Imperialist bloodletting worsens in Middle East

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After a car bomb exploded in Damascus on 6 January the Syrian government rushed to blame it on al-Qaida. From the arrival of the Arab League mission on 26 December 2011 until an announcement from the UN on 10 January 2012, the number of deaths was running at forty a day. From the so-called ‘al-Qaida’ bomb alone 26 died and dozens were injured. As far as the Assad regime is concerned this is all acceptable in the attempt to hold onto office.

After counting more than 5400 deaths in the Syrian state repression that dates back to March 2011, the UN has given up trying to give figures as it can’t reliably monitor the extent of the crack-down. US President Obama has denounced the “unacceptable levels of violence”. Mind you, he was already saying that the “outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end” last April. This is typical hypocrisy from the man who was authorising the bombing of targets in Pakistan within four days of being sworn in as President.

This is how the bourgeoisie operates. It uses brutal military force, as well as propaganda and diplomacy. Army deserters are massacred while Assad blames ‘foreign terrorists’, as he has throughout the last ten months. At the same time he has had no problem in accepting the backing of the Iranian government. Because of the Tehran-Damascus connection, Syrian oppositionists see Iranians as valid targets. Most recently eleven pilgrims were kidnapped on the road to Damascus; in December it was seven workers involved in building a power plant in central Syria.

The mission of the Arab League has achieved nothing. Its intention was to put pressure on Assad, but with little expected beyond some nominal reforms. Their plan for power to go to an interim government run by one of his deputies before eventually holding elections for a government of national unity was a compromise between very different approaches. Qatar has been very loyal to the US, proposing to send in Arab troops and accept US military aid. Egypt and Algeria have been resistant to any proposal that might affect the status quo.

As January drew to a close there was an escalation in government attacks, especially in the areas of Homs, Idlib, and Hama. Elsewhere, including in the suburbs of Damascus, there are increasing clashes between army deserters and the regime’s troops. The only foreseeable prospect for Syria is the continuation of violence, which any intervention from the United Nations can only exacerbate.

Undeclared war against Iran

If there were suspicions over the ‘al-Qaida’ bomb in Damascus there was little doubt about who was responsible for the bomb that killed an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran on 11 January. While the Iranian state inevitably blamed the CIA, experienced observers and those with sources in the Israeli state identified Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as being behind the attack. It is the fourth murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist in the last two years.

The assassinations of scientists are part of a campaign to stop, or at least delay, Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. In an undeclared war, using the many means at their proposals, nuclear powers such as the US, Britain and France are trying to prevent Iran joining their club, and undermine its position as a regional power.

The EU boycott of Iranian banking was a significant, but not a devastating attack on the Iranian economy. However, the EU embargo on Iranian oil sales - no new contracts, and the end of existing contracts by 1 July – is to be taken seriously. A measure of the seriousness of the measure was that, the day before the announcement, six warships from the US, France and Britain entered the Strait of Hormuz. A small fleet including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a frigate, a guided missile carrier and two destroyers, following on from a ten day US Navy exercise in the Strait either side of New Year, was there to back up the oil embargo. The Diplomatic Editor of the Guardian (23/1/12) said that this “sets a potential time bomb ticking”. This is because “Unlike previous sanctions on Iran, the oil embargo would hit almost all citizens and represent a threat to the regime. Tehran has long said such actions would represent a declaration of war, and there are legal experts in the west who agree”.

If Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz its opponents are prepared. A fifth of the world’s oil in transit passes through the Strait. There is a serious question as to whether the US would use force to keep it open. The US Fifth Fleet is in the Gulf. 15,000 of the US troops that were in Iraq are now based in Kuwait.

“The Iranian military looks puny by comparison, but it is powerful enough to do serious damage to commercial shipping. It has three Kilo-class Russian diesel submarines which run virtually silently and are thought to have the capacity to lay mines. And it has a large fleet of mini-submarines and thousands of small boats armed with anti-ship missiles which can pass undetected by ship-borne radar until very close. It also has a ‘martyrdom’ tradition that could provide willing suicide attackers.

The Fifth Fleet’s greatest concern is that such asymmetric warfare could be used to overpower the sophisticated defences of its ships, particularly in the narrow confines of the Hormuz strait, which is scattered with craggy cove-filled Iranian islands ideal for launching stealth attacks.

In 2002, the US military ran a $250m (£160m) exercise called Millennium Challenge, pitting the US against an unnamed rogue state with lots of small boats and willing martyr brigades. The rogue state won, or at least was winning when the Pentagon brass decided to shut the exercise down. At the time, it was presumed that the adversary was Iraq as war with Saddam Hussein was in the air. But the fighting style mirrored that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

In the years since, much US naval planning has focused on how to counter ‘swarm tactics’ – attacks on US ships by scores of boats, hundreds of missiles, suicide bombers and mines, all at once” (op cit).

While “swarming” has been identified as a problem, “ultimately, the US response to swarming will be to use American dominance in the air and multitudes of precision-guided missiles to escalate rapidly and dramatically, wiping out every Iranian missile site, radar, military harbour and jetty on the coast. Almost certainly, the air strikes would also go after command posts and possibly nuclear sites too. There is little doubt of the effectiveness of such a strategy as a deterrent, but it also risks turning a naval skirmish into all-out war at short notice” (op cit).

These are the considerations of the military specialists of the ruling class. They consider every possibility because not every imperialism can draw on the same resources, but will do anything that it can to defend the national capital, regardless of human cost.

Not just sabre rattling

There are those who minimise the effects of war in the Middle East. For example, in a recent article in the New York Times (26/1/12) you can read that “Israeli intelligence estimates, backed by academic studies, have cast doubt on the widespread assumption that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would set off a catastrophic set of events like a regional conflagration, widespread acts of terrorism and sky-high oil prices.

The estimates, which have been largely adopted by the country’s most senior officials, conclude that the threat of Iranian retaliation is partly bluff. They are playing an important role in Israel’s calculation of whether ultimately to strike Iran, or to try to persuade the United States to do so.”

These ‘calculations’ all sound very rational. The article continues “‘A war is no picnic,’ Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November. But if Israel feels itself forced into action, the retaliation would be bearable, he said. ‘There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.’”

In Iran they have also done their sums. They say they can cope with an oil embargo, as ‘only’ 18% of Iranian oil exports go to the EU, and what doesn’t go to Europe will go to China. In an act of defiance a new law is to be debated in the Iranian parliament that could halt oil exports almost immediately. This would have an immediate impact in Greece, Italy and Spain where they are still looking for alternative suppliers. Although, while it’s claimed that Iran could easily shut the Strait, the economic effects of a blockade would be likely to hurt Iran more than anyone else as, according to some sources, 87% of its imports and 99% of its exports are by sea.

In reality, not only is capitalism not rational, it has also shown its capacity to escalate conflicts from minor skirmishes into all-out war on numerous occasions. The Iranian military might be ‘puny’ but its forces have shown a capacity to intervene in a number of conflicts. Whether supporting the government in Syria, or oppositional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran seems never far away from the scenes of war. In the Guardian article cited above an Iranian journalist specialising in military and strategic issues is quoted: “I recall a famous Iranian idiom that was quite popular among the military officials: ‘If we drown, we’ll drown everyone with us’.” That applies to the capitalist ruling class in every country across the globe. This is not just at the level of the official military apparatus but in the desperate actions of terrorists. In Iraq, for example, following the US exodus, conflict continues, with suicide car bombs killing dozens in crowded locations on a regular basis. Whoever is behind them is not part of the resistance to capitalism but just adding to the precariousness of life in Baghdad and elsewhere. None of this behaviour is rational, but the bourgeoisie is not going without a fight, whether against other imperialisms or against its mortal enemy, the working class.

Car 28/1/12