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.
Mass destruction and chaos in Syria: who is responsible?
For the international workers’ movement, for all the exploited of the earth, the answer to that question can only be: capital alone is responsible. This was already the case for the first and second world wars. But also with the incessant wars which, since 1945, have brought more deaths than the two world wars combined. It’s just over 20 years ago that the first George Bush, president of the USA at the time, well before his son became president, triumphantly declared that the world was entering a New World Order. The Soviet bloc had literally crumbled, the USSR was no more, and along with this we were supposed to see the disappearance of wars and massacres. Thanks to victorious capitalism, and under the benevolent protection of the USA, peace would now reign throughout the world. All these lies would soon be exposed by reality. Was it not the same president who, not long after this cynical and hypocritical speech, unleashed the first Iraq war?
In 1982 the Syrian army bloodily crushed the rebellious population of Hama. The number of victims has never been reliably counted: estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000. At the time nobody talked about intervening to protect the population; nobody demanded the resignation of Hafez el-Assad, the father of today’s Syrian president Bashir al-Assad. The contrast with the situation today is quite considerable! The reason is that in 1982, the world scene was still dominated by the rivalry between the two great imperialist blocs. Despite the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the Ayatollahs at the beginning of 1979 and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan a year after, American domination over the region was not contested by the other great powers and it even guaranteed a certain stability.
Since them things have changed a lot: the collapse of the old bloc system and the weakening of US “leadership” have given free rein to the imperialist appetites of regional powers like Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Israel...the deepening of the crisis is more and more reducing the populations to poverty and is sharpening feelings of exasperation and revolt against the existing regimes.
Today no continent is escaping the rise in imperialist tensions, but all the dangers are most concentrated in the Middle East. And the centre of all this at the moment is Syria. It began with several months of demonstrations against unemployment and poverty, involving the exploited from all kinds of backgrounds: Druze, Sunni, Christian, Kurds, men, women and children all together in their protests for a better life. But the situation in this country has taken a sinister turn. Social protest has been recuperated and dragged onto a terrain which has nothing to do with its original motives. The working class in this country is very weak and, given the present state of workers’ struggles throughout the world, this sad outcome was more or less inevitable.
The different factions of the Syrian bourgeoisie leapt onto the back of this rebellious, distressed population. For the government and the pro-Assad armed forces, the stakes are clear. It’s a question of staying in power at any price. For the opposition, whose different sectors are quite willing to fight among themselves and who are only kept together by the need to get rid of Assad, it’s a question of taking power for themselves. During the recent meetings of these opposition forces in London and Paris, no minister or diplomat wanted to be very precise about their composition. Who does the Syrian National Council or the National Coordination Committee or the Free Syrian Army actually represent? What is the influence within them of the Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist jihadis? This is just a mish-mash of bourgeois cliques, each one rivalling the other. One of the reasons that the Assad regime has not been overthrown is that it has been able to play on the internal rivalries within Syrian society. The Christians look askance at the Islamists and fear that they will suffer the same fate as the Copts in Egypt; some of the Kurds are trying to negotiate with the regime; and the latter holds onto the support of the Alawite religious minority, to which the presidential clique belongs.
In any case, the National Council would have no significant political or military existence if it were not supported by outside forces, each one trying to pull its chestnuts from the fire. These include the countries of the Arab League, with Saudi Arabia at the front, and Turkey, but also France, Britain, Israel and the USA.
All these imperialist sharks are using the pretext of the inhumanity of the Syrian regime to prepare for total war in this country. Via the Russian channel The Voice of Russia, relaying the Iranian public TV channel Press TV, information has come out that Turkey is planning, with US support, to attack Syria. The Turkish state is massing troops and materiel at its Syrian frontier. This information has been taken up by all the western media. And in Syria itself, ballistic missiles made in Russia are being readied in underground bunkers in the region of Kamechi and Deir ez-Zor, near the frontier with Iraq. Because the Assad regime is also supported by foreign powers, notably China, Russia and Iran.
This ferocious battle between the most powerful imperialist powers on the planet is also being waged inside the den of thieves known as the UN, where Russia and China have twice vetoed draft resolutions on Syria. The most recent one proposed by the Arab League calls for nothing less than the ousting of Bashir al-Assad. After several days of sordid negotiations, the hypocrisy of all concerned was as clear as daylight. On March 21st the UN Security Council, with the accord of Russia and China, adopted a declaration that aimed to put a stop to the violence through the dispatch of a famous special envoy, Kofi Annan, leading a delegation which, it was clearly understood, had no power to constrain anyone. Which means that this was strictly for those who believed in it.
The question that we can pose here is very different. How is it that, for the moment, not one of the foreign imperialist powers involved in this conflict has yet intervened directly – obviously for its own national interests – as was the case for example in Libya a few months ago? Mainly because the factions of the Syrian bourgeoisie ranged against Assad officially oppose it. They don’t want a massive foreign military intervention and they have let this be known. Each one of these factions has the legitimate fear that this would make it impossible to set itself up in a new regime. But this is no guarantee that the threat of all-out imperialist war, which is knocking at Syria’s door, won’t break out in the near future. In fact, the key to this situation is to be found elsewhere.
We need to ask why this country is attracting such interest from the imperialist powers. The answer to this question is to be found some kilometres from Syria. We have to turn our eyes to Syria’s eastern frontier to discover what’s essentially at stake in the whole drama around the conflict in Syria. Its name is Iran.
Iran at the heart of the world imperialist torment
On February 7th last year the New York Times declared: “Syria is already the beginning of the war with Iran”. A war that has not been unleashed overtly but which lurks in the shadows behind the Syrian conflict.
The Assad regime is Tehran’s main ally in the region and Syria is an essential strategic zone for Iran. The alliance with this country gives Tehran a direct opening to the strategic space of the Mediterranean and Israel, with military means directly on the borders of the Zionist state. But this potential, hidden war has its roots in the fact that the Middle East is once again a focus for all the imperialist tensions built into this rotting system.
This region of the world is a great crossroads between east and west. Europe and Asia meet in Istanbul. Russia and the northern countries look across the Mediterranean to the African continent and the major oceans. And above all, as the world economy is on the verge of toppling over, black gold has become a vital economic and military weapon. Everyone has an interest in controlling it. Without oil, no factory can run and no plane can take off. This is one of the key reasons why all the imperialisms are involved in this part of the world. However, none of these motives are the most direct and pernicious motives pushing this region towards war.
For several years, the USA, Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been orchestrating an ideological campaign against Iran. This campaign has been accelerating violently of late. The recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) let it be understood that there is a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And an Iran possessing nuclear weapons is intolerable for a number of imperialist states. The rise to power of a nuclear Iran, imposing itself across the whole region, is quite unacceptable for these imperialist sharks, all the more because of the permanent instability created by the Israel-Palestine conflict. Iran is completely encircled militarily. The American army is installed on all its frontiers. As for the Persian Gulf, it’s so stuffed full of war ships that you could cross it without getting your feet wet. The Israeli state doesn’t cease proclaiming that it will never allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons and that it will have the capacity to build one within the next year. Israel’s declaration to the world is terrifying because this is a very dangerous situation: Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s a country of over 70 million people with a “respectable” army.
But Iran’s use of atomic weapons is not the only danger, nor the most pressing: Iran’s political and religious leaders have asserted recently that they would respond with all means at their disposal if their country were attacked. Iran has a capacity to do harm which is difficult to measure. If it was led to block all navigation through the Straits of Hormuz by sinking its own ships, this would be a disaster for the global economy.
A major part of world oil production would not be able to reach its destination. The capitalist economy, already in an open crisis of senility, would automatically be hurled into a maximum force storm. The damage to an already sick economy would be enormous.
The ecological consequences could be irreversible. Attacking Iranian atomic sites, which are buried under thousands of tons of concrete and rock would require an air assault using tactical nuclear weapons. The military experts of all these imperialist powers have explained this. If this happened, what would become of the entire Middle East? What would be the repercussions for the populations and the ecosystem on a planetary scale? None of this is the product of the morbid imagination of a mad Doctor Strangelove, or the scenario of a new disaster movie. This plan is an integral part of the strategy studied and prepared by the Israeli state and, for the moment from a certain distance, by the US. The Israeli military HQ, in the course of its preparations, has studied the possibility, if a conventional air attack proved unsuccessful, of moving on to this level of destruction. It’s capital in its decadence that is becoming mad.
Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, total chaos rules in these countries. War goes on and on. There are daily murderous bombings and shootings. The populations desperately try to survive from day to day. The bourgeois press says it openly: “Afghanistan is suffering from a general lassitude. The fatigue of the Afghans is met with the fatigue of the westerners.” But while for the bourgeois press the world is simply tired of the war in Afghanistan, for the population itself it’s more a matter of exasperation and despair. How can you survive in a situation of permanent war and decomposition? And if war against Iran took place, the human catastrophe would be even more widespread. The concentration of the population, the means of destruction that would be used, oblige us to envisage the worst. The worst would be Iran in flames and the Middle East in total chaos. None of the mass murderers who run the world’s states are capable of saying where war in Iran would end. What would happen to the population of this whole region? The prospects are genuinely frightening.
Divided national bourgeoisies, imperialist alliances on the verge of a major crisis
Just considering some of the possible consequences of an attack on Iran scares those sectors of the bourgeoisie that are trying to maintain a minimum of lucidity. The Kuwaiti paper Al-Jarida has recently leaked some messages which the Israeli secret services want to be made public. Their previous director Meir Dagan has said that “the perspective of an attack on Iran is the stupidest idea I have ever heard”. This opinion also seems to be shared in another branch of the Israeli security services: Shin Bet.
It’s a well known fact that a whole section of the Israeli state does not want this war. But it’s also well-known that part of the Israeli political elite, organised around Netanyahu, does want to unleash it at a moment judged propitious for the Israeli state. In Israel, in the face of these questions of imperialist policy, a political crisis is brewing. In Iran, the religious leader Ali Khamenei is at loggerheads over this issue with the president Mohamed Ahmadinejad. But the most spectacular split is between the US and Israel. The US administration does not, at the present time, want open war with Iran. The Americans’ experience in Afghanistan and Iraq is hardly encouraging, and the Obama administration would prefer to rely on increasingly heavy sanctions. US pressure on Israel, aimed at making the latter adopt a more patient stance, is enormous. But the historic weakening of US leadership is also having its impact on its traditional ally in the Middle East. Israel is affirming loud and clear that there is no way it will allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, whatever the opinion of its closest allies. The grip of the American superpower continues to weaken and even Israel is now openly challenging its authority. For certain bourgeois commentators, we could see the first real breaks in the hitherto unquestioned US/Israel alliance.
The major player in the region on the immediate level is Turkey, which has the most significant armed forces in the Middle East (more than 600,000 in active service). Although in the past Turkey was a reliable ally of the US and one of the few local allies of Israel, with the rise of the Erdogan regime the most “Islamist” sector of the Turkish bourgeoisie is trying to play its own card of “democratic” and “moderate” Islamism. It is trying to profit as much as it can from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. This also explains the turnaround in its relations with Syria. There was a time when Erdogan took his holidays with Assad, but once the Syrian leader refused to bow to the demands of Ankara and negotiate with the opposition, the alliance broke down. Turkey’s efforts to export its model of “moderate” Islam are also in direct opposition to the efforts of Saudi Arabia to increase its own influence in the region on the basis of ultra-conservative Wahabism.
The possibility of a war over Syria, and then in Iran, is serious enough to persuade the two biggest allies of these countries, China and Russia, to react with increasing strength. For China, Iran is of considerable importance because it supplies it with 11% of its energy needs. Since its industrial take-off, China has become a new major player in the region. Last December, it warned of the danger of a global conflict around Syria and Iran. It thus declared through the Global Times:
“The West suffers from an economic recession, but its efforts to overthrow non-Western governments due to politics and military interests culminate. China, as well as its mammoth neighbour Russia, should keep on high alert and adopt countermeasures if necessary.
“China should not shrink before a possible showdown with the West but seek a solution favouring itself. China will adopt concrete measures to show its determination to take its own path. Such a choice is important for China's interests.”
Even if a direct confrontation between the world’s big imperialist powers can’t be envisaged in the current global context, such declarations show how serious the situation is.
Capitalism is heading straight for the abyss
The Middle East is a powder keg and there are some who would be willing to put a match to it. Certain imperialist powers are coldly preparing to use types of nuclear weapons in a coming war with Iran.
The military and strategic means are already there. In dying capitalism the worst scenario is always the most probable and we cannot rule it out. In any case, the trajectory of this senile and obsolete system is increasingly irrational. Imperialist war amounts to a real self-destruction of capitalism. That capitalism, which has already been condemned by history, should disappear is not a problem for the proletariat and for humanity. Unfortunately this self-destruction of the system goes together with the threat of the total destruction of humanity. But recognising that capitalism is caught up in a process leading to the ruin of civilisation should not be a reason for despair or passivity. In the last issue of this Review, for the first part of this year, we wrote “The economic crisis is not a never-ending story. It announces the end of a system and the struggle for another world”. This assertion was based on the real evolution of the international class struggle. This world-wide struggle for another world is now beginning. Certainly with all kinds of difficulties, still very slowly, but it is now definitely present. And this new force in movement, illustrated most clearly by the struggle if the Indignados in Spain, enables us to see that there is a real possibility of ridding the planet from the barbarism of capital.
. le Monde, 21.3.12.
. The international current affairs journal belonging to the official People’s Daily in China