The Russians and Iranians have declared the successful end of the war on the Islamic State. But the war against ISIS in the Middle East has fundamentally changed the balance of forces in the Middle East. The influence of Moscow and Tehran has grown, whilst that of US imperialism and its Saudi ally has been greatly diminished. For the masses, life in the region remains a nightmare.
Two statements were made on the same day a few weeks ago on 21st November. Both declared the end of the war on Islamic State in Syria. The first was made by Vladimir Putin, in a meeting with Bashar al-Assad in Sochi, the second was released by Qassem Suleimani: the Iranian general at the head of the Quds Force (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards). Both, almost simultaneously, stated that “terrorism was defeated” in the country.
A month before, Raqqa – the capital city of the Islamic State – was taken by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This defeat dealt a decisive blow to the last hopes of Islamic State establishing their Caliphate.
In the same period, loyalist forces consisting of Assadist troops and Iranian backed militias with Russian air support took the city of Deir Ezzor along with all the main cities on the bank of the Euphrates river towards the Iraqi border. The western backed Islamist insurgency, from which IS arose, has now been crushed in all important areas. Nothing remains of the plans of US imperialism – and their traditional allies in the region – of overthrowing the Assad regime and cutting through Iranian influence in the region.
The Russian intervention was the final element which tipped the balance against US interests. As a result of the outcome of the war, Russia is now rising as a counterweight to US influence throughout the region. This underlines the limitations of US imperialism. While the US is still by far the strongest single force globally, it is tied up by a series of internal crises which limits its room for manoeuvre. This in turn is opening up a vacuum for other smaller powers to manoeuvre.
In Syria, three forces which have traditionally opposed US imperialism – the Kurdish militia, together with Russia and Iran – have become the key forces on the ground. Unable to intervene directly, the US could only maintain some influence in Syria at the great cost of leaning on the Kurdish militia and thereby jeopardising its relationship with Turkey, a key NATO ally.
Turkey and the Kurds
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, initially intervened in Syria along with the US, with ambitions of using Syria as a springboard towards achieving his dreams of a modern day Ottoman Empire. But seeing the coming defeat and the support of the US for the Kurdish militias, he made a deal with Russia and Iran.
In return for selling out the CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalist groups, Putin gave Turkey increased room to act against the Kurds. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. What concerns Moscow is not the fate or the liberation of the oppressed peoples but the assertion of its role as a regional power.
At the same time of course, Islamic fundamentalism has not been uprooted in Syria. Al Qaeda still controls the province of Idlib, but it does so at the mercy of Turkey, which in agreement with Russia and Iran, and much to the dismay of the US and Saudi Arabia, keeps a tight leash on it. Erdogan is supporting the fundamentalists as a backup in the future political game in Syria and to use them as a battering ram against the Kurds.
Ankara cannot allow the consolidation of Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Turkey fears the consequences within its borders, where at least 15 million oppressed Kurds live. Erdogan has been very critical of the support provided by the US to the SDF. The US on the other hand, has not had any other reliable force to fight IS in Syria. But now that the civil war is coming to an end, US imperialism is preparing to sell out the future of the Kurds in return for an appeasement with Turkey, which in turn could be used against Iran.
On 27th November, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders highlighted this by saying that, with IS’s territory shrinking, “we’re in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups, but that doesn’t mean stopping all support of those individual groups”. Sanders’ statement echoed Trump’s, who told President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call that he had issued instructions that weapons should not be provided to the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters.
The US are now ready to dump the Kurds. As we have stated several times, for US imperialism, the Kurds are only a pawn in a bigger game, and if it had to choose between them and Turkey, the choice will always be in favour of the latter.
The YPG leaders thought they could use the US for their purposes, but the opposite is occurring. One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois leaders of the liberation movements in the Middle East have not learned any lessons.
There is nothing wrong in a revolutionary movement using the divisions between imperialist powers, but there is, however, a limit to this tactic. In the end Kurdish liberation can only be achieved by revolutionary means, by appealing to the masses in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and most importantly in Turkey for a revolutionary overthrow of all these regimes and the establishment of a Socialist Kurdistan as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East.
It was the revolution in Western Syria which in the first place created the vacuum for the Kurdish movement to rise. But the leaders of the different Kurdish factions have increasingly been leaning on deals with the big powers, rather than developing a revolutionary policy to connect with the struggle of the Iranian, Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi masses. In doing so, they have also given important concessions to the imperialists.
In Syria, the Kurdish leaders have not only received arms from the US, they have also allowed the US to build more than a dozen bases throughout Kurdish controlled territory. They have also allowed Russian and Syrian forces into their territory and have, on different occasions, made deals with Iranian proxies and the Iraqi central government.
The absurdity of this policy reached a temporary peak during the Qatar-Saudi crisis, when some PYD leaders publicly supported collaboration with Saudi Arabia. These mistakes by the Kurdish leaders are not only weakening the Kurdish liberation movement militarily, but also politically, by repelling the most radical layers who are fiercely opposed to US, Saudi and Russian imperialist meddling.
Small nations are just so much small change in the deals reached between the big powers. And when the time for a deal comes, all of these concessions will be used to try rein in the Kurdish movement.
At the same time, the defeat of the US campaign in Syria, means a consolidation of the position of Iran and its traditional ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. This is raising new contradictions and represents an untenable situation for the crisis ridden Saudi kingdom. As a response Saudi Arabia embarked on an attack on the Lebanese government, which is strongly influenced by Hezbollah. Seeing Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s indulgence towards the Shiite movement as a threat, the Saudis essentially kidnapped him and forced him to resign during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis were hoping to whip up a sectarian conflict within Lebanon and thereby force the hand of Israel to attack Hezbollah. The Arab League, following a Saudi proposal, declared Hezbollah “a terrorist organisation” and Iran a “regional threat”. But the move had the opposite effect. Inside Lebanon public opinion turned sharply against Saudi Arabia, in sympathy with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, international pressure forced the Saudis to let Hariri go, after which he retracted his resignation.
At the same time the Saudis launched a highly publicised military alliance “to rid the world of Islamist terrorism”. If lives of innocent men, women and children were not involved, such a statement would be a contender for the best joke of 2017. Saudi Arabia was founded on the principles of Wahhabism: one of the most reactionary ideologies in the world. For decades, the Saudis have funded Islamic terrorism, and still do.
The latest result of this was the Islamist terrorist attack, which killed 235 people in a Sufi mosque in Sinai, Egypt. It was carried out by the Islamic State, which had strong links to the Saudi regime itself and which has been strengthened by funds and resources delivered to the Islamists in the Syrian Civil War by Saudi Arabia and other western powers. Of course, they have now escaped the complete control of their former masters.
The military alliance set up by the Saudis has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Along with the rest of Saudi foreign policy, it is aimed at one target only: Iran.
Saudi Arabia has emerged as the biggest loser of the Syrian civil war. This outcome has led Riyadh to adopt an attitude that is far from remissive. Indeed, its foreign policy positions have become increasingly aggressive. The rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS as he is called), son of the current king, is the expression of this. As a foreign minister, MBS launched in 2015 a military intervention against the Houthi forces which controlled large parts of Yemen. Following the deafening silence of western imperialism (and tacit support, given that the western powers keep selling weapons to the Kingdom), Saudi aggression has left tens of thousands of people dead and created more than three million refugees. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of Yemenis are experiencing a humanitarian emergency.
But the war in Yemen is being lost by the Saudis and the war fronts have barely moved for the past year. Only two weeks ago, the Saudis pulled out their last desperate attempt at turning the tables when they convinced the then Houthi ally, Abdullah Saleh, to break with the Houthis. But this proved unsuccessful as Saleh was quickly killed and his troops cleared from Sanaa.
This defeat only lays bare the weakness of Saudi Arabia, which in spite of having one of the most expensive armies on the planet, could not force its will on one of the poorest countries in the world. Each defeat in the region is piling on the internal crises of the regime, which in turn continues to raise the stakes like a gambler on a losing streak.
In May, the kingdom provoked a conflict with Qatar, calling on the Qataris to break relations with Turkey and Iran, as well as shutting down media such as Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera. In response, Qatar did the opposite and strengthened its relations with Iran and Turkey. While Donald Trump initially supported MBS in this endeavour, he was quick to withdraw as he found out that the US has a major military base on the peninsula.
Qatar is not a one off case. The crisis of US imperialism is also a crisis of the Saudi regime which has always been dependent on imperialism for its survival. The US did not support Saudi Arabia against Iran in Iraq – in fact the US had to make a deal with Iran to secure its own withdrawal from the country. In Syria, Trump has abandoned Saudi backed proxies and is manoeuvring to cut a deal with Russia. In Yemen, Trump is now openly calling for an end of the war, which is essentially a defeat for Saudi Arabia. Any attempt of the Saudis to take the fight to Lebanon will eventually lead to a similar outcome.
But if the Americans will not fight the wars of Saudi Arabia, who will? The fact is that the kingdom does not have any real loyal subjects, which is why it has never dared send its army to fight in a war. Thus, the lack of US support poses an existential danger for the regime.
In early November an “anti-corruption” drive was carried out on the orders of MBS. Most of the main opponents of the crown prince within the royal family were arrested. These are the opening shots of the coming conflicts within the kingdom. The world economic crisis and the falling oil prices are straining the networks of patronage which have kept the kingdom together since its inception.
For the first time in ten years, Gross Domestic Product declined in the first two quarters of 2017 and the IMF forecasts zero growth this year. In order to cope with the rise in public debt, MBS plans a series of privatisations, including the sale of 5 percent of Aramco, the oil company, whose value is estimated at about $2 trillion. In a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the government has already cut by 15 percent state employees’ wages, along with other subsidies. And all this is happening in the world’s largest oil exporter!
This is preparing an explosive situation at the bottom. Apart from the Sunni population, the Shia minority in the oil rich north eastern areas have been restive since 2011 and the urban youth have been increasingly calling for more democratic rights.
The defeats in foreign policy are magnifying this crisis. The war in Yemen was partially a concession to the Wahabis, but it is becoming a public opinion disaster internally. Meanwhile MBS’s new “liberal” statements are aimed at appealing to the middle class youth. MBS wants to unite these layers behind the monarchy, but these forces are diametrically opposed to each other as well as to the monarchy itself.
With the revenues from the sale of Aramco, Riyadh will increase its military spending. Last May it reached a deal for arms and defence systems from the United States for over US$110 billion. On his official visit, Trump provided almost unconditional support for the actions of the Saudis in the Middle East. The regime is trying to divert attention and to forcefully claw back its dominant position in the region, but it is fighting a lost battle.
MBS is trying to maintain the initiative by constantly setting the agenda. But he is unable to resolve the crisis and thus, sooner or later events will catch up with him. All the forces of Saudi society are pulling in opposite directions threatening to tear the regime apart. What we are witnessing is thus essentially the beginnings of the decline of Saudi Arabia as we know it.
If western imperialism was seeking to curb Iranian influence, they have achieved the exact opposite. Iran has never been more influential in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. This is a direct result of the breakup of the regional order imposed on the region by the US with the destruction of the Iraqi state after the defeat of Saddam Hussein. In the vacuum Iran is rising to become the key power of the region along with Turkey.
On its northern border, Israel thought it had created an equilibrium with Assad and Hezbollah, but with the rise of Iranian backed proxies in Syria that balance is being disrupted radically. Israel has tried not to get sucked into the Syrian civil war, but a few weeks ago it was forced to escalate its involvement by bombing an Iranian military base south of Damascus. The possibility of Iranian military and naval bases along with Iranian arms factories on Israel’s border poses a major threat to the Israeli regime.
Together with Saudi Arabia and the US, they want to “roll back” Iran. Saudi Arabia has already made several public overtures to Israel. The two countries, despite not having formal diplomatic relations, have admitted they are in contact through their intelligence services, and Israeli Defence Minister Lieberman has called for the need to start a new “imminent” war front in Lebanon.
Together with Trump, these gentlemen are trying to turn back the clock to before the Iraq war, before the capitalist crisis and before the Arab revolution. Trump has been trying to make a 180 degree turn from Obama’s policies in the Middle East, as if these were merely based on Obama’s personal preferences and were not dictated by strategic interests of US imperialism. First he increased support for the Syrian rebels and carried out a pathetic missile attack on an empty government airbase in Syria. But nothing changed. In the end he had to come to an agreement with Russia about Syria. In Yemen as well, he initially supported MBS’s brutal, yet hopeless war. But now he has been forced to call for an immediate end to the war.
Trump is also trying to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, but it is clear that other world powers will not follow suit. Nevertheless, the Iran deal was not an arbitrary piece of paper, it was the formalisation of a process which had taken place on the ground in the region. It was the formal recognition of Iran’s growing influence on the ground and the need by US imperialism to come to terms with it.
Trump is supporting almost everything said in Riyadh and Jerusalem. But time and time again, like during the Qatar crisis, he soon realises that his position undermines key US interests. Last week he officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Of course, this is only the last nail in the coffin of the utopian two state solution and the farce of peace negotiations played out by world powers for 25 years. Nevertheless, it is provoking a backlash against US imperialism throughout the region and thereby undermining Saudi political influence, while building up that of Hezbollah and Iran.
The US administration probably thought that, after the defeat of Islamic State, they had a window of opportunity to move against Iran. But the situation in the Middle East is not based on the level of cowardice of of this or that US politician. Trump, despite all his arrogance, has a little problem. In the context of the global economic crisis, the public debt crisis, rising anti-establishment moods in the US, the crisis of the US political system and after the disastrous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (where incidentally, they are still bogged down since the 2001 invasion), the US cannot deploy significant amounts of troops in the Middle East. So he has to rely on alliances with regimes and forces riddled by crises and with their own interests which do not necessarily coincide with those of the US all the time.
Meanwhile, Iran and its proxies have entrenched their position as the strongest political and military force, with hundreds of thousands of dedicated battle hardened troops holding territory from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. No other regime in the Middle East can boast of similar influence and therefore, Iran cannot be ignored or merely rolled back.
The limitations of US American power left a vacuum in the Middle East that was partially filled by Russia and partially by Iran. However, none of the regional powers has the strength to replace Washington completely, even though they all wish to do so. Seeing the rise of Iran, which is an existential threat to the regime in Riyadh and to an extent also to that in Jerusalem, tensions are likely to increase and the conflict to replicate itself throughout the region.
Mohammad Bin Salman, who is desperate to keep the conflict simmering outside of his own borders, has been trying to stir up a clash in Lebanon, a country of 4.3 million people, which has become much more unstable after the arrival of 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The Israeli regime is also preparing for war in Lebanon, but Hezbollah already pushed back the Israeli army in the 2006 war. Eleven years later, Hezbollah is stronger, both militarily and in terms of popularity. Saudi pressures on Lebanon have only had the effect of increasing the popularity of the Shiite movement inside the country.
Thus, if the imperialists engage in a new open conflict, they are likely to see similar results as in Syria. Those who will pay the main price are the oppressed peoples, such as the Palestinians and Kurds, used as pawns in this “great game”. As the crisis of capitalism grinds on, the ruling classes of the region are willing to drown the whole area in a sea of blood to protect their own privileges.
So long as the various despotic regimes remain in power, this nightmare scenario for the peoples of the Middle East will continue to get worse. The only way out is for all of these regimes to be overthrown. That task belongs to the workers and poor in all these countries. The 2011 Arab revolution gave us a glimpse of what is possible.
Only a solution based on class independence, on the common interests of the oppressed masses, beyond religion, ethnicity, and language, can free the Middle East from the nightmare of reaction and blood in which it is currently entangled.
The task of Marxists in the region is to patiently explain this and build a force that will be capable of intervening in the inevitable mass movements of the future. Iran 2009, Egypt 2011, Turkey 2013 showed what immense power the workers in these three key countries have. It is this power, if correctly challenged, that can finally put an end to the living hell the imperialists have created for all the peoples of the Middle East.