What is the war in the Middle East about?
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.