as a party-militia to fight the current state and establish a fascist state. And the fascists, according to Italian historian Emilio Gentile “consider themselves an elite (aristocracy) of new men, born at war and destined to seize power to renew a corrupt nation”.24 Fascism aims to organise people “as masses and not as classes” and Gentile argues that historical studies have underlined that fascism does not really aim “to change the world or society, but to change human nature itself” by disciplining people and using brute violence.

In that sense and only in that sense can we argue that ISIS has the traits of a new form of fascist movement, and that the Caliphate state is a fascist state of a particular nature in specific circumstances.


To say that ISIS has fascist characteristics, in circumstances of social devastation and disintegration, immediately invokes the question of the intervention of the revolutionary forces and its modalities, all the more if we consider that ISIS constitutes a mortal danger for the popular and revolutionary movement. What are the practical forms of the confrontation? Secondly, it puts the issue of the constitution of a united front of the democratic and left wing revolutionary forces on the agenda. Finally, it raises the question of the modalities of acting against the regime that crushes and destroys our people and our country.

The revolutionary process in Syria is in a very bad place indeed. The retreat of the popular movement is due to the Assad regime’s devastating attacks, the massacres and forced displacement of millions of Syrians, with half of the country’s population being displaced. What is more, the growth of reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces like ISIS, the Nusra Front and others at the expense of the Free Syrian Army has meant the decline of the popular movement even in “liberated” regions.

Any call for the withdrawal, silence and resignation of the popular revolutionary forces, meaning their capitulation before the ferocious attacks of the various counter-revolutionary forces—who are fighting one another—would be disastrous and would only further aggravate the already degraded situation of the revolution, contrary to what many may think. We believe that we must push with all our strength for the mobilisation of groups, coordinations and revolutionary organisations everywhere, to pursue protests and other forms of popular mobilisation, however weak and dispersed the movement may be—especially since the popular movement is still drawing breath and has started to recover some of its vitality, even in regions controlled by jihadist extremist forces like the Nusra Front. However, we need a united front of the democratic and left wing ­revolutionary forces capable of establishing a strategy of centralised and combative action, adopting the basic claims of the popular revolution. In the regions controlled by the Free Syrian Army or an armed popular resistance movement, armed—albeit uneven—confrontations with the reactionary forces are not a luxury but a matter of life or death for the revolution and the popular movement. The meagre armament will prove enough if those forces are under a centralised military and political national command. This proposed united front cannot limit itself to the political sphere; it must englobe the military sphere as well, particularly since the principal adversary of the revolutionary forces is not only the reactionary forces of the ­counter-revolution, but also the clique that holds power in Damascus.

One must always bear in mind that bringing down the regime is the prerequisite to crushing the fascist and reactionary forces. The survival of this regime, even in a superficially revamped form, would constitute a crushing defeat for the popular revolution and an evident victory for the counter-revolution. We must work together to shift the balance of power in favour of the revolutionary forces and the popular classes who were and remain the driving social forces of the revolution.

The imperialist war against ISIS has given the imperialists and their regional allies a pretext to reproduce the Assad regime. There has been increasing talk in the past few months about a political solution for Syria, hailed by the imperialist powers who claim to be friends of the Syrian people; their real aim was never to overthrow the regime, it was rather to push it towards an internal reform from the top, a political realignment as well as the destruction of Syria’s economic and military capacities. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries, powerhouses of the counter-revolution in the region, have, together with the ­counter-revolutionary government in Egypt, pushed for a political solution that would keep the Assad regime afloat. Indeed, their offspring, the National Coalition, has publicly complained about the suspension of financing from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, in an attempt from the latter to pressure it towards accepting a political solution. Given the opportunistic and corrupt nature of the National Coalition, it is likely to consent to such a political solution in the future. We note, however, that it did not take part in the January 2015 Moscow meeting, unlike groups from the so-called inside opposition, essentially the Coordination Committee25—which has had an ambiguous position since the onset of the revolution—as well as some ­foreign-based groups with no real weight on the ground. Moscow, Tehran and Cairo seem tasked with ­sponsoring these talks in order to promote a “political solution” whose real aim is nothing but to reproduce the regime.

We cannot be opposed to any measure that aims to alleviate the suffering of the popular masses, without forgetting the demands expressed by the popular revolution. The “political solution” requires the vigilance and caution of the revolutionary forces, and demands that they reveal and condemn any concessions to the dictatorial regime granted by those who are or will be taking part in the talks. It will be necessary to defend the claim to establish a radical democratic regime on the ruins of the dictatorship and struggle against all concessions in the field of democratic liberties and against all attempts at bargaining with the sacrifices made by the popular masses in their quest to bring down the regime and build freedom, democracy, equality and social justice in Syria.

In this struggle on multiple fronts, the revolutionary Marxists of the Revolutionary Left Current are also tirelessly working to fulfil a fundamental task—that is the building of the mass revolutionary workers’ party.


1: This article was first published in Arabic in the fifth issue of the Thawra Da’ima (Permanent Revolution) journal in March 2015.

2: Nouri al-Maliki is secretary-general of the Islamic Dawa Party and was prime minister of Iraq from 2006 until 2014. Ruling over a notoriously corrupt regime, his authoritarian and pro-Shia sectarian policies have fuelled socioeconomic disarray and sectarian tensions. He resigned his post on 14 August 2014, in the wake of ISIS’s devastating June 2014 offensive in Northern Iraq.

3: Abu Haniyeh, 2014.

4: Takfiri Islamist movements are those who declare that their Muslim opponents are apostates.

5: The Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 laid out Britain’s and France’s plan to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them.

6: Saif, 2014.

7: Saif, 2014.

8: Marx, 1859.

9: The Friends of Syria Group is a diplomatic collective of countries and bodies initiated in 2012. It includes the US and its European and Middle Eastern allies, as well as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and other organisations.

10: Syrian Center of Research and Studies, 2013.

11: The Syrian Communist Party (Bakdash) is a member of the National Progressive Front, dominated by the ruling Ba’ath Party. The coalition is formed of parties that are obedient to the government and accept the Ba’ath Party’s “leading role in society”.

12: Syrian Centre of Research and Studies, 2013.

13: Al-Joumhouria, 2014.

14: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014.

15: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p5.

16: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p7.

17: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p10.

18: Agence France Presse, 2014.

19: “Daesh” is the Arabic acronym of ISIS.

20: Mandel, 1971, p9.

21: Trotsky, 1931.

22: Mandel, 1979.

23: Trotsky, 1931.

24: Gentile, 2008.

25: The National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change is a coalition of left wing political parties formed in 2011 in Syria.


Abu Haniyeh, Hassan, 2014, “ISIS: From Zarqawi’s Network to Baghdadi’s State” Alaan (13 September),
Agence France Presse, 2014, “al-Riyad” (22 September).
Al-Joumhouriya, 2014, “Syria and ISIS’s rough justice” (30 March),
Gentile, Emilio, 2008, “Le silence d’Hannah Arendt: L’interprétation du fascisme dans Les origines du totalitarisme”, Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine(July-September),
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria” (report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 14 November),
Mandel, Ernest, 1971, Introduction, to Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder).
Mandel, Ernest, 1979, Trotsky: a Study in the Dynamic of His Thought (NLB).
Marx, Karl, 1859, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”,
Saif, Abdallah, 2014, “Al-Qaeda in Syria: From the State to the Caliphate(8 August),

Syrian Center of Research and Studies, 2013, “Socioeconomic Realities in the Light of the Syrian Revolution(22 October),
Trotsky, Leon, 1931, Germany: The Key to the International Situation,