Middle East Upheaval

Imperialist Crimes & Machinations

The strategic defeats suffered by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq have strengthened the position of Iran’s ruling theocrats, who have gained an important ally in Shia-dominated Iraq on their eastern border, while increasing their influence in Afghanistan to the west. Alarmed at this development, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other U.S. clients among the Persian Gulf emirates are engaged in a concerted effort to roll back Iran by providing funding and logistical support to jihadi insurgencies in Syria (a key Iranian ally), as well as in Iraq and Lebanon. Washington’s other cronies in the Middle East, including the rulers of Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Israel, are broadly supportive of the Saudi-led efforts.

American policy in the region is ambivalent, dislocated and frequently incoherent, mixing bellicose threats with diplomatic negotiations with both Syria and Iran. Chastened by the economic and political fallout from its earlier failures, Washington seeks to supplement the application of raw military power with political alliances and maneuvers. Undoubtedly, this is related to the “intervention fatigue” gripping the majority of Americans, who oppose expensive neocolonial wars abroad while living standards decline at home.

After nearly intervening in Syria’s civil war in August 2013, the U.S. pulled back as part of a Russian-brokered deal in exchange for the Baathist government agreeing to turn over its chemical weapons. This was followed up with an interim accord with Tehran to negotiate conditions for the future development of Iran’s civilian nuclear power program. American policy on Iran and Syria remains conflicted—and there is a real debate within the U.S. ruling class between those advocating direct military intervention, and others who fear the considerable risks associated with such an assault and see substantial benefits in arriving at an arrangement with Iran. Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, has publicly stated that in his view an attack on Iran could “prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world” (Virginian-Pilot, 4 October 2012).

The following is an edited and expanded version of a talk given by Tom Riley at an IBT public meeting in Toronto on 4 October 2013.

It’s been a month of dramatic developments in the Middle East. What looked like a near-certain American intervention in Syria’s civil war a few weeks ago, seems to have turned into a U.S.-Russian brokered deal to rid the country of chemical weapons. The rationale for the projected U.S. attack was the claim that the Syrian government had used sarin gas in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus on 21 August [2013]. The “rebels,” who had suffered a series of reversals at the hands of the regime, stood to gain a great deal from an American military intervention, and there is some evidence they may actually have been responsible for the gas attack.[1]

While it is not clear what really happened in Ghouta, it is obvious that the hue and cry over chemical weapons was essentially a cover for military intervention to prop up Assad’s opponents. It is also obvious that opposition by an overwhelming majority of Americans to any new military adventures in the Middle East was an important factor in Obama’s decision to call off the threatened bombing campaign. Despite frantic efforts by the corporate media propaganda apparatus to create fear of another tin-pot “Hitler,” the needle of popular opinion did not budge. As Abraham Lincoln once observed, “you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

There is now talk of a possible thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations for the first time in 35 years (since the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution that toppled Shah Reza Pahlavi, a key American ally). But despite a few conciliatory phrases, in his 25 September [2013] remarks at the UN, Obama bluntly asserted: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region [Middle East].” The “core interests” were also spelled out: “We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.” The concern about “freely flowing” energy has not prevented the U.S. from imposing harsh sanctions to choke off Iranian oil exports, because by “free flow” Obama meant under the control of the “Free World,” i.e., American oil corporations.

Middle East Oil: ‘Stupendous Source of Strategic Power’

The political situation in the Middle East is both complicated and somewhat fluid. There are many players, all pursuing different agendas, and their alignments shift as events develop. It can be very confusing for anyone expecting to find a simple, straight line, narrative. But by taking a long view of developments and “following the money,” an underlying pattern can be discerned.

Ever since the successful commercial application of the internal combustion engine over a century ago, the history of the Middle East has been shaped by the struggle of foreign powers to assert their “right” to exploit the region’s vast energy resources. In carving up the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Britain and France took care to draw the borders of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon across communal lines so that it would be easier to “divide and rule” their colonial subjects. A decade-and-a-half later, in 1933, the creation of Aramco (the Arabian-American Oil Company), in a deal between a consortium of American oil corporations and the Saudi monarchy, marked the arrival of the U.S. as a significant player in the region.

At the dawn of the “American Century” after World War II, a U.S. State Department strategist described Middle East petroleum as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history” (cited in Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power). This aptly encapsulated both sides of the equation—not only is the oil wealth of the Middle East an enormous “material prize” in itself, but the ability of British and U.S. imperialists to control access to it has long conveyed a “stupendous” strategic advantage over potential rivals, particularly Japan and Germany.

American Middle East policy in the 1950s and 60s, which was shaped by the Cold War competition with the Soviet degenerated workers’ state, frequently involved the suppression of popular left-nationalist movements. The natural allies of the “Free World” in the region tended to be conservative monarchies and traditionalist Islamists. As a rule, the U.S. only assumed an “anti-colonial” stance in relation to “liberating” British and French possessions.

In 1951, when Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq nationalized the holdings of Anglo-Iranian Oil (today British Petroleum—BP), Washington warned London not to intervene. Mossadeq soon fell out of favor, however, by refusing access to U.S. oil corporations. “Regime change” usually requires local allies, and Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqassem Kashani, who was aligned with the Devotees of Islam (an underground group opposed to Mossadeq’s modernization program), played a key role in the successful 1953 coup organized by the CIA, which restored the rule of the Pahlavi monarchy.[2] Once Mossadeq was deposed, the nationalizations were reversed, but instead of restoring a British monopoly, 40 percent of Iran’s oil was assigned to U.S. corporations. [3]

This coup had been preceded by a less successful intervention in Syria four years earlier. The 1949 Syrian coup, which was the CIA’s first attempt at “regime change” intervention, was occasioned by resistance to Aramco’s plans to ship Saudi oil to the Mediterranean via a “Trans-Arabian Pipeline.” The governments of Jordan and Lebanon had signed on, but the Syrians balked. According to Douglas Little, declassified U.S. records show that “beginning on November 30, 1948, [CIA operative Stephen] Meade met secretly with [Syrian Army Chief of Staff] Colonel [Husni] Zaim at least six times to discuss the ‘possibility (of an) army supported dictatorship’” (“Cold War and Covert Action,” Middle East Journal, Winter 1990).

Zaim seized power in March 1949 and managed to approve Aramco’s pipeline and ban the Syrian Communist Party before he himself was overthrown a few months later. This was the first of several unsuccessful U.S. attempts to install a more pliable regime in Damascus, the net effect of which was to push Syria into an increasingly tight alliance with the USSR. During the 1960s, the Soviets helped train the Baathist military and security cadres under Hafez al-Assad (Bashir’s father), and Russia remains Syria’s main international political ally to this day.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, which caught the U.S. by surprise, not only removed the Shah—an important American client and regional enforcer—but also expropriated the holdings of the U.S. oil corporations. Reversing the Islamic Revolution has been a top priority for Washington policy-makers ever since. American hostility to the Assad regime, supposedly motivated by humanitarian concern for Syrian civilians and outrage at the purported use of chemical weapons, in fact derives primarily from Syria’s strategic value to the Islamic Republic of Iran as a regional ally and land bridge to Hezbollah, the Shia resistance movement that dominates Lebanese political life.

During the 1980s, the U.S. and its allies armed and financed Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war with Iran. America (and Britain) supplied Iraq with the ingredients for chemical weapons, which were used first against the Iranians, and subsequently against rebellious Kurds in Northern Iraq. Years later the cynical imperialist spin masters rationalized the invasion of Iraq as necessitated by the use of the very “weapons of mass destruction” they had earlier supplied.[4]

‘Responsibility to Protect’

In the aftermath of World War II, a few hundred senior Nazis were tried in Nuremburg for war crimes—specifically for “aggression,” i.e., launching unprovoked attacks on other countries. In the judgment condemning some of Hitler’s more prominent henchmen to hang, this offense was described as “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

This was duly incorporated as a fundamental in the charter of the United Nations. But today the “supreme international crime” of unprovoked aggression against a sovereign state has been redefined by the ideologues of imperialism who now assert that a supposed “responsibility to protect” (RtoP) must take precedence. Ironically enough, this is the very principle invoked by Hitler in 1938 to justify the annexation of the Sudetenland, the first step in the takeover of Czechoslovakia. “RtoP” provides a conveniently open-ended justification for imperialist powers whacking weaker states when it suits them, although of course this “responsibility” is invoked very selectively. The outrage expressed by Western politicians over the fate of Syrian or Iranian dissidents does not extend to Palestinian victims of Israeli apartheid, or Shia demonstrators gunned down in Bahrain, or female rape victims in Saudi Arabia punished for being “immodest.”

The “RtoP” doctrine is a reassertion of the traditional imperialist “right to plunder” where and when they choose. It is a direct consequence of the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state which, throughout the Cold War, acted as a powerful global counterweight to imperialism. The triumph of capitalist counterrevolution, which resulted in plummeting life expectancy and living standards in the former Soviet bloc, facilitated growing inequality in the “advanced” capitalist countries and opened the door for a wave of attacks on “rogue” neocolonial regimes previously aligned with the USSR. The first of these was the 1991 “Desert Storm” invasion of Iraq.

In 2007, former NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark gave a speech in which he recalled a 1991 conversation with Paul Wolfowitz (then U.S. undersecretary of defense), who drew the following lesson from “Desert Storm”:

“‘We learned that we can use our military in the region, in the Middle East, and the Soviets won’t stop us.’ He said, “And we’ve got about five or ten years to clean up those old Soviet client regimes—Syria, Iran, Iraq—before the next great superpower comes along to challenge us.’”

By 2001, the “clean up” list had grown to seven, as Clark recounted in his 2003 book, Winning Modern Wars:

“As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan”

So far, two countries on the list (Iraq and Libya) have been subjected to the horrors of “humanitarian” imperialist military intervention. In both cases their social and economic infrastructures have been seriously damaged with devastating consequences for millions of civilians. Syria, which has been in the Pentagon’s crosshairs since at least 1991, was supposed to be the third in the series.[5]

In 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon in a failed attempt to smash Hezbollah, the Jerusalem Post (30 July 2006) reported that Tel Aviv was “receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria.” The Israelis, who already had their hands full, rejected the idea, and some described it as “nuts.” In fact, after retreating from Lebanon, Israel’s ministers of internal security and defense proposed peace talks with Syria. This was not received well in Washington:

“when Israeli officials asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about pursuing exploratory talks with Syria, her answer, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was, ‘don’t even think about it’.”
Foreign Policy in Focus, 1 May 2007

The Israeli ruling class, which generally favors a U.S. military attack on Iran, is far less enthusiastic about overturning Assad, as it could well turn Syria into a “center of global jihad,” as Aviv Kochavi, head of Israeli military intelligence, put it (Haaretz, 24 July 2013). Michael Morell, the retiring deputy director of the CIA, expressed similar concerns, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (6 August 2013) “warned that Syria’s volatile mix of al Qaeda extremism and civil war now poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security.”

2007: U.S. ‘Redirection’ in Iraq

“Al Qaeda extremism” began in the early 1980s as a joint enterprise by Washington and Riyadh to train, equip and transport a foreign legion of jihadis to fight the Soviets and their left-nationalist allies in Afghanistan. Among the original recruits to this venture was a wealthy young Saudi named Osama bin Laden—al Qaeda’s future leader.

The 2003 conquest of Iraq was aimed at establishing direct American military control of the Middle East. It was a risky undertaking, and of course, it backfired in a rather spectacular fashion. Having destroyed the only Arab military in the region that could go toe-to-toe with Iran—the chief obstacle to U.S. domination of the Middle East—Pentagon strategists presumed that Iraq’s Shia majority, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-based regime, would greet the invaders as liberators and eagerly enlist as foot soldiers. Instead, Iraq’s Shia leadership chose rapprochement with the neighboring Iranian Islamic Republic.

From 2003 to 2006, the U.S. occupation faced furious and effective military resistance from the Sunnis—both secular-nationalist Baathists and Islamist jihadis. They were also confronted by important elements of the Shia majority—in particular the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a militant cleric whose vision of an “Islamic Democracy” did not include collaboration with the occupiers. In April 2004, when U.S. Marines assaulted Fallujah, the center of Sunni resistance, Sadr’s “Mahdi Army” engaged occupation forces in the south while other Shia militants travelled to Falluja to aid the Sunni fighters. This solidarity across communal lines dismayed American field commanders, who had banked on a strategy of “divide and rule”:

“The Falluja situation represents an emerging level of Shiite-Sunni cooperation unheard of in the year-old occupation and maybe even the modern history of Iraq…. When American soldiers invaded the country a year ago, preventing a civil war between Shiites, who make up the majority, and Sunnis, who used to hold all the power, was one of the Bush administration’s chief concerns.

“But now that the resistance is heating up, spreading from town to town, the Sunnis and Shiites are drawing together. American military leaders say they have been watching closely.

“‘The danger is we believe there is a linkage that may be occurring at the very lowest levels between the Sunni and Shi’a,’ Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the occupation forces, said today. ‘We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at the tactical level.’”
New York Times, 8 April 2004

After several years of unsuccessful attempts to overcome stubborn Sunni resistance, U.S. strategists, alarmed by growing Iranian influence in the region, executed an abrupt U-turn, as veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh described:

“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

“One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran.”
New Yorker, 5 March 2007

The Saudis were entrusted with arranging many of the practical details of the turn. This provided “plausible deniability” for both the Pentagon and the holy warriors, neither of whom could afford to be seen as collaborating with the other.[6]

As usual, Washington was assisted in its clandestine efforts against Tehran and Damascus by its faithful British sidekick. In June 2013, Roland Dumas, the former foreign minister of France, told French television viewers that he had been informed in 2009 that Britain was training Syrian fighters:

“I went to England almost two years before the start of hostilities in Syria. I was there by chance on another business, not at all for Syria. British officials, some of whom are friends of mine, they confessed while trying to persuade me that preparations for something were underway in Syria. This was in England, not in the U.S. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria….

“I just need to say that this operation goes way back. It was prepared, conceived and planned….for the purpose of overthrowing the Syrian government.”

Syria’s Civil War

Syria’s civil war, which has now raged for two and a half years, commenced with the Assad regime’s heavy-handed repression of young demonstrators seeking to emulate their peers in Tunisia and Egypt, where the 2011 “Arab Spring” protests brought down pro-Western dictators. Similar protests occurred across the region, yet the corporate media exhibited little curiosity about why non-violent political demonstrations only morphed into protracted bloody conflicts in countries on the Pentagon’s “regime change” list. The initial responses to the protests in Libya and Syria were more restrained than in Bahrain, the Gulf kingdom that is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. In all cases, demonstrators were gunned down and organizers were rounded up by the security services to be tortured or murdered—but that is just business as usual in neocolonial dictatorships. The Western media paid a great deal more attention to such behavior in some countries than in others. In Syria, the Baathist leadership was repeatedly denounced for “massacring their own people.” Peter Certo, editor of the U.S. journal Foreign Policy In Focus, commented:

“The Assad regime is surely brutal, but make no mistake: this is a civil war, not a one-sided slaughter. Earlier this summer, the [anti-regime] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 43 percent of the 100,000 Syrians thought to have died in this conflict were fighting for Assad, surpassing estimates for both noncombatants and anti-regime forces.”
—6 September 2013

The bourgeois press has also routinely ignored the fact that the roots of the current conflict in Syria go back at least half a century. During the 1960s, mass protests by the Muslim Brotherhood challenged the “atheist” Baathist regime and its “socialist” policies, particularly the separation of mosque and state. By the late 1970s this had devolved into a guerrilla war by Islamist mujahedin fighters against the Syrian military (and their Soviet advisers). Ultimately the rebellion was brutally crushed (between six and twenty thousand civilians were killed in the rebel stronghold of Hama in 1982). The Brotherhood was driven underground and its leaders forced into exile until the “Arab Spring” of 2011,[7] when they reappeared as the core of the largely expatriate, and explicitly pro-imperialist, “Syrian National Council” (SNC). The SNC was supported by the U.S. and its “Friends of Syria” (composed of Turkey, various Gulf state monarchies and former colonial powers).[8]

In Syria, as in Libya, most of the funding and logistical support for the Islamist insurgents has been coordinated with U.S. regional allies, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey helping.[9] Russia is backing the regime with munitions and political support. Assad has also had significant assistance from Shia allies in Iraq and Iran, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Yet despite substantial foreign involvement, the current Syrian conflict remains essentially a power struggle between the Baathist regime and a mélange of oppositional formations within which Islamist groupings have gradually gained ascendance. Today only a “small minority” of the roughly 100,000 rebel fighters are secular:

“The new study by IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, estimates there are around 10,000 jihadists—who would include foreign fighters—fighting for powerful factions linked to al-Qaeda.

“Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who share much of the outlook of the jihadists, but are focused purely on the Syrian war rather than a wider international struggle.

“There are also at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character, meaning only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.”
Telegraph (London), 15 September 2013

Syria’s civil war has an important communalist element—rural Sunnis and those in urban slums back the rebels, while the Baathist regime is supported by the Alawite Shia minority (from which most key cadres of the military and security apparatus are recruited), as well as the predominantly urban Sunni business class. Christians and most of the rest of Syria’s twenty-odd ethnic and religious minorities are generally more favorably disposed to the regime than the opposition. In December 2011, Qatari pollsters conducting Syria’s last public opinion survey found a surprising 55 percent of the population opposed Assad’s removal. This was less a reflection of support for the Baathist dictatorship than fear that a Sunni Islamist regime would be worse.

Many of the secular groups that participated in the original March 2011 demonstrations were aligned with the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), rather than the SNC. The NCC, which seems to have been largely eclipsed by the civil war, was chiefly distinguished from the SNC both by its adamant opposition to any foreign military intervention and its policy of seeking concessions from the Baathist state through negotiations, rather than military confrontation.

The March 2012 conference of the “Friends of Syria” in Istanbul pronounced the SNC to be the “legitimate” representative of the Syrian people, but this did not change the fact that it had no popular base. Seven months later, the “Friends of Syria” held another conference, at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The purpose of this event, which was held in Qatar, was to try to stitch together a more viable puppet:

“Mrs. Clinton said she had been heavily involved in planning the meeting, including recommending individuals and organizations to include in any new leadership structure.

“‘We’ve made it clear that the S.N.C. can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition,’ Mrs. Clinton said, referring to the Syrian National Council. It can participate, she added, ‘but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard.’”

•     •     •

“From the beginning, the council was seen as a prime vehicle for the long-exiled Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Turkey, and Mrs. Clinton said it was not inclusive enough and too accommodating of extremists.

“‘There needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians,’ she said. ‘And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.’”
New York Times, 1 November 2012

The idea of the U.S. State Department issuing certificates of revolutionary legitimacy is positively grotesque. But Clinton’s concerns about Islamists “hijacking the Syrian revolution” are echoed by many self-proclaimed Marxist organizations internationally that have downplayed the role of the jihadiis while, for the past several years, insisting that some sort of “revolutionary process” was underway.

The State Department’s rebranded SNC, the “National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces,” is of course just as much an imperialist puppet, and just as irrelevant as its predecessor. As the Assad regime and its allies gained the upper hand militarily last summer, the opposition bloc began to splinter, with the hard core jihadis, who have been doing most of the fighting, turning on their less devout partners, while some units of the Free Syrian Army began negotiating with the regime.

Pipeline Politics & the Syrian Conflict

A key issue driving the Syrian conflict that is rarely even alluded to in the Western media is the struggle over energy resources and, particularly, the route of pipelines to supply the European Union. Recent discoveries of natural gas in the region (including in Syria, not far from the Russian naval installation at Tartus) have sharpened the competition. The most significant is the gigantic South Pars field beneath the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Iran. Plans to construct a pipeline (known as the Nabucco or Turkey-Austria pipeline) to carry Iraqi gas from Turkey via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Austria for distribution to other EU destinations were shelved when the U.S. lost control of Baghdad. This was not merely a commercial venture—it was also aimed at reducing European dependence on Russian energy. Now there is a proposal to revive the Nabucco project to ship Qatari gas from the South Pars field. The hitch is that it is necessary to go through Syria. India’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) reported:

“In 2009, during the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Thani’s visit to Turkey, it was agreed to build a pipeline and link it up with the Nabucco in Turkey. It is to originate in Qatar and move through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria reaching Turkey. The European markets would share the resource with an insatiable Turkey.”
—“The Great Gas Game Over Syria,” Gulshan Dietl, 9 September 2013

But the Assad regime refused to cooperate:

“In 2009—the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria—Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter’s North field, contiguous with Iran’s South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets—albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad’s rationale was ‘to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas.’

“Instead, the following year, Assad pursued negotiations for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with Iran, across Iraq to Syria, that would also potentially allow Iran to supply gas to Europe from its South Pars field shared with Qatar. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project was signed in July 2012—just as Syria’s civil war was spreading to Damascus and Aleppo—and earlier this year Iraq signed a framework agreement for construction of the gas pipelines.
“The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline plan was a ‘direct slap in the face’ to Qatar’s plans.”
Guardian, 30 August 2013

The projected pipeline (to be constructed with the participation of Russian energy giant Gazprom) would be considerably cheaper to build than its Nabucco rival, because it takes a shorter route through much less difficult terrain (Turkey is extremely mountainous). As the IDSA study noted, the viability of either pipeline depends on the outcome of the Syrian conflict:

“Even though the Syrian route makes sense in normal situation [sic], the political circumstances are totally unfavourable at present. Both Syria and Iran are under sanctions eliminating the possibility of external funding. The civil war in Syria rules out pipeline construction over a long stretch of area for many years.”

U.S. strategists have been promoting the Nabucco project as a way to free the EU from dependence on Moscow, but some European capitalists are not enthusiastic about paying U.S. middlemen to access Middle East energy when they could deal directly with the suppliers.

The Syrian civil war has significant geopolitical implications. The EU already gets a quarter of its natural gas from Russia; if the projected pipeline from Iran were to come online, U.S. corporations would be squeezed out. Closer economic integration between Germany and Russia (with its links to Iran, Iraq and Syria) could conceivably result in a major shift in the balance of power in Eurasia.

The tendency of the German press to report facts about the Syrian conflict judged “not fit to print” by the corporate media in North America reflects Berlin’s independence from Washington. In 2003, German imperialism opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in 2011 it joined Russia and China in abstaining on the UN Security Council’s endorsement of NATO bombing Libya. Berlin is still onside with Washington on most questions, as the U.S., while declining, remains the global hegemon.

Leninism & Imperialist Interventions

Marxists act as the historical memory of the working class and oppressed. Over the past few hundred years there have been countless interventions by “advanced” capitalist powers into more backward countries. They are invariably described as altruistically motivated—to share the benefits of civilization, or to save souls, or, these days, to liberate the victims of a murderous regime. But beneath the “humanitarian” cover stories, imperialist powers are always pursuing their own economic and geopolitical agendas. This is why, in every case, without exception, revolutionaries side militarily with any indigenous elements in neocolonial countries resisting imperialist intervention—regardless of how reactionary they may be.

When Islamic Jihad blew up the barracks of U.S. Marines and French Foreign Legion “peacekeepers” in Beirut in 1983, we characterized this as a defensible blow against colonial occupation. We took the view that imperialist garrisons need to be removed “by any means necessary,” which would not exclude truck bombs. This position was sharply counterposed to the mainstream reformist left, as well as to the left-talking pseudo-revolutionaries of the Spartacist League, who expressed concern about the fate of the imperialist gunmen.

In the current Syrian conflict, revolutionaries have no side. There is, at least as yet, no direct military imperialist intervention, and working people have no reason to favor the victory of either the brutal Baathist dictatorship or the various pro-imperialist dissidents and theocratic reactionaries on the other side. Much of the left is in a state of denial about the character of Assad’s opposition and talk as if the “rebels,” despite a few rough edges, represent some sort of innately “revolutionary” dynamic. Most of these same people held approximately the same view of the 2011 oppositionists to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi who were supported by the imperialist powers (see “Libya and the Left,” 1917 No. 34). Qaddafi’s forces were ground down by NATO’s “humanitarian” bombing campaign, which destroyed much of Libya’s social and economic infrastructure and produced a nightmarish descent into chaos and destitution. When the imperialists intervened in Libya, Marxists sided militarily with the regime against the terror-bombers and their proxies—while remaining intransigently politically opposed to the Qaddafi dictatorship. Today, we unconditionally defend Iran and Syria against imperialist military intervention—without in any way supporting the rule of the ayatollahs in Tehran or the Baathist butchers in Damascus. There is nothing new or original in this position—it is a policy that was clearly spelled out almost a century ago by the Communist International in its revolutionary period under Lenin and Trotsky.

Permanent Revolution & the Middle East

Despite living in countries possessing the majority of the planet’s known deposits of oil and natural gas—extremely valuable and essential commodities in today’s economy—the peoples of the Middle East, along with their counterparts in other “underdeveloped” countries, are condemned to lives of misery and endless oppression through the logic of profit maximization that animates global capitalism. There are pockets of advanced industry—particularly in the largely foreign-controlled energy sector, but also in Turkish auto factories and Egyptian textile mills—but the region is, on the whole, characterized by poverty, unemployment and economic backwardness. This is what Leon Trotsky termed “combined and uneven development,” with modern means of production existing side-by-side with rural-based peasant production virtually unchanged for centuries.

The central proposition of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is that the path of economic development for semi-colonial, or dependent, capitalist countries blocked by imperialist domination can only be opened through social revolution:

“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”
The Permanent Revolution, 1931

This perspective was flatly counterposed to that ad-vanced by the bureaucratic faction identified with Joseph Stalin, who, in 1925, proposed that the duty of revolutionaries in colonial and semi-colonial countries was to forge a “revolutionary bloc” with the supposedly “progressive” wing of the capitalists:

“In such countries as Egypt or China, where the national bourgeoisie is already split into a revolutionary party and a compromising party, but where the compromising section of the bourgeoisie cannot yet become welded with imperialism….the Communists must pass from the policy of a united national front to the policy of a revolutionary bloc of the workers and petty bourgeoisie. In such countries this bloc may assume the form of a single party of workers and peasants like the Kuomintang….”
—quoted in Walter Laqueur, Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East

Stalin’s policy of “unity” with the bourgeoisie resulted in the decapitation of the Chinese Communist Party two years later at the hands of the “single party of workers and peasants” to which the Kremlin had ordered its adherents to swear loyalty. This same policy produced similar results in the Middle East.

For decades the Soviet degenerated workers’ state provided a counterweight that set limits to the predations of the U.S. and other imperialists in the Middle East. Along with the central role played by indigenous Communist militants in the struggle against colonialism, this meant that by the 1950s, Moscow-aligned parties in a number of strategic Middle Eastern countries had won a mass working-class base and a significant following among oppressed national and religious minorities. The parasitic, counterrevolutionary Stalinist ruling caste in the Kremlin cynically abused this trust in the vain hope of securing long-term “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. When a series of potentially revolutionary opportunities arose in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, the CPs, acting on the direct instructions of the Kremlin, sought to divert powerful working-class upsurges into support for “anti-imperialist” bourgeois nationalists like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser or Iran’s Mohammad Mossadeq. In each case, once order was restored, the petty-bourgeois bonapartist “lesser evils” turned on the left and workers’ movement.

The disastrous consequences of subordination to “progressive” Arab nationalist strongmen discredited Marxism (with which Stalinism was mistakenly identified) and paved the way for the upsurge of communalism and religious reaction we are seeing today across the Middle East. In the eyes of millions of victims of global capitalism, the Islamic jihadis appear to be the only serious opposition to oppressive dictatorships and their imperial overlords.

Stalinist betrayals have been paralleled by the willingness of most ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies to ascribe an “objectively progressive dynamic” to whatever is currently popular. In the 1970s, this meant prostration before Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and support to the CIA-organized Afghan mujahedin as “freedom fighters.” More recently, these same political currents have hailed Egypt’s reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, the disparate Syrian rebels and NATO’s Libyan proxies as “revolutionaries.”

The absence of anything even roughly approximating a revolutionary leadership does not mean that the logic of the class struggle has ceased to operate. The capitalist media played up the role of young people connecting via social media in the 2011 Tahrir Square protests that dramatically toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a key imperialist agent in the Middle East. But in fact these events were decisively conditioned by seven years of workers’ struggles against rising food prices, grotesque social inequality and a venal and corrupt regime:

“During the first four years of the current strike wave [2004-08], more than 1,900 strikes took place and an estimated 1.7 million workers were involved.

“As one worker in a fertiliser company put it, the effect of going on strike was to convince the employer ‘that they had a company with human beings working in it. In the past, they dealt with us as if we were not human.’

“The strikes began in the clothing and textile sector, and moved on to building workers, transport workers, food processing workers, even the workers on the Cairo metro. The biggest and most important took place back in 2006 at Misr Spinning and Weaving, a company that employs some 25,000 workers.”
Guardian, 10 February 2011

In 2008 the Misr workers led a revolt in the industrial city of Mahala against the Mubarak dictatorship’s IMF-approved austerity program:

“Security forces put down the uprising in two days, leaving at least three dead and hundreds detained and tortured. The scenes from what became known as the ‘Mahala intifada’ could have constituted a dress rehearsal for what happened in 2011, with protesters taking down Mubarak’s posters, battling the police troops in the streets, and challenging the symbols of the much-hated National Democratic party. Soon after, a similar revolt took place in the city of el-Borollos, north of the Nile delta.”
Guardian, 2 March 2011

Fear of a renewed upsurge of these struggles on a far broader scale is why the Egyptian military opted to depose Mubarak, rather than violently suppress the Tahrir protests.

The Necessity of Revolutionary Leadership

In Egypt and across the region, what is required is the creation of a leadership within the working class with a program that links the immediate felt needs of the masses for food, shelter and stable employment with the necessity to expropriate capitalist property—both foreign and domestic. The working class has both the historic interest and the social power (through its central role in the production and distribution of commodities) to overturn the system of production for profit.

A revolutionary breakthrough in one Middle Eastern country would be met with enormous enthusiasm by working people throughout the Muslim world. A victorious working class in one country would seek to galvanize this support by declaring its commitment to establishing a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, and by taking immediate steps to undo decades of imperialist “divide and rule” communal strife by ensuring the complete equality of all nationalities and religions. A revolutionary workers’ party must champion the struggle for full and equal rights for women, LGBT people and all national and religious minorities, while also standing for the total separation of state functions from any kind of religious affiliation. Only through the rule of a class-conscious proletariat is it possible to imagine the equitable resolution of the many intractable historic grievances and conflicts within the complex mosaic of peoples of the region—Kurds, Turks, Shia, Sunnis, Druze, Maronites, Copts, Palestinians and Israeli Jews, among others.

The current attacks on wages, pensions, social services and democratic rights in the imperialist heartlands point to the common objective interests of the overwhelming majority of humanity in both the developed and backward countries in overturning the system of exploitation and oppression known as capitalism. However powerful and omnipotent the global predators may seem, the commonality of interests of their victims underlies the reality that, in a strategic sense, the position of the exploiters is far from secure. The accumulation and intensification of social stresses in the capitalist world economy increases the likelihood of a serious outbreak of social struggle in one region resonating with other links in the global chain, including, eventually, even traditionally politically backward layers upon whose unquestioning submission the stability of the whole edifice rests. The Obama administration was unable to sell the idea of attacking Syria to the American people, who are, in the aggregate, certainly among the most politically backward of any major imperialist country.

The key to unleashing a mass revolt against the threat to human civilization posed by the irrational and destructive system of production for profit lies in the creation of a new, insurgent leadership within the international workers’ movement—a Leninist vanguard armed with a program that can focus the anger and energy of the hundreds of millions of victims of global capitalism into effective revolutionary action. The International Bolshevik Tendency seeks to participate in the struggle to create such an instrument—a reforged Fourth International, capable of resolving the historical crisis of proletarian leadership and opening the road to the wholesale reconstruction of the global economy on the basis of collectivized property and economic planning to satisfy human needs rather than maximize private profit.

 1   In April 2013, Carla Del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor at two international criminal law tribunals and a member of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into allegations of earlier chemical weapons use in Syria, reported on returning from that country: “I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got… they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition” (BBC News, 6 May 2013). The next month, Turkish police arrested a group of people working on behalf of two Syrian rebel groups (the Al Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham Brigades), six of whom were subsequently indicted for “seeking to buy materials that could be used to produce highly toxic sarin gas” (LA Times, 13 September 2013).

German intelligence reported that Assad had personally “blocked numerous requests from his military commanders to use chemical weapons against regime opponents in recent months” (Guardian, 9 September 2013). Even the CIA-connected Stratfor think-tank observed that it made no sense for the government to carry out such an attack on the very day that UN inspectors were arriving in Syria.

On 10 September 2013, military.com, a website run by Admiral Terry “T” McCrear (who had been both Chief of Naval Information and a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff), posted the following from MintPress News:

“The report, based on interviews with residents and rebels in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb where hundreds have allegedly died from sarin exposure on Aug. 21, quoted locals who said the chemical was released accidentally by rebels who acquired it from Saudi Arabia.

“The father of one rebel said his son and 12 others died inside a tunnel they were using to store weapons, including some described as ‘tube-like’ and others looking like a ‘huge gas bottle.’”

 2   There is a certain historical irony in the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been mentored by Kashani (his godfather) during the CIA-directed campaign against Mossadeq, and continued working alongside the Devotees of Islam and its successors, eventually emerged as the leader of a mass reactionary movement that deposed the pro- American Shah and reversed his modernizing “White Revolution.”

 3   By the late 1970s, the model for imperial control of the Middle East had evolved from old fashioned colonialism (where imperialist corporations held title to the assets outright) to a “neocolonial” model. The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies had nominally “nationalized” their oil holdings—and received a substantial cut of the immense profits—but the imperialist multinationals were in charge of production, which meant that the U.S. and its allies effectively controlled the Middle East and its resources.

 4   The role of the Pentagon in providing chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime has been well established:

“As documented in 2002 by Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, the Reagan administration knew full well it was selling materials to Iraq that was [sic] being used for the manufacture of chemical weapons, and that Iraq was using such weapons, but U.S. officials were more concerned about whether Iran would win rather than how Iraq might eke out a victory.”

•     •     •

“In 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish resistance forces, but the relationship with Iraq at the time was deemed too important to rupture over the matter. The United States did not even impose sanctions.

“Without much apparent irony, two decades later Rumsfeld and other members of the then George W. Bush administration repeatedly cited Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against [his] own people as a justification for invading Iraq.”
Washington Post, 4 September 2013

 5   In an interview with the Daily Beast (6 September 2013) Wolfowitz supported Obama’s projected bombing campaign on the grounds that it would improve America’s leverage in the region because the rebel cause “has more sympathy across the Arab world than even the Arab-Israeli issue….We should support Israel, but we pay a price for it. We should be supporting the Syrian opposition, but we would not pay a price for it; we would be rewarded for it.”

 6   Hersh’s account is broadly corroborated by “Unfolding the Future of the Long War-Motivations, Prospects, and Implications for the U.S. Army,” a 2008 study commissioned by the U.S. Army from the RAND Corporation. A subsection entitled, “Divide and Rule,” touched on the potential opportunities posed by sectarian divisions: “U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the ‘Sustained Shia-Sunni Conflict’ trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.” A few pages later there is a discussion of how the role of the military would vary, depending on whether the objective was to stoke, or tamp down, Sunni/Shiite communalist hostilities:

“If the United States attempts to exploit the conflict to avoid having to confront a united Islamic world (possibly a very unwise strategy), then there will be little role for the Army. The exception would be the FID [foreign internal defense] missions to train host nation security forces with the possible insertion of advisers, but this might be handled by other agencies. The United States may also seek to end the conflict through peacekeeping operations. Here there would be a substantial role for the Army.

“A third option would be to take sides in the conflict, possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran. The level of U.S. involvement would dictate the type of operations requirement by the Army, which might, at the higher end, require the Army to provide troop lift, logistical support, and other types of aid, or direct involvement in the conflict, which may look partly like an insurgency and partly like conventional war. At the latter level, the U.S. Army would call upon rapid precision strike systems and would have to balance aggressive operations with an IO [information operation] campaign.”

 7   In his 2007 piece in the New Yorker cited above, Seymour Hersh reported a December 2006 discussion with Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority and a sworn enemy of both Hezbollah and its Syrian Baathist allies:

“Jumblatt then told me that he had met with Vice-President Cheney in Washington last fall to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be ‘the ones to talk to,’ Jumblatt said.”

 8   The “Friends of Syria” front was modelled on the “Friends of Libya” set up in 2011 to help organize and legitimate NATO’s “humanitarian” bombing of that unfortunate country.

 9   The 25 March 2013 New York Times reported:

“With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.

“The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.”