Threats of war are piling up on all sides in the Middle East.
On 8 May US president Donald Trump is announcing his decision on whether the US will withdraw from the 2015 deal lifting many economic sanctions on Iran and restricting Iran’s nuclear program. He is expected to withdraw.
Trump’s new National Security Adviser, since 9 April, is John Bolton, a long-time advocate of the US bombing Iran.
On 14 May Trump will make the symbolic and provocative move of declaring the US Embassy to Israel officially sited in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv.
14 May is the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel, and 14 May is a symbolic date for the Palestinians, too, linked to the flight or driving-out of some 700,000 Palestinians from the territory which is now Israel in the course of the Jewish-Arab guerrilla war which preceded 14 May 1948 and Israel’s war against invading Arab armies (some commanded by British officers) after 14 May.
Hamas, the Islamist clerical-fascist group which runs the Gaza enclave, theoretically-independent but blockaded both by Israel and by Egypt, has put its weight behind demonstrations on Gaza’s border with Israel on Fridays since 30 March.
From the body of those demonstrations groups sally forth to throw stones and improvised fire bombs, and to make symbolic attempts to breach the boundary fences. So far Israeli snipers have killed 45 people and wounded thousands on those Friday demonstrations (no casualties on the Israeli side).
Thanks, probably, to protests inside Israel, the killings have become fewer (zero on Friday 4 May, compared to 20 on 30 March), but conflict is likely to increase around 14 May. Hamas has promised spectacular gestures.
Iran pledges retaliation if Trump withdraws from the 2015 deal. It has consolidated its military position in Syria, with its ally, president Bashar al-Assad, nearing victory (thanks to Iranian and Russian assistance) in the civil war which has raged there since 2012.
On 7 May, Israel’s Energy Minister declared that Israel would “eliminate” Assad “if he continues to let Iran operate military from Syria”. The minister later said this was his “personal opinion”, but it is entirely likely that Israel’s embattled right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu positively wants at least a small war to bolster his political position.
On 9 April an Israeli airstrike on an airbase in Syria killed seven Iranian military advisers and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Israeli government believes Iran will retaliate.
Iran has more than one option to do that. It can fire missiles from its bases in Syria. Or it can mobilise the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah, Iran’s ally for a long time and within the Syrian war, to attack Israel from Lebanon.
Missile attacks on Israel from Gaza organised by Hamas, also an ally of Iran, are also a possibility, but seem less likely. Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon is strong. With its allies, it won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections there held on 6 May.
Parliamentary elections in Iraq on 12 May are likely to consolidate Iranian influence there, too. Prime minister Haider al-Abadi, likely to retain his post, is a Shia Islamist and an ally of Iran. The “Fatah Coalition”, organised around a splinter from Iraq’s most closely Iranian-linked Shia Islamist group, ISCI, formerly SCIRI, is reported likely to make gains.
The Iraqi Communist Party has never been “communist” in a Marxist sense — it was founded only in 1934, when the official “communism” had already been mutated into Stalinism — but it has been a more-or-less secular force, linked to trade unions. In this election it is running in coalition with another Shia-Islamist force, the Sadr movement.
Where and how war will erupt, and whether it will be a smaller, more-or-less “symbolic” war (which all sides, as of now, would seem to prefer), or escalate beyond initial intentions, we do not know.
The basic stance for socialists, democrats, and internationalists must be that of the Third Camp — of workers’ unity across the borders and the national and sectarian divides, of support for equal rights for all nations, of a democratic settlement which should include rights to national self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs, the Israeli Jews, and the Kurds alike.
A swathe of the left will be inclined to side with the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas-Shia-Islamist axis, seeing it as instilled with anti-imperialist virtue just by the fact that it is on the other side from the USA.
If there were any contender in the conflict which could claim reasonable self-defence it would be Israel: the Iranian regime and its allies are officially committed to wiping Israel off the map. In practice Israeli military action is likely to be inextricably linked with the maintenance, or worsening, of Israel’s conquering-power rule over Palestinian Arab territories, and its denial to the Palestinian Arabs of their right to national self-determination.
In any case, there is no socialist case for backing Shia against Sunni in the Islamist-vs-Islamist conflict which cuts across the Middle East. The fact that Sunni forces, for now, tend more often to side tacitly with the US or Israel, does not make Shia sectarianism less reactionary.
Assad’s anti-US stance does not merit support. Anyone who thinks that supporting Assad and his Iranian allies against Israel is a sort of way of supporting Palestinian rights should read about the fate of Yarmouk.
Yarmouk, on the edge of Damascus, was one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in the world, with a population of hundreds of thousands. Although the Palestinians were denied Syrian citizenship, many of them had jobs, even good jobs, and the camp had water, electricity, schools, hospitals, shops, internet cafés.
It has been pulverised in the course of the civil war, by the anti-Assad Islamists and by Assad’s army. Most of the Palestinians have fled as best they can. A Palestinian advocacy group estimates that three to four thousand Palestinians have been killed in the Syrian conflict and 85,000 have fled the country. According to the Economist magazine, “many Palestinians believe the regime wants to develop Yarmouk for use by Syrians”.
For peace and workers’ unity! For an independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory alongside Israel! For secularism, democracy, and equal rights for all nations!