By ERWIN FREED
The Middle East has seen an explosion of social movements mounting within a pressure pot of interstate conflict, austerity, and decades of violent imperialist occupation. The conditions have been made worse by drought in the region that is largely an effect of climate change. Long-standing “stability” is being blown apart by shifting power struggles and new political alignments.
The United States is losing its former position as sole decision maker in the region’s affairs. As the world’s foremost imperialist power ratchets up humanitarian crises, relative newcomers in the global geopolitical landscape are finding themselves with increasing influence and military positioning in the Middle East.
Weakening U.S. dominance in global affairs creates new openings for regional players and countries of a more global stature, especially Russia and China. While the shifting balance of power may create new openings for class struggle, there does not yet exist a party in any of the countries with which workers can centralize their mounting anger and organize to take control of the state away from their bosses and out of the hands of the imperialists.
Proof of the effects of the United States’ growing relative weakness in the Middle East is most obvious in Iran. The Trump administration has been desperate to return to the period of total control over Iranian resources that has not existed since the 1979 Revolution ousted the U.S. puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. That was the major circumstance underlying its withdrawal from the multinational “Iran deal.”
Socialist Resurgence has covered on our website the main outlines of how the deal came to be and the effects of the US sanctions regime that characterized its conclusion. The most important takeaway with regards to U.S. political action is its inability to maintain Iranian isolation. While virtually all the European countries and their main Middle Eastern lackeys have respected the enforced boycott, China used the opportunity to cement hundreds of billions of dollars of trade deals with the Islamic Republic. Alongside economic agreements, China is deploying around 5,000 security personnel on Iranian soil to protect its investments.
Unable to decisively dominate Iran economically, U.S. strategists have escalated military pressures against the country. The war moves reached a fever pitch with the open assassination by drone of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq on Jan. 2. Iran responded immediately with missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, although it appears by all accounts that the strikes were not meant to kill soldiers as much as to show Iran’s willingness to engage the US militarily.
Russia as power broker in Syria
In Syria, Russia has participated in the merciless bombing of villages and cities on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime. During the past year, more than a thousand civilians have been killed, primarily by Russian bombing, in Assad’s attempt to capture the northwestern province of Idlib—practically the sole remaining territory held by Syrian rebel factions. Over 900,000 refugees have streamed toward the Turkish border. At the same time, by virtually all accounts, Russia has become the major arbiter of the civil war. Russia, for example, has bypassed the Assad government in conducting direct negotiations with Turkey over the conduct of the war. And as the war reaches its tragic close, Russia stands to win the lion’s share of development contracts in the devastated country.
Even where other major imperialist countries are not as well placed as China and Russia in Iran and Syria respectively, the U.S. position appears many times worse than it did even 10 years ago. In Libya, experiencing a civil war of its own, the main foreign interventions are being made by Russia, Turkey, the UAE, and other regional powers. The government that was largely set up by the United States to authorize its own presence in the country, the Government of National Accord (GNA), is facing military resistance from the Russian-backed alternative Khalifa Haftar. After the U.S. almost completely pulled out of Libya last April, Turkey began to fill its former role, and again Russia is becoming the instrumental actor fitting together a constellation of different state forces in that country.
Alongside an increasingly fluid geopolitical situation is the mass privatization of state enterprises and increased austerity. Part of the reason for this is a delayed response to Russia’s reversion to capitalism and the change in pressures favoring financial capital that have followed. Local capitalists have grown bolder in rolling back public services and shifting the funds to private companies. The most emblematic case is Rami Makhlouf’s telecommunications and real estate empire in Syria, made possible through conscious expansion of the financial sector by his brother-in-law Bashar al-Assad.
Dominance of companies like Makhlouf’s Syriatel has come with clearing formerly publicly maintained “slums” of their working-class inhabitants, the creation of Syrian financial markets, and expansively opening the country for foreign investment. A similar pattern is taking place throughout the region, including in Iran prior to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPoA. Egypt is well on its way toward selling off the many productive companies that are currently under the umbrella of its military.
Amid these conditions of imperialist domination and contention over spheres of influence, austerity from local capitalists, and constant fights between regional powers, Middle Eastern workers and farmers have begun to lead a social explosion. The embers burning from the Arab Spring are being fanned into millions on the streets.
Workers rebel in Iran and Iraq
Iranian workers, farmers, and students have waged many battles against the conditions caused by the political and economic bankruptcy of their own government. Rouhani promised that opening the economy to imperialist investment would bring prosperity for working people. Instead, social welfare programs were cut back and the unemployment crisis has remained. The U.S. sanctions have made day to day life completely unbearable in the country, but the disastrous conditions have not stopped working people from fighting against state repression and for democratic rights. Significantly, striking has become a major tactic, and the terrain of struggle has become increasingly that of class conflict.
The people of Iraq are showing everyday how to build the fight against imperialism. Pulverizing pressure from massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people have forced the government, originally intended as a U.S. puppet, to pass legislation calling for all U.S. forces out of the country. The movement is unrelenting in the face of severe repression. Hundreds have been killed, although the situation is much more favorable than when the U.S. occupation was at its peak. While mass demonstrations currently face police resistance, the United States military acted with virtual impunity to kill at will, arbitrarily locking down whole cities for indeterminate periods of time.
The Middle East is ripe for a revolutionary situation; what is missing is the party to lead it. The revolutionary possibilities are augmented by the fact that there is a much higher level of interconnectivity within Middle Eastern economies and cultures than even Cuba had in relation to Latin America in the 1950s and ’60s. Similarly, there are strong cultural ties within the region, with nationalities running over borders and a long history of combined struggle against imperialism. Lastly, while the level of productive development is uneven, most countries in the region have a much higher economic base to work from than places where revolutions have occurred in the past.
Therefore, the situation is such that if a revolutionary party should emerge from the struggles that have been flaring up, the chances are good that it would be internationalist and put forward a perspective that includes solutions to the whole social problems of the Middle East. A very small example was the recent rejection of both sexism and sectarianism in Iraq when women led a march of thousands against the opportunist politician Muqtada al-Sadr’s demand that the movement be sex segregated.
Build the U.S. antiwar movement!
In the United States, the principal task of working people and their allies is building a mass antiwar and anti-imperialist movement that can force an end to the murderous intervention of U.S. imperialism. We must demand, “U.S. out now from the Middle East!”
Simultaneously, it is necessary to expose the economic objectives of U.S. intervention and the class nature of the resistance to it. One means of doing this is by publicizing the struggles of working people and the oppressed in the Middle East and building solidarity and defense campaigns for them.
Other factors to reckon with are the possible effects of the shifting geopolitical balance of power and the weakening of U.S. dominance. Already, we have seen that a wing of U.S. imperialism wants to act like a cornered dog, lashing out aggressively against any threat—perceived or real. The escalation toward Iran last year is the most obvious case. At the same time, a different section of U.S. imperialism talks about being “strong through diplomacy” and forcing concessions by more purely economic and political means, rather than military action.
The latter sector will try to win over parts of the antiwar movement and may even use the language of anti-imperialism to do so. It will put forward its candidates, largely from the Democratic Party, who will likely start using even more radical rhetoric than we’ve already seen. These sorts of maneuvers, which may even be made by people who are genuine in their hatred of U.S. wars, need to be exposed.
U.S. “aid” is a form of economic coercion; “humanitarian” intervention is always an act of occupation; “negotiated settlements” squeeze the economic life out of semi-colonies. All the antiwar movement receives from supporting capitalist politicians is confusion, self-disruption, and dissolution. The most powerful poison against the anti-Iraq War movement in the U.S. was not George W. Bush but the election of Barack Obama.
The U.S. working class has nothing at all to gain from carrying out wars on behalf of our bosses. We need to learn from the historical and international examples on how to fight against the bosses. There is no better example than the strikes and massive street demonstrations shaking Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and many other countries right now.