In 1982 the Syrian army bloodily crushed the rebellious population of Hama. The number of victims has never been reliably counted: estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000. At the time nobody talked about intervening to protect the population; nobody demanded the resignation of Hafez el-Assad, the father of today’s Syrian president Bashir al-Assad.
Since then the world has changed: the collapse of the old bloc system and the weakening of US ‘leadership’ have given free rein to the imperialist appetites of regional powers like Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Israel and the deepening of the crisis is more and more reducing the populations to poverty. The growing exasperation is fuelling revolt against the existing regimes.
For Syria, it began with several months of demonstrations against unemployment and poverty, involving the exploited from all kinds of backgrounds: Druze, Sunni, Christian, Kurds, men, women and children all together in their protests for a better life. But the situation Syria has taken a sinister turn. The working class in this country is very weak and this has allowed the social protests to be recuperated into a struggle for power between factions of the ruling class.
For the government and the pro-Assad armed forces, the stakes are clear. It’s a question of staying in power at any price. For the opposition, it’s a question of taking power for themselves. But the opposition is a mish-mash of bourgeois cliques, each one rivalling the other, united only by hostility to Assad. The Christians look askance at the Islamists and fear that they will suffer the same fate as the Copts in Egypt; some of the Kurds are trying to negotiate with the regime; and the latter holds onto the support of the Alawite religious minority, to which the presidential clique belongs.
The opposition coalition, the National Council, would have no significant political or military existence were it not supported by outside forces, each with their own imperialist objectives. These include the countries of the Arab League, with Saudi Arabia at the front, and Turkey, but also France, Britain, Israel and the USA.
The struggle between the backers of the various factions is also being waged at the UN. Russia and China have twice vetoed draft resolutions on Syria. The most recent one proposed by the Arab League calls for nothing less than the ousting of Bashir al-Assad. After several days of sordid negotiations, on March 21 the UN Security Council, with the accord of Russia and China, adopted a declaration which aimed to put a stop to the violence through the dispatch of a famous special envoy, Kofi Annan, leading a delegation which, it was clearly understood, had no power to constrain anyone.
But why have none of these foreign imperialist powers involved in this conflict not yet intervened directly as was the case for example in Libya a few months ago? This is mainly because the opposition factions themselves realise that visible reliance on foreign powers would make it impossible for their own regime to have any legitimacy.
But this is no guarantee that the threat of all-out imperialist war, which is knocking at Syria’s door, won’t break out in the near future. According to Iranian media, Turkey is massing troops and materiel at its Syrian frontier. The Syrian regime, backed by China, Russia and Iran, is preparing its arsenal of Russian-built ballistic missiles in underground bunkers in the region of Kamechi and Deir ez-Zor, near the frontier with Iraq.
We need to ask why this country is attracting such interest from the imperialist powers. The Syrian conflict cannot simply be understood on its own terms but is part of a far wider regional confrontation with Iran.
Iran at the heart of the world imperialist torment
On February 7 last year the New York Times declared: “Syria is already the beginning of the war with Iran”: a war which has not been unleashed overtly but which lurks in the shadows behind the Syria conflict.
The Assad regime is Tehran’s main ally in the region and Syria is an essential strategic zone for Iran. The alliance with this country gives Tehran a direct opening to the strategic space of the Mediterranean and Israel, with military means directly on the borders of the Zionist state. But this potential, hidden war has its roots in the fact that the Middle East is once again a focus for all the imperialist tensions built into capitalism.
This region of the world is a great crossroads between east and west. Europe and Asia meet in Istanbul. Russia and the northern countries look across the Mediterranean to the African continent and the major oceans. And, above all, oil is a vital economic and military weapon. Everyone has an interest in controlling it. Without oil, no factory can run and no plane can take off. This is one of the key reasons why all the imperialisms are involved in this part of the world.
In this struggle for domination, the rise to power of a nuclear Iran, imposing itself across the whole region, is quite unacceptable for its rivals. Iran is completely encircled militarily. The American army is installed on all its frontiers. As for the Persian Gulf, it’s so stuffed full of warships that you could cross it without getting your feet wet. The Israeli state doesn’t cease proclaiming that it will never allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons and fears it will have the capacity to build one within the next year. Israel’s declaration to the world is terrifying because this is a very dangerous situation: Iran is a country of over 70 million people with a ‘respectable’ army. A direct confrontation between the two would be catastrophic.
Iran’s political and religious leaders have asserted recently that they would respond with all means at their disposal if their country was attacked. For example, it has threatened to sink its own ships in the Straits of Hormuz, using the wrecks to create navigational hazards that would effectively close the channel. This means a major part of world oil production would not be able to reach its destination. The damage to a capitalist economy, already in an open crisis, would be enormous.
The ecological consequences could be irreversible. Military assaults on nuclear reactors have obvious dangers and it would require tactical nuclear weapons to seriously damage certain Iranian installations which are buried under thousands of tons of concrete and rock. Such an assault, nuclear or not, would almost certainly provoke Iranian counter strikes against Israeli reactors. Use of even tactical nuclear weapons (still many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb) would cross an important Rubicon and give free reign to other nuclear powers to employ theirs.
Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, total chaos rules in these countries. There are daily murderous bombings and shootings. The populations desperately try to survive from day to day. The bourgeois press says it openly: “Afghanistan is suffering from a general lassitude. The fatigue of the Afghans is met with the fatigue of the westerners” (le Monde, 21.3.12). But while for the bourgeois press the world is simply tired of the war in Afghanistan, for the population itself it’s more a matter of exasperation and despair. If war against Iran took place, involving larger populations and heavier weapons, the human catastrophe would be even more widespread. And it’s unlikely the conflict would remain contained between the initial belligerents. The wider repercussions (including the potential for a wider war) could threaten the population of the whole region.
Divided national bourgeoisies, imperialist alliances on the verge of a major crisis
Just considering some of the possible consequences of an attack on Iran scares those sectors of the bourgeoisie who are trying to maintain a minimum of lucidity. It’s a well known fact that many in the Israeli ruling class do not want this war. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, has said has said that “the perspective of an attack on Iran is the stupidest idea I have ever heard”. The former director of Shin Bet agrees and even the current military chief has joined in the chorus of disapproval. But it’s also well-known that the clique organised around Netanyahu is determined to forge ahead, sowing the seeds for a deep political crisis in the ruling class.
But the most spectacular split is between the US and Israel. The US administration does not, at the present time, want open war with Iran. Bruised by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US ruling class would prefer to rely on increasingly heavy sanctions. Despite enormous US pressure Israel is affirming loud and clear that there is no way it will allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, whatever the opinion of its closest allies. The grip of the American superpower continues to weaken and even Israel is now openly challenging its authority. For certain bourgeois commentators, we could see the first real breaks in the hitherto unquestioned US/Israel alliance.
The other major player in the region on the immediate level is Turkey, which has the most significant armed forces in the Middle East (more than 600,000 in active service). Although in the past Turkey was a reliable ally of the US and one of the few local allies of Israel, the rise of Erdogan has subtly altered relations. The Erdogan regime represents the most ‘Islamist’ sector of the Turkish bourgeoisie and is trying to play its own card of ‘democratic’ and ‘moderate’ Islam. It is trying to profit from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and is playing the same game in Syria. There was a time when Erdogan took his holidays with Assad, but once the Syrian leader refused to bow to the demands of Ankara and negotiate with the opposition, the alliance broke down. Turkey’s efforts to export its model of ‘moderate’ Islam are also in direct opposition to the efforts of Saudi Arabia to increase its own influence in the region on the basis of ultra-conservative Wahabism.
The possibility of a war over Syria, and then in Iran, is serious enough to persuade the two biggest allies of these countries, China and Russia, to react with increasing strength. For China, Iran is of considerable importance because it supplies it with 11% of its energy needs. Since its industrial take-off, China has become a new major player in the region. Last December, it warned of the danger of a global conflict around Syria and Iran. It thus declared through the Global Times:
“The West suffers from an economic recession, but its efforts to overthrow non-Western governments due to politics and military interests culminate. China, as well as its mammoth neighbour Russia, should keep on high alert and adopt countermeasures if necessary.
China should not shrink before a possible showdown with the West but seek a solution favouring itself. China will adopt concrete measures to show its determination to take its own path. Such a choice is important for China’s interests”.
Even if a direct confrontation between the world’s big imperialist powers can’t be envisaged in the current global context, such declarations show how serious the situation is.
Capitalism is heading straight for the abyss
The Middle East is a powder-keg and there are some who would be willing to put a match to it. The military means are already in position and even the most lucid factions of the ruling class are ready to fight at the moment the benefit outweighs the cost. But in today’s decomposing capitalism the atmosphere is favouring the more openly irrational bourgeois factions. The ‘messianic’ warmongering of Netanyahu in Israel is perfectly mirrored by Ahmadinejad’s invocation of Imam Madhi, a prophesised redeemer in Islam.
Imperialist war amounts to a real self-destruction of capitalism, but the trajectory of this senile and obsolete system makes such an outcome look more and more likely. Even if the belligerents step back from the brink, this will only be a momentary reprieve. The tensions will remain and heighten and as long as capitalism remains the insane logic of the system will continue its remorseless drive to war.
Tino 4/12 (adapted from an article in International Review 149)
. The international current affairs journal belonging to the official People’s Daily in China