Heart Of The Crisis


Navid Shomali explains the imperial power plays that have caused chaos in the Middle East – and still do

THE refugee crisis has become one of the key political issues facing Europe, including the rise of a racist backlash in most countries of the EU.

The spectre of tens of thousands of refugees criss-crossing borders from Turkey to Germany via Balkan countries has been effectively used for justifying unprecedented policy changes including draconian security and immigration measures across Europe and further afield.

The most bizarre aspect of this crisis is that it springs from the conflict in the Middle East — but is then used to justify further military intervention to reshape the map of the Middle East. Conflict in Syria is at the centre of policy-making with respect to the refugees’ crisis and has spread into rivalry between the West and Russia.

UN reports speak of over 4.7 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries desperate to seek a safe haven from war and terror.

However the complex political and humanitarian events and developments in and around Syria are not isolated from the macro strategic policies that shaped the US’s “Greater Middle East Plan” after the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state in the Bush administration, in 2006 famously justified the war and violence in the region as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

The policy to reshape the political landscape of Middle East initially drafted and implemented by the neocons was later elaborated and progressed by Obama’s administration.

To this mix Russia’s deepening involvement in the Middle East in recent years should be added. Russia’s direct engagement in the military conflicts in Syria is part of its wider plan to assert itself as a global player by using its military might in order to compensate for its economic weaknesses.

This will in turn protect Russia’s strategic influence in the region, which has for decades been targeted by the US and EU as an unrivalled gas and energy supplier and a source of massive deposits of rare minerals waiting to be tapped.

To fully appreciate the complex mix of factors giving rise to the crisis in the Middle East one needs to focus on a couple of strategic considerations by significant global actors. It is now accepted that since Barack Obama rose to the presidency of the US in January 2009, the US has gradually reduced its direct military presence in the Middle East to compensate for its militarisation of the Far East targeting China, which is seen as a major risk to the US’s hegemonic position as the single superpower.

Iraq and Afghanistan are two examples and the US has resisted deploying ground military units of any significance in Libya, Syria or in the effors to repulse Isis from Iraq.

Another consideration is Europe’s critical dependency on Russia’s oil and gas resources which provide a powerful leverage that Vladimir Putin has been exploiting against the EU.

Therefore maintaining direct influence on the Middle East’s flow of oil and gas would be a vital geopolitical component of US global hegemony and Russia’s strategic plan.

An influential document published in 1997 by the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century has been the blueprint for all US administrations, including Obama’s.

The Project’s main tenet is “to promote American global leadership,” ie to perpetuate US global hegemony as the single superpower.

Regardless of Obama’s softened foreign policy approach (in contrast to the neocons), the US political, military and business establishments have had to consider a new approach to perpetuate US global hegemony in light of changing economic realities.

This has forced the US to reconfigure its policy in the Middle East and how it utilises and manipulates the forces of political Islam — this is one of the key causes of the present humanitarian disaster in the Middle East. The roots of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria are multidimensional, with political and economic implications spanning across the Middle East and internationally.

Since the turn of the century and for more than a decade Bashar alAssad’s autocratic regime had refused to abandon its neoliberal economic policies and implement effective economic and political reforms despite the growing pressure from different social strata, in particular from the urban middle classes and ethnic minorities.

Instead a series of economic restructuring measures were imposed with the usual devastating effect on the urban and rural populations.

On the eve of the Arab Spring of 2011, when a massive wave of awareness and uprisings for freedom and social justice was surging across the region, Assad’s secular autocratic rule was internally unpopular and isolated. Assad’s weakness and vulnerability was ruthlessly exploited as opportunity for external intervention by the reactionary Arab sheikhdoms and Western powers.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates deeply feared and opposed the Arab Spring and its potential for change and democratisation in the Arab world.

The possibility that the autocratic “client states” in the Middle East and North Africa could be replaced by national democratic states would have been a disastrous outcome of Arab Spring for both Arab reactionary rulers and the Western imperialist interests.

Therefore after the fall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt the Arab Spring had to be subverted and ultimately halted at any costs before the popular movements would solidify across the region. Saudi Arabian forces invaded Bahrain and suffocated the popular movement for change there. Nato with the participation of Qatar and the UAE directly attacked Libya in March 2011.

The fall of Gadaffi’s regime in October 2011 created a predictable power vacuum which was quickly filled by Islamist forces, including al-Qaida. Libya soon descended into a massive tribal war, disintegration into competing powerful warlords and an ensuing humanitarian catastrophe.

In 2009, Syria received a USbacked proposal from Qatar for the construction of a pipeline — it would have stretched across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria all the way to Turkey, to supply the EU. Qatar’s massive gas fields are adjacent to Iran’s South Pars gas fields.

But instead in 2012, Syria signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran worth $10 billion for a rival proposal, the so called “Islamic pipeline” that would have run across Iran, Iraq and Syria to Europe. This pipeline had Russia’s tacit approval and backing as it involved Iran and Syria, which Russia is able to influence. The refusal of Qatari proposal and the “Islamic pipeline” added new aggressive economic dimensions into the already unfolding conflict.

In spite of massive global Islamophobic propaganda and the real or perceived threat of “Islamic terrorism,” the US strategists are unlikely to consider the ideology of “political Islam” to be an existential strategic threat to their interests. In fact on the contrary, intrinsic economic links have historically fused imperialist objectives of the European powers and US with those of “political Islam.”

Therefore from a US perspective, “political Islam” in its various forms is not a direct partner, but neither is it an avowed enemy. Reduction of the US military presence in the Middle East is accompanied by a reconfiguration of its policy aiming at “multilateral containment” that encompasses the regional powers — the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Israel to some degree.

The US policy shift in the Middle East simultaneously counters and supports the regional contradictions in relation to each key player. The US is using its power to exploit internal unrest and contradictions by means of a so-called “carrot and stick” approach in its diplomacy.

This is already resulting in Sunni versus Shii’ite alliances and confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey with Iran, because Iran has since 2013 acquired a pivotal role in the US’s plan for a “new Middle East.” The US plan is forging ahead by changing the political map of the Middle East, causing massive humanitarian devastation.

The US and its strategic allies Britain and France are now revising and reconfiguring their overall approach towards the newly configured entities within the Middle East and the wider region such as the Kurds, Sunni Iraq, Baluchistan and more.

The region has been turned into an arena of diplomatic power play, accompanied by proxy civil wars and tactical air strikes orchestrated by the major global powers.

Russia has now entered this dangerous mix of diplomacy and military alliances and counter-alliances. The regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are pushed and pulled within dangerous alliances and tensions. And the creation of new statelets based on religious and ethnic confrontation is one of the possible solutions to be imposed by the major global powers.

On February 23, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the partition of Syria was possible if the ceasefire fails. The imperialist carving up of the Middle East by Sykes-Picot and Balfour a century ago is being revived in light of the 21st-century interests of the global powers, with ever closer rapprochement between them and political Islam as the dominant ideological power in the Middle East.

This is a recipe for future destructive conflicts and the perpetuation of an oppressive ideology with ensuing humanitarian catastrophes. The refugee crisis was used to facilitate the involvement of major global powers in the Middle East. This has given rise to the reconfiguration of the political map of the region and this in turn will no doubt give rise to more ethnic and religious conflicts and hence more refugees crossing European borders seeking safety and security. The EU’s approach to the Middle East and dealing with the crisis has squarely failed.

  • Navid Shomali is international secretary of the Tudeh Party of Iran.