The development of the situation in the Middle East between 1990 and 2010 has shown vividly that the imperialist confrontations, the militarism and barbarism, which are essential characteristics of the period of the decadence of capitalism, have not only intensified but, above all, in the phase of the widespread decomposition of capitalist society, their irrational and chaotic nature has become more and more evident.
This was powerfully demonstrated by the two Gulf Wars. They illustrate the fact that the abortive attempts of the American "world policeman" to keep control of the situation and counter the tendency of "every man for himself" at the imperialist level, not only led to the decline of its leadership but also opened a Pandora's box of exploding imperialist appetites everywhere. These tendencies have increased dramatically in the second decade of the 21st century.
1. The US withdrawal from Iraq and civil war in Syria: the explosion of chaos
The year 2011 was marked by two major events that symbolise the growing chaos in the imperialist relations in the Middle East and would decisively mark the present period: the US withdrawal from Iraq and the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
The planned withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Iraq (and later Afghanistan) caused unprecedented instability in these countries and would contribute to the further destabilisation of the entire region. At the same time, this withdrawal also underlines the extent to which US imperialist power is declining. While in the 1990s it managed to fulfil its role as "world policeman", its central problem in the first decade of the 21st century is attempting to mask its impotence faced with the global chaos.
In that same year, the outbreak of civil war in neighbouring Syria confirmed the increasingly chaotic and uncontrollable nature of the imperialist conflicts. It came soon after the popular movements of the "Arab Spring" which affected Syria and many other Arab countries. By weakening the Assad regime, this opened up a Pandora's box with a multitude of contradictions and conflicts that had been kept under wraps for decades by the iron hand of this regime. Western countries called for Assad's removal, but were quite incapable of producing any suitable replacement when the opposition to him was totally divided and its predominant sector was made up of Islamists. At the same time, Russia has provided unfailing military support to the Assad regime and it is guaranteed a permanent presence for its war fleet in the port of Tartus in the Mediterranean.
It is not the only state that supports Assad's regime since Iran had seized the opportunity, along with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias it controls, to establish a large Shi’ite front. In addition, we can't discount the role played by China. Hence Syria has become a new and bloody game involving multiple rivalries between first and second-rate imperialist powers which can only mean the threat of further conflagrations and increased destabilisation of the region for which the people of the Middle East will once again pay a heavy price.
The report on imperialist tensions of the 20th Congress of the ICC (in 2013) underlined how these two events gave rise to the spectacular growth of militarism, barbaric war and all-out confrontations between the imperialisms in the region, taking advantage of the increasingly conspicuous decline of US leadership:
"The Middle East is a terrible confirmation of our analyses about the impasse of the system and the flight into the 'every man for himself':
- the region has become an enormous powder keg and arms purchases have multiplied in recent years (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman);
- flocks of vultures of first, second and third-rate order confront each other in the region (…);
- in this context, we should point to the destabilising role of Russia in the Middle East (since it wants to maintain its last points of support in the region) and China (which has a more offensive attitude in support of Iran, which is a crucial provider of oil (...)).
It is an explosive situation which is escaping the control of the big imperialisms; and the withdrawal of western forces from Iraq and Afghanistan will further accentuate this destabilisation, even if the United States has made attempts to limit the damage (...). Globally, however, throughout the ‘Arab Spring’, the US has shown its incapacity to protect regimes favourable to it (which has led to a loss of confidence, e.g. the attitude of Saudi Arabia which has distanced itself from the US) and it is becoming increasingly unpopular.
This multiplication of imperialist tensions can lead to major consequences at any moment: countries such as Israel or Iran could provoke terrible shocks and pull the entire region into turmoil because it's under no-one's control. We are thus in an extremely dangerous and unpredictable situation for the region, but also, because of the consequences that can arise from it, for the entire planet.)
(Report on Imperialist Tensions, 20th Congress of the ICC, International Review 152, 2013).
This report also highlighted that these events were leading to growing instability in many states across the region with the spread of reactionary and barbaric ideologies and an endless series of massacres which caused floods of refugees in the region and towards Europe: "Since 1991, with the invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf war, the Sunni front put in place by the west to contain Iran has collapsed. The explosion of ‘every man for himself’ in the region has been breathtaking and Iran has been the main beneficiary from the two Gulf wars, with the strengthening of Hezbollah and some Shi'ite movements; as for the Kurds, their quasi-independence has been the collateral effect of the invasion of Iraq. The tendency towards each for themselves is again sharpened in the extension of the social movements of the ‘Arab Spring’, in particular where the proletariat is weakest, and this has led to the more and more marked destabilisation of numerous states in the region (...):
The aggravation of tensions between adverse factions is mixed up with diverse religious tensions. Thus, outside of Sunni/Shi'ite or Christian/Muslim opposition, oppositions within the Sunni world are also increasing with the coming to power in Turkey of the moderate Islamist Erdogan or recently the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in Tunisia (Ennahda) and within the Moroccan government, supported today by Qatar, which opposes the Salafist/Wahhabi movement financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai), which supported Mubarak and Ben Ali respectively (…).
But, in particular, this explosion of antagonisms and religious factionalism since the end of the 80s and the collapse of ‘modernising’, ‘socialist’ regimes (Iran, Egypt, Syria, Iraq...) above all expresses the weight of decomposition, of chaos and misery, the total absence of any perspective through a descent into totally reactionary and barbaric ideologies” (Ibid.)
These orientations highlighted in the report would tragically be confirmed in the following years.
2. From Syria to Yemen: the intensification of conflicts and the unpredictability of alliances
The major consequences of the US withdrawal from Iraq and the civil war in Syria for the exacerbation of imperialist tensions in the Middle East are clearly highlighted in the Resolution on the international situation of the 23rd International Congress of the ICC (2019): "The Middle East, where the weakening of American leadership is most evident and where the Americans’ inability to engage too directly on the military level in Syria has left the field open to other imperialisms, offers a concentration of these historical tendencies:
- Russia has imposed itself as an essential power in the Syrian theatre thanks to its military force, in particular to preserve its naval bases in Tartus;
- Iran, through its military victory to save its ally, the Assad regime, and by forging an Iraqi-Syrian land corridor directly linking Iran to the Mediterranean and the Lebanese Hezbollah, is the main beneficiary and has fulfilled its objective of taking the lead in this region (...).
- Turkey, obsessed by the fear of the establishment of autonomous Kurdish zones that can only destabilise it, is operating militarily in Syria.” (International Review 164)
Since 2011, the evolution of the situation in the region is effectively characterised by a significant extension of 'every man for himself' and an explosion of instability: the interminable civil war in Syria, the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the civil wars in Yemen and Libya, the regular flare-ups between the USA and Iran, the 'Kurdish question' which pushes Turkey to intervene continually in Iraq or Syria and the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict have all sharpened the appetites of an army of first, second or third order vultures, which confront each other in the region in the framework of often fluctuating alliances. The United States, Russia and China are of course at the forefront, but other gangsters are prepared to join in the fray too, such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and of course Israel bombing Hamas in Gaza, or Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Syria, and this is not to mention the militias and armed gangs in the service of these powers or the local warlords acting on their own behalf.
Russia consolidates its position in the region
In the Middle East, the demise of the "world policeman" has primarily benefited Russian imperialism, which has managed to establish itself as the dominant power in the Syrian conflict by rescuing Assad's regime. Thus it first of all secured its foothold in the region (in particular its naval base in Tartus) and tried to accentuate the divisions between Turkey and NATO. To underline its weight in the region, Russia has also organised joint naval manoeuvres with Iran and China, which imports oil from Iran and has supported the action of Russia and Iran in the region. It then tried to consolidate this position by establishing a strategic alliance with Iran and Turkey (Sochi Conference in February 2019), since it has an interest in promoting the current status quo, supported by China, which is also keen to stabilise the situation. Although China does not yet have the means to compete directly with the main sharks in this part of the world, it is nevertheless trying to act and defend in an underhanded way its own imperialist ambitions. Turkey's ambiguous relations with both the US (and NATO) and also with Russia offers opportunities for Chinese imperialism (see below on Turkey's position).
Iran extends its domination from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea
Iran is a second major beneficiary of the weakening of the US presence in the Middle East: the dominant position of the Shi’ite fractions in Iraq has enabled it to considerably strengthen its hold on this country. The intervention on the ground of the Al-Quds force as well as the presence on the front lines of Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shi’ite militias have changed the balance of power in Syria and are in fact leading the Assad regime towards victory. Also, Iran controls a large part of Lebanon through its Hezbollah allies, which means that it dominates large territories from the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and has thus achieved a dominant imperialist position in the region.
However, its ambition to become a nuclear power has led it into a greater confrontation with the US. Moreover, both its nuclear objectives and its progress on the ground (Lebanon, Syria) collide head-on with Israel's interests, while support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen exacerbates tensions with Saudi Arabia. Originally, the state of the Ayatollahs was linked to India by a series of trade agreements (oil in exchange for Indian investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar), but the US embargo led to a 40% reduction in India's Iranian oil imports (see Le Monde Diplomatique, Sept. 2019), which has led India to turn to Saudi Arabia for its oil. As a result, Iran has now tended to move closer to Pakistan and thus to align itself with the China-Pakistan economic corridor.
For the Iranian theocratic state, there is fundamentally no other perspective than a policy of systematic search for conflict, since this alone allows the regime to mobilise the population and to get them to accept terrifying economic and social pressures: "For Tehran, the perpetuation of tension makes it possible to consolidate the domination of the hard-line wing of the regime, whose backbone comprises the military-economic complex of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pasdaran ('guardians')" (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2020, p.1 ). Hence the regular provocations, such as the recent boarding of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, the bombing of oil installations in Saudi Arabia or the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad (even if in the latter case it underestimated the symbolic impact of the attack on a US embassy, after the occupation of that in Tehran in 1979 and Benghazi in 2012). In short, Iran will not change its behaviour, even if it can calm things when the situation of 'asymmetrical warfare' becomes too explosive. It thus remains a powerful vector of destabilisation in the region.
Turkey: a complex game of alliances
Turkey's geographical position, occupying a key place in the region, is both critical in the evolution of future conflicts and also poses a threat to the very stability of the country, as any emergence of the seeds of a Kurdish state or independent entity is a nightmare for Ankara. Moreover, Turkey has important imperialist ambitions in the region, not only in Syria or Iraq, but also towards all the Muslim countries, from Libya to Qatar, from Turkmenistan to Egypt. Restricted in its imperialist ambitions at the time of the opposition between the Russian and US blocs, it is now playing its own imperialist card to the full: once one of the pillars of NATO, its status as a member of the Alliance has become largely 'unsettled', firstly because of its strained relations with the US and other Western European NATO members, secondly because of tensions with the European Union over refugees, and thirdly because of the conflicted relations with Greece. Also, it is trying to play a game of blackmail between the imperialist powers by getting closer in recent years to Russia and even Iran, which are a major imperialist competitors in the Middle East theatre.
Turkey had found itself in a difficult situation in the civil war in Syria, as the US was dependant on its Kurdish enemies in the fight against ISIS. In fact, the US believed that the Kurds were the most reliable cannon fodder in Iraq or Syria and, moreover, it distrusted the Turks who tolerated and exploited the actions of various jihadist groups in the areas they controlled, as illustrated by the fact that the "Caliph" of ISIS, El-Baghdadi, had taken refuge in an area under Turkish control. The rapprochement with Russia was also a form of blackmail against the US. Now, the Americans have withdrawn their support for the Kurds, allowing the Turks to launch an offensive against the Kurdish militias and drive them out of certain areas along the Syrian-Turkish border, with the consent of the Russians. As a result, the Sunni militias allied to the Turks and the Turkish army itself have increasingly come into confrontation, particularly in the Idlib pocket, with the Alawite Syrian government troops and the Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militias supported by the Russians.
Within the Sunni “community”, Turkey also opposes Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Qatar, and in Egypt, where Turkey (and Qatar) support the Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia supports and finances Sissi's military regime. Similarly, in the civil war in Libya, the former supports the government of Tripoli while the latter supports the army of the rebel leader Marshal Haftar. In conclusion, confrontations between the imperialist brigands are developing in all directions, and the instability of imperialist relations means predicting where tensions will break out next is difficult.
What Le Monde Diplomatique concludes about Russian-Turkish relations is fully valid for all the protagonists in the region: "More generally, the very concept of alliance or partnership, which would induce a certain number of reciprocal political duties and constraints, does not make it possible to grasp the essentially pragmatic nature of the Russian-Turkish relationship. One should not confuse ideological, political and economic cooperation made necessary by the geopolitical context with a strategic rapprochement in a bloc logic, nor should one forget the constant reassessment of its interests by each country" (LMD, October 2019, p.17)
3. From Bush to Trump: the Middle East is central to the tensions within the US bourgeoisie and to its decline in leadership
The development of the war and the occupation of Iraq underlined the decline of US leadership. It also highlighted strong tensions inside the US bourgeoisie on how to maintain its global supremacy. The coming to power of populist president, Donald Trump, would accentuate these tensions and bring out more clearly the role of the US as a major vector of destabilisation in the Middle East (and, to varying degrees, in other parts of the world).
An overview of the confrontations in the Middle East over the past 30 years shows the marked tensions unfolding within the US bourgeoisie on how to maintain US global supremacy in a world where the blocs had disappeared: on the one hand there were those advocating a "multilateral" approach based on mobilising a broad "coalition of allies" around the US to control the situation, as Bush senior did in 1991 and Obama tried to do again during his presidency (e.g. the Iranian nuclear treaty) but with increasingly mixed success; on the other hand, faced with of the rise of "every man for himself", there were those advocating the "unilateral" approach, where the United States takes on the singular role of the world's sheriff. This approach was taken by Bush Junior after the attacks of 11 September 2001, but led to the bitter failure of the Iraqi adventure.
When Trump came to power, the various factions within the American bourgeoisie sought to “direct” the populist president, whether it was the proponents of "multilateralism" like Secretary of State Tillerson and Defence Secretary Mattis, or the supporters of "unilateralism" like John Bolton. Instead, in accord with the decisions of the unpredictable populist president, an "America First" type policy at the imperialist level was adopted. This orientation is in fact the official recognition of the failure of US imperialist policy over the past 25 years:
"The Trump administration's formalisation of the principle of defending only their interests as a national state and the imposition of profitable power relations as the main basis for relations with other states, confirms and draws implications from the failure of the policy of the last 25 years of fighting against ‘every man for himself’ as a world policeman in defence of the world order inherited from 1945. (...)" (Resolution on the International Situation from the 23rd ICC International Congress, in International Review 164, point 13).
A common principle, aimed at overcoming the chaos in international relations, is summarised in the following Latin phrase: "pacta sunt servanda" – treaties, the agreements must be respected. If someone signs a global - or multilateral - agreement, they are supposed to respect it, at least in appearance. But the United States, under Trump, abolished this concept: "I can sign a treaty, but I can also abolish it tomorrow if it is in the interest of the United States". This was reflected in the termination of the Transpacific Pact (TPP), the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico and the Paris Treaty on Climate Change. The same is true in the Middle East with the cancellation of the nuclear treaty with Iran or the UN resolutions with regard to Israel and Palestine. According to Trump, the US will impose "bilateral" agreements on other countries, through economic, political and military blackmail, that will serve their interests.
"Despite Trump's populism, despite disagreements within the American bourgeoisie on how to defend its leadership and divisions especially regarding Russia, the Trump administration adopts an imperialist policy in continuity and consistency with the fundamental imperialist interests of the American state..." (ibid). However, this policy, only exacerbates tensions within the US bourgeoisie, as is illustrated by the following two emblematic cases:
- the possible rapprochement with Russia:
The Trump faction has identified the profound change in geostrategic conditions which required a rethinking of relations with Russia: ("... the instability of power relations between powers gives the Russian Eurasian state-continent a new strategic importance in view of the place it can occupy in the containment of China") and is in favour of better relations with the Kremlin. On the other hand, "...the remaining American institutions [retain] great hostility towards Russia. This is notably the case with the American intelligence agencies which have demonstrated Russian interference but were publicly disavowed by the President during his meeting with V. Putin in Helsinki in July 2018. In line with Congress, most Republicans have maintained their traditional hostility towards Russia - which dates back to the Cold War - and are supported by the Democrats, who are increasingly anti-Russian because of Putin's anti-democratic stance". (Diplomacy, Major Topics No. 50, p50).
- negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan:
Trump had gambled - and failed - to reach a quick agreement with the Taliban to achieve the US withdrawal by conceding "to the demands of the Taliban, despite the lack of guarantees for combatting the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. These negotiations established the Taliban as credible interlocutors for all countries in the region and beyond, which was a major objective of the insurgency. Moreover, as the entire process was conducted without the Kabul regime's involvement, the legal government had no say in the future of Afghanistan. But then, after paying the price of political recognition of the Taliban and alienating the Afghan government, President Trump cancelled the planned meeting with them at Camp David and declared (...) the negotiations dead. The precise reason for this last-minute about-face is not known, including by U.S. diplomats" (Le Monde 24/10/19).
Trump's policy of "unilateral" withdrawal from Afghanistan in defiance of the allies and the government in power has also aroused strong opposition within the diplomatic corps, the secret service and certain political factions of the American bourgeoisie: "The fact that Trump secretly planned a personal meeting with a murderous group classified by the United States as terrorists a few days before the eighteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which the group participated, would have raised a few eyebrows in Washington. A diplomatic way of expressing shock and horror," The Guardian Commentary (International Newsletter, 11/09/19).
Trump's policy will have two major consequences, which are clearly visible in the Middle East:
(a) it confirms the continued decline of US leadership.
This "bilateral" policy tends to undermine the reliability of the US as an ally: Trump's ranting, bluffing and abrupt changes of position - threatening Iran with military reprisals on the one hand and cancelling military strikes at the last moment on the other, or making use of the Kurdish militias only to abandon them later - not only undermines the credibility of the US but leads to the fact that fewer and fewer countries trust it.
Furthermore, Trump's unpredictable decisions and gambling with the future have the effect of undermining the basis of previous political strategies of the US administrations in the Middle East: by denouncing the nuclear agreement with Iran, the US is not only leaving the field open to China and Russia, but is opposing its EU "allies", even Great Britain. Its seemingly paradoxical alliance with the only countries prepared to support it in confronting Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, can only lead to a growing rapprochement between Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Finally, in Iraq, the US has progressively lost the support of the Sunnis (after the fall of Saddam), the Kurds (after having abandoned them to their fate in Syria) and recently the Shi’ite militias (after the "elimination" of their leaders and Soleimani), which actually endangers the American forces retained in Iraq and can only increase distrust by Turkey, which Trump has threatened with economic and military pressure.
Therefore, this "Trump" strategy remains controversial, firstly because its results are far from being evident and it tends to accentuate the chaos and the loss of US control over the situation; and secondly because the interests of local imperialisms on which Trump claims to base his policy in the region, namely Israel or Saudi Arabia, will not necessarily always correspond with those of the US.
(b) it makes the US's "world policeman" a major factor of destabilisation and chaos.
In line with his promise to bring "the boys" home, Trump fears more than anything that he will be dragged into a military operation with "boots on the ground". That is why he is anxious to accelerate the withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. On the other hand, in order to maintain the interests of US imperialism, he fully exploits the assets in which the US has an overwhelming superiority:
- economic pressure, like the economic blackmail against Turkey or the economic sanctions against Iran;
- technological warfare to take advantage of the overwhelming superiority of the US in this field. The knock-out operations against Al-Baghdadi in northern Syria and the drone operations against Iranian General Soleimani near Baghdad airport, in an area under the control of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, demonstrate an unparalleled ability of the US to strike when and where it wants with terrifying precision.
Moreover, as mentioned above, the US strategy aims to rely on two of the most important military powers in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who they arm to the teeth and over whom they have close control, in carrying out the policy of containment of Iran. However, here too, Trump's unpredictable decisions are often contested not only within the political apparatus of the US bourgeoisie but even within the military hierarchy (e.g. the resignation of Defence Minister J. Mattis). Thus, several announcements of troop withdrawals from Syria or Iraq have been ignored or circumvented by Pentagon strategists. Similarly, the Pentagon and the intelligence services have expressed an adverse opinion regarding the drone attack on Qasem Soleimani.
US policy can therefore only lead to an increase in imperialist tensions and further destabilisation of the situation in the region. Moreover, the vandal-like behaviour of Trump, who can renounce US international commitments overnight in defiance of the established rules, represents a new and powerful factor of uncertainty and development of every man for himself. "It is a further indication of the new stage in which capitalism in sinking into the barbarism and the abyss of untrammelled militarism" (Resolution on the International Situation from the 23rd ICC International Congress, in International Review 164, point 13)
4. Growing barbarism and chaos in the region
The spread of conflicts and wars is leading to a dramatic expanse of chaos, barbarism and despair in the Middle East. This takes on several characteristics.
The destabilisation of many states in the region and the proliferation of terrorist groups
Entire parts of the Middle East, including whole states, are sliding into instability and chaos. This is clearly the case of countries such as Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and "liberated Kurdistan" or the Palestinian territories that are sinking into the horror of civil war or even into outright gang warfare. And in other countries, such as Egypt, Jordan (where the Muslim Brotherhood opposes King Abdullah II), Bahrain and even Iran or Turkey, social tensions and opposition between bourgeois factions make the situation unpredictable.
The exacerbation of tensions between opposing factions equally divides the various religious tendencies. Thus, in addition to the Sunni/Shi’ite or Christian/Muslim opposition, oppositions within the Sunni world have also multiplied with the coming to power in Turkey of the moderate Islamist Erdogan supporting the Muslim and associated Brotherhood in Egypt and in Tunisia (Ennahda) as well as the official Libyan government. The Muslim Brotherhood is also supported by Qatar and these factions oppose the Salafist/Wahhabi movement, financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which in turn supports the military regime of Sissi in Egypt or rebel leader General Haftar in Libya. In southern Iraq, Iraqi Shiites are increasingly opposed to the Iranian Shi’ite tutelage.
The increasingly bloody military confrontations and the destabilisation of various states have led to the emergence of numerous terrorist organisations, such as Al-Qaida, Islamic State (ISIS), the Al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah and various other Salafist groups, which are financed and used by various regional imperialisms (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Turkey and Iran) and which sow terror and desolation not only in the region but also strike directly at Europe through terrorist attacks (Madrid, Paris, London, Brussels, ...). Of course, these religious tendencies, each one more barbaric than the next, are only there to hide the imperialist interests that govern the policies of the various ruling cliques. More than ever today, with the wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, it is obvious that there is no "Muslim bloc" or "Arab bloc", but different bourgeois cliques defending their own imperialist interests by exploiting religious tensions (Christians, Jews, Muslims...). This is also apparent in the struggle between countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia or Qatar for control of mosques "abroad", particularly in Europe.
Impotent popular revolts crushed in blood
From the end of 2010 to the end of 2012, a series of popular protests engulfed many countries in the Arab world. People protested both against poverty and unemployment and against the tyranny and corruption of authoritarian governments that had been in power for decades. This movement, which began in Tunisia, later spread to other countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Syria. However, all of these social movements were either hijacked to benefit a bourgeois faction fighting against others, or crushed in blood.
“The fact that the manifestation of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria has resulted not in the least gain for the exploited and oppressed masses but in a war which has left over 100,000 dead is a sinister illustration of the weakness of the working class in this country – the only force which can form a barrier to the barbaric warfare. And this situation also applies, even if in less tragic forms, to the other Arab countries where the fall of the old dictators has resulted in the seizure of power by the most backward sectors of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Islamists in Egypt or Turkey, or in utter chaos, as in Libya". (Resolution on the International Situation, pt 7, 20th International Congress of the ICC, International Review 152, 2013)
A new wave of social revolts would break out in 2019 in those populations subjected to the dramatic consequences and traumatic experience of endless imperialist wars. In Iran, popular protest exploded once more with the rise in fuel prices in the autumn of 2019; in the autumn of 2019 and the winter of 2020, Iraqi Shi’ites rose up against corruption and to Iran's stranglehold on the country (around 500 were left dead and more than 20,000 wounded); in Lebanon the social revolt is spreading through the movements of the retired (especially ex-members of the army), civil servants and the youth, creating a broad movement, the "Hirak" ("movement") which has been occupying the streets since October 2019 in the face of economic collapse and the bankruptcy and impoverishment linked to the consequences of war and the corruption of the ruling cliques. Yet again, all these movements are successfully sidelined or crushed in blood, underlining the impotence of the population in the absence of a proletarian world perspective. These popular revolts against poverty, exploitation, violence and corruption express the desperate and hopeless rejection of imperialist barbarism by millions of people, victims of the region's plunge into bloody chaos. By accentuating the instability and potentially worsening the chaos, these revolts also affect the ability of the various imperialisms to achieve their objectives or to maintain their "established" positions.
The "displaced" and the refugees: the despair of whole populations
The continual barbarism of war means the number of dead continues to rise. In Syria, for example, it is estimated that 580,000 people will die between 2013 and early 2020, with the systematic destruction of homes or entire cities (such as Aleppo and Idlib in Syria or Mosul in Iraq) and the repeated bombing of hospitals under the pretext that they are serving as refuges for rebel forces. Not to mention the countless victims, now generally overlooked, of the food shortages that have plagued the disaster areas since 2013. In the current phase of capitalist decomposition this situation can only deteriorate further with the deportation or mass exodus of populations fleeing the war zones and surviving in the ruins of razed cities or crammed into insanitary camps or shanty towns. In the Middle East, this takes on cataclysmic proportions: more than 6 million Syrians have fled abroad, and there are more than 6 million internally "displaced persons", totalling about half of the country's population. And the situation is similar in the other countries of the region: there are 300,000 Iraqi refugees and more than 2.6 million internally displaced persons, 2.5 million Afghans, mainly refugees in neighbouring countries, 280,000 Yemeni refugees, with 2.1 million internally displaced persons, 500,000 Libyan internally displaced persons, more than 3 million Palestinian refugees and 2 million "internal" refugees.
Masses of poor victims flock to the richest states, desperately seeking a place of asylum, especially in Europe. Yet Europe has no real solution to the influx of migrants other than to seek at all costs to intercept them, to incarcerate them, to flatly reject them and send them back to die or to otherwise erect walls and barbed wire. The European governments constantly spread fear of the foreigner, even severely punishing those who reach out to migrants and try to help them.
Moreover, the cynicism of the European states has no limits. Turkey, in return for economic and financial aid from the EU, is made responsible for blocking the passage of migrants to Greece and placing them in refugee camps in inhuman conditions (currently almost three million refugees). Behind this agreement there has been a real bartering of human lives, with a 'drip-drip' processing of those who will be able to join a European country and those, the vast majority, who will remain in the camps.
5. The illusion of stabilising the region
The "victory" over ISIS, which materialised in the capture of Mosul, Rakka, Deir-Ez-Zor, the imprisonment and dispersal of the last jihadist fighters, as well as the "victory" of the Assad regime in the civil war in Syria, could have implied a stabilisation of positions and a reduction in confrontations. As the resolution of the 23rd International Congress points out, today the opposite is true: "The military ‘victories’ in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State and the retention of Assad in power offer no prospect of stabilisation. In Iraq, the military defeat of the Islamic State did not eliminate the resentment of the former Sunni fraction around Saddam Hussein that gave birth to it: the exercise of power for the first time by Shi’ites only fuels it. In Syria, the regime's military victory does not mean the stabilisation or pacification of the shared Syrian space which is subjected to intervention of different imperialism with competing interests." (Resolution on the International Situation, 23rd International Congress of the ICC, International Review 164).
Victories as the precursors of new confrontations
The Islamic State was defeated by US planes and drones, but the "boots on the ground" were the Kurdish militias and Shi’ite legions trained by Iran. The 'betrayal' of the Kurds by Trump and the 'elimination' of the principal leader of the Shiite militias at the same time as General Soleimani, head of the 'Guardians of the Revolution', by a US drone shatters this circumstantial alliance and can only lead to further tensions:
- the confrontations between Kurdish militias and the Turkish army in Syria, between Kurdish units and the Iraqi army and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Kirkuk, Iraq, are heralding new bloody battles in the region.
- the cessation of military collaboration has allowed the remnants of the ISIS forces to regroup in the desert at the Syrian-Iraqi border (Anbar province) or in the mountains around Kirkuk, which is already leading to a further intensification of ISIS guerrilla actions in Syria and Iraq.
The defeat of ISIS has thus in no way reduced the instability and chaos. All the more so since the various imperialists do not hesitate to provoke confrontation.
This is also true with regard to Syria. "Russia and Iran are deeply divided over the future of the Syrian state and the presence of their military on its territory." (Resolution on the International Situation, 23rd International Congress of the ICC, International Review 164). Russia and Iran do not have the same vision for the future of the Syrian state and a possible redirection of forces against Israel. Behind the scenes, Russia is trying to set up a project for rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, but this looks difficult with the current ruling faction: Assad has described Erdogan as a "land grabber" and has reiterated "his total rejection of any occupation of Syrian lands by anyone under any pretext". His aim is to eventually restore his government's control over the whole of Syria; but to legitimise Syrian power on the international scene and also to begin the material reconstruction of the country (at least of certain vital infrastructures) he would require funds that his Russian and Iranian sponsors are not really in a position to provide. Moscow has resigned itself to the reintegration of Damascus into the "Arab family" (see "Syria: a muffled return to the Arab family", in Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2020). As a result, Syria is beginning to make appeals to Arab countries, particularly at this time to the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman, but this line of action can only fuel tensions with the Iranian godfather and exacerbate the factional struggle within the regime itself
There are some subtle indications of the growth of tensions with Iran: there is, for example, 'The distribution through the offices of Ayatollah Khamenei, the regime's 'Supreme leader' since 1989, of a poster representing a common prayer on the esplanade of the Jerusalem Mosques, the third holy place of Islam. (…). The place of honour of this virtual ceremony goes to Hassan Nasrallah, recognisable by the black turban of the alleged descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. Since 1992, he has been the leader of Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian ‘party of God’ in Lebanon, which recognises Khamenei as both a political and spiritual authority. On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad, (...), appears only in the third row on the left. This protocolary demotion has caused turmoil within the Syrian dictatorship, which has owed its survival since 2011 to the engagement on the ground of Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian militias, led by the Revolutionary Guards. Indeed, Assad has never ceased to present himself as the spearhead of the 'resistance' to Israel, thus discrediting the Syrian opposition as a 'Zionist plot’. Seeing the man who is officially the 'President of the Syrian Arab Republic' relegated behind militia leaders raises questions about the strength of Iranian support for his regime.
Such humiliation comes at a time when the Assad family is openly involved in settling scores. These leadership disputes are themselves amplified by the unprecedented criticism being voiced in Moscow against the Syrian dictatorship and its inability to emerge from a pure war rationale. Although very dependent on Russia at the military level, the Assad regime is even more dependent on Iran, whose representatives have claims to extra-territorial privileges in Syria". (Le Monde, 31.05.20).
The policies of Trump and his cronies in the region can only add fuel to the fire...
The withdrawal of the vast majority of US troops from the region in no way means an end to all American interference in the Middle East: " ...the United States and the West cannot give up their ambitions in this strategic area of the world" (Resolution on the International Situation, 23rd International Congress of the ICC, International Review 164). The main objective of Trump's policy is imposing constant pressure on Iran, aimed at destabilising and overthrowing the Ayatollah-led regime by playing on its internal divisions.
To this end, in addition to economic blackmail and knock-out actions against that country, Trump is pursuing a policy of unconditional support for Saudi Arabia and Israel, in which the US provides each of these states and their respective leaders with unfailing support on all levels (with the supply of state-of-the-art military equipment; the support from Trump for Saudi Arabia as regards the brutal assassination of the regime's opponent Jamal Khashoggi; Trump's recognition of East Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights) in order to cement their alliance. In this way these states are caught in a trap, being tied to unconditional support for US policy with measures that isolate them from the rest of the world.
Prioritising Iran's containment also means the abandoning of the Oslo Accords, of the "two-state" solution (Israeli and Palestinian) in the "Holy Land". American aid to the Palestinians and the PLO has been terminated and there is the proposal for a "big deal" on the Palestinian question (the abandonment of any Palestinian claim to the creation of a Palestinian state and the annexation by Israel of large parts of Palestine in exchange for "giant" American economic aid). This is aimed in particular at facilitating the de facto rapprochement between the Saudis and Israel: "Israel is no longer the enemy of the Gulf monarchies. This great alliance began to take place long ago behind the scenes, but has not yet been played out. The only way for the Americans to advance in the desired direction is to obtain the green light from the Arab world, or rather from its new leaders, MBZ (The Emirates) and MBS (Saudi Arabia), who share the same strategic vision for the Gulf, for whom Iran and political Islam are the main threats. In this vision, Israel is no longer an enemy, but a potential regional partner with whom it will be easier to counter Iranian expansion in the region. (...) For Israel, which has been seeking to normalise its relations with the Sunni Arab countries for years, the equation is simple: it is a matter of seeking an Arab-Israeli peace, without necessarily obtaining peace with the Palestinians. The Gulf countries, for their part, have lowered their demands on the Palestinian question. This ‘ultimate plan’ (...) seems to aim to establish a new reality in the Middle East. A reality based on the Palestinians accepting their defeat, in exchange for a few billion dollars, and where Israelis and Arab countries, mainly from the Gulf, could finally form a new alliance, supported by the United States, to counter the threat of the expansion of a modern Persian empire." (L'Orient-Le Jour, Beirut, 18.06.19)
However, this plan, which is a pure provocation at the international level (it abandons the international agreements) as well as at the regional level, can only re-ignite fury over the Palestinian question, directed by all the regional imperialisms (Iran of course, but also Turkey and even Egypt), directed at the United States and its allies. Moreover, it can only embolden its Israeli and Saudi supporters in their own desire for confrontation. Thus, the tensions between these Trump cronies and the other imperialisms of the region are becoming more acute: "Neither Israel, hostile to the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, nor Saudi Arabia can tolerate this Iranian advance" (Resolution on the International Situation, 23rd International Congress of the ICC, International Review 164):
- Israel bombs Hezbollah or the Iranian Al Quds Brigade facilities in Lebanon, Syria and even Iraq on a regular basis and is always ready to attack Iranian nuclear power plants. Thus, during the month of July, 'mysterious' explosions destroyed various sites linked to the Iranian nuclear programme, including a plant in Natanz building centrifuges, causing a significant delay to this programme: "These attacks represent a new escalation in the indirect confrontation between Iran and Israel which gives rise to fears of a regional explosion. (...). These outbreaks of violence demonstrate Israel's fierce determination to counter Iran's expansionist agenda in much of the Middle East." (New York Times 28.08.19). In addition, disputes with Turkey have also increased over the Palestinian question, as well as over plans to drill for Turkish oil off the coast of Libya.
- Saudi Arabia faces Iran in Iraq and Syria, but also in Yemen, where the presence of Iranian-backed Houthi troops on the ground also arouses the displeasure of the Sultanate of Oman. Its confrontation with Turkey is just as strong: "(...) In July 2013, this opposition [between the Ankara-Doha axis and the Riyadh-Abou Dhabi axis]was already perceptible in the Egyptian theatre on the occasion of the coup d'état against President Mohamed Morsi, (...)" (Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2020, p.13) and it extends to many conflicts, such as in Syria, Sudan and even more acutely today in Libya.
As for the regime of the Ayatollahs, while it is put under strong pressure by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, by the social tensions within Iranian society itself, suffering from poverty and shortages of vital goods, the result of 40 years of war economy, and by the increasingly explicit opposition of the Shi’ite population of Iraq against Iranian 'colonialism,' its only choice is to rush headlong into confrontations. It is this deterioration of the situation that would have pushed Soleimani to orchestrate increasingly stronger provocations against the United States: "Soleimani's plan (...) aimed to provoke a military response in order to deflect the rising anger against the United States" (“Inside the Iranian plan devised by Soleimani to attack US forces in Iraq”, Reuters, January 4, 2020). The objective was above all to strengthen the sacred union against the "Satans": "Certainly, Iran has lost in the person of Soleimani a military leader of great prestige and valuable experience. But his funeral, organised on a larger scale than that of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini in 1989, was the occasion of an enormous campaign to exalt Iranian nationalism. The leaders of the regime's internal opposition, and even the partisans of the monarchy which fell in 1979, joined in this sacred union" (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2020, p. 11).
Turkey's imperialist manoeuvres
The USA is using economic pressure against Turkish President Erdogan that is having an impact on the Turkish economy and the growing social discontent in the country; this has led to a sharp decline in the popularity of AKP (the government party) in the local elections, especially in the big cities. At the imperialist level, Erdogan sees his regional rivals making gains, Iran in Syria, Saudi Arabia in Egypt.
However, "(...) Turkey cannot accept the excessive regional ambitions of its two rivals" (Resolution on the International Situation, 23rd International Congress of the ICC, International Review 164). This situation pushes him to radicalise his rhetoric with regard to Europe, the Kurds, Egypt and Palestine in order to rally the population behind him and his nationalist message. At the same time, Turkey is intervening more and more actively in the regional conflict by sending in its troops. In Syria, the Sunni groups supported by Turkey are increasingly losing ground in the province of Idlib, which is likely to bring a new wave of refugees (1 million refugees are likely to head for Turkey, which already has 3 million). By sending its troops into the Idlib pocket, Ankara may come into serious confrontations with Syrian government troops, Kurdish militias and even Russian forces. In this context, Turkey is trying to improve relations with Europe and NATO, but finds itself confronted with the unpredictable policy of Trump, who first gave his approval to an operation against the Kurds and then, faced with disagreements inside his own administration and an outcry among the allies, ordered it to limit the operation with threats to destroy its economy if Turkey did not comply.
After the failure of the Moscow conference on Libya, Erdogan also sent troops to "save" the government in Tripoli (which has the recognition of the EU), and was threatened by the advancing troops of rebel leader, Marshal Haftar, who is supported not only by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but also by Russia (and France!), in return for drilling rights off the Libyan coast, which has provoked an outcry from Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. The latter, moreover, has now decided in turn to send troops to Libya.
Turkey's imperialist ambitions are even stiffening opposition within NATO and the EU: the Turkish navy prevented a Greek ship of the European control force in the Mediterranean from examining the cargo (probably Turkish arms) of a ship en route to the Libyan port of Misratah.
Hence it is clear that Ankara's policy is a major contributor to the spread of militarism and chaos and a major factor in extending instability and conflict to a region that stretches from the Sahel to Afghanistan. In short, the idea of stabilising the region, curbing imperialist ambitions across the board is a pure figment of the imagination and the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, which is hitting the region hard, will only add fuel to the war, barbarism and chaos. Primarily, "(...) if militarism, imperialism, and war are identified to such an extent with the period of decadence, it is because the latter corresponds to the fact that capitalist relations of production have become a barrier to the development of the productive forces: the perfectly irrational nature, on the global economic level, of military spending and war only expresses the aberration of these production relations' continued existence" (“Orientation Text: Militarism and Decomposition”, International Review 64).
In this context, the last 30 years of the dramatic history of the Middle East fully reveals the devastating impact on the region of the growing tendency to putrefaction and disintegration of capitalism:
- first of all, the war there manifests itself more than ever as a totally irrational process, from which no country derives any economic benefit; on the contrary, it has become an almost permanent cancer that has been ravaging all the countries of the region for decades, with no light on the horizon; no clear victor can emerge from the rubble and, on the contrary, the defeated countries are quickly rearmed by other imperialist vultures to facilitate a further massacres; hence the war economy exerts an increasingly crushing weight on the whole region;
- despite its destructive bombardments and murderous military interventions, the US superpower has suffered its most resounding setbacks (Iraq, Afghanistan) and the decline of US leadership is clear to see; this has especially benefited Russia, which has made a "great comeback" among the imperialist sharks and fed the flames of the Syrian inferno in its military support for the embattled Assad;
- The number of regional sharks has mushroomed and it is more than ever 'every man for himself' that dominates the military conflicts in the Middle East. In this context, religious or ethnic divisions are continually utilised to justify the massacres, while the fundamentalist gangs that are on the increase terrorise the frightened populations;
- with the weakness of the working class in the region, desperate popular revolts get buried in blood while hundreds of thousands of helpless refugees are crammed into unsanitary refugee camps.
This apocalyptic description of the situation in the Middle East foreshadows what awaits us if we allow the decay of the capitalist mode of production to spread further. The growth of imperialist tensions can have major consequences at any time: in addition to the confrontations between major imperialisms, such as the US, China or Russia, countries like Israel or Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia can cause terrible upheavals and drag the whole region into turmoil, without any power being able to prevent this, as they have their own imperialist agendas and are beyond any real control. The situation is therefore extremely dangerous and unpredictable not only for the region, but also, because of the consequences which may ensue, for the whole planet. The degree of imperialist chaos and barbaric warfare, beyond what could have been imagined 30 years ago, reflects the obsolescence of the capitalist system and the urgent need for its overthrow.
R. Havanese, 22.07.2020
 "Xi's tour of the Middle East in January 2016 marks a turning point: during his visit, Xi would be offering his contacts a genuine long-term partnership, including in some sensitive areas. The New Silk Roads project also concerns this region. Thus, China has gradually become a major power in the Middle East, with clear strategic objectives, and intends to consolidate this policy, because this region ultimately poses a problem for its security. Hence the geopolitical landscape of the region has changed significantly over the past decade" (Diplomatique no.100, page 72).
The analysis of the troubled links between Trump and Moscow but also of the specific relations between the different factions of the American bourgeoisie with Russia deserves further examination. Such a study would, however, take us away from the focus of the present article.