War in the Middle East: What alternative to capitalist barbarism?

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The strategically vital Middle East has long been a focus of rivalries between the great imperialist powers. In the First World War Britain and France led the charge to displace the crumbling Ottoman empire, which had been supported by Germany. In the Second World War Germany and its local agents once again confronted the British and theirs. After the war, Britain and France were progressively pushed aside by America, which was soon facing up to its Russian rival, each side using the ‘Arab-Israeli’ conflict to further its own ends. The collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989 didn’t bring peace to the region. On the contrary, the efforts of the USA to reinforce its control over the Middle East and the Persian Gulf has provoked the growing chaos sweeping through Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine and Lebanon. The Middle East has become the principal theatre of the ‘war of each against all’ which now predominates in international affairs. What this means for the populations of the region is becoming plainer every day:  wholesale massacre of civilians, devastation of the infrastructure, disintegration of entire countries into bloody sectarian and nationalist conflict. The agony of the Middle East is the reflection of the agony of world capitalism in the absence of the proletarian revolution.      


Yet another barbaric checklist in the Middle East: 700 airstrikes on Lebanese territory; over 1200 dead in Lebanon and Israel, over 300 of which were children under 12; more than 5000 injured; a million civilians forced to flee their homes in the combat zones, while many others were too poor or weak to flee and had to endure the daily terror of the bombardments. Whole neighbourhoods and villages reduced to rubble; hospitals full to bursting. Without including the military cost of the war, the economic damage is estimated at 6 billion euro.

For the main protagonists, the balance sheet is calculated on a different basis. For Israel it’s been a major set-back, puncturing the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli army. As a result it has also been a further step in the weakening of America’s global leadership. On the other hand Hizbollah has been strengthened by the conflict and has acquired a new legitimacy throughout the region.

But whoever benefits in the short-term, this war has marked a new surge in the tide of chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East, and in that all the imperialist powers, from the biggest to the smallest, have played their criminal part.

They are all warmongers!

The impasse in the Middle East situation was already illustrated by the coming to power of the ‘terrorists’ of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, itself a response to the intransigence of the Israeli government which has ‘radicalised’ a large part of the Palestinian population. It was further confirmed by the outbreak of open hostilities between Hamas and Fatah. Israel’s retreat from Gaza was not a move towards peace but a means of enforcing its control over the more vital West Bank area.

Israel’s ‘solution’ to reaching this dead-end was to act against the growing influence in southern Lebanon of Hizbollah, which is financed and armed by Iran. The pretext for unleashing the war was to obtain the release of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbolla. More than two months later, they are still being held, and the UN (now aided by Jesse Jackson’s ‘independent’ mission) has only just opened negotiations for their release. The other stated motive for the offensive was to neutralise and disarm Hizbollah, whose incursions into Israel were a growing threat to its security.

 Either way, this was using a bazooka to kill a mosquito and neither objective has been achieved. But the Israeli state has certainly visited its fury upon the population of Lebanon. The people of the southern cities and villages have seen their houses destroyed and been forced to survive for weeks with almost no food and water. 90 bridges were smashed, as well as innumerable roads and three electricity generating plants. The Israeli government and army told us over and over again that they were trying to “spare civilian lives” and that massacres like the one in Qana were “regrettable accidents”, like the famous “collateral damage” in the wars in the Gulf and the Balkans.  In fact 90% of those killed were civilians. 

This war could not have been launched without the USA giving it the green light. Up to its neck in the quicksand in Iraq and Afghanistan, its ‘Road Map’ to peace between Israel and Palestine in tatters, the US is suffering blow after blow to its strategic plan of encircling Europe, the key to which is control over the Middle East. In Iraq in particular, after three years of military occupation, the US is powerless to prevent the country sliding into a terrible ‘civil war’. The daily conflict between rival factions is costing the population 80 to 100 deaths a day. All this expresses the historic weakening of the USA’s grip over the region, and is part of a growing challenge to its domination of the entire globe. This in turn is providing the opportunity for other powers to step up their imperialist ambitions, with Iran leading the charge. The Israeli action thus served as a warning to states like Iran and Syria and shows the perfect convergence on this occasion between the White House and the Israeli bourgeoisie. Within the UN, the Americans spent several weeks sabotaging any prospect of a cease-fire in order to allow the Israeli army to ‘finish the job’ against Hizbollah.

Although there was never any question of Israel installing itself for a long period in Lebanon, there is a real symmetry in the methods used by Israel and the US, and in the problems that result. Both are forced to throw themselves into military adventures, and both have found themselves trapped in a total mess. In Israel, as in the US, politicians and generals are blaming the government for launching a war without adequate preparation. And Israel, like the US, is finding that you can’t fight a guerrilla group which is dispersed within the population in the same way that you would fight a ‘normal’ state army. Like Hamas, Hizbollah in the beginning was just another Islamic militia. It arose during the Israeli offensive in southern Lebanon in 1982. Because of its Shiite affiliations, it benefited from the generous support of the Iranian mullahs. Syria also supported it and used it as an important internal ally, especially after Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005. Hizbollah also recruited heavily through its policy of providing medical, social and educational benefits to the population, again made possible by Iranian funding. Today it continues to win support through its policy of paying compensation to people whose houses have been destroyed or damaged by Israeli bombs. It is worth noting that many of its recruits are street kids aged between 10 and 15.

For the moment, Syria and Iran form a homogeneous bloc behind Hamas and Hizbollah. Iran in particular is staking its claim to becoming the main imperialist power in the region. Obtaining nuclear weapons would certainly give it that status. These ambitions explain its increasingly belligerent and arrogant declarations, including its intention to “wipe Israel off the map”.   

The cynicism of all the great powers

The height of cynicism and hypocrisy was reached by the UN, which throughout the month the war lasted proclaimed its “desire for peace” but also its “powerlessness”.  This is a disgusting lie. The “peace loving UN” is a crocodile-infested swamp. The five member states on the Security Council are the biggest predators on the planet. The USA’s world leadership is based on its huge military armada and since Bush Senior announced a new era of peace and prosperity in 1990, on a succession of wars (Gulf war of 91, the Balkans war, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq…). Britain has in most cases acted as the USA’s accomplice, but for its own imperialist reasons (see article in this issue). It is trying to regain the influence it had in this region up until just after the Second World War.

Russia, which is responsible for the most terrible atrocities in its two wars in Chechnya, is trying to get its revenge for what it lost in the implosion of the USSR. The weakening of the USA is stirring old imperialist appetites. This is why it is playing the card of support for Iran and, more discretely, for Hizbollah.

China, profiting from its growing economic influence, is dreaming of gaining new zones of influence outside South East Asia, and is currently making eyes at Iran. Along with Russia, China has been sabotaging a series of UN resolutions tabled by their rivals.   

As for France, it has just as much blood on its hands. It took a full part in the 1991 Gulf war; it supported the Serbian side during the Balkans war and, through its role in the UN, had a major responsibility for the Srebenica massacre in 1993; it has also been involved in hunting down the Taliban in Afghanistan (the death of two French ‘special forces’ soldiers has shed light on an activity that has been kept very discreet up till now[1]).

But it’s above all in Africa that French imperialism has shown its real face. It was France which provoked the genocide in Rwanda by encouraging the liquidation of the Tutsis by the Hutu militias which it had trained and supplied.

The French bourgeoisie has never stopped dreaming of the days when it shared spheres of influence in the Middle East with Britain. After its alliance with Saddam Hussein was undermined by the first Gulf war, and then the assassination of its protégé Massoud in Afghanistan, France’s hopes were then focused on Lebanon. It had been brutally ejected from this area during the 1982-3 war, first by Syria’s offensive against the Lebanese-Christian government and then by the Israeli intervention, commanded by the “butcher” Sharon and manipulated from afar by Uncle Sam. It was this offensive by the western bloc which forced Syria to quit the Russian bloc. France has not forgiven Syria for assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005: Hariri had been a good friend of Chirac and France. This is why, despite its desire to get a foothold in Iran by adopting a conciliatory stance towards it, France decided to rally to the US plan for Lebanon, based on UN resolution 1201, and helped to concoct plans for the redeployment of the FINUL UN force. Despite the reticence of French military HQ which is protesting that France’s overseas forces are “overstretched” (nearly 15000 troops involved in numerous fronts: Ivory Coast, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Darfur, Kosovo, Macedonia, Afghanistan), the French government has taken the plunge. It agreed to increase its contribution to FINUL from 400 to 2000 soldiers, getting certain advantages in exchange, notably a mandate to command the 15000 man force until February 2007; and the right to use force if attacked. The French ruling class still has hesitations about passing from the diplomatic to the military terrain in the Middle East. It still has bitter memories of the attack by Shiite terrorists on the Drakkar building that housed the French contingent in Beirut in October 1983. This resulted in the death of 58 parachutists and led to France’s departure from Lebanon. And today it faces a very tricky task. FINUL’s mission is to give support to a very weak Lebanese army (it only has 15000 troops and has hardly been reconstituted) in its efforts to disarm Hizbollah. The job is all the more difficult given that Hizbollah has two members in the Lebanese government, has gained enormous prestige from standing up to the Israeli army and retaining the ability to launch rockets into Northern Israel throughout the conflict, and in any case has widely infiltrated the Lebanese army.

Other powers are also lining up to get what they can out of the situation. Italy, in exchange for giving the biggest contingent to the UN force, will take command over FINUL after February 2007. Just a few months after withdrawing Italian troops from Iraq, Prodi is dispatching a new force to the Lebanon, showing that Italy still has ambitions to be at the imperialist top table.   

The patent failure of Israel and the US in this war represents an important new step in the weakening of US hegemony. But this will in no sense attenuate military tensions. On the contrary, it can only whet the appetites of the other powers. The only perspective it announces is growing chaos and instability.

The Middle East is a concentrated expression of the irrationality of war in this period, in which each imperialism is dragged from one increasingly destructive conflict to the next. Syria and Iran are now on a war footing, and the situation is pushing the US and Israel towards even an even more terrible response. The Israeli defence minister has made it clear that the ceasefire is just a pause to prepare for a second assault, aimed at the definitive liquidation of Hizbollah.

The extension of combat zones across the planet shows that capitalism is ineluctably sliding towards barbarism. War and militarism have become capitalism’s way of life.

How can we oppose the slide towards military barbarism?

The class struggle in this region has not disappeared. Last year, there were large demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa against the rising cost of living and the government’s policy of increasing military spending at the expense of social welfare budgets. The failure of the war is likely to provoke further expressions of social discontent.

In the Palestinian territories, “Palestinian civil servants are demanding the payment of overdue wages from the Hamas government. Around 3,000 marched yesterday in Ramallah, while in Gaza City over 300 unemployed workers demanding jobs and unpaid welfare fought riot police and attempted to storm the parliamentary building, breaching the gates before police fired live warning shots… Hamas have condemned the strike as an attempt to destabilise the government and called for teachers to scab, saying anger should instead be directed against Israel ‘which imposes the siege on our people’. Hamas claim the strike has ‘no relation to national interests’ and is being co-ordinated by the Fatah party ‘that has no ties with employees’  many union leaders are Fatah members. However, despite these party-political manoeuvres the grievances are very real; with unemployment running at around 30% and around 25% of the workforce affected by the current withholding of wages, over half of the workforce is surviving on very little income. The UN estimates 80% of the population lives in ‘poverty’”. (www.libcom.org/news, 31.8.06).

Even if Fatah politicians are trying to exploit this discontent, this is an important development because it is a small breach in the national unity which serves to stifle class struggle on both sides of the conflict.

In response to this war, all sorts of fraudsters, many claiming to be ‘socialists’, have been running around telling us that ‘we are all Hizbollah’, that workers should support the legitimate ‘national resistance’ of the Lebanese people, or else arguing that Israel has the ‘right to defend itself against terrorism’.

These are just pretexts for mobilising us behind one side or another in an imperialist war. Against these lies, revolutionaries can only declare that the working class has no country, that its struggle has indeed “no relation to national interests”, that in the epoch of imperialism all wars are imperialist, and that we have nothing to gain from supporting any side in any imperialist massacre.

The only opposition to imperialism is the resistance of the working class against exploitation, because this alone can grow into an open struggle against the capitalist system, a struggle to replace this dying system of profit and war with a society geared towards human need. Because the exploited everywhere have the same interests, the class struggle is international and has no interest in allying with one state against another.  Its methods are directly opposed to the aggravation of hatred between ethnic or national groups, because it needs to rally together the proletarians of all nations in a common fight against capital and the state. 

 In the Middle East the spiral of nationalist conflicts has made class struggle very difficult, but it still exists – in demonstrations of unemployed Palestinian workers against the Palestinian authorities, in strikes by Israeli public sector workers against the government’s austerity budgets. But the most likely source of a breach in the wall of war and hatred in the Middle East lies outside the region – in the growing struggle of the workers in the central capitalist countries. The best example of class solidarity we can give to the populations suffering the direct horrors of imperialist war in the Middle East is to develop the struggle that has already been launched by the workers-to-be in the French schools and universities , by the metal workers of Vigo in Spain, the postal workers of Belfast or the airport workers of London” (ICC statement ‘Middle East: Against the slide into war, the international class struggle is the only answer, 17 July, 2006).

These movements may make less noise than the rockets and bombs that have been raining down in the Middle East, but they announce the one and only alternative to the descent into barbarism: a future of growing solidarity among workers in struggle, paving the way for a society founded on solidarity among all human beings. 

WR, 2/9/06. 


[1]              The unusual emphasis the French media have placed on this episode is no doubt linked to the need to get the population used to the idea of French involvement in the southern Lebanon ‘peacekeeping’ force.