New threats in the offing
Yassamine Mather warns that the US administration is more than willing to see the map of the entire region redrawn
In the current debates in the Labour Party and the political discourse in the UK regarding deliberate attempts to equate anti-Zionism (or indeed any criticism of the state of Israel) with anti-Semitism, what is often forgotten is the significance of this debate regarding future wars in the Middle East.
I find it difficult to see any rationale for demonising Jeremy Corbyn on the basis of Labour’ s economic policies. No-one in their right mind would worry about proposed economic reforms aimed at ‘democratising capitalism’. Of course, some of John McDonnell’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s policies regarding partial nationalisation are not welcomed by the Financial Times or the City. However, at a time when the world economy is expected to enter a period of recession (according to some, a full-blown economic crisis), when capital is concerned about low consumption and overaccumulation - itself an inevitable consequence of the huge gap between rich and poor - the mild reforms proposed in the 2017 Labour manifesto are not causing panic amongst capitalists.
However, when it comes to foreign policy, the British state, considered as the USA’s main ally, cannot ever be headed by an anti-war Labour leader who has long been an opponent of the State of Israel. That is why the current campaign against anti-Zionist Labour activists in reality aims to force the Corbyn leadership to take a softer position towards wars and Israeli occupations in the region - or else be prepared to be ‘exposed’ daily as ‘anti-Semitic’.
If anyone has any doubt about the seriousness of the current situation in the Middle East, let me remind them of where we are:
- The war in Syria has not ended, and tens of thousands of former Islamic State fighters and their relatives are spread across refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
- Everyone expects escalation of the conflict between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey.
- War and famine have ravaged Yemen.
- Libya’s failed state is hosting a variety of displaced jihadis.
- Protests in Algeria, where demonstrators shouted “No to Bouteflika”, succeeded in forcing the president to resign.
- In Sudan, the ‘Tasqut bas’ (Just fall) movement is leading protests against spiralling inflation.
And then, of course, there is the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not to mention the Trump administration’s determination to impose regime change in Iran.
A number of recent comments and policy announcements made by the US administration regarding the Middle East show the severity of the situation and the impatience of Trump, when it comes to this region. These include new sanctions against Iran, and against Hezbollah in Lebanon, including attempts to force the US’s European allies to declare the Lebanese Shia group a terrorist organisation. Then we have the recognition of the ‘legitimacy’ of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Benjamin Netanyahu and the US hope that this will help pave the way for legitimising the redrawing of the map of Israel, adding all or most of the territory occupied after 1967 war.
No doubt the declaration of the Arab League “summit of solidarity and determination” in Tunisia, which has just ended, is a sign that Arab countries, fearful of outrage amongst their own civilians, have moved away from the positions of the February Middle East conference in Warsaw, which were very much in line with US foreign policy.
According to the summit’s declaration, supported by king Salman of Saudi Arabia, the heads of the Arab states affirmed that “the Golan is occupied Syrian territory, according to international law, the decisions of the United Nations and the security council”. In another statement regarding the relocation of the US embassy to East Jerusalem, the declaration called Washington’s move “invalid and illegitimate”.
The tone on Iran, too, was much softer than what Trump and secretary of state Mike Pompeo wanted, although the Saudi and Egyptian leaders repeated scare stories about Iranian ‘interference’ in Arab affairs. Yet, as Marwan Bishara reminds us in an article on the Al Jazeera website, “Paradoxically, however, it is these two countries that are also rooting for the return of Iran’s greatest Arab ally, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab League.”1
Of course, the Arab League declaration of 2019 will remain an irrelevant piece of paper, unlikely to be pursued by those who signed it, even when it comes to voting intentions in the United Nations general assembly. But the difference in policy and tone in comparison with the declarations of the Warsaw conference cannot be understated.
Why the shift in opinion? Some point to the relative decline in the influence of prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner - as one reason for the new Saudi position. In addition, it now appears that Arab leaders - maybe even the Saudi king or his senior advisors - are seriously concerned about the prospects of war against Iran and the Trump administration’s plans for regime change from above.
As background to all this we should consider the bizarre comments by Pompeo on his visit to Jerusalem in March. He intimated (invoking the Old Testament) that god had sent Trump to “save Israel against Iran”, and apparently this proved the “divine origin” of the 2016 election result as a necessary intervention to “save the Jews”.
Of course there were angry reactions to this provocative statement. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded in a tweet:
… the Trump administration is giving voice to Israel’s falsification of the Torah to promote Iranophobia. Even the Torah is distorted to serve Iranophobia. What it actually says: Persian king saved Jews from captivity in Babylon. Another Persian king saved Jews from genocide. Genocide plotter hailed from Negev, not Persia. Persian king is only foreigner referred to as Messiah.2
Zarif was referring to the story recited, according to Jewish accounts, that the Persian King, Xerxes I, who ruled Iran 2,500 years ago, became aware of a plot by his viceroy, Haman the Agagite, to slaughter Jews. Xerxes executed Haman and stopped the plot.
John Kirby, a former state department spokesman, described Pompeo’s comments as “laughable”:
Secretary Pompeo’s assertion that president Trump may have been sent by god to save Israel would be laughable on its face if it weren’t yet another indication that our secretary of state recklessly crosses the line that should exist between church and state.
However, this was just the beginning. Continuing his Middle East trip, Pompeo arrived in Beirut on March 22 to launch an attack on Hezbollah - his visit was aimed at adding pressure on Iran and its allies, Syria and Hezbollah. Commenting on the Shia group, Pompeo said Hezbollah “puts the Lebanese people at risk, with unilateral and unaccountable decisions on war and peace, and life and death”.
He demanded that “Hezbollah’s destabilising activities”, in the country and across the region, must end. In his attempt to drum up support for Washington’s line against Iran’s Islamic Republic, Pompeo asked Lebanese leaders to pick a side in what would be a united front against Tehran and its Lebanese ally. However, this message did not go down well with his Lebanese hosts. Standing next to foreign minister Gebran Bassil during a joint news conference, Pompeo claimed that US sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah were working well - he referred to a speech by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, a few days earlier, when he asked the group’s supporters for funds, as evidence of the sanctions’ efficacy. The secretary of state added:
Iran gives Hezbollah as much as $700 million annually ... we believe that our work is already constraining Hezbollah’s activities ...
Lebanon and the Lebanese people face a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future ...
The US will continue to use all peaceful means, everything at our disposal, to choke off the financing, the smuggling, the criminal network and the misuse of government positions and influence.3
Pompeo’s comments were not welcomed by Lebanese leaders, including the president, parliamentary speaker and foreign minister, all of whom are allies of Hezbollah. They fear that sanctions against Hezbollah might make Lebanon’s economic crisis worse, and there are concerns that any aggression against the Shia group by the US or its allies may disturb the country’s fragile political balance.
Foreign minister Bassil said the group is “a Lebanese party and not a terrorist organisation”. “Its categorisation as a terrorist organisation concerns the state which categorised it, rather than Lebanon.” He added that the sentiment was echoed by the president, Michel Aoun. Aoun, a Christian and a Maronite, told Pompeo that Hezbollah is “a Lebanese party that has a popular base, representing one of the main sects in the country”.4 In a separate statement the same day, Aoun made it very clear that sanctions against Hezbollah are “hitting all Lebanese people, as well as Lebanese banks”.
As the secretary of state touched down in the country, the pro-Hezbollah Al Akhbar newspaper featured a front-page photograph of Pompeo, the “dirty Yankee”, and labelled those who supported him as “lackeys”. Currently the political wing of Hezbollah and its electoral allies hold more than 70 of the Lebanese parliament’s 128 seats (elections were held last year). This has given the Shia group three of the 30 portfolios in the government formed by the western-backed prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, in January. The posts include the ministry of health - the first time Hezbollah has held a ministry with such a significant budget.
Hezbollah was founded in the early 1980s with the support of Iran, and spent much of its early existence fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. When the country’s devastating civil war ended in 1990 (it lasted 15 years from 1975 to 1990), Hezbollah was the only militia in the country which did not fully disarm. Lebanese political leaders accepted the justification for this, believing it to be a necessary deterrent to another Israeli invasion. Today, Hezbollah is considered to be the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, even compared to the country’s national army. In recent years, it has played a key role in the Syrian civil war, intervening on the side of president Bashar al-Assad.
My visit to Lebanon a few years ago did nothing to change my opinion of Hezbollah. However, the group has widespread support within the country. Rightly or wrongly, most Lebanese, irrespective of their religious denomination or origin (Maronite Christian, Sunni, Shia, Assyrian, Armenian, Druze), consider Hezbollah as saviours of the nation, not least in keeping out Islamic State. So when Pompeo told the Lebanese government to choose between “independence and Hezbollah”, this came across as very strange. Many remember Hezbollah’s role as the guerrilla force that helped ensure their country’s independence by ending Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon. The Israelis and their supporters in the South Lebanon Army finally withdrew in May 2000. For most Arabs, this was a historic moment - the only time when anyone has defeated the Israeli army.
Then we have Pompeo’s portrayal of Hezbollah as a typical hard-line Shia group, which is not quite true. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s main ally is far more liberal than its equivalent in Tehran, portraying itself in Beirut as a modern, pro-business party, where women supporters do not even wear a headscarf.
I am not a fan of Hezbollah for exactly the opposite reasons to those given by Pompeo. Of course, the name has negative connotations for most leftwing Iranians: it does remind us of the chain-wielding Iranian Hezbollah, which disrupted workers’ meetings in the early years after the revolution. However, by the late 1990s I was ready to forgive the similarity of the two names, but I remain wary of the Lebanese organisation’s two-sided nature: religious populist in south Lebanon, defending the poor and the ‘disinherited’, while being part and parcel of the neoliberal establishment in Beirut, where its members are very much the representatives of a new middle class, keen to benefit from the privatisation of the economic infrastructure. Hezbollah is a political and economic force that is integral to the Lebanese capitalist economy. No wonder the government is so concerned about further sanctions against it.
Despite slogans about the poor and the disinherited, Hezbollah has never been an ally of the Lebanese working class.
According to Joseph Daher,
… the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) called a general strike to protest rising prices and inflation. The mobilizations paralysed the country. According to ‘Abd al-Amir Najda, president of the Federation of Public Ground Transportation Drivers’ Unions, the political elite pressured the CGTL to end the strike. Workers, however - especially those in the transportation sector - opposed their leadership and called for the strike to continue.
The CGTL leadership eventually withdrew from the strike, which allowed the army to intervene. The government forces opened fire on demonstrators, who were gathered in Hayy al-Sallum, one of the poorer Shi’a neighbourhoods in south Beirut. Five workers were killed, and dozens injured.
The main political parties, including Hezbollah, supported the army, saying that “the army is the red line”…
In addition on several occasions, Hezbollah representatives directly opposed … strikes. At a November 2013 meeting of the southern branch of the Public Secondary Schools Teachers League in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Amal representatives argued against a strike that the majority of participants supported.5
In south Lebanon their supporters rely on the social service infrastructure provided by the organisation, while the Shia mosque is involved in everything from medical services to schools, to food distribution. In order to ensure its religious base amongst the poorer sections of the Lebanese population remains solid, here Hezbollah women are fully covered, while the call to prayers is part of Hezbollah’s daily routine. In complete contrast, Hezbollah’s supporters and activists in Beirut are often from the professional classes. They have considerable involvement in real estate, tourism and finance. In the capital, unveiled women - dressed in a way that would be considered ‘unIslamic’ and punishable by flogging in Iran - are flag-carriers for the organisation.
Having said that, as I have previously demonstrated, anyone with a minimum knowledge of Lebanon would realise that asking the Beirut government to completely distance itself from Hezbollah is absolutely stupid and surely the US secretary of state is not that stupid? The reality is that the main audience Pompeo was aiming for was not in Lebanon, but in Tel Aviv.
The issue is not so much Hezbollah, but preparations for isolating Iran, should it become necessary to use air raids against the country. For Iran, Hezbollah is an insurance: if the United States or Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, Hezbollah has the potential capability of inflicting serious damage on Israel. That is why the US wants to reduce the group’s power within the Lebanese state and that is also the reason why Iran tolerates Hezbollah’s un-Shia behaviour in Beirut.
The same week, as part of the US administration’s Middle East policy, there was a major statement by Donald Trump, who declared that Washington will recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The announcement indicated a major shift in American policy and gave Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu a political boost in the run-up to the Israeli general election (he faces more corruption charges).
As always, Trump’s announcement came in a tweet:
After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and regional stability!
The Golan Heights, which have been under Israeli occupation since 1967, are currently denuded of people. Around 130,000 of the area’s population fled or were forced to leave after the Israeli invasion - the scores of deserted villages are testimony to this. The remaining Syrians - estimated at around 25,000 - are mainly Druze and their opposition to Trump’s announcement was widely reported. In 1968, the Labor government in Tel Aviv started building new Jewish settlements in the area, known for its green plateaus and fruit orchards.
Of course, in some respect the new declaration will not make much of a difference in the short term. United Nations secretary-general António Guterres made it clear that in UN eyes the status of Golan had not changed. UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric stated: “The UN’s policy on Golan is reflected in the relevant resolutions of the security council and that policy has not changed.”
However, taken in conjunction with Pompeo’s statement about Trump’s ‘divine role’ to ‘save Israel against Iran’, all this does reflect a new phase in United States Middle East policy. Demonising Iran is no longer just a case of hitting back in response to the Tehran regime’s history of dissing the hegemon power by, for example, taking hostages in the US embassy in 1979 and holding them for over a year. We are now talking about yet another attempt to redraw Israel’s map - maybe in coordination with the much heralded Kushner peace plan. Trump’s son-in-law, who is sometimes referred to as “one of the world’s worst real estate developers”, has been working on a Middle East scheme that will apparently be very detailed and will “address final issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including establishing borders”.6
Let me summarise the current situation in the Middle East. The US administration’s recent pressure on Iran and Hezbollah - policies currently supported by the UK and France - are part of a wider plan for further direct intervention in the region, now that the United States has declared Islamic State ‘defeated’ in Iraq and Syria. In Britain the persistent attacks on Corbyn, who has so far tacked, compromised and retreated on almost every controversial, anti-establishment issue, is precisely because the establishment fears he might not toe the line when US-led mayhem is unleashed on the Middle East. The proposed scenario is a simultaneous plan for regime change in Tehran and an extensive redrawing of the map, as far as Israel’s borders are concerned. Those who think the current campaign against ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Labour Party is just about Corbyn’s leadership of the anti-austerity movement or even just about Zionism and Israel, are profoundly mistaken. This is about future wars, about ensuring absolute support for US foreign policy in the Middle East.
In my opinion concentrating on fighting individual cases of suspension and expulsion from Labour is not going to be enough. We have to look at the bigger picture, and be continually vigilant about US plans. We must oppose sanctions against Iran and Lebanon (sanctions against Hezbollah affect the entire Lebanese economy). We must oppose all moves towards war and regime change in Iran. We must defend the Palestinians against Israeli attacks and further expansion.
Eager to be elected in order to ‘solve capitalism’s problems’, the current Labour leadership might not be with us forever, but, irrespective of that, we need to construct a powerful solidarity and anti-war movement. A prerequisite for such a movement is avoiding acting as apologists for the Iranian state and its regional allies - all of them tainted by decades of corruption and adherence to neoliberal capitalism.
www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/10/jared-kushner-worlds-worst-real-estate-developer (amongst many other publications).↩