"Make America Great Again" means further war and instability

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In the week just after mid-May, there were three particular events in the Middle East: the first was an incident involving an attack by US fighter jets on an Iranian-backed militia in south-eastern Syria fighting for Assad; a general election in Iran; and President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia. The context for these events, which mean a deepening of tensions and greater military dangers for the world, is the tendency for centrifugal forces to increasingly dominate over relatively stable blocs and alliances, and how this takes place in a world where American power is increasingly resented and weakening. A couple of weeks after Trump’s visit, this dangerous dynamic was emphasised and reinforced by the sudden and coordinated isolation of Qatar by land, sea and air, led by Saudi Arabia, with apparent US backing. This amounts to a call for Qatari regime change and is virtually a declaration of war. There is no doubt that the Saudi action, in line with its increasingly reckless behaviour, marks a rise in tensions and a more and more aggressive approach towards Iran. At a wider level, and again in line with already developing tendencies, clear differences are shown within Nato between the US and Germany. On June 7, the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, responding to the Qatar crisis, stated that the "Trumpification of relations (within the Middle East) is particularly dangerous". There is more on this development below.

The weakening of the US and the war of each against all

The historical weakening of the US as a superpower has been a developing expression since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. It's not weakening militarily, on the contrary, and it is still a very powerful economy; but at the level of its global domination, both militarily and political, its influence has eroded. This weakening gives further strength to the innate capitalist tendency of "dog eat dog", each for themselves, which in turn, further acts on US weakening and creates the downward spiral that is typical of this phase of capitalism’s decline which we refer to as the phase of decomposition.  After the collapse of Russia, instead of enjoying a great "victory", the US found its hold on its allies beginning to unravel. The first (1990/91) Gulf War was an attempt by the US to pull its allies back into line but it only briefly succeeded, with centrifugal tendencies dominating more than ever once it was over, most obviously in the war in ex-Yugoslavia which saw Germany, France and even Britain backing their own pawns against those of the US. The second Gulf War against Saddam saw a greater distancing by Germany in particular. The re-emergence of Russia onto the imperialist scene has caused the US problems that it's found difficult to deal with, and US and European relations are at very low ebb, as shown by the recent G7 meeting. And even some of its oldest "friends", Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Israel (who all have tensions with each other) are trying to take advantage of the weaknesses of the US. Along with Turkey and Bahrain they are rather unstable allies.

The US hasn't won a war since it invaded Granada in 1983, a country with no standing army. There have been ongoing military debacles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya which have been costly in terms of lives and material, laying the ground for more problems in relation to those areas along with those posed by China and North Korea. "Make America Great Again" is a re-launch of the 1990's NeoCon thinking which admits the basic premise of a weakened US and, like the present situation, wants to strike out. Though a token effort militarily, the bombing of the Syrian Shayrat air-base by Tomahawk missiles in early April and dropping the US's biggest non-nuclear bomb, the "Massive Ordnance Air Blast" (MOAB) on the Nangerhar region of Afghanistan a week later, was supposed to send out a powerful message that the US was back and fighting. But, along with the increasing numbers of civilians killed by US and Coalition air-strikes in Syria and Iraq and by drone strikes in Pakistan, these sorts of actions simply make more enemies for the US and the west. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, initiated under Obama, is now being put into question; on the other hand, the "Pivot" to Asia, with the principal aim of containing Chinese expansion, was already being set up under Obama and is likely to be intensified under Trump, who has already engaged in some verbal sabre-rattling by claiming that he was dispatching an “armada” towards North Korea in response to the regime’s nuclear posturing (in fact this turned out to be something of a bluff by Trump[1]). In Africa the US is also reinforcing its presence and any ideas about the US under Trump "withdrawing" from the world stage have been flatly contradicted.

Developing tensions around Qatar

In a sudden turn of events that took the Qatari regime, and many others, by surprise, Saudi Arabia, its proxies in Bahrain and the UAE, along with the support of Egypt and some smaller states, completely cut off this small country from the rest of the world. It was an act of war. The reason for the move according to the Saudi's, was that Qatar was "Supporting terrorism" and "supplying Iranian-backed terrorist groups" which includes its support for Hamas in Gaza[2]. The Saudi move was endorsed by Trump who said that his visit was "paying off" and, in an open disagreement with Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said that the move was "necessary"[3]. The Saudi move would have been quietly egged-on by Israel. That Qatar, like Saudi and the rest of imperialism, supports factions of terrorism is beyond dispute; the Qatari jihadists fighting in the 2011 war in Libya, who were backed by the British and French, were particularly indiscriminate and horrific in their slaughter. Qatar, like Saudi, has backed the al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front in Syria. The Qatari regime has also backed the Muslim Brotherhood, including its rise to government in Egypt during 2011/12, which explains Saudi’s enthusiasm for the "secular" Egyptian despot, El Sissi, who overturned Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government.

The original excuse for the Saudi move was an insipid statement on Qatari state TV that Iran should not be isolated. That was the pretext for the already planned move to be put into effect. Its aim is to distance Doha from Tehran and make it more compliant to the Saudis. There have been tensions within the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council for decades now but this is of a different order of magnitude in a situation of deepening instability and recklessness which brings further dangers to the Middle East. Kuwait, Oman and Pakistan have refused to join in while the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have all increased internal repression against any dissent.

Qatar holds the largest US base in the Middle East, housing its Central Command which directs its regional wars. Rex Tillerson, again contradicting his president, said that the capacities of the base had been "hindered" by the move. Turkey has a small, token military presence in the country but has recently signed an agreement to send in more troops. Qatar has cooperated with Iran over exploiting the largest gas reserves in the world that lie in their off-shore waters, but this move by Saudi is not dominated by any sort of immediate economic motives but by increases in imperialist rivalries against Iran pushed by the Trump administration.

The "incident" around al-Tanf

On May 17 US fighter jets destroyed an Iranian-backed convoy of around a couple of dozen militia and their equipment as it headed towards the Jordanian border, killing six of them. Some 25km away on the border is a camp set up by the CIA and manned by British and French intelligence agents and special forces, with Saudi and Bahraini assistance. Its job is to train an anti-Assad, anti-Iranian army which includes some fundamentalist Islamists of the so-called "New Syrian Army". The placing of the camp is important because it is close to the Baghdad-Damascus highway and is part of an important Iranian supply-line which meanders from Tehran all the way to Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast. In the near future the camp could be an element in the partition of Syria and represents an increase in western involvement in the war, but in the meantime it is certainly a threat to Iranian-backed elements. Three days prior to the attack there were media reports of very direct Russian warnings to the Assad regime to reign in its Iranian units and stop their advance to the Jordanian border. They were ignored by the regime but they indicate a number of possible developments: high-level Russian-US communications; the fact that the US doesn't want to confront Russia in Syria; possible Russian ambiguities towards Iran; and the fact that Iran is very much in US sights – Trump’s bombastic words about Iran were, in this case, translated into action. The incident also points to latent tensions between Russia and the Assad clique. But more than this, this attack sends a clear message of US intentions towards Iran. It's one of the contradictions of this war-torn region that in Iraq US and Coalition air power are protecting Iranian-backed Shia units on the ground, but the Tanf incident points to the possibilities of a serious Coalition and Iranian confrontation further down the road[4].

The Iranian election

In the same week as Trump's visit there was a general election in Iran in which the re-elected "moderate", Hassan Rouhani, won overwhelmingly. In bourgeois terms this is probably one of the "cleanest" elections in the whole region (no such elections for Saudi) and it has been virtually ignored by the US, the proponent of democracy everywhere. The administration was less welcoming to Rouhani's election than it was to the earlier election of the hard-line Ahmadinejad. Rouhani delivered the 2015 nuclear deal with Europe, Russia and the US, a deal which Trump called "The worse deal ever negotiated". The "pivot" to Saudi Arabia by the US under Trump is a clear move away from the Obama administration's attempt to use Iran as a counter to the growing uncertainties of Saudi Arabian influence in the region[5].

There are still US sanctions on Iran and the next few weeks will see if they are lifted in line with the nuclear agreement or intensified. The development of the economy is crucial for the survival of the Iranian "moderates" as youth unemployment, for example, officially stands at 26%; and while there has been some German and French (and Chinese) investment in Iran[6], putting these countries at odds with the US, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) hardliners have their own business empire to protect. It is extremely unlikely that there will be any US investment, or US "encouragement" to invest in Iran, under the present US regime. This puts the latter at odds with Europe, Germany particularly, over the economy and the nuclear deal. The Iranian hardliners under Ebrahim Raisa, who could well be endorsed by the "Supreme Leader", Al Khamanei, got a significant vote and these deeply irrational forces can only be strengthened by present and developing US policy.  

"Trump of Arabia"[7]

It's hard to not to point out the sickening hypocrisy of "anti-terrorist" Trump going to the snake pit of fundamentalist jihadism which the Saudi state, through its state-run Muslim World League, has exported near and wide. But the "dealmaker" has got a great deal here: $350 billion worth of sales including $110 billion worth of assorted weaponry. This aspect has ruffled some Israeli feathers but it has the advantage for the US of upping the ante on future arms sales to Israel. At any rate the new weapons are unlikely to do the Saudi regime much good when the previous batch (around $40 billion) has not been that effective for Saudi intervention in Syria. For all its military fire power, Saudi Arabia has been unable to subdue Houti regulars in Yemen. Trump met with the de facto Saudi ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the German intelligence report eighteen months ago (see end note), described as a dangerous sectarian interventionist and naive political gambler. Who does that remind you of? Bin Salman has pursued the devastating war in Yemen (along with its "allies", including Britain) and has backed the jihadist "Army of Conquest", al-Qaida, the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham as well as promising to "take the war to Iran".

The anti-Iranian message was crystal clear in Trump's first foreign outing: he spoke to the assembled leaders in Riyadh in NeoCon terms of "Good versus Evil" and evoked "God" in one speech nine times in Israel. Here the aim to isolate and confront Iran was further emphasised when Trump said that "There is a growing recognition among your Arab neighbours that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran"[8]. The US turn to a Sunni Saudi, UAE and the other Gulf states along with Israel and Egypt against Iran has one notable absentee: President Erdogan's Turkey. There are no doubt remaining tensions between Turkey and the US over the former's 2016 "coup" but there are other, deeper divisions emerging between the countries. The main one being the support from the US to the Kurdish YPG units which are a really useful force for US imperialism in the region against Isis. These forces have come into close proximity to Erdogan's Turkish proxies (and the Turkish army) but in general the latter dare not attack the Kurdish units who fly the Stars and Stripes. This army, and the potential for a Kurdish buffer zone, is a major source of Turkish/US tension. On the anarchist forum libcom, the Kurdish "supporters of Rojava" have expressed their unease about the YPG/US relationship[9] but these anarcho-nationalists can only imply that things might have been better with Russia as their main backer. It doesn't look as if the US is going to abandon the YPG any time soon and is in fact building up its presence around Kobane in northern Syria, including an airport designed to take the massive C-17 transporters. But the Kurdish nationalists are right to be worried because, historically, the Kurds are at their most vulnerable when they are up there playing with the big boys.

A dangerous US turn from a position of weakness that can only cause more problems

The anti-Iran turn is by no means restricted to Trump and his immediate clique; there were many in the US military that were dubious about or hostile to the nuclear or any agreement at all with Iran. Trump's move here represents an imperative for US imperialism to impose itself more fully on the world stage. This new "strategy" of the US, from a position of weakness, thus increases the temptation to use its military superiority. A number of generals that are very influential in the Trump administration were in Iraq and, because of US setbacks and casualties caused by the Shia militias and Iranian dominance in the country, have an abiding enmity towards Iran[10] . For them, Isis is not the main issue and the memory of Iranian-backed devastating attacks on US forces in Lebanon in the 1980's is still raw. At the same time, judging from the Jordanian border build-up and their support for a Kurdish army, they seem to be reconciled to a future carve-up of Syria.

The US turn is in line with other developments in the Trump regime and its foreign policy. Trump recently rubber-stamped the new Pentagon strategy to "annihilate Isis", which gives the military carte-blanche. Rules of engagement have been relaxed, more decisions "diluted" and delegated to the Pentagon with Trump's Defence Secretary, General James Mattis saying that the President had delegated "the ability to authorise military operations to him"[11] . These events tend to show the Pentagon more in control of Trump, whatever his eventual fate, than the other way round.

It may seem tenuous to link Trump's Middle East warmongering with the Manchester bombing and the most recent London attacks but the connection is already well established. By stirring up war, militarism and ethnic hatreds, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and their dubious allies, have used and fuelled terrorism for a quarter of a century now. In that process many, many thousands in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and central Africa have been slaughtered, getting scant attention from the British media unless there's a particular campaign furthering their war efforts. Trump's visit and policies are the latest contributions to ensuring more Middle East instability and more terrorist atrocities in Europe for many years to come.


Boxer, 10.6.17. (This article was contributed by a close sympathiser of the ICC)


[2]              The regime-funded news organisation al-Jazeera, launched in 1996, has also been a constant thorn in the side of the Saudi's, often exposing the hypocrisy of the latter. Another recent factor that annoyed the Saudis was the payment of $500 million to Iranian authorities that were responsible for the release of a hunting party comprising Qatari royals who were captured in Iraq.


[3] This disagreement, like the many other conflicts that have already appeared within the Trump administration, highlights the unpredictability of the new regime which makes it extremely difficult for it to put forward any long-term, coherent strategies.

[4]              There have been two subsequent attacks in this US and British declared "deconfliction zone" in south-east Syria against Assad's forces. It further raises the possibility of wider collisions between British, American and Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces.


[5]               In December 2015, German intelligence's BND issued a stark and surprisingly public warning about the destabilising effect of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world (and Europe, as later reports suggest): https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/saudiarabia/120295...


[6]             https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201606/13973/iran-and-saudi-ar... gives a wider view of the dynamics of Iran and Saudi and the wider region.


[7]              Editorial in the Financial Times, 22.5.17: "Trump of Arabia takes side in sectarian conflict".


[8]              WSWS, 23.5.17


[10]           The British too, who had to sign a virtual surrender document to the Iranian-backed militia in order to get out of Basra in one piece in 2007. Just like Helmand, Afghanistan in 2014, another ignominious defeat for the British army presented as a victory.


[11]           WSWS, 20.5.17





US policy in the Middle East