CWI International Executive Committee 2016
Theses on the Middle East
1) The Middle East offers a concentrated expression of all the ills of the world capitalist crisis. Sectarian violence, wars, dictatorships, mass displacements of the population and the break-up of entire states are on the agenda. Some bourgeois commentators use this as a warning against revolution; we adopt the opposite standpoint. The barbarism unleashed under multiple forms over the course of the last few years comes as a sort of counter-revolutionary blowback from the unfinished revolutions of 2011.
2) The situations in Iraq and Syria constitute at the moment the epicentre of the crisis engulfing the Middle East. The order inherited from the legacy of imperialism is exploding in the most brutal manner, under the effect of the power struggles for influence taking place between various reactionary forces and regimes.
3) However, the corrupt ruling elites and their imperialist allies are detested and distrusted even in the region’s seemingly most stable countries, as shown again recently by the mass protests which have erupted in Morocco. The subterranean anger which exists among large sections of workers, young people and the ever-compressed middle classes will inevitably boil through the surface again in the future. Organising these layers in the fight for a socialist alternative is the only possible way-out of the endless calamities that the future holds under capitalism.
4) Overall, the GDP growth rates for the Middle East and North Africa have been declining since 2011. Countries at war have seen their economic output plummet and their infrastructure devastated. Meanwhile, tourist numbers have dried up and the fall of oil prices has brought a new downward dynamic which has hit at the core of oil-exporting countries.
5) This has deprived the Gulf States’ ruling elites of a layer of fat they used to resort to, to buy social peace. The rare industrial actions in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in recent months are signs of what could develop on a broader scale in the future.
6) There is a perceptible rise in hostility and criticism of Western imperialism’s support for the Saudi theocracy on both sides of the Atlantic. Strained relations have now developed between the US administration and the Saudi rulers.
7) Despite these tensions, US sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have continued to rise. Egypt, Iraq, Israel and Turkey have all stepped up their military capabilities. This escalating arms race is symptomatic of the climate of fiercer competition between the various powers, raising the spectre of new points of conflicts emerging.
8) Saudi-Iranian tensions in particular have increased. Both regimes are fuelling sectarian fires. The revolutionary uprisings of 2011 have revealed the profound weakness behind the fierce façade of the region’s states, and heightening sectarianism has been part of these States’ survival strategy. However, their foreign adventures will not be sustainable if the oil and gas prices remain low.
9) The war in Yemen has been an absolute fiasco for the Saudi elite, but above all, a calamity for millions of Yemenis. Millions are on the brink of starvation.
10) This conflict also exposes the gross duplicity of Western imperialist powers, who have ratcheted up their war of words against Russian bombings in Syria while covering up for the Saudi regime’s devastation of Yemen.
11) On Syria, some on the international left have wrongly adopted some variant of a “campist” attitude, either by prettifying the -mostly jihadist- armed rebels fighting Assad, or by their apologism for the latter.
12) Thanks in great part to the help of its foreign backers, above all by the Russian air force since September 2015, Assad’s regime was given a boost, and engaged in a major counter-offensive to reconquer lost territory. The fall of besieged East Aleppo would mean the end of one of the last urban strongholds of the opposition. The military balance could switch again if the outside Sunni powers decide to further grease the wheels of Assad’s enemies. Yet Assad is not going to be overthrown at this stage and has been strengthened.
13) Any truce that allows some respite to the besieged and bombarded populations can only be welcome. But any ceasefire will remain precarious at best.
14) While displeased with a settlement that would leave Assad in power, the US administration has come to terms with such a possibility. Although a race for influence is taking place between US and Russian imperialisms over the future of Syria, a full-scale military intervention for “regime change” has never been considered as a serious option by the US’ most influential strategists. The proposals for a no-fly zone, which would bring the Western powers into direct war with Russia, are idle threats. Even Hillary Clinton admitted this.
15) There is now widespread recognition among the ruling class that the military intervention in Libya was an utter disaster. The country has become a playground for militias, warlords and tribal infighting, with at least three competing governments claiming power and control over key institutions. In the eastern side of the country, we predicted last year the possibility of some form of military rule emerging, capitalising on the deteriorating security situation and on the people’s fatigue of the violence of extremist militias. In effect, this has already partially happened, with the Libyan Army Chief of Staff appointed military governor of the eastern region in June, and the removal of many local municipal councils to be replaced by military-appointed governors.
16) As a result of the deal struck between Turkey and the EU to prevent refugees coming to Europe, Libya has become again the main gateway for refugees attempting to make such a journey. But it is wishful thinking on the part of the US and European ruling classes that a stable Libyan government and cohesive state machine can be established.
17) Over 15 million people have been displaced by recent wars in the Middle East. The vast majority of these refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Tunisia which has contributed to push down wages and conditions.
18) For the last two years especially, ISIS’s juggernaut and the issue of right-wing Islamist terror has reoccupied centre-stage. From a strictly military point of view, the campaign against ISIS has garnered some success. Growing strife is perceptible within ISIS ranks as a result of the military pressure it has been under, coupled with the alienation it has created among the residents of its so-called caliphate as a result of its sickening violence.
19) Composed largely of de-classed elements and able to win some tribal and religious support for a period, ISIS was also seen by sections of the Sunni population as a shield against sectarian attacks. But as we envisaged it was not able to consolidate its power in strong urban centres.
20) But all experiences indicate that the social forces and political motives behind the jihadist groups existence will not simply disappear by the persuasion of imperialist bombs. As long as the conditions of life generated by capitalism and imperialism are not radically challenged, such reactionary groups will remain a feature across the Middle East and globally. New similar outfits can bubble up, and the geographical displacement of jihadists to establish new bases of operations elsewhere will also continue, along with the likelihood of new terrorist attacks – towards which ISIS might shift more prominently.
21) In Iraq, the so-called “Popular Mobilisation Forces”, Iran-backed Shia militias with a record of abusing and killing Sunni civilians, have been promoted as a battering ram in many of the battles against ISIS, to make up for a wrecked and corrupt Iraqi army. The battle for the recapture of the predominantly Sunni urban centre of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, is setting the stage for a humanitarian catastrophe on a large scale.
22) The Turkish army has built military pressure to move into the Mosul battle from the North, by portraying itself as the defender of persecuted Sunni Muslims. Behind this is also the project to erect a military outpost against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. This might well bring the Turkish regime into conflict with Shia forces in Iraq and with the Iraqi military and heightening the risk of sectarian confrontations.
23) Talks of Iraq or of Syria’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” sound increasingly like hollow rhetoric. In practice both States are increasingly punctured and fractured into sectarian mini-states. A return into the pre-war border arrangement is extremely unlikely.
24) This process will not be straight-forward nor linear for that matter. The reactionary centrifugal forces that are pulling these countries apart can be tempered by the desire for unity that still pervades among a layer of workers and poor. The process of sectarian disintegration has taken an advanced stage, but the potential for a united struggle from below cutting across the unfolding sectarian nightmare has been expressed many times.
25) Last May, thousands of protesters, mostly poor Shias influenced by Moqtada al –Sadhr, breached the US-installed fortified “Green Zone” at the heart of Baghdad and stormed the Iraqi parliament in what the New York Times reported as “scenes that hinted at revolution.” This example highlights that the emergence of struggles and the rebuilding of the left in the Middle East will not adopt from the start a “pure”, socialist form, and might in some cases take a religious colouration.
26) Rebuilding Marxist forces will depend on the capacity to engage with the progressive features of such movements and to provide a program that can build unity among all workers and the oppressed. Such unity can only be achieved by defending resolutely the rights of all minorities and oppressed groups, including their right to self-determination.
27) In Iraq’s northern region, the war seems to have crystallised Kurdish nationalist aspirations. At the same time, as a major financial crisis unfolds in that region, President Barzani’s clan has been agitating the national question as an outlet for the growing workers’ dissatisfaction. Public sector employees in particular have led a series of protests against cuts in salaries imposed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The economic disaster unfolding in the KRG, provides another example of why genuine self-determination cannot be achieved under capitalism.
28) This should serve as a warning for what is unfolding in Rojava, the arguably self-administered enclaves in Syrian Kurdistan. The attempt to build an alternative society in Rojava has attracted sympathy, especially among the Kurds whose basic democratic rights have been denied for decades, and women in Rojava have acquired a better status than in the rest of the region. However, the Social Contract of Rojava secures the right to enjoy private property, a provision that safeguards the privileges of landowners, and the PYD leaders’ collaboration with imperialist powers has proved a self-defeating strategy. The CWI’s critical approach, based on developing genuinely democratic grassroots structures, and on an independent policy from imperialism that can secure the support of workers internationally, retains its full pertinence.
29) In August, the Turkish army initiated a first direct military incursion into Syria. Its primary aim was to prevent the Syrian Kurds from moving westwards across the Euphrates river. Erdogan’s goal of curbing Kurdish influence in northern Syria has now taken precedence over his aim of toppling Assad, whose air force also bombed Kurdish positions in the north during the summer.
30) A shift in Turkey’s foreign policy is indicated by the warming up of relations between Putin and Erdogan. It is also indicated by the reinforcement of ties between Turkey and Iran. Although the two countries are on opposite sides of the Syrian war, neither of them is happy with the territorial gains made by the Kurds in Syria and the effects it can have on their own Kurdish populations.
31) This does not mean that such shifts in diplomatic alliances are established on firm ground, nor that Turkey will stop fuelling Sunni fighters in the Syrian war. Relations between the various regional powers are characterised by a high degree of volatility, and new shifts and turns are very likely.
32) One of the reasons behind this is the fact that the weakening of US imperialism has prevented it from playing the role of “gendarme of the region”, despite remaining the dominant power on the planet. This has given more leeway to regional powers to express more openly and more independently their own interests and agendas. The reassertion of Russian influence in Syria also fits into this tendency.
33) The wait-and-see attitude of most Western leaders during the unfolding of the attempted military coup in Turkey showed that their relations with Erdogan’s regime, which they used to praise in the past, have grown increasingly sour. Yet the lack, for now, of a viable alternative makes him a necessary evil that Western imperialist capitals have to accommodate.
34) The failed coup of July 15 against Erdogan’s rule allowed him to carry out a coup in its own right, with mass purges at all levels of the state machine, and to provisionally re-assert the AKP’s remaining social base. More than a political countercoup, it was also an economic one: a large amount of businesses and companies in various sectors suspected to be under the Gulenists’ influence have been seized by the government, to be sold off to people close to the ruling party.
35) The left-leaning People’s Democratic Party (HDP) had emerged strengthened in last year’s June elections by winning six million votes, including among a layer of the Turkish electorate, illustrating the potential to build a political voice for the workers, the marginalised Kurds and all the oppressed. Yet the nationalist drumbeat whipped by the regime in its renewed war against the Kurdish population in the South East has pushed back the party’s support among non-Kurdish voters. This has unfortunately been made easier by individual attacks of terrorism carried out by some factions of the Kurdish movement.
36) The immediate aftermath of the coup might have benefited Erdogan’s regime, but all the underlying problems it was facing before have not gone away. The regime will not be able to maintain a military presence in Syria, Northern Iraq and in the South East of Turkey with a weakened army without eventually provoking some serious blowback, possibly even a new coup. Furthermore, the Turkish economy has entered into more troubled territory.
37) Among the wider population fear predominates for now, as a result of the hardened state repression and insecurity. But a latent anger exists among important sections of workers and youth. The harnessing of this anger into the building of a united workers’ movement, that includes fighting for the self-determination of the Kurds, is the only strategy that prevent Turkey plunging into further chaos.
38) Many countries of the region still possess important and combative working classes, and these countries will be key to shape the future of the region. Braving a forceful repression, various sectors of workers in Iran have regularly staged protests. September and October also saw a wave of student protests against poor conditions at universities. The youthful population of Iran is thirsty for social change, against the background of divisions in the regime in the run up to the elections in 2017. The masses are also testing out through experience the illusions which exist in the so-called reformist wing of the Mullahs.
39) When it comes to the assertiveness of the labour movement, the case of Tunisia, which its rich traditions of trade union struggles, cannot be overlooked. Tunisia has continued to be praised by bourgeois commentators as the only success of the “Arab Spring”. But this is not the perception on the ground. Imposing neo-liberal reforms in a country which has undergone a revolution is like riding a raging bull. In August, the seventh government in five years has taken office. The austerity measures contained in the 2017 budget are leading the government and the UGTT on an outright collision course, despite the repeated attempts of the union bureaucracy to refrain from undertaking serious industrial action.
40) Egypt is on the brink of an economic storm. The 12 billion US-dollar loan deal concluded in August with the IMF is one of the biggest loans in the organisation’s history, and is conditioned to drastic austerity – involving subsidy cuts and further devaluation of the Egyptian pound, while inflation is already at its highest level it has been at for seven years. Already this year there have been over five hundred workers’ protests. Albeit still limited, a layer of the population is breaking the wall of fear and taking the road of collective action again. The new economic measures pushed by al Sisi’s regime will also affect harshly the middle classes, who provide the government’s bedrock of support.
41) The plunge in oil prices has also made it difficult for the Gulf countries to continue to keep their financial support for Egypt afloat. Moreover, the Saudi regime has frozen some investment projects in Egypt, and the Saudi oil company has suspended its oil shipments to the country due to each backing opposing sides in Syria. This also shows that lines of tensions between regional forces will not automatically take “neat”, sectarian lines.
42) Meanwhile in July a delegation went from Saudi Arabia to Israel with a reported sub-text being a mutual interest in countering Iran. Israel’s Netanyahu-led government has been collaborating closely with al Sisi in Egypt.
43) The blockade on the Gaza has been tightened by Israeli and Egyptian regimes, while residents have continued to endure the vast destruction left from the 2014 war. Regular protests by Palestinian youths on the border with Israel have been met with lethal IDF fire. Across the occupied territories the Israeli regime’s economic stranglehold continues to cause mass impoverishment accompanied by brutal repression and colonial Jewish settlement. Dozens of Palestinian protesters have been killed since the eruption of a wave of clashes in October 2015. With the lack of any way forward from the main Palestinian political parties – both in crisis – and little foreseeable prospect of any significant concessions by the Israeli regime, the situation has created an impasse. A manifestation of this has been the months-long outbreak of periodic individual attacks in East Jerusalem and beyond. The grim scenario of new rounds of bloodshed remains – including further war on Gaza – until these cycles can be broken by the building of mass movements to challenge the present regimes. The impressive mobilizations around the mass Palestinian teachers’ strike and social security protests in the West Bank earlier this year have indicated the potential for workers’ and youth to build independent struggles
44) Only small majorities on each side of the national divide now support a two-state solution, with most questioning if it is realisable while far fewer see a one-state solution as possible. This increasingly bears out the CWI’s argument that capitalism is incapable of solving the national question in the Middle East. Only through a socialist transformation can the Palestinians’ basic rights and aspirations be met, and likewise those of Israeli Jews.
45) Netanyahu’s right wing government has had a certain lease of life due to the counter-revolution across the region, the present weakness of left forces and also Israel’s limited economic growth. Fundamentally it remains a very weak and precarious coalition government. Its handling of the national conflict is under attack from numerous representatives of the ruling class, from army generals to politicians.
46) While widespread national chauvinism is a marked feature of the present period in Israel, at the same time anger and opposition from working class and middle class Israelis against so-called “piggish capitalism” remains significant, some layers are expressing opposition to nationalist religious-based reaction and protest is starting to re-emerge against the occupation.
47) Underreported by mainstream media, localised struggles of workers, the poor and young people are breaking out regularly across the Middle East and North Africa. Menacing trends of barbaric reaction are hanging over the region. But the objective conditions that pushed millions to rise up against tyranny and exploitation five years ago have also grown more acute than ever, preparing the ground for mass social upheavals in the future, and for new opportunities to build the forces of revolutionary Marxism in the coming period. What we are witnessing is only one phase of a protracted process of revolution and counter-revolution, whose future is yet to be written and to be prepared for by strengthening the sections of the CWI in that crucial region.