Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Syria – Prelude To World War III?

Seemingly minor events such as the assassination of an
arch-duke, can lead to world wars.  They are merely the spark
that ignites the inflammable material that has been built up over
a longer period.
Could intervention in Syria by the US, UK and France lead to World War III? In the immediate future probably not. Russia and China and Iran and Iraq, and Hezbollah stand behind Assad, whilst the US, EU, Gulf Monarchies and Al Qaeda stand behind the jihadists opposing him. Although, the uprising in Syria started off as a popular movement for democratic reforms, the weakness of that movement, rooted in the limited strength of the Syrian working class and liberal bourgeoisie, meant that as with Iraq before it, as with Libya, and as with, in similar, but different ways, in Tunisia and Egypt, that movement was quickly hijacked by the reactionary forces of political Islam. As a result, it quickly became turned into the cockpit of the brewing sectarian civil war across the region between Sunni and Shia muslims, which itself has its material basis in the contending interests of the Sunni Gulf Monarchies, and Shia Iran. But, it also became the cockpit of the contending global strategic interests of the main global economic powers. Its in that context that, as I've written before - Lessons Of The Balkans - history warns us that what begins as an apparently minor conflict, turns out to be the canary in the coal mine that warns of the coming explosion.

In the Balkans, at the start of the twentieth century, a largely Christian, and Slavic, population began to struggle for liberation from the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. As Christian populations they looked, as they always had to the main Christian and Slavic power in the region, Russia. In fact, as Trotsky pointed out, the conflict that erupted probably would not have been started, had it not been for the fact that liberal politicians in Russia, like Ivan Kirillovich and Pyotr Miliukov, encouraged them in the belief that Russia would, in fact, come to their support.

The parallels with today are quite obvious. On numerous occasions minority and oppressed populations have been encouraged to engage in struggles that they appeared to have no chance of winning on their own, by external powers that offered up the prospect of support if they engaged in that struggle. Sometimes, those external powers have actively been involved in fermenting such struggles, providing money, advisors, and special forces. In the period up to the collapse of the USSR in 1990, this rarely led to an actual intervention by the external power. The US, intervened directly in Korea, and in Vietnam, and the USSR in Afghanistan. The fact, that in each of these cases the external power was defeated provides some explanation as to why they may be reluctant to get involved in such expensive adventures.

The US, had far more success in achieving its aims by simply using its extensive special forces, including those of the CIA, in supporting internal oppositions. That was a policy it adopted throughout Latin America, and was most ludicrously exposed via the Iran-Contra scandal. But, after the fall of the USSR, the US assumed a global hegemony it had not previously enjoyed. It now felt free to intervene itself directly in a way it had not done since the Vietnam War. That opened the door to press home its advantage against the former USSR, by undermining Russia's client regimes in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia. In addition, it set up bases in a string of Central Asian former, Soviet Republics, the so called “stans” where it had no qualms about allying itself with dictators who boiled their opponents in oil. 

By these means, it began to establish a ring of steel around its former cold war enemy, whose size and large military still meant it could emerge once more in the future as a global opponent. It also meant that it placed it in a strategically important position against its rising new, global competitor, China. In order to complete that picture, the US decided to move the bulk of its forces away from Europe, and towards the Pacific.

In order, to establish its complete dominance in the Gulf, the US needed to undermine the regime in Iran. Iran was and is a powerful country. The US undoubtedly could win any war it set out to wage against it, but only at great cost in blood and treasure. The US backed its client, Saddam, as a means of achieving its aims via the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980's, including providing him with chemical weapons. But, Saddam could not finish the job. The US came to see him as an unreliable ally, and began the process of removing him, as a prelude to undermining the regime in Iran itself, a process that would necessarily mean removing the support that Iran might obtain from others in the region, such as Syria, and Hezbollah.

That did not work out as they expected. Their chosen stooges in Iraq lacked support, and instead the main beneficiary of the Iraq War was Iran itself, as the Iraqi Shia, understandably saw their interests as aligned to those of their Iranian brethren. The War also opened the floodgates on other cleavages long suppressed across the region, ripping them apart. The Kurds, long denied a state, took the opportunity to demand autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, which led to a strengthening of the demand for a Kurdish state across the region, into Syria and Turkey. The replacement of Sunni hegemony in Iraq, with Shia hegemony opened the door to the developing Civil War across the region we see today.

In fact, this worked out so badly for the US that it strengthens my belief that the second Gulf War was an adventure by the Bush regime rather than a strategic decision by the US state. The first Bush, who was more closely linked to that state apparatus, as a former head of the CIA, than the son, stopped short of toppling Saddam. In fact, having made the usual promises to the Marsh Arabs, and the Kurds of support for any rebellion, the US once more left them to be slaughtered by Saddam. The imposition of sanctions and the no-fly zone, could as easily have been intended as a means of replacing Saddam by some other Sunni dictator acceptable to the US, and the Gulf Monarchies. It is certainly the case that the latter have made it clear that they will not allow their Sunni brethren in Iraq to be persecuted, and they are financing and arming the jihadists in Iraq in the same way that they are financing and arming them in Syria, and the way they financed and armed them in Libya.

In this context, the Gulf Monarchies play a similar role to that played by Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece in the Balkan Wars. That is its they that stand in the front line of providing support to the jihadists in these various countries. In fact, Saudi Arabia, has provided most of the funding for global jihadism through the network of madrassas spread across the globe, which act as a means of recruiting and training the forces of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Anyone seeking clean lines between any of these forces will search in vein. As Trotsky pointed out to the Palestinian Trotskyists, wars are never fought between democracy on the one hand and authoritarianism on the other. They are fought out over economic and other material interests, and in the course of war, the alliances necessarily shift.

In the run up to World War II, for example, it was not clear whether fascist Italy would be part of the camp of the “democratic” Allies, as they had been in World War I, or with the “fascist” camp of the Axis. Britain certainly did all it could to have Mussolini and his fascist regime in their “democratic” camp. In reality, each country or force will seek to further its own material and strategic interests, and will ally with whoever is seen as best achieving that.

The Gulf Monarchies allied with the US in the Iraq War, but they certainly had no interest in the establishment of a Shia dominated regime in Iraq. The Shia in Iraq itself allied itself with the US, as the US was removing Saddam for them. But, even as they did so, they were taking arms and support from Iran, which was used to attack US forces in Shia dominated areas of the country! Al Qaeda, and other Sunni jihadist groups take money and weapons from the Saudis, and from the US and its allies to fight in Libya and Syria, but those same organisations will use those weapons against the US, and against the Gulf Monarchies, and against Israel, when they have achieved their immediate goal of removing Assad. The US will support the jihadists even whilst fighting a “global war against terror” in order to remove Gaddafi, Assad etc. so as to eventually get to Iran, and thereby undermine the influence of Russia and China in the region because it is arrogant enough to believe that when it has achieved its immediate objectives, it will be able to rein in those forces.

In fact, the US created those forces. It was the US that created Bin Laden in Afghanistan, providing him with large amounts of weapons via Pakistan in order to fight the USSR. It is applying exactly the same tactics today in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq etc. In fact, it is only another version of Iran-Contra, but this time more out in the open.

In the Balkan Wars at the start of the twentieth century we saw a similar pattern. Behind Bulgaria, and Serbia stood Tsarist Russia and the Triple Entente. But behind Turkey stood Germany and the Triple Alliance. Having achieved their original goal, instead of leading to a period of peace and stability, it led only to further bloodshed and division, much as we have seen after the Iraq War, and after the war against Libya. The former allies themselves then launched into a war against each other. Of course, the liberal politicians attempted to distance themselves from this second war and its consequences, pretending that it had nothing to do with the first war.

Trotsky responded,

“Well, but who are the allies of yesterday liberating now?...

And do you think that by that vigorous outburst you exhaust the question? Don't you agree that between this 'disgraceful' war and the war you called a 'liberating' war there is an indissoluble connection? You don't agree? Let's look at the question more closely. The emancipation of the Macedonian peasantry from feudal landlord bondage was undoubtedly something necessary and historically progressive. But this task was undertaken by forces that had in view not the interests of the Macedonian peasantry but their own covetous interests as dynastic conquerors and bourgeois predators.” (Trotsky On the Balkan Wars p 325)

The liberal Kirillovich, responding to Trotsky, argued in defence of the first War because the end result was what bourgeois democrats would want, the overthrow of an oppressive regime. The AWL use the same argument today to justify not opposing imperialist intervention. But, Trotsky, responds,

“If you don't see the link between today's disgrace and yesterday's 'glory', that's because you imagine that in the Balkans somebody is conducting a policy and answering for its reasonableness. In actual fact, policy is making itself down there, just like an earthquake. It was precisely the first war, the 'war of liberation' that reduced to insignificance, to a negligible quantity, all the factors of calculation and political discretion. Blind, unthinking spontaneity came into its own – not the benign spontaneity of awakened mass solidarity, which already has so many good deeds to its credit in history, but malign spontaneity, the resoluteness of which is only the other side of blind despair.” (p 327) 

That is a good description of the anarchy and civil war that is developing in the Middle East. It has already been seen in the spread into Mali, and other parts of North Africa, where Al Qaeda related groups are increasing in size and in their attacks. For now, the Egyptian military have reasserted their Bonapartist control, but the Muslim Brotherhood remain a significant social force, and once Assad is removed, it is a very brave person indeed, who thinks that those jihadist forces will not ally with the more radical sections of the Brotherhood, and the Salafists to overthrow that military regime in Egypt, the Monarchy in Jordan, and will link up with similar forces in Lebanon against Hezbollah, and that this will not lead inevitably to its extension, into an all out conflict between those forces and Israel.

If Israel then responds to such an existential threat by using its own very substantial stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, or even more its sizeable stockpile of nuclear weapons, we will then see to what extent the US opposition to the use of such weapons stands up. The only measure short of such use, would indeed be an all out invasion and occupation of much of the area by the US.  Of course, the US talk about chemical weapons is totally hypocritical.  It remains the only country that has used nuclear weapons.  Its use of Agent Orange in Vietnam has killed thousands, and continues to cause terrible birth defects.  Its use of depleted uranium munitions is and will continue to have similar effects for decades to come.

So, its easy to see how a limited war can quickly escalate to a global or at least major regional conflagration, because the law of unintended consequences means that responding to individual events as though they were discrete, and not linked by many complex threads to other contingencies will necessarily result in the mushrooming of events that will quickly run out of control in the way Trotsky describes. War may be the extension of politics by other means but it also has its own logic once started.  No one believes Cameron and Obama when they talk about limited strikes on Syria.  They told us that they were only imposing a no fly zone in Libya!  That meant 20,000 bombing runs, and Cruise Missile attacks, as well as the deployment of special forces.

But, every sovereign state has the right to defend itself against attack.  If Britain and the Us attack Syria, it will have the right to respond.  Syria is reported to have anti-ship missiles supplied by Russia.  If a UK ship launches a cruise missile attack, and is subsequently sunk by an anti-ship missile, what then?  If Syria deems that attacks have been launched from NATO bases in Cyprus, and responds by launching its own missiles against those bases in Cyprus, what then?  And, of course, turkey, which is trying to once again assert its historic dominance of the area is keen for an attack on Syria, if Syria then responds by a counter attack on Turkey, what then?

The Balkan Wars did not lead immediately to World War I, but they did lead inexorably to its outbreak later. The Iraq War, the support for jihadist forces against Libya and Syria and so on, the support given by the US to the Gulf Monarchies, and by Russia and China to Iran, and Syria all play into the development of a regional war in the middle east way beyond what it would have been otherwise. The ability of those forces to play that role, and the weakness of the global labour movement to provide the workers with an alternative set of solutions, increases the suffering of the peoples of the region, and makes a brutal and reactionary outcome all the more likely.

In the immediate future, the material conditions that exist today are not those that existed during the period of the Balkan Wars and leading up to World War I. At that time, the Long Wave Boom that began in 1890 was just about to end. Profit rates were falling, markets were becoming tighter, and so the pressure to find cheap sources of raw materials, and to establish protected markets were increasing sharply. Moreover, colonialism the drive to carve up the world geographically continued to be a dominant force based on the previous power of merchant and money capital.

Today, the world is only just entered the second half of the Long Wave boom that started in 1999. large amounts of surplus value still exist, and continue to be created so that the capital exists to simply buy the needed raw materials. The boom means that global markets continue to be able to absorb the huge amount of production being undertaken. In fact, in those economies like China where the boom has been most pronounced, the scope for expanding consumption is vast. Moreover, in the last 60 years Imperialism has replaced Colonialism as the characteristic feature of global capitalism. That is it is not the division of the globe into geographical empires tied to nation states that has dominated, but rather the export of industrial capital across the globe, the breaking down of barriers to better effect that, and attempts to establish supra-national state bodies geared to the needs of multinational industrial capital.

Yet, having said that, Capital has not succeeded in establishing some Ultra-Imperialism of the kind envisaged by Kautsky. It has partially succeeded in that during the period of the Cold War. It has partially succeeded in that it has established larger economic blocs such as the EU. But, the EU itself demonstrates the problems and the danger. The EU during the debt crisis has been almost paralysed in making the necessary political decisions, because of the continuation of national states, and of national interests. In fact, the rise of such narrow nationalist sentiments most clearly reflected in Britain in the Tory Party, are a reflection of the failure of big industrial capital to have asserted its influence over the power of small capital.

In a sense, what we have today is merely the situation of 1914 of competing nation states, writ large as the competition of large economic blocs – the US and North America, the EU, China-Japan and Asean, and Latin America – with alliances between some or all of these where there interest coincide. For so long as the boom continues that situation may persist, but as I pointed out some time ago - Third World War – the current Long Wave Boom will not last forever. On past experience it will run out around 2025. Then thee divisions will become critical.

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