Permanent wars in the Middle East
By Simon Korner
The wars in the Middle East – once frequent – are now permanent, as the US looks for ways of maintaining its domination of the region. After pulling out Iraq and pivoting the majority of its military resources to Asia, the US strategy of creating regional gendarmes – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, each with its own interests – has ensured that wars in the Middle East will continue. The rising ambitions of smaller players such as Qatar and the UAE are also fuelling conflict.
According to George Friedman of the rightwing American website Stratfor, the US “has come to the conclusion that wars of occupation are beyond American capacity… The United States wants regional powers to deal with issues that threaten their interests more than American interests. At the same time, the United States does not want any one country to dominate the region… Therefore, it is in the American interest to have multiple powers balancing each other.”
These US-backed regional powers are becoming increasingly aggressive. Saudi Arabia has launched a ground invasion of Yemen, alongside a murderous bombing campaign, in order to crush the Shi’ite Houthis, who are supported by Iran. Almost all the Gulf states are backing the Saudis.
Turkey is waging war against the Kurds in its own country, and bombing leftwing Kurdish forces in Syria, under the guise of targeting IS. Both Turkey, Qatar and the Saudis have armed IS; and Turkey has left open the IS supply lines which cross its border with Syria, whose regime it detests.
Israel, the most loyal imperialist gendarme, has long been part of a pincer movement strategy against Syria, diverting Assad’s forces to the Golan, while Turkey threatens from the north. It has been knocking out Syrian army posts in numerous small scale attacks in southern Syria, keeping out of the limelight, while arming and aiding Al Qaeda, known locally as Al Nusra, which now controls the Syria-Israel border. Israel has also made secret plans for an invasion, according to Israel’s Ynet news, if it deems such action necessary.
U.S failure to unseat Assad
In Syria, the US policy of relying on proxy forces failed to unseat Assad. The Americans therefore began a bombing campaign, with French and British support – in contravention of international law – to change the regime, but the strategy was challenged by Russia, defending its long-term Syrian ally from total destruction. Russia’s bombing campaign targeted IS and Al Qaeda, known locally as Al Nusra, to enable Syrian ground forces to regain sovereign territory. As a result, American rhetoric has changed, with Kerry no longer insisting on the immediate removal of Assad, but conceding that he might remain in the short term.
Until Russia’s intervention, the US strategy of toppling the internationally recognized Assad government had succeeded in weakening the Syrian forces. Recently declassified documents reveal that, as early as 2012, the US had planned to set up “a declared or undeclared Salafist [fundamentalist Sunni] principality in eastern Syria…” The fracturing of Syria into “two or three parts”, as the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency put it, would be achieved by establishing rebel safe zones inside Syria, supported by the US and allied air forces and special forces on the ground. Assad would not challenge these zones, according to the Brookings Institute, for fear of the allies destroying his air power, depriving him of air superiority over IS, and thus hastening his fall. To this end, Britain contributed 120 SAS men, dressed as IS fighters, according to the Daily Express, alongside thousands of CIA men fighting alongside Al Qaeda.
But the US strategy of fragmentation – which destroyed Iraq and Libya – has faltered as Russian airpower, combined with Iranian and Hizbollah ground troops, has changed the balance of forces on the ground.
Provoking a direct confrontation with Russia, Cameron has called for Britain to bomb Syria, not content with his Commons defeat on the issue two years ago – a defeat that at the time served to restrain the US. The refugee crisis has given the Tories and their media an excuse to argue for ‘humanitarian intervention’, no-fly zones and so on. The sustained campaign of anti-Russian propaganda has softened the ground, with many Labour MPs supporting the call to arms.
Of course, Britain has bombed Syria already – seconded to the US Air Force – and British drones have killed suspected British IS members, but Cameron wants Britain more deeply involved. This is, in part, to rein in IS, which is out of control. But more importantly, it is designed to shore up British credibility as a military power, after its failures in Basra, Helmand and Libya, and to reiterate British support for US militarism. Greater British involvement would also make clear to France that it has a rival in the former colonial stamping ground.
‘Free Syrian’ army almost non-existent
The global media assault against Assad has ranged from condemnation of his alleged use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, to asserting the existence in Syria of a liberal secular opposition, which would take power after Assad’s removal. No evidence has been produced to substantiate these claims. Most serious commentators agree, for example, that the supposedly ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army is so weak as to be almost non-existent. If there were a significant secular rebel force, the US would have been able to use it to better effect. Instead, America has turned to the more effective Al Nusra, into which Free Syrian Army fighters have been absorbed.
From the start of the rebellion, the opposition has been far from moderate, carrying out terrorist attacks on civilians – including hospitals and schools. The very rapid turn to violence of the anti-government demonstrations – protests which had been sparked by Assad’s turn to the IMF that wiped out subsidies for basic commodities – shows there had been prior planning for armed rebellion.
Western complaints that Russian bombing was targeting moderate, western-backed rebels do not hold water, given the fact that Al Nusra, which the West supports, is an Al Qaeda franchise, and that there is no clear demarcation between the rebel groups.
Western complaints that Russia was not bombing IS also ring hollow given the half-hearted nature of their own attacks on IS. A telling fact: in a year fighting IS, there have been 6-7000 western air attacks, mostly against minor IS targets, compared to 25,000 US-Saudi air attacks on Yemen, in 6 months.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry: “Regrettably, all attempts of the international coalition to counter the terrorist group Islamic State look more like some demonstrative steps, an attempt at simulating anti-terrorist activity.”
This doesn’t mean IS is a US proxy force. While Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed it, along with the Al-Nusra-led coalition known as the Army of Conquest, IS is too unstable and too ideologically clear, in its own terms, to represent a viable partner for the US long-term.
Meanwhile, Russia has maintained all along that a united secular Syria was the best way forward, and that removing Assad would threaten that. The Russians learned from their passivity in Libya, where they acceded to the no-fly zone – and watched as France and Britain conducted their terrible bombing campaign, which handed over Libya to Islamist warlords.
The Russian involvement acknowledges that Assad, backed by Iran and allies, are the only forces that can defeat IS. And in response to western objections to Russian bombing, Putin argues rightly that Russia was asked in by Syria, unlike the western powers.
Destruction of Iraq
Taking a wider view, the Syrian conflict is inseparable from the destruction of the Iraqi state following the US invasion. The US postwar strategy for Iraq was outlined in 2007 by Joe Biden in The New York Times, as one of “decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group ... room to run its own affairs.” In effect, three Iraqi regions – Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni – would be divided and ruled, with a weak, nominal central government in Baghdad easily controlled by America.
This power vacuum allowed the rise of IS, whose popularity among Iraq’s Sunni minority has a material basis in the loss of Sunni position, first after Saddam’s fall, and again after the Americans withdrew and the Sunni Awakening Councils they’d set up became targets of Al Qaeda. The corruption and sectarianism of the Shi’te-dominated government in Baghdad also benefited IS, as did the American dismantling and ineffectual rebuilding of the Iraqi army, with many battle-hardened Iraqi soldiers, including generals, defecting to IS. IS was also helped by Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which convinced many Sunnis that even a relatively moderate Islamist government would not be tolerated by the West.
Assad’s overview of the link between the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the current conflict in Syria is worth quoting at length: “We were strongly opposed to that invasion, because we knew that things were moving in the direction of dividing societies and creating unrest… At that time, we saw that the war would turn Iraq into a sectarian country; into a society divided against itself... We knew well that we would be affected. Consequently, the beginning of the Syrian crisis, or what happened in the beginning, was the natural result of that war and the sectarian situation in Iraq, part of which moved to Syria, and it was easy for them to incite some Syrian groups on sectarian grounds.
“All these things together created the conditions for the unrest with Western support and Gulf money, particularly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and with Turkish logistic support.
“Once again, I say that there were mistakes, and mistakes always create gaps and weak points, but they are not sufficient to cause that alone, and they do not justify what happened. And if these gaps and weak points are the cause, why didn’t they lead to revolutions in the Gulf States – particularly in Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t know anything about democracy? The answer is self-evident, I believe.”
Underlying the western war against Assad – apart from his symbolic position as the last significant representative of the old secular order, including his staunch opposition to Israel, which has marked him out for ousting – is the fight to control oil and gas pipelines transporting energy from the Gulf. Most of these pipelines cross Syria, which occupies a strategically important position for exports to Turkey, and Europe – pipelines which Assad’s father nationalized in the early 1970s. In 2011, Syria, Iran and Iraq proposed a new jointly funded pipeline from the Iranian half of the South Pars gasfield in the Gulf to Damascus, via Iraq. Qatar, with its rival plan to pipe energy to Turkey via Syria – from its own South Pars gasfields – has a strong interest in destroying the ‘Shi’ite’ pipeline plan. The Saudis, likewise, seek control over pipelines running through Syria. This explains both countries’ push for the fracturing of Syria into two or three terrorist-run oil-transit statelets under imperialist tutelage – not unlike the Suez canal zone before Nasser.
Imperialist wars in the region have a long history, motivated by control over energy. It was access to oil that led British imperialism to Mesopotamia before WW1, as the Royal Navy switched from coal power to faster oil power in its arms race with Germany. The war netted Britain oil-rich Mosul and Palestine under the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, while France got Syria and Lebanon.
The now familiar cycle of conquest began with the British occupation of Iraq during WW1, which involved ruthless force to suppress the Iraqi resistance, including bombing civilians – for the first time in history – and using poison gas (chemical weapons). In Iran, Britain orchestrated a coup by army officer, Reza Khan, in 1921, in order to safeguard the Anglo-Persian oil company’s oilfields.
Britain under Churchill, and his man on the ground T.E. Lawrence, used colonial vassals to rule (cheaply) on their behalf , setting the pattern for current US strategy. By the time Britain granted Iraq ‘independence’ in 1932, that state was regarded as an “Arab institution we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves, something that won’t cost very much,” as Sir Arthur Hirtzel, Head of the India Office Political Department, had articulated British policy in 1919.
From 1945, the US was ushered in to take over the Middle East by a British Empire too weak to continue as colonial enforcer. Britain encouraged the US to develop the Saudi oilfields (Britain already had Iraq and Iran), and in return the Americans would defend imperialist interests against the Communist and secular nationalist threat. Britain maintained a strong influence in the region, notably in Aden, an occupation being replayed currently in its support for the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen.
Only during the Cold War was imperialism seriously challenged, with the Socialist countries supporting secular Arab nationalist regimes. When that support was withdrawn, new space opened up for the West to incite sectarian tensions once more, and any secular socialist or nationalist ideological alternatives lost all purchase. In this sense, IS can be seen as a product of the defeat of Socialism.
A hundred years after Sykes-Picot, the colonial borders may have been erased by IS, but the strategy of imperialist fragmentation and perpetual war remains. The new elements are the increasingly powerful regional powers, and, more decisively, the reassertion of Russian power in the region. Despite the fact that it is itself an ambitious regional capitalist power, Russia has been playing a positive role at this time in challenging the dominant global imperialist power – inviting Assad to Moscow to demonstrate its support for Syria, and attempting to drive a wedge between potentially patriotic elements among the Syrian rebels and IS/Al Qaeda.
Rebuffing Russian diplomatic efforts, the US has ramped up the military pressure to reverse Syrian army gains, and has co-ordinated an unprecedented alliance between rebel forces – an alliance which includes IS. The perpetual imperialist war continues, and with it the growing sectarian divide in the region.