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The Middle East or a Geopolitics of Chaos

The current snapshot of the Middle East shows a region steeped in chaos, where the order sustained for decades by the United States is dissolving without a clear alternative in sight.

Claudia Cinatti

August 19, 2015
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Illustration: Anahi Rivera

Original article in Spanish published in Ideas de Izquierda , June 2015

Egypt is being ruled by Al Sisi’s plebiscite dictatorship, which in little over a year and a half has accumulated nearly 1 thousand death sentences (the method used by totalitarian regimes such as Nazism). Syria, Iraq and Libya are mired in bloody civil wars and are each on the verge of breaking apart. New proto-state entities have emerged, such as the caliphate of the Islamic State [1] (IS, also known as ISIS), which, though its borders are fluid, covers an area the size of Great Britain or Italy. Grown out of the depths of Al Qaeda, this organization threatens to disrupt not only national borders but also the political currents in the Islamic world, encouraging the emergence of radicalized fractions, including among young women in Muslim communities of the West.

What is in question is the delineation of nation-states, whose borders were fixed by France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that split the territories of the Ottoman Empire. The possibility that these countries – that together play an important role in regional equilibrium, or have large reserves of oil and gas – may become “failed states” is a nightmare scenario. The role of Libya in the immigration crisis currently taking place in the E.U. is a case in point.

For the third time in just under a quarter of a century, the United States is at war in Iraq. The nearly year-long military operation, which according to Pentagon data costs taxpayers roughly $8.6 million per day, seems far from achieving the objectives set out by Obama to “degrade and eventually destroy ISIS.” The only victory in the past year is the one in Kobani, obtained at very high cost for the Kurdish resistance with U.S. air support and the recovery of Tikrit in collaboration with Iran. In return, in mid-May, IS took control of Ramadi, the Sunni center of Iraq, and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, several hundred kilometers away. This shows that it has the operational capacity to act on multiple fronts. Despite the Democratic administration’s policy of limiting the U.S. commitment to aerial bombing and restricting combat on IS terrain to local militias, we cannot rule out the start of an upward spiral that could lead to an expansion of the initial objectives, known in military jargon as “mission creeping” and which led to nothing less than the Vietnam War.

A Regional “Game of Thrones”

While this geopolitical disorder can be explained by a combination of factors, there is one element that carries its own specific weight: the change in United States policy toward Iran, nurtured by a mix of imperialistic pragmatism and the opening of Iran following the presidency of Hasan Rouhani, who belongs to the reformist wing of the theocracy.

With a system of alliances based in Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Iraq, the Iranian regime has become an indispensable part of United States security, not only in Iraq, but also in its search for a stable exit from the occupation of Afghanistan.

The signing of the agreements to control Teheran’s nuclear program, sponsored by Obama’s government and supported by the major powers plus Russia and China, signals a radical change with important regional consequences. Restoring a certain level of diplomatic relations between the two countries – suspended since the Iranian revolution of 1979 – is shaking up traditional U.S. alliances. The move is strongly opposed by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is already implementing a shift in its foreign policy to respond to this new situation. Some analysts even predict a long “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran – traditional rivals that are fighting for hegemony of the Muslim world and that symbolize the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites [2] – which would have Yemen as its first hotspot.

Adding to the structural fault lines that came out of the establishment of the states of Iraq, Libya and Syria, the area has become a battleground for regional powers, using civil wars between different factions to settle their rivalries. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey, with more or less explicit backing from the U.S., sponsor various “rebel” groups and armed militias in Libya or Syria, helping them control or weaken their main enemies, but also resulting in an unstable set of alliances that are transient and at times contradictory.

A clear example is the dual policy that states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have towards the Islamic State, a strategic enemy, but one that can be used tactically to weaken their main rivals: the Syrian regime and Iran.

In turn, the United States finds itself in a fundamental alliance with Iran, which control Shiite militias in Iraq in an effort to stop the advance of IS, but faces the Tehran regime in Yemen, where the U.S. supports the Sunni coalition of Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, allies of Iran. There are many other examples of these unstable alliances.

The Consequences of U.S. Policies

To say that the U.S. and its allies are the creators of the Islamic State would be a simplistic, conspiratorial explanation of a complex phenomenon. However, they have undoubtedly contributed to the situation in a substantial way. Not only was there no Al Qaeda in Iraq or Islamic State before the American intervention, but in 2012, the US government itself had anticipated the probability that the Islamic State would advance through the creation of a “Salafist principality” in the Syrian territory. According to a recently declassified military intelligence document [3], this was seen as an opportunity to strategically isolate the Assad regime (and Iran), albeit at the cost of destabilizing Iraq.

At this point, the current situation in the Middle East is without a doubt the product of the failed “war on terrorism” launched by the Bush administration in response to the September 11 attacks, and continued under Obama’s two presidential terms.

The story is well known by now. The Republican administration, under the influence of the “neocons,” intended to reverse the decline of U.S. hegemony through the military strategy of “preemptive war.” First, the administration invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. Then, it invented a casus belli – the weapons of mass destruction supposedly in the possession of Saddam Hussein – to invade Iraq and overthrow the former dictator. After the fall of Hussein in March 2003, the U.S. occupation issued the “law of de-ba’athification” by which, in one stroke, some 400,000 members of Hussain’s defeated military and Ba’ath party officials were expelled without receiving any pension and were barred from state employment. Years later, many of these officers and officials formed their own militias or joined the ranks of Al Qaeda, or later, the Islamic State.

U.S. intervention also led to a fundamental change in State power, which passed from the hands of the Sunni minority (the key military and state bureaucracy since the Ottoman Empire) to the Shiite majority, previously oppressed under the Hussein regime. It goes without saying that the main unintended side effect of the Iraq invasion was to project Iran’s role as regional hegemon, declared at the time by Bush as one of the members of the “axis of evil.”

The U.S. exploited the religious differences between the two groups in order to prevent the possibility of a union between Sunni and Shia in anti-American resistance. In this landscape, radical Sunni groups grew, including Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) founded by the Jordanian al-Zarqawi in 2004, which quickly turned towards religious civil war.

In 2007, President Bush launched a two-pronged policy to weaken the Sunni front between tribal leaders and radical groups: on one hand, he increased the presence of his own troops (the so-called “surge”); on the other hand, he co-opted Sunni tribal leaders (leaders of the movement known as the “Awakening”) to fight Al Qaeda, which was losing more and more authority because of its brutal methods. These combined actions managed to decrease the level of violence, though the success was short-lived.

In 2011, the U.S. tried to pull out of Iraq, leaving behind a regime built on the Lebanese confessional model and trying to distribute power among the three main communities – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – with the Shiites dominating. But that attempt failed. Al Maliki, the Iraki Prime Minister at the time, broke all commitments to incorporate Sunnis into structures of power. This led to a new phase of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis (and to the dispute between Shiites and Kurds over the control of oil), which impacted the region’s conflicts in various ways. This is the fertile soil on which the Al Qaeda grew in Iraq. After formally breaking with Al Qaeda leadership, it adopted the name Islamic State of Iraq, then ISIS or Islamic State. Over time, it has pushed the civil war within Islam to barbaric limits.

Despite the fact that the Islamic State is a minority and that the vast majority of Muslims reject its brutal methods and fundamentalism, it has succeeded in winning the sympathy of Iraqi Sunnis, who see in it the possibility of recovering some power they lost since the fall of Hussein.

The Islamic State and the Counter-revolution

The other factor that impacts the configuration of the current conflicts is the involution of the “Arab Spring,” which gave way to a period of “restoration” marked by the return of brutal state repression aimed at maintaining neoliberal policies. Leaving the historical trends that led to the emergence of radical Islam for future analysis [4], the proximal causes of the success of ISIS lie at the intersection of imperialist policy and the failure of moderate Islamist parties like Muslim Brotherhood, which was emerging in Egypt, Tunisia and even in Syria as the diverting vehicle of the Arab Spring.

The reactionary turn of the civil war in Syria facilitated its extension and the establishment of the caliphate, blurring the borders between Iraq and Syria. In January 2014, ISIS took control of Raqqa in northeast Syria; six months later, it occupied Mosul (and Tikrit) as the Iraqi army defected. The majority of its fighters are former prisoners who were freed during attacks on various prisons, including Abu Ghraib, and joined their ranks. ISIS advanced in Syria by taking control of cities held by factions of “rebel” enemies and later embarking on a conquest of what is considered the territorial stronghold of Assad’s regime, extending from Damascus to Aleppo.

IS uses the violence and humiliation of its victims as a weapon of recruitment for youth of Arab origins who feel the same humiliation, whether they live in Muslim countries or the imperialist West. Although there are no exact figures, it is estimated that there are over 20,000 foreign fighters in ISIS, of which 3,500 are from Western countries (1,200 French, 600 British – including the executioner who has appeared in videos beheading journalists – in addition to Belgians, and in smaller numbers, Canadians, Americans and Australians) [5].

The ISIS’ well-groomed propaganda apparatus, which uses modern media and is very active in social networks, seeks to present the group as an organized force that controls and administers a territory, and pays fighters wages that far exceed what any worker makes in the devastated economies of the countries in conflict; and is even concerned with its fighters’ family-making prospects.

For many analysts, the ISIS’ current formative state is a strength in the immediate term, but is also its strategic weakness, as it could be squeezed by both the imperialist offensive and the problems of managing a state and controlling millions of people subjected to economic, political and social oppression in the name of moral and religious values. This might explain why, in the conquered territories, IS combines disciplinary mass public executions with “management policies” to reduce hostility, such as restoring electrical power and repairing damaged infrastructure.

Unlike Hamas or Hezbollah, which both have the reactionary aim of imposing a religious state while at the same time distortedly expressing national liberation movements, IS, Al Qaeda [6] and similar variants have an absolutely counter-revolutionary character. This is clear in their political objectives as well as their terrorist methods, aimed at causing as many civilian deaths as possible, particularly among sectors of Muslims considered “infidels.” From a social perspective, these organizations ultimately have a “sui generis” bourgeois character: their bosses are “warlords” (such as bin Laden or the tribal leaders of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan). They are based on relations of exploitation and oppression, as evidenced by their financing mechanisms: not only does ISIS appropriate oil revenues, but it also charges a commission to capitalists and business people for maintaining order.

Faced with such a situation, there are those who maintain the illusion that the United States and its allies will be the ones to defeat the monster they helped to create. But experience shows us not only that the idea lacks any basis in reality, but it also serves as an obstacle to establishing a social and political revolutionary force capable of providing an exit, the price of which was the defeat of the first wave of the Arab Spring. Fighting against this reactionary direction from an anti-imperialist perspective and for the struggle of workers’ power is a fundamental way to seize the new opportunities that history will surely give us.

[1] See in this issue, Juan Duarte, “Reseña de ISIS. El retorno de la Yihad” (ISIS Review. The return of Jihad).

[2] A simple explanation of the division between Sunnis and Shiites can be found at: Tarik Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Crusades, jihads and modernity, London, Verso, 2002. Also in Gilles Kepel, Jihad, Expansion and decline of Islam, Barcelona, Peninsula Editions, 2001.

[3] The document is from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is responsible for foreign military intelligence and depends on the Pentagon. It was spread by various means, including the British newspaper The Guardian.

[4] The historical development of radical political Islam can be read in C. Cinatti, “Islam político, antiimperialismo y marxismo” (Political Islam, anti-imperialism and Marxism), 2006.

[5] According to the latest report of the United Nations Security Council, published in March 2015, there are at least 25,000 foreign fighters recruited from some 100 countries in the ranks of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, of which 20,000 are fighting primarily for IS and to a lesser extent for the Al Nusra front in Iraq and Syria. A summary of this report can be seen in “UN report: More than 25,000 foreigners fight with terrorists,” The Big Story.

[6] Olivier Roy provides an interesting analysis of Al Qaeda in the book Genealogy of Islamism, Barcelona, Ediciones Bellaterra, 1996.

Translation by Emma Vignola

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Claudia Cinatti

Claudia is an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina.

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