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The Middle East Crisis: War & Pseudo-War: A challenge for the Left

A personal reflection from  D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

3 December 2015

The chickens seem to be flying home to roost in droves. Any analysis of the current crisis in the Middle East should take into consideration two factors. The most recent one is, of course, the implosion of the Soviet Union with its immediate discrediting of inductive, as against deductive reasoning. Before and after this is nearly a century of western imperialist interference in the region, interference which has caused the greatest mayhem there since the Mongol invasions three quarters of a millennia ago. (At least the Mongols were honest enough not to claim the level of civilization ascribed by their modern imitators to themselves.)

The ideological factor was, of course, in existence before the Soviet collapse. Religious Fundamentalist political movements were notable throughout the world. Ireland was trying to extricate itself from the domination of its Catholic and Protestant forms and Iran had succumbed to a Shiite Muslim variety.  What the events of 1991 did was destroy one of the strongest examples of the possibility of human redemption on a secular basis. The USSR, had many faults, mainly due to the attempt to turn it into a fully socialist society, but its political and economic base provided inspiration for millions. The inability of the international left to deal adequately with the implications of its fall provided an apparently convincing argument to disillusion many secularists, particularly among those who had assumed socialism had been achieved in one country and could not accept that it could not have been. They embraced capitalism, but found its leaders' current strategy of combining capitalist economics, particularly slump and austerity, with secular reforms unsatisfying. They turned to the fundamentalists, Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Shiite and Sunni Muslim, the last, it would seem, for now, the most bitter. 

Western imperialist interference has fuelled this bitterness. It is unnecessary to follow the fundamentalists and date its beginnings back to the twelfth century Crusades; quite apart from the social differences, it is a fact that the crusade was preceded by the Jihad. The present mess was created by high explosives guided by the stock market. Its beginning was just under a century ago, in May 1916, when two men sat down in a room together. Both  the Englishman, Mark Sykes, and the Frenchman, Charles Georges-Picot claimed to be friends of the people of the region, but, understandably, they were more friendly to the interests of their own states. Sitting at a table, with maps, pencils and rulers, they partitioned between France and Britain the Arab provinces of the beleaguered Ottoman Empire. Eighteen months later, this carve-up was complicated by the Balfour Declaration, a statement by Arthur ('Bloody') Balfour promising the Jews a national home in Palestine. This was not a benevolent act; Balfour was anti-semitic, the first of a type of Anti-Semitic Zionist found today particularly in America; he wanted to give Jews somewhere to go outside his own country. The Ottomans fell and Sykes-Picot was implemented. The French refused to allow the emir Faisal the title of king in their occupied territory of Syria, but the British were more subtle and allowed him the throne of of its semi-colony, Iraq, and his brother, Abdullah, that of what was then called Transjordan. 

In 1923, another oriental 'expert', George, the Marquess Curzon, did a deal with a revived nationalist Turkey which partitioned a new nation state of Kurdistan established three years previously between Turkey and Iraq (Turkey hoped in vain that there would be oil in its area: Britain knew there was oil in its share.). When the Iraqi Kurds rose against this, the British anticipated Saddam Hussein by sixty years and gassed them. Meanwhile, the Zionist Jews moved into Palestine, bought land from the local landlords and then proceeded to evict the tenants who came to ally with their former exploiters. From 1929, the British acted as less than honest brokers in a religious civil war in which they supported first the Jews and then the Arabs, when it looked as if their fellows in the oil countries would be alienated, The precarious nature of its relationship with the latter was shown when, in 1939, King Ghazi of Iraq demanded a better deal for his country's oil and was killed in a mysterious car accident, and when , in 1943, his son's regent, Rashid Ali, made a futile attempt to get a better deal from the Axis. Fueling these moves was the fact that oil was turning Arab tribalism into Arab nationalism.  Fearing lest that force ally with Soviet Russia, France evacuated Syria, leaving it divided into two states: Syria and the sectarian divided Lebanon where the contradictions would prove a long burning fuse for internecine strife. A more immediate non-solution, for the same reason, was that the imperialists came down on the side of the Zionists and recognized the state of Israel as a lightening conductor for Arab grievances. 

This was successful up to a point, though the new state's dependence on the west was obvious enough to make its sponsors ever less popular, as when Britain, France and Israel ganged up in an attempt to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt. Nonetheless, oil-free Palestine became the main centre of conflict while the imperialists continued to get their fuel from Iraq, despite frequent revolts and from Saudi-Arabia and the gulf states where absolutism ruled with a strong hand, It could not last. The Iraqi Kurds revived their independence struggle. Sadam Hussein came to power and showed no respect for the established border settlement, relying on American fears of the new Shiite state in oil rich Iran. In themselves, his territorial claims were progressive, even if his regime was brutal; he became the opponent of the imperialist powers only when he attacked  another ally, Kuwait. The desperate need of the imperialists to show their strength resulted in a new war that ended Hussein's brand of Arab nationalism. leaving a sectarian Shiite state that provoked widespread resentment among its Sunni subjects. This group's wish to hit at its opponents that provided a source of recruits for its own even more sectarian state: the Daesh. It cannot be denied that before Sykes and Picot drew their lines on the map the middle east had big problems (notably, tribalism and the Ottoman Empire). It cannot be denied either that the western imperialists made matters worse.

No serious anti-imperialist should imagine Daesh to be any sort of a solution. It is more a cry of the oppressed, albeit manipulated by very smart operators. Such cries butter no parsnips. It should be noticed that imperialism's three most trusted allies in the area,  Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the least bothered by it. Turkey sees Daesh as a surrogate counter to the struggle of its Kurdish population for self-determination. The Saudi monarchy is targeted specifically in Daesh' war aims, but it is placed second behind the Shiites, including those heading its republican rival, Iran, and, anyway, Saudi is a thousand miles away from the fighting. Israel is not mentioned specifically among Daesh' targets, unless it is lumped into third place as one of the 'Crusader' powers (Probably few of its rank and file know that the historic crusaders gave Jews as short a shrift as they did Muslims.). Ben Netanyahu has declared that Daesh is no more dangerous than Iran, and, certainly, it is challenging some of Israel's most militant opponents. 'My enemy's enemy is my friend'. On top of this, there is a shared eschatology between Daesh and Balfour's heirs, the Anti-Semitic friends of Israel; both believe in a pending final battle preceding the apocalypse, disagreeing only as to where it will take place and, of course, as to which side will be the victor. (Incidentally, whichever side does win the Jews will get it in the neck). Turkey is allowing the passage of Daesh recruits, Saudi Arabia is supplying money and arms and there can be little doubt that Daesh is getting money from Zionist sources.

This could be dismissed as superior statecraft on the part of the Caliphate. In fact, it reflects its real dependency on world capitalism. To wage modern war, autarchy is not an option, particularly for the undeveloped territory occupied by Daesh. Caliph Abu Bakr's role model, Omar (the second caliph) could conquer northern Arabia on a low-tech basis, with spears and scimitars against similarly equipped and less motivated armies.  Though later jihads had better resources to fund and equip them, the resources of today's Caliphate a compare more to Omar's and it needs hi-tech equipment simply to survive. It needs money and arms from the hated Saudi regime and it has to sell oil to the 'Crusaders'. If the struggle is prolonged, it may have to break a cardinal Muslim principle and borrow money from the usurers of international banking, if, indeed, it isn't doing so already. This is shown in its choice of targets. Its rejected parent, Al Qaeda, picked major imperialist power bases, the Pentagon, the White House, the World Trade Centre; Daesh' targets are purely cultural. Its statehood means that, though an obvious threat to individual lives, to imperialism it is just a nuisance.

Moreover it is a necessary nuisance. Taken in isolation, the  imperialists' response to the terror campaign makes no sense. Internationally, the logic would seem to point to at least a threat of a diplomatic revolution of downgrading the unreliable satellite allies, Turkey, Saudi and Israel, repairing fences with Iran, Russia and, perhaps even Assad in Syria, none of which are aiding the murder of citizens of the metropolitan states, and recognizing free Kurdistan, the only force that is beating Daesh on the ground. Despite timid moves in such a direction, the old alliances remain intact. Russia and Iran are just too powerful to be treated as the dependencies that the others are, however treacherous.

In any case, the Daesh threat allows the imperialist states opportunities to strengthen their powers at home against threatened dissatisfaction with the social changes made under cover of capitalist austerity. Refugees from the war zone are to be blocked even though most known suicide bombers are marginalized citizens of the states they attack. (Today Turkey is getting new talks on its application to join the E.U. in exchange for it preventing refugees passing through it to Europe.) Policing is to be strengthened particularly in the Muslim areas, thus providing new causes for the inhabitants' alienation. More money must be found for security: less to improve the quality of life. Protest will be answered by blaming Daesh. Worker and oppressed will be divided against each other on the vexed issues of the validity or otherwise of the teachings of different millennia-dead gurus.

Whether Socialists can lead the fightback is not clear. What is clear is that only they can do so. Only they can sustain the unpopularity of opposing the demands for more intensive policing and barring refugees. They will do so because such measures can only make the class they seek to lead more divided. Their positions will still not be popular in a political atmosphere that is comparable to that of the war a century ago. Already Jeremy Corbyn's expressed doubts as to the British government's proposals have caused increased murmurings against him in his party. Indeed, it is not only accurate but necessary to link these demands with the opposition to austerity. The imperialist military presence should be withdrawn from the middle east and the Kurdish state be recognised. How far these demands can mobilize people is unclear, but the attempt must be made. Above all, structures have to be built that will unite the alienated of all communities against their exploiters and oppressors.  To use in a proper context the catchphrase of the enemy: there is no alternative.

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