Anti-regime fighter in Syrian city of Aleppo; photo by AP

Anti-regime fighter in Syrian city of Aleppo; photo by AP

by Corey Oakley

What is behind the war in the Middle East?

To answer that question, it is first necessary to set aside the sanctimonious statements by politicians and their media boosters about the threat of Islamic terrorism and “apocalyptic death cults”. All the screaming headlines and dire warnings are nothing but war propaganda of the crudest type, products of the dirtiest of trades – that which sells us death and plunder disguised as righteousness.

This war is no more about terrorism than the 2003 invasion was about weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, there was a stark difference between the sound bites given to a pliant media and the real rationale for war, obscured in the mainstream discourse but obvious to anyone concerned enough to pay attention.

This new war is both like and unlike the previous US wars in Iraq.

Like, in that the US is motivated not by humanitarianism or justice but by the naked self-interest of its ruling elite – the people whose wealth relies on the global reach of US military and economic power. This war is again about who will control the region’s resources.

But this US intervention is also unlike the previous wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003, in that the US and its Western backers such as Australia seek not to aggressively reshape the Middle East in their own image, but to regain some of the ground lost in the fallout from the disastrous occupation of Iraq and the subsequent Arab revolution that began in 2011.

In 2003, a self-confident US military launched a full-scale invasion of Iraq, convinced it could transform the country into a US client and use that success as a launching pad for a long list of new wars that would establish the foundations of “a new American century”.

This time, the US is engaged in an array of complicated regional conflicts involving multiple forces, several of which have at least as much capacity as the US to influence the outcome. Strategists in the US ruling elite are divided over how they should proceed, if they should at all.

So while the motivations of the US are as nefarious as ever, the context is very different. It is incumbent on the left to expose and oppose the air campaign being waged by the US, Australia and others, and the accompanying anti-Muslim hysteria at home. But it is also necessary to come to grips with the radically different character of this conflict.

Carving up a region in turmoil

The conflict can be understood only in the context of the counter-revolution unleashed by the despots and monarchs of the Arab world in response to the democratic uprising that swept the region in 2011.

When confronted with millions on the streets demanding democracy and social justice, these ancien régimes had a choice: make concessions, accept incursions into their power and wealth, or fight back. They chose the latter, and unleashed a torrent of reaction that has engulfed entire countries.

But while the revolutionary movement has been pushed back, the order that prevailed in the Middle East since the First World War is in ruins. Old borders and alliances have crumbled and new ones are being born.

This presents both dangers and opportunities for the various regional powers, most importantly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, which are now engaged in a monumental struggle in which each seeks to expand its influence and contain the others.

The central battlegrounds of this fight are, for now, Iraq and Syria.

Iran was the big winner of the 2003 Iraq war, which resulted in the Sunni-dominated secular regime of Saddam Hussein being replaced with a sectarian Shiite government closely linked to the Iranian regime. But the relentlessly sectarian policies of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Malaki helped reignite a sectarian war that has torn the country in three.

The Islamic State, formerly al Qaeda in Iraq, had been reduced to a rump by 2008, but it has risen again and now controls most of the Sunni-dominated regions of the country, including the huge Anbar province. In spite of US air strikes, it has advanced to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Because the regular Iraqi military is almost completely dysfunctional, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, along with at least two units of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have been the main resistance to the IS advance. With the US unwilling to commit ground forces, it is likely that the Iranian role on the ground will only increase as the war escalates.

This prospect is deeply worrying for the US-allied Saudi monarchy, which has, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, considered Iran to be its chief regional competitor.

The Saudi regime is hostile to IS, partly on account of the Islamic State’s open declaration that it intends to overthrow the corrupt monarchy. But it is also fearful of Iranian influence in Iraq. On top of that, the Saudis are extremely concerned about the ongoing rapprochement between the US and Iran. On the one hand this increases their hostility to the US/Iranian “war on IS” in Iraq, on the other it pushes them to be involved so as to avoid being further sidelined.

The war in Iraq is now inextricably linked to the conflict in Syria, where IS controls large parts of the east, and is now engaged in a bitter fight with Kurdish forces in Kobane near the Turkish border, and against anti-regime fighters who are battling to hold on to Aleppo in the north-west of the country.

Since 2012, the Syrian revolution has been fighting on two fronts – against the regime and against the Islamic State.

The Assad regime’s policy towards IS has until recently vacillated between non-engagement and collaboration. Until the US strikes began in Iraq, the IS headquarters in Raqqa was not once targeted by the regime’s air force. Assad preferred to pound areas controlled by the genuine resistance.

Over the previous two months, IS had been engaging regime forces, taking the strategic Tabqa airbase in north-east Syria in August. So when the US expanded its air strikes against IS to Syria, this was welcomed by the regime. In a speech to the UN following the first bombings, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem declared that the Assad government was “satisfied” with the US air campaign, and that Syria stood with the US effort to combat IS. Indeed, the Syrian regime often seems more enthusiastic about US air strikes on its territory than the US does.

While the logic of war forced the US to expand its air strikes into Syria, it still considers Iraq the main game. Secretary of state John Kerry justified the initial US refusal to bomb IS fighters besieging Kobane, saying “Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition.” The US was perfectly willing to see Kobane fall to IS and to watch the Kurdish fighters massacred – it was only when it became clear that the Kurdish resistance was not about to crumble that the US felt compelled to launch limited bombing raids.

Part of the reason the US is proceeding carefully in Syria is that the conflict there starkly exposes the contradictions in Obama’s coalition.

Turkey, which other than Israel has the strongest army in the region and was relatively untouched by the Arab revolution, is not particularly worried about the threat from the Islamic State. The Turkish government is much more concerned to thwart the Syrian Kurds, who are aligned to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), with which Turkey has fought a long guerrilla war.

This is why Turkey has refused to aid the Kurds in Kobane and has instead shut off the border, preventing refugees escaping the besieged city and stopping Kurdish fighters from crossing over to join the battle.

Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, is committed to the overthrow of the Syrian regime, and has attempted to tie its support for the US campaign against IS to a commitment from Obama to join the fight against Assad.

But the most important (if unofficial) US ally in the fight against IS in Iraq is Iran, which is a key backer of Assad. Like the Assad regime, the Iranians are not hostile to the US air strikes in Syria. But the Iranians are strongly opposed to the Turkish demand that the war against IS be transformed into a war to overthrow the Syrian government.

The US government has long had a bet each way on Syria, refusing to give any meaningful support to the opposition, but also not, as of yet, clearly deciding to ally with Assad. There are voices in the US establishment arguing for the adoption of both positions, and others arguing that the US should stay on the sidelines as the battle for control of the region plays out.

Even after the decision to begin a campaign of air strikes in Iraq, the US is far from fully committed. It is not only a matter of its extreme reluctance to consider sending ground troops. The US bombing campaign, even in Iraq, which it considers much more important than Syria, has been much less severe than the kind of all-out bombardment the US has proven capable of in the past.

Even though the US role in the current conflict is wholly cynical and self-serving, it is far from the only or the decisive reactionary element at work.

Where does hope lie?

In 2003, it was crystal clear that the main responsibility of the international left was to stand against US imperialism and its designs on Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. Now, things are not so simple. In the wake of the Arab revolutions and the US defeat in Iraq, there is not one but a whole array of reactionary forces attempting to impose their will on the situation.

The US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all vying for regional influence, and are all equally unconcerned with the impact their pursuit of their own interests will have on the millions of people who were cursed to be born in a region so central to the “great game” of inter-imperialist intrigue.

Beyond these powers, the people of the Arab world are confronted by a host of despotic regimes and reactionary political movements – from the military government in Egypt and the fascist regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria to the murderous sectarian movement that calls itself the Islamic State and the sectarian Shiite militias that oppose it. None of these forces offer anything but disaster to the people who less than four years ago took to the streets convinced that a different Middle East was possible.

To take sides between these different versions of reaction leads nowhere. Those on the left who supported the Egyptian revolution but opposed or remained neutral on the Syrian uprising on the grounds that Mubarak was a lackey of the US and Israel but Assad is an opponent of imperialism were kidding themselves from the word go. Assad was never an opponent of US imperialism. If any doubt remained, it was surely cleared up when his spokespeople enthusiastically backed and claimed credit for US air strikes in Syria when they began in September.

Similarly, in a situation where the dominant dynamic is not the project of a particular imperialist power, but a battle between competing forces, it is ludicrous to judge the various local forces by their allegiance to one or other external power.

Hamas in Gaza received military and financial support from both Iran (and behind Iran, Russia) and Qatar. How is that worse than the Kurdish or Arab fighters in Syria who demand (usually with little effect) military backing from the US and its allies? What of the fact that the Kurds in northern Syria are also linked to Iran?

Iraqi government forces are backed by both the US and the Iranians. Which of these is legitimate? Which is anti-imperialist?

The hope for the future of the Middle East lies in a rejuvenation of the mass popular movement of 2011, which stood against both the intrigues of the global imperialist powers and against the local despots, regardless of which camp of the global system they were aligned to.

Today, the most important element that remains of the 2011 uprising is the resistance fighting Bashar al Assad in Syria. In spite of the shameful attitude of much of the international left, which has variously dismissed the Syrian rebels as imperialist stooges, Islamist fanatics, gangster-like thugs or a spent force, they continue to wage a heroic liberation war against incredible odds.

Others, like the Kurdish fighters resisting the IS in Kobane and throughout the Kurdish areas of northern Syria, are engaged in a fully justified struggle for the self-determination that they have been so long denied.

But as important as those military struggles are, the possibility of the great hope of the Arab revolution being realised relies upon a new outbreak of mass struggle across the region, and the emergence of forces that can turn the audacity so clearly displayed in the great moments of the Arab revolution into a durable political force capable of confronting and defeating the multi-faceted monster that is the Arab and imperialist reaction.

The above article is reblogged from October 20 on Red Flag, the site of the paper of the largest Marxist organisation across the ditch, Socialist Alternative; see here.  In relation to New Zealand, see here.

Further reading:
The never-ending, ever-expanding war
The origins and politics of the Islamic State group
Iraq: a powder keg stoked and primed by imperialist power games
From the Crusades to today: western powers plunder and strangle the Middle East  (2000)

  1. O'Shay Muir says:

    I’m curious as to who is this ‘Genuine Resistance’. Is it the Gulf Backed Jihadists? Is it the NATO backed Free Syrian Army? Please don’t mention the presence of socialist fighters. One would have to be delusional to think that they can make a qualitative difference. This article fell into the trap of explaining the Syrian conflict in abstracts, rather than actual concrete analysis.

    Assad’s forces, Free Syrian Army and Jihadist forces have all committed atrocities in this conflict, so I don’t understand why some of on the left are still seeing it as good vs bad (this is also applies to those who view Assad as anti-imperialist). This article also made the mistake of turning mass protests into a fetish. Although it was amazing to see tens of thousands of people take to the street and speak out against despotism, the most organised opposition in Syria even before civil war broke out was Gulf backed Islamist cells. Once it turned into a full-blown civil war, it was most likely these groups would sooner or later become the vanguard of the opposition. This is would of most likely occurred even without Assad turning a blind eye to Al-Nursra and IS. Besides they’re only two of many reactionary opposition groups.

    ‘ In spite of the shameful attitude of much of the international left, which has variously dismissed the Syrian rebels as imperialist stooges, Islamist fanatics, gangster-like thugs or a spent force, they continue to wage a heroic liberation war against incredible odds.’

    To prove my point I could easily turn this quote around and say that despite of being labelled as Russian imperialist stooges, Shiite fanatics, gangster-like thugs or supporters of a despot that should of stood down, Assad forces continue to wage an heroic struggle defending religious minorities from both the Free Syrian Army and Jihadists and protecting their nations sovereignty against the imperialism of the West and Gulf states.

    • Phil F says:

      It was me who suggested we stick this article up. I thought about 90% of it was fine, but I was somewhat doubtful about what Corey said re Syria – pretty much along your lines. You’ll note that Karim also took a more agnostic position in his article, which was one of the first we ran on Syria. Frankly, in a tiny circle like Redline, none of us knows much about the forces fighting Assad within Syria, except that a chunk of them are pro-imperialists, Islamic fundamentalists and so on. So we’ve tended to shy away from taking sides.

      Some on the left have sided with Assad because they side with any Third World leader, no matter how despotic, as long as they mouth anti-imperialist rhetoric. These leftists tend to be most associated with the old pro-Moscow CPs and that tradition. On the other hand, a chunk of people from the Trotskyist tradition tend to side with the opposition because they see Assad as a military strongman and his western supporters as ‘Stalinists’.

      The reason I suggested we run Corey’s piece was that 90% of it was helpful analysis, and the other 10% was open to question/debate.

      Personally, my views are pretty much in line with your comments above re Assad and the opposition, and I think other comrades in Redline *probably* have similar views.

      But, hopefully, some comrades will come and join the discussion and add something by having concrete information about who are the progressive forces in Syria. I tend to think there are some.


      • O'Shay Muir says:

        This may sound controversial, but I believe that ISIS summed up the essence of the situation in the Mid-East when they stated that one of their main aims was to erase Sykes – Picot. What this new Mid-East will look like, is too hard to tell right now. Plus it would be too monolithic to make such predictions.

      • Phil F says:

        Well, the borders are entirely artificial. The end of Sykes-Picot would sure be a positive thing. The imposition of Salafist rule wouldn’t. Unfortunately, the sellouts by secular nationalism plus the promotion of fundamentalism by reactionary Arab regimes and the imperialists (often as a counter-weight to radical, secular nationalists) has put the fundamentalists in a position of some strength. However, there does appear to still be quite a lot of people in the region who are opposed to the imperialists and the fundamentalists.


  2. louisproyect says:

    Assad’s forces, Free Syrian Army and Jihadist forces have all committed atrocities in this conflict, so I don’t understand why some of on the left are still seeing it as good vs bad (this is also applies to those who view Assad as anti-imperialist).

    Unfortunately this does not take into account the sort of weaponry at the disposal of the Baathist military and the FSA (I will leave the “jihadist forces” out of the equation). The FSA relies almost exclusively on light arms with the incidental anti-tank weapon. On the other hand, the Baathist air force has been using missiles and bombs that have leveled entire city blocks. Let’s take one of them for example, MIG-23’s fired S-25 rockets into apartment buildings in Homs and Aleppo where FSA fighters were equipped with AK-47’s by and large. You can get an idea of the force of an S-25 rocket by looking at these controlled detonations that have about the same force:

    The net result has been a hollowing out of entire neighborhoods, forcing the working class residents to flee to Turkey and Jordan where they live in tents. Assad has basically been carrying out the same scorched earth strategy that Putin pursued in Chechnya. It is what the experts call asymmetrical warfare and the only one available to a dictatorship that cannot afford to allow its foot soldiers to face its adversaries on roughly equal terms. Without its air force, the Baathists would have been driven from power 2 or 3 years ago.

    • O'Shay Muir says:

      I totally agree with you. The current turmoil in Syria is the fault of the Assad regime. The process of trying to stop a popular uprising through a campaign of mass violence intensified the social antagonisms in Syria. Please don’t think that I’m trying to put all the players in the conflict on the same footing. The change that we are witnessing across the Mid-East and North Africa is extremely complex and rapid.