Middle East and North Africa: Spring has yet to bring a summer

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The ‘Arab Spring’ has yet to bring a summer for the region’s masses. Imperialism responded to the risings in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 by mobilising its local allies, principally Saudi Arabia and its five fellow Gulf Cooperation Council partners. It turned the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi’s government into a NATO-led war. The rebellion in Bahrain was crushed with help from Saudi and United Arab Emirates’ forces. Now imperialism is using its regional allies, including Turkey, to fund and equip forces to overthrow the Syrian state. US imperialism and Israel wage covert war against Iran, accompanied by US and European Union sanctions that amount to economic warfare.

Elections in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have produced results that confirm rather than challenge the regional status quo. Where necessary, religious-based parties have been courted as potential partners by US and European imperialism and have been found willing to protect their economic and strategic interests – including Israel. In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood were not needed.

The underlying economic and social conditions that provoked the uprisings have not changed. The forces that overthrew Mubarak in Egypt are still there. The key to radical economic and social change will be the combination of the youth and all the forces for democracy with the poor in the Middle East and North Africa. The poor and working class masses have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the mutating alliances between local ruling classes and imperialism. In Libya, and now Syria, we can see that imperialism is ready to foster the most lethal sectarianism and to plunge countries into chaos in order to tighten its grip on the region and its resources.

Syria

The battle for Damascus has begun. The 18 July assassination of four central generals shows the Syrian government unable to defend itself effectively. As long as its armed opponents can rely on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supplies, funds and bases, with the US and Europe in support, the Syrian state will not be able to eliminate them.

Syria has a strategically crucial position at the heart of the Middle East, and every major power has a stake in its orientation. It is largely surrounded by hostile countries which have called for regime change and NATO or NATO-allied troops are based in seven of its closest neighbours. It has northern and south-western borders with the two heaviest armed regional powers, Turkey and Israel – both clients of imperialism.

On 22 June a Turkish Phantom jet was shot down in Syrian airspace by Syrian forces. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called for ‘massive intervention’, on ‘the Bosnian model’. Turkey has been aiding the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and government figures have repeatedly called for a ‘buffer zone’ within Syria – which would involve foreign troops. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, explained that the downed warplane was testing Turkey’s radar defences. The only country in the region, however, which may have urgent need of radar and anti-aircraft defences in the near future, is Syria. It is more likely that the Phantom’s mission was to test the capacity of Syria’s radar and defence systems, gathering information for possible NATO air strikes.

The radar system which detected the Phantom was purchased from Russia following Israel’s 2007 air strike on a Syrian nuclear plant. Installed and serviced by Russian technicians, it is thought to be one of the best in the region. Russian support for the Syrian government has been a stumbling block to an escalation of NATO orchestrated regime change. The influence Russia wields politically and economically cannot be underestimated. Through oil and gas supplies it has influence over some NATO countries. Turkey is especially dependent with 58% of natural gas imports coming from Russia, and increasingly for oil in an attempt to break a reliance on Iranian oil (40%) in the face of EU/US sanctions.

Russia has played a key role in arming the Syrian state, with $5.5bn worth of contracts signed since 2006. It has stated it will not sign further arms deals with Syria, but its actions are being scrutinised and highlighted by the US and other NATO powers to vilify and pressurise Syria’s allies. British insurance company Standard Club forced a ship carrying helicopters, refurbished in Russia, to turn back from its intended destination in Syria. Russia was unperturbed and the helicopters will return to Syria, following dozens of Russian marines and six warships sent to Tartus, Russia’s only Mediterranean port. This sends a clear message about Russia’s interests in Syria. Russia is also looking for ways to protect its regional interests in a possible post-Assad future. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met Syrian opposition forces on 11 July to discuss Russia’s draft UN resolution. The UN manoeuvring of the US, UK and France to enact Chapter Seven of the UN charter, allowing further sanctions and military action, continues to be blocked by Russia and China. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for Russia and China to ‘pay the price’ for this defiance.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are stepping up their intervention, with Saudi Arabia paying generous salaries to FSA fighters to encourage mass defections. The NATO powers are right behind them. Despite the efforts of UN peace envoy Kofi Annan, Iran has been excluded from peace talks due to the imperialist veto. For Iran, much is at stake. The attacks on Syria are part of an attempt to weaken and isolate it, forcing it to comply more readily with the imperialists’ agenda, and to prise open its huge oil resources. Iranian special forces are in Syria fighting to stop this happening. With the competing interests of all these major international powers being played out in Syria, what is at stake is much more than Assad’s government. Turkish troops are now massed on the northern border, and Syria has staged a huge training exercise to show off its ample military capacity. The trajectory of the war in Syria is being determined primarily by foreign powers and not by the Syrian people.

Iran

The full range of US and European Union (EU) sanctions against Iran came into effect on 1 July 2012. Any foreign bank or company trading with Iranian banks faces exclusion from the US banking and financial system. Alongside banning imports of Iranian oil, the EU has banned the sale of insurance for tankers carrying Iran’s oil. South Korea, Iran’s fourth biggest oil customer, will stop buying Iranian oil because of the EU insurance ban. The Financial Times reports Iran trying to hide its tankers’ identities, with changed names and different countries’ flags. The stated purpose of the sanctions is to stop Iran enriching uranium to the point where it could build a nuclear weapon. Iran has repeatedly said that it does not intend to build a nuclear bomb. However, the sanctions are really part of an attempt by imperialism to force regime change in Iran – they complement the assassination of Iranian scientists, cyber warfare and material support for anti-state forces.

Oil accounts for 80% of Iran’s foreign income. At the end of June an Iranian official said that oil exports had dropped by 20%; estimates are that they could be halved. The rial has lost 30% of its foreign exchange value since December 2011. Iran’s food prices are rising steeply: 50% to 100% on staple foods. There are currency shortages with which to buy imports. Youth unemployment is officially 22.5%, but could be much higher. The sanctions amount to economic warfare against Iran.

The US has increased its presence in the Gulf, with two aircraft carriers and accompanying battle fleets, minesweepers, a special operations platform, stealth bombers and other warplanes. The US and 19 other countries have scheduled a military exercise in the Gulf for September and in autumn the US and Israel will conduct a joint exercise to test Israel’s missile defence systems. On 3 July the Iranian Revolutionary Guard test fired dozens of missiles, including weapons capable of reaching Israel. A spokesperson said that 35 US military bases and Israel were targeted. World oil prices jumped in response.

Seven countries, including India and South Korea, were exempted from the US sanctions (Japan was already exempt), but China was not. China is Iran’s biggest oil customer. The US wants to make China dependent on supplies from Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf clients. How it intends to impose sanctions on the country that funds the US government deficits is hard to see.

Libya

The US and British governments sent their congratulations, newspapers continued with the ‘success story’ that is supposed to be Libya and expressed satisfaction at the victory of Mahmoud Jibril and his ‘moderate pro-business’ National Forces Alliance (NFA) in the 7 July congressional elections. Jibril was the National Transitional Council’s interim prime minister. He has a US doctorate in economics and leaked US cables describe him as ‘reform minded’ and someone who ‘gets the US perspective’.

The media largely ignored the 5 July Amnesty International report, ‘Libya: rule of law or rule of militias’ which tells a different story: the arbitrary arrests, torture, killing with impunity, the forcible displacement of populations and extortion that is the rule of over 500 militias. Amnesty International reports, ‘The entire city of Tarwargha, estimated at 30,000, continues to be prevented from going home.’ Tarwargha was a mainly black African town. Racism and xenophobia against dark skinned Libyans is rife. Eritrean and Somali refugees, including children, are detained and forced to work as slaves. It is estimated that 4,000 people are still detained without trial in prisons outside central control. Amnesty records 20 deaths through torture since the Gaddafi government fell last August.

Those who peddle the myth of Libya’s ‘progress’ ignore the 50,000 killed by the NATO-led war against the Libyan government and disregard the racism into which the country has been pushed. In the recent period militias fired at a convoy carrying the British ambassador, seized staff from the International Criminal Court, occupied Tripoli airport, desecrated a Commonwealth war cemetery and continue to fight each other. Dozens of private security firms operate in Libya and the US and European oil multinationals are back in business – it is a success story for them, not for Libya’s masses.

Egypt

Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood was confirmed the winner of the Egyptian presidential elections with 51.7% of the votes on 24 June. Before he took office, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved parliament, in which the Muslim Brotherhood was dominant and decided that it and not the president would dictate foreign policy, set its own budget and resume its powers to arrest and torture at will.

Within hours of being declared president Mursi said that Egypt would honour its international treaties, meaning continue to recognise and collaborate with Israel. His first overseas trip was to Saudi Arabia where Mursi affirmed Egypt’s strategic alliance with that country and said Egypt would not give preference to Hamas in Gaza compared to the Palestinian Authority. Mursi will not open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza unless he is forced to. On 14/15 July US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mursi and the head of the SCAF General Tantawi. She said that the US will continue to provide the Egyptian army with $1.3bn a year and offered $1bn more in aid.

Egypt is negotiating a $3.2bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF will demand cuts in fuel subsidies, which account for a quarter of government spending and upon which many Egyptians depend. The Egyptian pound is falling and food prices will rise. The revolt will resume.

Trevor Rayne and Toby Harbertson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012

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