Nader Hashemi and I have an essay titled “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East” in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2018, published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). We examine the deterioration of sectarian relations in the Middle East in recent years, with a focus on the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. We show how the Trump administration in particular has exacerbated these already volatile dynamics and suggest a shift in the policies of Western governments toward the region aimed at defusing the sectarianization process. Download the PDF.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).
This article was first published at the New Arab.
In 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.
Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.
Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.
Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.
But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.
Toxic effusions and formulaic pronouncements abound in response to the protests in Iran, from the neocons to Robert Fisk (a consistent source of ideological distortion over the last several years). In sharp and refreshing contrast, here are some pieces that offer particularly valuable insights and analysis:
Here’s What’s Behind Iran’s Biggest Protests In Seven Years — Borzou Daragahi (@borzou)
In Iran’s surprise uprising of the poor, dents to revolution’s legitimacy — by Scott Peterson (@peterson__scott)
Protests in Iran Took Many By Surprise — But Not Iranian Labor Activists — by Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain)
A slightly edited version of this article was published at al-Jazeera.
In solidarity with Aleppo, the lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished. Elsewhere in Paris, and in London, Amsterdam, Oslo and Copenhagen, people demonstrated against the slaughter. Turks rallied outside Russian and Iranian embassies and consulates in Istanbul, Ankara and Erzerum. The people of Sarajevo – who have their own experience of genocide – staged a big protest.
The protests are nothing like as large as they were when the United States bombed Iraq, but they are welcome nonetheless. If this level of support had been apparent over the last six years, it would have made a real difference. Perhaps it is making a difference even now. Public sympathy for the victims may have pressured Vladimir Putin to allow those in the surviving liberated sliver of Aleppo to evacuate rather than face annihilation. At the time of writing, the fate of the deal is in doubt, subject to the whims of the militias on the ground. If it works out and the tens of thousands currently trapped are allowed to leave – the best possible outcome – then we will be witnesses to an internationally brokered forced population transfer. This is both a war crime and a crime against humanity, and a terrible image of the precarious state of the global system. The weight of this event, and its future ramifications, deserve more than just a few demonstrations.
The abandonment of Aleppo is a microcosm of the more general abandonment of Syria’s
democratic revolution. It exposes the failures of the Arab and Muslim worlds, of the West, and of humanity as a whole.
Many Syrians expected the global left would be first to support their cause, but most leftist commentators and publications retreated into conspiracy theories, Islamophobia, and inaccurate geo-political analysis, and swallowed gobbets of Assadist propaganda whole. Soon they were repeating the ‘war on terror’ tropes of the right.
The Obama administration provided a little rhetorical support, and sometimes allowed its allies to send weapons to the Free Army. Crucially, however, Obama vetoed supply of the anti-aircraft weapons the Free Army so desperately needed to counter Assad’s scorched earth. In August 2013, when Assad killed 1500 people with sarin gas in the Damascus suburbs, Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ vanished, and the US more or less publically handed Syria over to Russia and Iran.
Keeping to the ‘war on terror’ framework, the US bombs ISIS and others in Syria, hitting symptoms rather than the cause of the crisis. Europe, meanwhile, declares a crisis over the refugees arriving on its shores. So long as Assad remains in power, most of these refugees will not return home.
I have an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which I review Laura Secor’s excellent new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examine Tehran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.
An edited version of this article was first published at the New Arab.
Because the Iran Iraq war was followed by an endless succession of conflicts, we forget its foundational horror. Killing at least a million, burning entire cities, and propelling identity politics towards its current fascistic heights, it was the region’s equivalent of World War One.
Iraq started the war. Exploiting Iran’s mid-revolution weakness, Iraqi forces invaded, seeking to annex Khuzestan province. Had Saddam Hussein been a leader interested in safeguarding civil and national rights, Iranian oppression of Khuzestan’s Ahwazi Arabs might have provided justication. But Saddam was a tyrant who oppressed Iraq’s Arabs just as much, and his prime concern was the province’s oil wealth. His brutal aggression included raining poisonous gas on Iranian cities.
No-one can fault the Iranians for the passion of their response. Gulf, Western and Soviet support for Iraq’s war understandably exacerbated the Iranian sense of victimhood which persists, and clouds so many minds, until today. After a certain point, however, the Iranian war lost its defensive character. Khomeini rejected a 1982 truce offer from a chastened Saddam, determined to fight on until Iran occupied the Shia holy cities of southern Iraq. This never happened, but war conditions helped Khomeini neutralise Iran’s revolutionary energies and firmly establish his own rule. The war dragged on for another six years.
Trench warfare followed the same grim routine as it had at Flanders and the Somme. Every day hundreds of boys surged from their defenses and were cut down by enemy fire. Some accuse the Iranian regime of distributing plastic ‘keys to paradise’ for the conscripts to wear around their necks. It seems more likely that a prayer book entitled “Keys to Paradise” was handed out. Whatever the truth, the Iranian leadership’s attitude to these men’s lives was as callous as that of the aristocratic British officers who sent wave after wave of working class men ‘over the top’ to their deaths.