Middle East faces down the West
by Simon Korner
The US assassination of Iran’s General Soleimani, in a drone attack outside Baghdad airport in early January, has made major war in the Middle East more likely. Soleimani was the most important military leader in Iran, head of the Al Quds force – an elite section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – which co-ordinates anti-imperialist resistance outside Iran, across Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Soleimani, who was the key strategist in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, was rapidly replaced by Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, his experienced second in command – but the US will be hoping the killing destabilises the Iranian regime. One senior US official said it was important “to show Iran we own escalation. If they kill one of our men we can kill 30 of theirs. If they attack our embassy we can take out their military commanders”.
The naval drills that took place in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf in December, involving for the first time Iran, China and Russia, may also have provoked the hawks in Washington to act, urged on by Netanyahu who has been eager for war against Iran to save his political career. But plans for Soleimani’s assassination existed already – so that the precise timing may have depended on the US making use of a “target of opportunity”, as one US official put it. Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini made a public announcement warning of a harsh response. This could well be carried out by Iran’s militia allies in Iraq, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) which were formed to defeat ISIS in 2017, and whose deputy leader Al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani, along with several other officials. There are many other possible targets for Iran to select outside Iraq, including Israel, whose missile defences may not be able to deflect swarms of Iranian drones or Hezbollah missiles, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, US shipping in the Gulf, and so on. There are also dozens of US bases which are now on high alert.
Iran had already been facing serious attempts at destabilisation, on the back of peaceful protests that began in mid-November against a severely weakened economy caused by US sanctions, and against ongoing establishment misrule and corruption. The trigger for the protests was a fuel tax price rise of 200%. The day after the non-violent protests, according to former UK diplomat Alastair Crooke, the “protestors almost wholly vanished from the
streets. Instead, small groups of pre-prepared, armed and violent activists – not protestors – attacked the strategic hubs of state infrastructure … using rocket-propelled grenades and
sub-machine guns.” The regime blamed militants from the Saudi-funded People’s Mujahedin, and royalists who support the Shah’s son. It suppressed these armed “thugs” violently, while releasing thousands of the peaceful protestors it had arrested. Acknowledging the hardship caused by US sanctions, President Rouhani announced a “budget of resistance”, backed by a $5 billion Russian investment, promising to raise public sector wages and continue subsidies on food and medicines. Despite genuine dissatisfaction with the regime, Iran’s defiant foreign policy remains popular – and the recent US escalation has only enhanced that.
The pro-Pentagon Defense One website provides a useful overview of Iran’s position: “Slowly but surely, Iran has transformed its “axis of resistance” with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime into a regional alliance spanning from Iraq to Yemen. No longer simply Iranian proxies, groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units now form a group of ideologically aligned, militarily interdependent, political-military actors committed to one another’s mutual defense – a resistance to NATO, essentially, with military footholds across the region, political influence in key Arab capitals, and a network of dedicated partners.” It is this regional alliance that will respond to the recent US act of war.
In Iraq, anti-American feeling has been given a huge impetus by the killing of Soleimani. The assassination followed the US bombing of one of the Iraqi PMUs, Khataib Hezbollah, which lost around 20 of its fighters. This attack led to thousands of Iraqis storming the US embassy compound in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
In response to Soleimani’s death, the powerful Shia leader Moqtada Al-Sadr re-mobilised his Mahdi army, which led attacks against the US occupation from 2003 on, but which had been
partially stood down since 2008. Moqtada, along with the Iraqi government, had been attempting a compromise position between the US and Iran, but the US belligerence has pushed all parts of the fractious Iraqi establishment closer to Iran. If the remnants of ISIS in Iraq seize the moment to launch renewed attacks, as some commentators have suggested, Iraqi-Iranian ties could be further strengthened as they join forces to defeat the terrorists.
The assassination of Soleimani came during protests that have been taking place in Iraq since October – against soaring unemployment, corruption and lack of basic services such as
healthcare, water, and electricity, which never recovered from the destruction of the US invasion. The protests, which forced the now caretaker prime minister Mahdi to tender hisresignation, cut across sectarian lines, and have been met with violent repression. The
death toll is in the hundreds. While the protests expressed genuine grievances, the speed with which they escalated suggests outside interference. As in Ukraine’s colour revolution, both demonstrators and security forces have been killed by unidentified snipers. The Al Akhbar newspaper reported in early October that the Iraqi government had been aware of a planned US-backed military coup by General al-Saadi – commander of the elite army corps which fought ISIS, with close ties to the US military. His removal headed that off. The US disapproves of Prime Minister Mahdi’s plans to buy Russian S-400 air defences and do a major oil deal with China. They also dislike his award of a multi-million dollar electricity deal to Germany’s Siemens rather than to General Electric, his refusal to sign off a $3 billion deal with Exxon, his partial opening of the border with Syria, and his flouting of US sanctions by buying electricity from Iran.
But above all, it is the level of Iranian influence in Iraq, through the Iran-backed PMUs, that has proved intolerable to the US and Israel. Israel has been busy inflaming anti-Iranian sentiment – blaming the PMUs for killing protestors, who have actually been guarded by the PMUs from violent masked groups. Arson attacks on the Iranian consulate in Najaf have been another well-organised provocation. The violent crackdown by the security forces against the demonstrators has only served to inflame the situation. Now, the game-changing provocation by the US could lead to increased attacks against US bases in Iraq, eventually forcing it out of the country altogether.
In Lebanon, wage cuts and high unemployment resulted in massive demonstrations against the corrupt political establishment, forcing prime minister Hariri to resign. The sectarian political system, which has kept Lebanese society divided and ruled since the French colonial era, has fostered huge levels of inequality.
The demonstrations, initially supported by the working class, changed character rapidly when right-wing pro-US parties joined them. These parties sought to use the protests in order to challenge Hezbollah, which is an influential part of the government. Working class support ebbed away and the largely middle class protest camps and roadblocks were infiltrated by right-wing forces, blocking arteries out of Beirut. The US-influenced Lebanese army refused to dismantle them. Samir Gaegea, leader of the right-wing Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces – whose soldiers killed thousands in the 1975-1990
civil war – has demanded a share of government power or else the roadblocks it controls will continue. Other factions have similarly been riding on the protests to vie for power. Hezbollah, which has been sympathetic to the demonstrators’ anti-corruption demands,
asked its mainly working-class base not to block roads so as not to worsen the already dire economic situation. It rejected any move to topple the president, saying this would leave a dangerous vacuum – having learnt from the example of Syria, where the US fanned similar protests into civil war. It refutes any suggestions that its supporters have attacked protest camps and roadblocks. Meanwhile, left parties, including the Communists, are supporting
the protests, as they are in Iraq.
Hezbollah’s massive popularity – with 90% support from the Shia population, according to a recent poll, due to its effective welfare provision and its history of resistance to Israel – has made it a key western target. Evidence of western plotting came in a leaked document in March 2019, revealing a secret US-Israeli plan to spend $200 million on fanning the flames of sectarian conflicts against Hezbollah. The aim was to provoke full-blown civil war, which would then lead to requests for intervention by the Israeli military. Israel would only agree to do so with a show of extreme reluctance.
Another example of western pressure is the financial blockade on Lebanon, including blocking the $8 billion worth of remittances from Lebanese living abroad. The squeeze has slashed the value of the Lebanese lira against the dollar and created widespread poverty. In effect the West is holding Lebanon’s economy hostage, demanding that the Christian president break his alliance with Hezbollah. As Mike Pompeo tweeted in mid-December, the US “will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to counter the threat Hezbollah poses.” Hezbollah has not been provoked into a violent defence of order against the demonstrations, which would have provided a pretext for the planned Israeli ‘rescue’. It has promised never to turn its guns on the Lebanese and ordered all its supporters not to rise to any provocation. Instead, it is calling for a government that cuts across the sectarian divide and includes all different Lebanese factions, including the main Christian party.
In the longer term, US sanctions and interference are likely to push Lebanon towards Russiaand China, both of which are investing heavily in the region. A recent poll suggests low public support for the US, while Putin outscores Trump in approval ratings across all communities.
SYRIA AND TURKEY
Turkey’s unilateral decision to invade the Kurdish-controlled enclave in north-eastern Syria (Rojava) pushed out the 1,000 US troops stationed there. The US evacuation to Iraq was chaotic, and left their Kurdish allies, the Syrian Defence Force (SDF), feeling betrayed, facing the Turkish invaders alone. At the same time, different US troops entered Syria from bases in Iraq, and occupied the Syrian oilfields near Deir Ezzor in the east of the country. The US Defense Secretary said this was to prevent ISIS capturing Syria’s oil, but Trump tweeted more honestly that it was about the US taking the oil for itself. The Pentagon warned that “overwhelming force” would be used against any attempt to dislodge the US from the oil-rich region – even though they have no legal right to be in Syria in the first place. The Turkish invasion is being led on the ground by jihadist militias, who have been beheading and mutilating Kurdish fighters, including women. These are the same ‘moderate’ rebels Obama and Hillary Clinton armed and trained in 2012 as part of the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme.
The US is, meanwhile, hanging on to its well-established base in southern Syria on the Iraqi border at Al Tanf, blocking the major highway between Baghdad and Damascus. Its continuing control over Syrian oil and water supplies gives it the ability to economically blackmail President Assad, having failed to remove him by military means. The forced Kurdish withdrawal from a zone within north-eastern Syria, demarcated in the Turkish-Russian Sochi agreement, has so far satisfied Turkey, and the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces has not amounted to full-scale combat. Russia’s aim in its deal with Turkey was to limit the extent of the Turkish invasion – penning it into an area 30kms deep in the centre of the 275 mile border. To underline Russia’s stabilising presence, Russian military police are patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border jointly with Turkish troops.
Overall, Damascus now governs half of Syrian territory, where over 70% of the population lives. Parts of the Syria-Iraq border have been re-opened. ISIS no longer rules any cities, and
has lost the support of Turkey and the Gulf states. Over a million Syrians have returned to their country and the rate is accelerating. Syria controls its border with Turkey to the east of the Turkish ‘safe zone’ – preventing eastward encroachment. Its troops hadn’t set foot in north-east Syria since 2012, when Kurdish SDF forces took over and made their bid for secession from Syria. Syria also now controls keys cities near the Turkish border, as well as the important hydroelectric dams of Tabqah and Tishrin. It has also retaken some of its oil fields, though it is not confronting US troops nearby. Meanwhile, its army is advancing into Idlib in the north-west – the province where defeated jihadis were shipped from all the Syrian hotspots during the war to be dealt with later on. As for the Kurds, their dream of an independent Rojava has gone. Their opportunistic American allies have deserted them. The SDF may eventually become integrated into the Syrian army.
Despite the view of some commentators that Russia made too many concessions to Turkey, the deal has advanced the cause of peace. True, 200,000 civilians fled the Turkish invasion,
and there has been major damage to water supplies and electricity. It’s also true that Turkey
has done well out of the deal, pushing its Kurdish enemy away from its border. And although the deal stipulates that Turkey must respect Syria’s territorial integrity, it remains to be seen whether they will honour this. From Turkey's point of view, its neo-Ottoman ambitions have been advanced. Nevertheless, taking all that into account, the deal has not only allowed Syria to reclaim more of its territory from US-Kurdish control, but driven a bigger wedge between Turkey and the US. Even if it had wanted to, Russia couldn’t have prevented Turkey’s invasion by force without risking Turkey running back to its American NATO partner for protection.
Overall, Russian regional influence is greater than before; bad news for Israel, whose ability to bomb Syria at will is now limited by Russia’s presence. Israel’s hope of a permanent pro-imperialist Kurdish statelet in Syria has been dashed, and not only has it lost the airspace it had in north-east Syria, but American willingness to abandon its Kurdish allies has rattled the Israeli establishment. Equally worrying for Israel has been the successful Houthi attack
on Saudi oil installations and the US failure to prevent it. Russia is now recognized by all sides as the regional powerbroker and peacemaker, an outcome the US had worked for decades to prevent. On the other hand, the Americans are preying on weaknesses elsewhere to cause maximum damage to Iran and the ‘axis of resistance’.
Meanwhile, in a further sign of its expansionist aims, Turkey has announced that it is sending troops to Libya to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). It has already sent jihadi militants from Idlib in Syria, along with armoured vehicles. The GNA, which is recognised by the UN, is fighting forces under General Haftar, who was once close to Gaddafi, but later went into exile in the US. Haftar has been trying for eight months to capture Tripoli from the GNA. This is the latest battle in the ongoing civil war in Libya, which began after the disastrous western regime change intervention of 2011, leaving no single force in overall control. Haftar controls the majority of the country and receives military aid from France, whose Total oil company is based in Haftar’s territory, as well as major support from the UAE. Meanwhile Qatar backs the GNA, as does Italy whose oil giant, ENI, is based in its territory. Turkey’s expansionist plans follow an economic agreement with the GNA on energy exploration in Libya and underneath the Mediterranean, prompting a furious reaction to Turkey’s Libya adventure from its regional rivals Israel, Greece and Cyprus. Israel and Turkey are already in dispute over Turkey’s incursion into Cypriot waters to drill for energy.
YEMEN AND THE GULF
A subsidiary war-within-a-war between proxies belonging to Yemen’s two main invaders, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has made the dire situation there even worse. The two countries, supported by a western-backed coalition, invaded the country in 2015,using Blackwater mercenaries and 14,000 impoverished Sudanese fighters as ground troops against the Houthis, whom they perceived as being too close to Iran. But recently the UAE decided to pull its troops out, worried by Saudi recklessness in provoking Iran – the UAE’s biggest trading partner – and by threats of Houthi attacks on its oil installations. It is,
however, leaving in place a proxy force of southern secessionists – the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – to fulfil its own agenda: control of the port of Aden and domination of the Bab-el-Mandeb seaway, a chokepoint for world shipping. The STC’s war against Saudi-backed Yemeni forces loyal to the exiled president Hadi has recently halted, after the STC was offered a future share of power in Yemen. But the causes of the conflict remain.
Meanwhile the Houthis – their common enemy – showed up the limits of US air defence systems against relatively low-tech weapons by successfully bombing the Saudi Aramco oil refinery. They also exposed the weakness of the huge Saudi military, designed for conventional wars but not for defending against small-scale attacks. The Saudis’ biggest weakness, however, is Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman – whose reckless invasion has
failed to defeat the Houthis and install a puppet regime in Yemen. After Aramco, the Saudis have been forced to begin negotiations with the Houthis, releasing 200 Houthi prisoners and approaching neutral Oman to act as go-between. They will try to divide the Houthis from Iran – an unlikely prospect given Iran’s importance in underpinning Houthi power through its deliveries of arms parts and drones.
In the face of any moves towards peace, Israel will try to escalate the war in Yemen. Having already mounted secret missions against the Houthis, it plans airstrikes on the pretext of defending itself against ‘Iranian’ attack. Its recent attempts at wooing the Saudis and other Gulf states represent a necessary regrouping of these pro-imperialist regimes in the face of setbacks in Syria. Closer relations will also help Israel prevent peace from breaking out in
PROSPECT OF A MAJOR WAR
As a result of the killing of Soleimani, all the separate but linked conflicts outlined above could well be drawn into a single conflagration. In such a major war, the US will have to be seen to be able to protect its regional allies; the Saudis, the Gulf states and Israel. If it fails to do so, the long-term effects may well be to diminish US influence across the region. Furthermore, with the US embroiled in the Middle East, the Americans’ strategic aim of
pivoting to Asia to counter the rise of China will be put on hold, allowing China more space and time in which to develop. We are witnessing potentially epochal shifts in power. In the meantime, there is the very real prospect of millions of people suffering and dying.