Militarism and decomposition in the Middle East

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“In Syria, every day brings new massacres. The country has joined the other theatres of imperialist war in the Middle East. After Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, now it’s Syria’s turn. Unfortunately this situation immediately poses a very disquieting question: what’s going to happen in the period ahead? The Middle East seems to be on the verge of a conflagration whose limits are difficult to foresee. Behind the war in Syria, it’s Iran which is the focus of imperialist fears and appetites, but all the main imperialist brigands are ready to defend their interests in the region. This is a part of the world that is on a war footing - a war that could have irrational and destructive consequences for the whole capitalist system”. Thus began the article “The threat of an imperialist cataclysm in the Middle East” in International Review number 149, written nearly three years ago to the day.  The situation, the militarisation and decomposition of the Middle East, has since worsened and the threat of a generalised conflagration has become even greater.

The war in Syria continues and Isis strengthens and expands

We are now five years into an imperialist war in Syria involving the major powers of America, France, Britain, and Russia along with local powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, etc. Rather than showing any end, this conflict is intensifying. War and instability are spreading wider and deeper and that particular expression of capitalist irrationality and decomposition, the Islamic State and its Caliphate is, if anything, becoming stronger. Just a couple of hundred of its fighters have been holding off thousands of Iraqi troops and Shi’ite militias attempting to re-take the Iraqi town of Tikrit – which according to the Pentagon on April 14 is still being “contested” (The Guardian, 15.4.15) -  just as Isis becomes even more ensconced in Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria and spreads to other areas. At the end of March the jihadi forces of al-Nusra took Syria’s second provincial capital of Idlib, just days after al-Nusra in the south, with help from Israeli military interventions, which is de facto working with the jihadists, took the ancient Roman-Arab capital of Bosra al-Sham in the Daraa district. In some cases al-Nusra and Isis have cooperated to a degree but such cooperation is fragile given the general suspicion and ‘each against all’ conflict. Similar expressions have been taking place in the huge Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk on the outskirts of Damascus, with al-Nusra paving the way for a murderous Isis advance into an enclave already subjected to two years of siege and starvation in which itself represents a microcosm of the general decay. In Yarmuk strong counter-tendencies to any jihadi cooperation have been shown. These alliances within the various Sunni factions are themselves contingent and fraught with many Sunni factions often hating their own rivals more than they do the Shia. In Yarmuk a three or four-way fight is breaking out. Isis have withdrawn somewhat under military pressure from al-Nusra, pro-Assad Palestinian forces are involved as well as the anti-regime jihadi Sunni group of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdes (the Mujahedin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem – also active in the Sinai Peninsula) which is hated by both Isis and al-Nusra, and skirmishes have already broken out. The poisonous atmosphere of capitalist disintegration permeates the ground with the various religious factions and schisms generating hatred, distrust and the pogrom mentality.

Isis has also spread its wings to North Africa in the US/UK/French destabilised lands of Libya and the still unstable Sinai Peninsula, despite the intervention in both by Egypt’s military regime. All this means that there are further consequences for possible terrorist attacks in Europe and beyond – a question we will return to. In the meantime the spread of this tide of decomposition, aided in different parts by Libyan instability and weaponry, massive unemployment throughout the region and irrational religious ideology coming within a general breakdown of capitalist society, has reached down into the al-Qaeda linked groups of East and West Africa with both Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Kenya spreading warfare and terror both internally and beyond their borders. Countries affected here are Somalia; South Sudan (where Chinese troops are present); Cameroon – whose Israeli-trained rapid intervention forces are fighting back; and Chad, whose Fort Carson, Colorado-based Special Anti-terrorist Forces are working with British trainers and French special forces. The forces of French imperialism have been increased here both before and after the Paris attacks, attacks reputedly instigated by Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).

Already the consequence of the rise of jihadism is an unprecedented spiral of violence and destruction across the Middle East and Africa. In order to re-take the Syrian border town of Kobani from Isis for example, where fighting continues to this day in its surrounding villages, the west and its Kurdish fighters had to bomb the town flat and the same thing looks to be happening with Tikrit in Iraq: scorched earth and terror from Isis matched by scorched earth and terror from the west and its allies, and this is more and more becoming the story in this whole chain of war. The devastation across the region is almost beyond measure and while the hypocritical democrats of Britain, the US and France, as well as the UN den of thieves, denounce the destruction of ancient cultural sites by Isis, their own war planes or those of their “allies” are hardly less destructive. All this devastation in the Middle East and Africa, the breakdown or setting up of fortress-type borders, the misery of staggering numbers of refugees and displaced families which goes along with it, is too much to go into here and, as grim as it is, we will also have to return to this question in the future. Despite the bombing missions against it, and because of the way it fights, Isis is a formidable force and remains an expanding threat. The knowledgeable Patrick Cockburn writes in The Independent, 20.3.15: “The Islamic State is not going to implode because of mounting popular discontent within its borders. Its enemies may deride its pretensions to be a real state, but in terms of its ability to conscript troops, raise taxes and impose its brutal variant of Islam, it is stronger than many of its regional neighbours”.

The Tikrit example shows how difficult it will be to dislodge, let alone defeat, Isis. Here just a few hundred jihadists have held off a coordinated assault by thousands of Iraqi special forces and Shia militias for weeks, and despite Baghdad saying it has taken Tikrit (The Guardian, 1.4.15), Isis still controls parts of the city as well as the much wider provinces of Anbar and Nineveh. The assault appears to have caused some three-way problems between the Iraqi government, the US and the Iranian-backed Shia militias with the upshot being an increase in US air strikes and de facto assistance to Iranian forces[1]. And it is this relationship between America and Iran that is causing great consternation and alarm among the former’s allies – already estranged after the collapse of the two bloc system of the Cold War and the emergence of tendencies of each going their own way – not least within Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Is there a rapprochement between the US and Iran?

There already have been some elements of a rapprochement in effect in the war against Isis in both Iraq and Syria. The rise of Isis has driven the US war machine into an even greater dilemma. If the Assad regime had been beaten the road to Damascus would have been open to Isis. This was explicitly recognised by the Director of the CIA John Brennan recently when he said that he didn’t want a collapse of the Assad government (Middle East Eye, 14.3.15), words that were echoed a few days later by Secretary of State John Kerry, pertinently during the nuclear talks with Iranian officials. US tensions with Israel, the Netanyahu clique particularly, simmering for some time over still- ruined Gaza and increased settlement building, have boiled over publicly, reaching similar proportions as 1992 when President Bush fell out with President Yitzhak Shamir over settlement building. But this present situation seems much more serious with the Israelis feeling undermined and vulnerable as a result of what some Israeli politicians are calling the US “Pivot to Persia”. Assad or Isis, Israel or Iran, plague or cholera, these are the insoluble dilemmas facing US foreign policy, whose impasse is at root the impasse of the entire global network of imperialist alliances and rivalries.

If the Israelis are worried about a US/Iran rapprochement, which existed in fact up the late 70’s when the Shah of Iran was the US and British policeman of the region, then so too are the Saudis and this concern has been a major impetus in their present adventure in Yemen (see below).  Iran’s 1979 Islamic “revolution”, which deposed the Shah, was a threat to Saudi Arabia with its “appeals to the oppressed” – a weapon of Iranian imperialism in order to gain an advantage over its local rivals. From that time Iran fell out of favour with the west and, independent of and alongside that, the Saudi regime promoted a hard-line Wahabi Islam in order to foster and encourage extreme anti-Shia sentiments and actions[2]. The House of Saud, concerned about a possible Iranian nuclear capacity, has made its own nuclear aspirations quite clear, and it seems that from talks that have already taken place Pakistan would be prepared to provide Saudi Arabia with a nuclear capability (The Guardian, 11.5.10: “Pakistan’s bomb and Saudi Arabia”). The Middle East plus a nuclear arms race! This is very much a possibility now.

Another factor in any US and Iranian “axis” – and we are still some way from that even if there is an agreement over Iran’s nuclear capacity – is that Russia, Iran’s main ally as well as Assad’s supporter, would suffer a serious setback. It would be further pushed back from what global presence it has, surrounded and squeezed into its heartlands, making Europe an even more dangerous place with a greater threat of Russian imperialism trying to break out in the longer term.

Yemen: a Saudi/Iranian confrontation and more

Even by the standards of the Middle East, its irrationality, the wanton destruction, the constant, intensifying imperialist machinations and wars, then the Saudi-led attack on Yemen in late March reaches new levels of surreal absurdity:  the Saudis are leading a Sunni Muslim coalition of ten nations including non-Arab, nuclear-armed Pakistan in an attack on Yemen. Local gangsters like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are involved but also the Egyptian dictator al-Sisi and the genocidal clique of Sudan’s al-Bashir. All these despots are backed by the USA and Britain, which has offered the coalition “logistical and intelligence” support. The strength of this coalition is unclear given that Oman has refused to join it, Qatar is wavering and Pakistan has apparently left.

The situation in Yemen is much more complex than a coalition of Sunnis attacking an Iranian-backed Shia ally – there are strong elements of this but there is more. This country, given its terrain, is another Afghanistan as British, Egyptian and other imperialist forces have found out to their cost in the past. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. There are an estimated ten million children on the edge of malnutrition and poverty and corruption is rampant. The bones of this country, which has no serious history of ethnic strife, have been picked by imperialism and war in recent years and that is set to continue. Last September President Obama called US drone action in Yemen an anti-terrorist “success” story, a “model” even[3]. Yemen, and its long-suffering people, is about to suffer a new layer of tension and destruction that will, in all probability, only strengthen the positions of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and Isis. While these two groups have co-existed or worked together elsewhere this alliance is purely contingent and in Yemen at the moment the Houthi’s, AQAP, Isis and the Saudi-backed Aden rump are all at each others’ throats. Each for themselves reaches new proportions here where even the jihadi “terrorists”, though sometimes backed by various states, are fighting among themselves – and there are and have been similar expressions of this happening now in Syria.

The Houthi rebels now gaining strength in Yemen come from the Zaidi sect – an obscure branch of Shia Islam from the northern al-Houthi clan where its people have lived for a thousand years. It started life in the early 1990’s as a reportedly peaceful revivalist movement called “Believing Youth”. It was radicalised, like so many others, by the western-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Iranians call it the “Ansarullah” revolution and they have certainly provided it with some assistance, but very little on the scale of things for the region and the Houthis are no simple pawns of Tehran. There are long-standing links between the Shias and Iran here and the Saudis with the Sunnis but it’s only of late that these divisions and their manipulation by states have coincided with such a rotting of the social bonds and the general breakdown engendered by capitalist decomposition.

The Houthi group had previously battled the government forces of US and Saudi-backed President Saleh as well as those of AQAP. President Saleh stood down in 2012 and he, his son and a hundred thousand of his soldiers now support the Houthi advance, an advance that has also been further facilitated by despair and distrust of the authorities. Newly-installed Yemeni President Hadi, backed by the Saudis and the west, has fled the Houthi advance to Aden, where some forces favourable to him remain, and he is now reported to be in Riyadh. Hadi’s particular Sunni affiliation is outlawed in Saudi Arabia, which is just another convoluted element to this story. Embassies were closed and US troops also fled the Houthi HouthiHHHHadvance, with the latter scooping up a reportedly half-a-billion dollars worth of abandoned US military hardware. A further factor of every man for himself here is that ex-President Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis is shaky at best and some of his troops have defected to Saudi leadership, fleeing the air bombardment on their quarters. This points to the possibility of his army turning against the  Houthis and towards Saudi and his previous western backers.

Some journalists[4] who write about the Middle East have noted the complexity, as well as the dangers of the unfolding war in Yemen. They call it “multidimensional” which is a fair description of the breakdown. There are the Houthis, now well-armed courtesy not of Iran but of the USA; AQAP – whose branch has been deadly effective here against western and local targets for 15 years; Isis, which announced the opening of its Yemeni branch late last year and was behind the bombing of a mosque on March 21, killing over a hundred Houthi Shias; the declining rump of Saudi-backed Sunni forces and a western sea-board partly dominated by pirates and warlords. And into this inferno Saudi Arabia, well-armed by the west that supports it, wants to bomb and send in an invasion force! Saudi Arabia is apparently mobilising 150,000 soldiers and artillery in order to attack Yemen. The military, economic and geo-strategic dimensions of the conflict in Yemen have also not gone unnoticed by the same journalists, with the Red Sea and Suez at one end and the Gulf of Aden at the other, joined by the Yemeni Bab-el-Mandeb strait; another reason why this is such an important theatre for imperialist plays. Saudi jets have now started bombing Yemen, inevitably hitting refugee camps and civilian areas. The Saudis are also worried about their own population and the stability of their own country as the crisis deepens overall, and up to half of the Saudi army are reported to be from Yemeni tribes.

The Saudi proposed invasion of Yemen is reminiscent of, but different from, their invasion of Bahrain in 2011 during the “Arab Spring”. The repression of the anti-government protests by the Saudi-backed government had the support of the west down to its British armoured vehicles. The Saudis, like Israel, will be alarmed by the strengthening of Iran in Iraq and the necessary cooperation with the US. The Saudis have called their Yemeni war plans “Operation Decisive Storm”, echoing the USA’s 1991 “Desert Storm” in Iraq which involved, amongst others, the massacre of Iraqi conscripts and civilians on the famous “Turkey Shoot” on the road to Basra. Civilians are already being bombed in Yemen now as they have been, by one faction or another, for some time. Iran will not be happy with the move by Saudi Arabia and will be aware of the wikileaked Saudi plea to the Americans “to cut off the head of the snake” (Reuters, 29.11.10). Whether or not there is an American/Iranian rapprochement, tensions and war in this region can only exacerbate. This is the future that capitalism holds out for this region and ultimately for the whole world.

Boxer 15.4.15


[1] One can’t believe a lot of this stuff about “arguments”, etc., because its aim is to be misleading, Maskirovoka, i.e. deliberate lies for strategic purposes. At the beginning of the year, on Channel 4 News, the admiral of the US aircraft carrier, George H.W. Bush, in charge of US air strikes against Isis, openly admitted, to the surprise of the interviewer, to coordinating his actions with the Iranian High Command. It was, he said, a professional relationship. He later denied his comments.

[2] In other articles we will come back on the significance of religious fundamentalism and religious divisions in the Middle East. Clearly the imperialist powers in the region, and of course the various Sunni and Shia armed gangs, have played a significant role in stirring up the Shia/Sunni divide which has been a far less important issue in the past. But the exacerbations of these divisions are also “spontaneous” products of decomposition, of a society where all social bonds are cracking up and being replaced by the foul atmosphere of decay and of the pogrom.  

[3] The Sunday Telegraph recently published an article on a UN report showing that in 2011 President Saleh, while backed by the west and Saudi Arabia, met high level representatives of AQAP and accorded them a safe haven in the south of the country where they would be immune from his troop movements. This is typical of the Machiavellian relations of capitalist decomposition. Like his ilk, Saleh and his clique also fleeced the country of billions of dollars.

[4] See for example Nussalbah Younis in The Observer, 29.3.15 and Robert Fisk in The Independent, 28.3.15.




Middle East