The Middle East: United States proxies, rivals and dangers of war
By Simon Korner
A BRIEF HISTORY
Much of the Middle East was for centuries part of the Ottoman Empire, which, by the end of the 19th century, had shrunk dramatically as European powers and rising nationalist movements within Ottoman territory had reduced its power. World War 1 finished off the ‘sick man’, and the victors France and Britain divided the spoils. European imperialism was far more powerful, and more systematically violent, than Ottoman rule. Churchill’s attitude is typical of western imperialism: “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes,” he said, referring to the Kurds and Iraqis the British were bombing into submission in the 1920s to secure oil for British warships.
The Suez debacle in 1956 marked the end of British domination in the Middle East and its replacement by American imperialism. But the post-war period also saw the rise of nationalist secular movements in the region, supported by the USSR, which had been strengthened militarily – and morally – by its victory over Nazism, and was by 1949 nuclear-armed. Egypt took control of the Suez Canal in 1956; Iraq became a republic in 1958; Syria stabilised in 1963; the Palestinians formed a united leadership; Yemen, decolonised after 1967, set up a socialist republic in South Yemen that lasted till 1990 when the Soviet Union was defeated. The Cold War, in other words, underpinned the anti-colonialist and anti-Zionist wave in the Middle East.
This meant that imperialism’s gendarme, that “little loyal Jewish Ulster” in the Middle East, as the first British military governor of Palestine described the future state of Israel, had to work hard. After the Nakba in 1948, which ethnically cleansed the Palestinian population, Israel waged a succession of expansionist wars and attacks on its neighbours – an incessant campaign of terror that has intensified over 70 years. While Soviet power couldn’t prevent Israeli expansion or the pro-imperialist Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1980, or the mutually ruinous Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, it did aid economic and military development in many Arab countries – notably Egypt and Libya – and it created conditions in which secular Arab nationalism could become hegemonic.
The importance of Soviet power became eminently clear after its removal. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, sparking the first Gulf War and the start of the US’s ‘endless wars’. Since then, we’ve seen the radical weakening of relatively strong Arab communist parties, and the decline of pan-Arab solidarity and links to national liberation struggles globally. Also, after the failure of the Arab Spring, there has been the consolidation of political Islam as the prevailing ruling-class ideology. We’ve seen Libya destroyed, Iraq balkanised, Yemen invaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with direction from Britain, the US and Israel. We’ve seen a decade-long regime change war in Syria that has killed half a million people, Lebanon locked into sectarian fragmentation and growing poverty; a violent coup in Egypt; and ongoing imperialist assassinations and sabotage against Iran and its theocratic regime. And Israeli apartheid rule has been consolidated. On the edge of the Middle East, in Nagorno Karabakh, the continuing reverberations of the removal of Soviet socialist co-operation saw competing bourgeois nationalisms boil over into war last year.
RUSSIA EMERGES – US FAILS IN SYRIA
It wasn’t until 2008, and Putin’s short war against Georgia, that the newly capitalist Russia began to reassert itself on the world stage. Russia’s intervention in Syria underlined its challenge to American unipolar dominance. Russia’s decision to support the Syrian government led directly to the failure of US strategy in Syria. It was Russian airpower that turned the tide of the war, which, in turn, marked a decisive shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. Russia has now become a key regional player and stabilising force, challenging American power, both militarily and diplomatically. The journalist Sharmine Narwani believes that this change, along with China’s greater regional involvement, represents the greatest transformation in the Middle East since Sykes-Picot – the secret drawing of colonial borders by France and Britain in 1916 (4 May, 2019, International Movement for a Just World). She says: “The battle for global hegemony really began to unfold over Syria… when the Russians, Iranians and Chinese decided to draw a line and put up a fight. The world changed after that.”
The US war aims were to bring down Assad, so that the western-backed energy pipeline from Qatar through Syria, and then on to Germany, would eclipse Russian energy exports to Germany. It was Syria’s refusal to host this pipeline that sowed the seeds of war. In addition, the US wanted to push Russia out of its naval bases on the Mediterranean, weaken Iran by breaking its alliance with Syria, and block Hezbollah’s overland supply route from Iran, through Iraq and Syria and onto Lebanon. If Assad had fallen, and it was touch and go, pro-western jihadi forces – Al Qaeda under other names – supported by Israel and the Gulf states, would probably have taken over Syria. Broadly, the US plan failed.
Of course, imperialism is continuing its war through other means. The US controls the east and north-east of Syria, a large triangle of territory stretching a thousand miles along the Turkish border and down the Iraqi border. This area, effectively a US protectorate, is where 60% of Syria’s wheat and 95% of its oil comes from. It is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, mainly Kurdish, and a relatively small contingent of US troops that acts as a “tripwire” according to Peter Ford, ex-UK ambassador to Syria – so that if the Syrian army advances, it will incur massive US airstrikes. The US stranglehold over Syria’s energy and food supplies, coupled with sanctions, means that the Syrian population is suffering terribly. 12 million Syrian people are in danger of going hungry.
Meanwhile, Turkey controls a chunk of Syrian territory in the north, both directly and indirectly through its jihadi militias. ISIS still enjoys ideological support, and the US military base at Al Tanf, on the eastern border of Syria with Iraq, is providing a safe space for ISIS to regroup. There is also the terrible problem of 10 million refugees and how to facilitate their return. Overall, the US and Turkish presence is preventing Syrian re-integration and normalisation.
Yet despite these major obstacles, Syria is trying to rebuild. Peace talks involving the different Syrian sides were launched in 2017 at Astana in Kazakhstan, led by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The talks are an important marker in themselves, being the first time regional powers had co-operated in the post-Cold War era. Constitutional talks on Syria’s future are underway. If the warring sides fail to reach agreement, as is likely given their sharp differences, Assad will contest the presidential elections, due later this year, under the current Syrian constitution. His government, which has provided healthcare, education and food subsidies throughout the war, means that Assad would probably win, enabling him to enact the democratic reforms he began in 2011.
A fragile peace is returning to Syria, at least in the 70% the government controls. Aleppo is being reconstructed, important motorways are back in government hands. It is a peace underwritten by Russia, which needs a stable government and economic revival in Syria for reasons of its own. First, because chaos in Syria would provoke social unrest that would allow the West back in to stir up protests into war – just as it did ten years ago. Second, Russia also wants a stable Syria in order to secure its military bases on the Mediterranean. Third, Russia wants to demonstrate its superior ability to guarantee peace, against so many western failures: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The round-table talks in Astana that Russia has convened have completely eclipsed the Geneva peace process which the West initiated, and signal the fact that Russia is effectively at the head of Syrian peace-making diplomacy.
IRAN'S GROWING CONNECTIONS
Iran’s increased connectedness depends on several factors. First, it is bolstered by an alliance of regional forces from Iraq to Yemen. This alliance consists of Hezbollah, one of the best armed non-state actors in the world, its troops battle-hardened in Syria where they played an important role in ground-fighting. Hezbollah still commands popular support in Lebanon, based on its consistent resistance to Israel and its provision of welfare. Another alliance partner, the Houthis in Yemen, have succeeded in fighting the Saudi-led occupation to a standstill, and have used drones and low-tech missiles to attack Saudi refineries and airports. They are now poised for a major, possibly final, battle to take the oil-rich Yemeni province of Marib. In other words, they’re winning the war – which explains why the US is finally calling time on its support for the Saudi occupation and pursuing a ceasefire. In Iraq, Iran has allies in the Popular Mobilisation Units (or the Hash’d al Shaabi), the 40 or so self-defence militias of 180,000 fighters, formed during the 2014 emergency when ISIS threatened to take Baghdad. These militias are coming increasingly under Iraqi government control, but some continue regular attacks on American bases and convoys. In Syria, Iran has bases and close ties with local militias (Atlantic Council, 5 Nov, 2020). These forces have opened up a land bridge from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean, and have kept supplies flowing to Hezbollah in Lebanon – though the American bombing in February was designed to disrupt this trade route.
All in all, combined with the Syrian national army, this regional alliance represents “a group of ideologically aligned, militarily interdependent, political-military actors committed to one another’s mutual defense,” according to Brian Katz, writing in the liberal American journal, The Atlantic (19 Oct, 2019). This is a formidable, geographically diffuse, enemy for Israel and US to take on.
Another significant external relationship for Iran is with Russia. This relationship, strengthened, during the Syrian war, has given Iran a major influence over the future of Syria and the peace process. And military links with Russia show the US that Iran is not alone. Iran and Russia conducted joint military exercises in the Gulf earlier this year, the second in a series.
At the same time, the Iran-Russia relationship is not friction-free. Russia wants to fund Syria’s reconstruction with money from the Gulf states. But Iran is suspicious of these states’ interference in Syria – seeing they were actively supporting regime change in Syria until recently, and oppose Iran. Instead Iran wants Chinese involvement, and also looks to Europe, which it hopes will become a major Iranian energy buyer in future. Russia and Iran also differ over Israel – Iran fears that Russia’s avowed position as an ‘honest broker’ in the region makes it too accommodating to Israeli attacks on Syria. These differences, while not antagonistic, do expose the limits of Russian-sponsored stability. Russia is not strong enough to set the region onto a peaceful path for the long term.
A third element in Iran’s increased connectedness is its economic relationship with China. The two countries recently signed a 25-year economic deal worth $400 billion, under which Iran supplies China with energy in exchange for major Chinese infrastructure investments, 5G roll-out, and intelligence sharing. There are also military links. In 2019, the two countries conducted a major naval exercise in the Gulf, together with Russia.
Of course, China has its own agenda. It’s making long-term trade deals with the Gulf states. It also has links with Israel – building the port in Ashdod, and developing Haifa’s existing facilities as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. But overall, China’s growing economic presence in the region acts as a hindrance to American designs, as does the construction of its only overseas base in Djibouti, across the narrow Red Sea straits from Yemen. As Forbes online business journal (17 July, 2020) put it: China is gaining “massive influence in this geopolitically critical region.” China’s importance in challenging the US unipolar order in the Middle East is only going to grow, and for Iran, the strategic 25-year deal with China “represents a major blow” to the US, according to the New York Times (11 July, 2020).
So far, we’ve looked mainly at the challenges to the US unipolar order. But the question arises: could these challenges, and in particular the American response to them, make war a greater danger than before?
DANGERS OF WAR
US military spending massively outweighs all the other global powers combined, making up 38% of global expenditure on arms. In 2019, its military spending was $732 billion – China was next at $261 billion, and Russia at $65 billion. Saudi Arabia, which spends $60 billion on arms a year, is slightly above France, Germany, Britain, Japan and South Korea, in that order. American military pre-eminence is not just for show. The US physical presence in the Middle East is ongoing. Its recent bombing of Iraqi militia forces fighting ISIS sent a clear message that Biden’s foreign policy is as murderous as that of his predecessors. NATO troop numbers in Iraq are also being raised. Though Trump said he wanted to draw down troops in Syria, the US remains illegally entrenched in the north-east of Syria, using the mainly Kurdish Syrian Defence Force as its ground troops to guard and steal Syria’s oil. The US has bases across the Middle East in almost every country. That’s 60,000 troops in total in the region, plus 10,000 more on the Afghan-Iran border, as well as a big naval presence in the Gulf.
Nevertheless, given the broad, slow process of American decline, and given its recent failures in Middle Eastern wars and their aftermath, the US will find it difficult to “enter another war like the Iraq war, when it deployed 185,000 soldiers, spent at least US $1.2 trillion and had thousands of casualties,” as Iran campaigner Jane Green pointed out in the Morning Star (3 Feb, 2021). According to George Friedman of the establishment American website Stratfor (3 March, 2015), the US “has come to the conclusion that wars of occupation are beyond American capacity”. It therefore needs to change tack.
To this end, Israel, already highly ambitious, has been massively rewarded by the US, the better to serve American interests. First, Trump tore up the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the JCPOA, in line with Israeli wishes. While Biden is talking about re-engaging with the deal, his hawkish Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, along with the Israel lobby, make that outcome uncertain. The US is unlikely to lift sanctions, which could force Iran to refuse a deal. Second, Trump handed Israel Jerusalem as its capital and cancelled the $65 million a year US contribution to the UN Relief Agency supporting Palestinian refugees. He also cheered on the West Bank Jewish settlements, which Pompeo declared were “not inconsistent with international law” (Times of Israel, 19 Nov, 2019). Biden is unlikely to roll back on any of this. Third, Israeli power has been increased by the Abraham Accords – the normalisation of its ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Gulf, as well as Sudan and Morocco – and soon with other Arab states. Though these deals basically articulate already existing realities, the open disdain that allying with Israel shows for the Palestinian struggle by these Gulf states represents a new low.
The fourth reward for Israel, and perhaps the most important, is that Israel has been brought under the strategic military umbrella of Centcom, the US’s Middle East command. This means that Israel will be able to base its aircraft openly in any US airbase in the Middle East, for example, in the UAE, much nearer to Iran than Israel. It will be able to lead the Gulf states’ powerful but less technologically advanced forces, in exchange for sharing its expertise in population suppression with the Gulf monarchies. As Jonathan Cook puts it (Middle Eastern Eye, 2 Feb, 2021): “Israeli officers will soon move out of the shadows and publicly train and advise the UAE and Saudi armies as part of their joint roles in Centcom.”
Israeli ties with the UAE are already strong. Through the UAE and the UAE’s proxy force in Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council, Israel has gained a foothold on the strategically important Yemeni island of Socotra off Aden. This means that Israel and the UAE could soon develop potential control over vital shipping lanes leading south from Suez, whose economic importance was underlined in March this year when the Canal was blocked by a huge container ship. Economically, trade will boom between Israel and the UAE – hitherto blocked.
As a result of the Abraham Accords, the UAE, for its part, will gain access to 50 US stealth fighters, which it needs to extend its military power. The UAE has already shown its own expansionist ambitions. It was a key player in the 2013 Egyptian coup against the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, has been very active on one side in the Libya war and it tried, along with the Saudis, to blockade Qatar economically and topple its monarchy for being too close to Iran. New high-tech weapons will only make the UAE more aggressive.
Iran rightly sees both the Centcom move, and the Abraham Accords, as a direct threat.
Israel is also working on Qatar. Now that the economic blockade by the Saudis and UAE has failed, Israel, which backed the blockade, sees closer ties with Qatar as a good way forward. It has offered to lift its arms veto on US sales of stealth bombers to Qatar – a veto the Americans gave Israel in 2008 so as to guarantee its permanent military superiority in the Middle East, known as ‘Qualitative Military Edge’. Israel’s friendly moves towards Qatar explain Pompeo’s parting shot before he left office, which was to patch up the Saudi-Qatari quarrel. The way is now open for a really powerful war alliance against Iran.
To sum up, as the US scales back direct military control in the Middle East, it is outsourcing its work of domination, drawing together a group of well-armed proxy powers, led by its most efficient gendarme, Israel. The aim is to neutralise and, if necessary, destroy Iranian power, and thus indirectly weaken China, which depends on Iranian energy. Israel is able to exploit the uneven development and rivalry between the ambitious Gulf states to put itself at their head, as their technological leader, and their conduit to US and Israeli arms.
Israel’s increased power makes regional war more likely overall, because of it’s nuclear-armed status, with at least 200 nuclear weapons, and its implacable opposition to Iran ever getting nuclear arms. As the American journal The National Interest (26 Oct, 2019) put it: “If a hostile power (let’s say Iran, for the sake of discussion) appeared to be on the verge of making nuclear devices with the systems needed to deliver them, Israel might well consider a preventive [their word] nuclear attack. In the case of Iran, we can imagine scenarios in which Israeli planners would no longer deem a conventional attack sufficiently lethal to destroy or delay the Iranian program.” The US promotion of Israel makes it increasingly reliant on it, and thus less and less able to control it, with the risk that Israel could trigger a devastating war, now it’s been put in the driving seat. Having said that, Turkey may prove a more dangerous regional power still.
The Syria war has been instrumental in rendering Turkey a highly unreliable NATO ally for the US, as it plays off West against East, in a Janus-like position. Originally part of the western forces to bring down Assad, Turkey changed its position when it realised Assad was not going to fall, and it came to terms with Syria, Russia and Iran. It has also been provoking its fellow NATO power Greece over energy fields in the eastern Mediterranean – drilling for energy within Greek and Cypriot coastal waters – and has clashed with another NATO ally France over shipping arms to the side France is against in the Libya conflict.
Turkey has also never fallen out with Russia irrevocably, in spite of various close calls – such as the shooting down of a Russian jet during the Syria war. It is keeping its S-400 anti-missile systems Russia has supplied it with, despite US sanctions for doing so. All this suggests that Turkey might be moving towards a permanent alliance with Russia. But such an alliance is unlikely for several reasons. First, Turkey’s position in Afrin in northern Syria – where it’s opening post offices, clinics, colleges, and using the Turkish lira as it does in Northern Cyprus – is an aggressive act of occupation against Syria and, by extension, Russia. In addition, there is its continued support for Al Qaeda in Idlib, which it is using as a weapon to be unleashed whenever necessary. And although Turkish and Russian troops jointly patrol various borderlands and highways in northern Syria, it is an extremely tense relationship – especially as Syrian planes have begun bombing oil transports smuggling stolen oil into Turkey. Second, Turkey is host to a major NATO base at Inçirlik, something it is unlikely to give up because Turkey’s NATO membership gives it further leverage against Russia.
More broadly, as a major regional power, Turkey has long-term ambitions to regain its former Ottoman possessions in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. It has only reluctantly, and temporarily, accepted Assad’s survival. Its friendship with Qatar, where it has a base and a shared Muslim Brotherhood ideology, shows it has ambitions as far away as the Persian Gulf, as well as in Yemen where it plans to send Islamist mercenaries to fight the Houthis. And its incursions into northern Iraq to kill PKK fighters underline its lack of respect for international borders. Turkey also has nuclear ambitions, with Pakistan as its likely supplier.
Turkey risked war with Russia by supporting Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia. It supplied Azerbaijan with sophisticated drones that enabled its victory. Russia was hard-put to broker a fragile peace deal, a deal that now gives Turkey a direct transport route to the Turkic-speaking countries east of the Caspian Sea, on which it is setting its long-term sights: Turkmenistan, for example, and other former republics of the USSR. Turkey will at some point challenge Russia for hegemony over these central Asian countries. So, all in all, a definitive move by Turkey towards Russia and away from the West is unlikely.
And though Biden is continuing to shut Turkey out of participation in producing F-35 bombers, and is making critical comments about Turkey, a New York Times article suggests a more accommodating line could emerge: “Turkish forces are all that stand between five million vulnerable citizens and potential slaughter at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Russian allies” (17 Feb, 2021). Americans are being prepared to forgive Turkey for its unruly behaviour, so long as it remains within the US sphere of influence. Biden’s only other option to bring Turkey to heel would be to impose more sanctions, or try another coup. But the last coup attempt against Erdogan failed badly.
Overall, Turkey’s ambiguous foreign policy has served it well, and there is little reason for it to change now.
BRITAIN AND FRANCE
Into this combustible mix, we also have the old European powers and their competing ambitions. British hawks like Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, are calling for Britain to take a far more active role in the Middle East. Britain has aided and abetted the Saudi war in Yemen, and has close ties with the Gulf monarchies: through arms, football, the funding of British universities and our royal family, which has met Gulf monarchs over 200 times in the past decade. Britain is mired in dirty tricks in Syria and Lebanon, and has been instrumental in anti-Assad propaganda – it’s no coincidence that the pro-terrorist White Helmets leader Le Mesurier was British. Over half of Al Jazeera’s reporters in Syria were trained by a UK-US government programme. Britain has also embedded itself in Lebanon’s security services and the army, and has created ‘civil society’ groups to push for regime change. Britain has cornered the market in ideological warfare.
Meanwhile, France also wants to regain its old colonial influence. Macron, in a visit to Lebanon just after the Beirut explosion, said: “France will never let Lebanon go. The heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut.” He also said that France would resist Turkey’s intervention in the war in Libya where they back different sides and would prevent Turkey drilling for energy in Greek coastal waters, which threatens the interests of French oil company Total. France’s military bases in the UAE and Djibouti (next door to China’s and America’s) allow it to project French power into the Gulf. Given all this, and Macron’s recent major weapons deal with Egypt, the current balance of forces in the Middle East is ripe for future conflict.
In conclusion, Russia’s military and diplomatic influence, coupled with Chinese economic influence, could potentially lead to a more stable Middle East. China has continued to buy Iranian oil in the teeth of US sanctions, and is now investing in Iraq’s broken infrastructure in exchange for guarantees of energy supplies in future, forging ahead with plans for peaceful economic development. On the other hand, any trade-led stability under Chinese and Russian tutelage will face sabotage from the US, which will try to use its military superiority to gain what it can no longer win economically. That means that the new dispensation, the new multipolarity, could end up intensifying the danger of war, rather than guaranteeing peace. While Russia and China support the UN Charter and international norms, the US will continue to break international law and fill any gap in terms of boots on the ground with its alliance of increasingly assertive regional powers. In encouraging these players, led by Israel, it is storing up ingredients for future war, not only against Iran, but one that could drag in the global powers too. Which begs the question: was Syria the ground on which the opening battles of World War 3 have already been fought?
What can we do here? First, re-emphasise support for the Palestinian struggle, both within Labour and beyond, exposing apartheid Israel and its key place in the imperialist order. Second, support campaigns against British arms deals to Israel and the Gulf states. Third, challenge wars of intervention, existing and new, and challenge the new Cold War narrative against Russia and China.
China and Iran recently signed a 25-year economic deal worth $400 billion.