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WARS OF WEST ASIA

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005

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President George W. Bush.-TIM SLOAN/AFP

President George W. Bush.-TIM SLOAN/AFP

Fabrication of crises is part of the United States' imperial design to remake West Asia in accordance with the strategic vision of the radical right-wing in the Pentagon and the ambitions of Israel. Eventually, even the might of America may not be able to control the crises to its advantage.

AN Op-Ed Page article in The Washington Post of January 12, 2005, describes George W. Bush as a "President of Fabricated Crises". Significantly, the article barely mentions Iraq, ignores the numerous other countries around the world where crises are being manufactured and intensified with alarming regularity, and concentrates only on the sweeping right-wing restructuring of economy and polity within the United States, in such venerated areas as the provision of social security for the aging population or in the dangerous games of brinksmanship being played in managing the dollar's ongoing free fall. But we could equally well ponder the way a host of crises have been fabricated in Iraq before the invasion and after, the fabrication of so-called "democratic regimes" there as well as Afghanistan and Palestine, the manufacturing of domestic consent for the impending wars against Iran and Syria, the push toward civil war in Lebanon as is signalled by the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and, more generally, the making of what a former Pentagon official described to Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker as "a global free fire zone".

At the time of his first inauguration, when the U.S. Supreme Court had awarded him the presidency, Bush was quick to speak of an "Axis of Evil" consisting of Iraq, Iran and North Korea in accents of a born-again Christian of imperial purpose. Then, the will to make crisis permanent and global was announced in the speech he delivered to the joint session of the two houses of the U.S. Congress in response to the hijackers' attack on the World Trade Centre, where he declared that the so-called "war on terrorism" is going to be a war without end and mentioned, almost casually, that the war shall be fought in 50 or 60 countries, covertly for the most part. In previous articles in Frontline we have documented how that declaration has led to a globalised militarism to supplement economic globalisation, from West Africa to West Asia, and from the Caspian Sea Basin to the eastern Pacific Rim.

In his more recent speech at his second inauguration, Bush used the word "freedom" 27 times in 21 minutes, like a tantric chant, and promised to use American might "to spread democracy and to end tyranny everywhere on earth" - on the model of Iraq, presumably. As one of the key neo-conservative ideologues of the regime, Robert Kagan, approvingly wrote in The Washington Post on January 23: "The goal of American foreign policy is now to spread democracy, for its own sake, for reasons that transcend specific threats. In short, Bush has unmoored his foreign policy from the war on terrorism." In other words, the U.S. now reserves the right to invade any country it wishes, in the name of "democracy", even when no credible charge of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, links with the so-called Al Qaeda can be levelled. The list of countries which Condoleeza Rice, the new Secretary of State, mentioned as likely targets of intervention and invasion ("outposts of tyranny", in her words) included not only the usual targets such as Iran or Syria but also such new objects of regime change as Burma, Zimbabwe and Belarus. Michael Gerson, the White House scribe who wrote that speech - "God-drenched" as someone called it - defensively explained that Bush's wars will only last "a generation". Thirty years, shall we say! Not very long, considering that God Himself took full seven days to make a world that was neither so very complex and hugely populated nor so full of the enemies of "democracy".

Uri Avnery, the Israeli-Jewish commentator who once described the current Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as a key "tutor" of George W. Bush, now adds: "The ideologues who govern the thoughts and deeds of Bush are called `neo-conservatives', but that is a misleading appellation. Actually they are a revolutionary group. Their aim is not to conserve but to overturn. Mostly Jewish, they are the pupils of Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish professor with a Trotskyite past who ended up developing semi-fascist theories and propagating them at the University of Chicago. He illustrated his attitude towards democracy by citing the story of Gulliver: when a fire broke out in the city of the dwarfs, he put the fire out by urinating on them. This is the way, in his view, the small elite group of leaders must treat the ignorant and innocent public, which does not know what is good for them."

The agenda of these right-wing radicals, quaintly called `neo-conservative', is indeed comprehensive. First, the U.S. must accumulate so much military might that no one dare challenge it. Second, it must cultivate the will to use this overwhelming power unilaterally, in pursuit of its own national interests and in disregard, if necessary, of international laws and norms, and even in defiance of its own allies. Third, as regards West Asia, Israel is America's only strategic partner and long-term ally, with whom the U.S. must act in symbiosis and unison for mastery of the region. Fourth, every other state entity in the region needs to be re-made, through coercion and compliance, military occupation, communalisation and civil wars, breaking them up, where necessary, into little statelets and enclaves based on religious, sectarian, ethnic identities, locked in multiple mutual conflicts that would sap their energies and resources.

In this vision, the invasion of Iraq was always seen as a first step toward (a) its own internal communalisation, on the model of the Lebanese sectarian civil war of 1975-1990, and (b) occupying a strategic centre at the heart of West Asia for further military actions against a variety of countries in the region, starting with Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and possibly extending to Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf states, eventually eroding Egypt itself, the largest and in the historic sense a vital Arab country. This vision of the American radical right corresponds almost exactly to the strategic vision that the extremist wing of Israeli Zionism has held, from Golda Meir and Itzhak Shamir to Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon. And, it is indicative of the very logic of Zionist settler-colonialism in Israel that luminaries like Shimon Peres of the Labour Party, the historic party of liberalism and Zionist labour movement in Israel, have by now fully bought into this vision. The first phase of this vision was executed through the systematic destruction of the Palestine Authority (P.A.) and the invasion of Iraq during the first Bush presidency. The second phase is now at hand, if the U.S.-Israeli axis can get away with it, during Bush's Second Coming. We shall detail later the problems that this axis might face as it sets out to execute the full apocalyptic sweep of such a vision. Let us first comment on the current situation and on components of the U.S.-Israeli design.

THERE have been two elections, so to speak, and a historic assassination since Bush got re-elected. Let us begin with what are called `elections' in Iraq.

The first thing to be said about these `elections' is that the modalities, procedures, aims and objectives, and the likely results were carefully crafted by the occupying forces, almost exclusively American, in tandem with the U.N. and its cynical envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. These procedures and objectives were then executed by the U.S. forces and its appointees in the `interim government' led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative Iyad Allawi, in coordination with the senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. The principal objective was not to democratise but to communalise the emerging political sphere in Iraq. Results were known well in advance, since the precondition for participation in the process was that the electoral design confected by the Americans be accepted while those who did not accept the legitimacy of the process supervised by the occupying forces were, by the very nature of the game, almost entirely excluded (unless they participated surreptitiously, under some other name, as some of Moqtada al Sadr's men, for example, seem to have done).

The Kurdish areas had been under occupation of the Anglo-American alliance for a decade before the invasion of 2003, the clients there had been promised a prominent place in the new dispensation, and the turnout was likely to be massive. The radical opposition among the Shia, led by Moqtada al Sadr, had been emasculated and sidelined with the cooperation of Sistani and the quiet consent of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and the elections could then be used to consolidate the conservative Shias in power and to drive a wedge between them and the numerically very large number of Shias associated with the Resistance. Sistani himself seems to have made a pact with the devil, accepting U.S. occupation, the laws and regulations it has spawned, and the structures of exploitation of oil and other Iraqi resources that it has set up, in exchange for his power to dominate the upcoming legislature and to win a reprieve, however temporary, for Iran. Once Moqtada's men had been tamed in the South, the U.S. concentrated its military savagery on the central regions where Sunnis were in the majority, and, under the circumstances, it was quite certain that most Sunnis would boycott the elections, giving to the Shias and the Kurds even more representation in the new legislature than would otherwise have been the case. For instance, the Kurdish slate won not only in the Kurdish-majority areas but also in areas of mixed Kurdish-Arab populations simply because the Arabs in these areas rejected the electoral process itself. For the first time in Iraqi history, politics was conducted on sectarian lines and the power structures that are emerging consequently have a strongly sectarian character, which portends dire consequences for times to come. In Baghdad itself, though, very little voting took place because most Sunnis did not participate and the Shia majority of the city is loyal to Moqtada and therefore undertook very strategic voting.

The only thing clear about these elections is the sectarian proportions of the legislative seats won by this or that coalition. The security situation inside Iraq was so bad, and public appearance so dangerous, that the large number of international "observers" of these elections did their "observing" from hotels and bars in Amman, then endorsed whatever the occupying authorities claimed. How do you register voters in a war-ravaged country where the occupiers dare not disembark from their military vehicles, where more than half of the indigenous security personnel recruited by the occupiers has deserted and the other half dare not go among the population, and where attacks by the resistance are numbering well over hundred a day - all this, in addition to systematic assassinations of Sistani's senior aides, which the Americans are blaming on the Sunnis to provoke a sectarian backlash, but which most knowledgeable Iraqis believe is the handiwork of Israeli operatives deployed in the chaos that is today's Iraq? And, how do you ascertain the number of voters for this or that list when the votes are counted by those whose propensity to lie is well known and whose major interest is in inflating the level of participation in their `elections'? Ask any member of the India's Election Commission how difficult it is to conduct free and fair elections in areas gripped by even low-level insurgency or sectarian strife, and anyone who has observed elections in places like Kashmir will tell you how official figures get inflated in order to prove higher voter turnout than is in fact the case. It is indicative of a steep decline in the very idea of `democracy' when there is no media attention given to electoral programmes and all the chatter is about voter turnout and sectarian affiliation of those who won, lost, voted, did not vote.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy, who devised the mechanism for these `elections' must be a genius of sorts. He must have known that the security situation would be too abysmal for normal election campaigns to get conducted and that large sections of the population despised the whole process so much that those who offered themselves as candidates would not, as a rule, find it safe to go to the public to ask for votes. So, an esoteric system of proportionate representation was devised whereby, eventually, Iraqis had to vote for not specific candidates but for a particular list, out of 111 lists consisting of the names of 7,471 candidates. The number of seats in the legislature were allotted according to the number of votes each list received. The vast majority of candidates never appeared in public, nor did their photographs - for fear that they might be assassinated for cooperating with the Americans. Instead, lists were posted everywhere. At election time, bridges were closed, roadblocks erected, security personnel spread out, and those who voted had to do so in the shadow of guns. So, if you were a Shia, you voted for the list of Sistani, and if you were a Kurd you voted for the Kurdish list, and so on. Nothing of what we know as elections in India happened in Iraq. Yet, all the Indian newspapers, without exception, have reproduced the American version of what happened.

The U.S. has been picking up and then dumping a series of Shia clients in Iraq, from the convicted criminal Ahmed Chalabi to the CIA operative Iyad Allawi to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, and if Sistani has his way, his favourite candidate, Ibrahim Jaafari, a leader of the fundamentalist and otherwise small party Al Daawa, will become the next Prime Minister. Daawa itself has been operating as a minuscule Shia fundamentalist organisation for more than three decades in opposition to the secular Baathist regime but could never gain much social acceptance. Now, the Americans have made it possible for them to occupy highest offices of state. Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi who had wormed his way into the affections of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, then got dropped by them on charges of passing secret information to the Iranians, has now made common cause with the fundamentalists, emerging as one of the key prime ministerial candidates and is again tolerated by the Americans because of his new affiliation with Sistani. Such cynicism and communalisation takes myriad forms. In their assault on Falluja, which ruined the city, killed at least 7,000 people and rendered 300,000 people homeless, the U.S. forces deliberately deployed Shia National Guards against the hapless Sunnis. In mixed Kurdish-Arab areas, they deliberately deploy the armed Kurdish peshmargas to control the Sunni population. And, more and more mysterious bombings of Shia congregations and assassination of Shia religious figures are taking place, so clearly designed to provoke retaliation against the Sunnis that senior Shia and Sunni clerics have had to make common cause to prevent their followers from indulging in revenge for misdeeds whose authors are unknown. From elections to assassinations, the will to communalise the heretofore secular polity of Iraq takes many forms.

WHAT happened in Palestine was even more predictable, closer to ritual than electoral choice, and more mundane than the Iraqi charade. Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), who won the vote, is described by some as "the Palestinian Karzai", that is, the U.S.-Israeli candidate, in memory of his appointment as Prime Minister in 2003 against Yasser Arafat's wishes at the time and as one who was preferred by the U.S.-Israeli axis as a `negotiating partner' after the U.S. accepted the Israeli position that it would not talk to Arafat. Of all the Palestinian leaders, he is the one most closely associated with the Oslo Accords and most committed to putting an end to any kind of armed resistance by the Palestinians. Indeed, he was the one who was picked by Arafat himself in the 1970s to open a secret dialogue with the Israelis, and he has since then been negotiating mutual concessions with them and has been the main person drafting the Palestinian side of the proposals that get accepted after the Israelis have re-written them. Since the establishment of the Palestine Authority, he has been considered the senior leader after Arafat himself, which indicates how much the Oslo process has seeped into the calculations of the Fatah leaders. So, his nomination by the Fatah as its candidate to succeed Arafat was unsurprising, as was the enthusiastic endorsement of his candidature by the conservative Arab regimes such as Egypt, not to speak of tacit but very obvious support from Israel and the U.S.

The elections, however, are no indication of what "mandate" he has received from the Palestinian people. For five reasons. First, the Hamas, which has been the key player in the armed resistance and is generally regarded as commanding the allegiance of roughly a quarter of Palestinians, boycotted the elections altogether on the plea that such participation would legitimise the Oslo process itself. Second, when Marwan Barghouti, a much younger leader of the Fatah who subscribes to the idea of armed struggle, announced his candidacy from inside the high-security Israeli prison, polls showed him running as strongly as Abbas himself, even though incarceration in the enemy prison made it impossible for him to campaign personally. Barghouti then withdrew, leaving the field open for Abbas to occupy it. Third, irregularities in polling, instigated by Abbas' supporters, were so blatant that 45 members of the Palestinian Election Commission resigned in protest, on January 15, less than a week after the January 9 elections. Fourth, contrary to all media claims, the turnout was meagre. Initially, the overall voter turnout was put at close to 70 per cent, then scaled down to 66 per cent, and the whole range of Western media ran headlines about "landslide for Abbas", but actual figures from the Election Commission show a voter turnout of 46 per cent. Considering that Abbas got 62 per cent of this turnout, he was clearly elected with the support of only 28 per cent of the registered voters; most simply did not vote. Finally, Hamas swept the more recent municipal elections in Gaza and won close to 40 per cent of the seats in the West Bank as well. The relative strength of the respective parties will probably be gauged better in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in May, in which Hamas has pledged to participate.

Internally, these electoral processes are very important since Palestinian people can use these for building democratic structures of the kind that Arafat's charismatic personality and bureaucratic tendencies never allowed them. But this process cannot lead to peace because Israel offers no peace conditions that any Palestinian can possibly accept. Sharon has explicitly announced plans whereby Israel is prepared to evacuate no more than half of the occupied territories in even the final solution to the conflict, no matter how many concessions the Palestinians offer. Israel does not recognise the right of Palestinian refugees to return or even to get compensation. East Jerusalem, which Palestinians regard as their eventual capital, is in advanced stages of annexation by Israel. Some 400,000 Israeli settlers live on Palestinian lands occupied in 1967 and Israel expects most of them to stay there, while the settlers who leave Gaza in the much-bandied "evacuation" are expected to get absorbed mostly in the occupied West Bank. Israel controls most of the Palestinian water resources and these it is not willing to give up, and it is determined to complete the construction of the concrete fence that chops up Palestinian territories into little Bantustans and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

Mahmoud Abbas proposed a ceasefire and Hamas has decided to abide by it, but during the six weeks since Abbas' election Sharon has said repeatedly that he expects not just a cessation of armed hostilities from the Palestinian side but actual liquidation of Hamas and all other Palestinian organisations that offer armed resistance to Israeli occupation, military assaults, demolition of Palestinian houses, and assassinations ("targeted killings", as Israelis euphemistically call them) of their leaders. As many as 600,000 Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons since the occupation began in 1967 but Israel is unwilling to release political prisoners and reserves the right to enter Palestinian homes and communities, at will, to apprehend and execute anyone it designates as a terrorist. This is not the place to detail the Israeli atrocities. The point is that Sharon expects Abbas to deploy Palestinian forces to protect Israel from Palestinian resistance and to in fact liquidate that resistance but offers nothing resembling the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Abbas is thus caught. If he implements the Israeli agenda, he runs the risk of being thrown out or even assassinated by the Palestinian resistance. If, on the other hand, he goes on insisting on the basic Palestinian demands, he shall be dropped by the U.S. and Israel alike. Israel will resume the most savage forms of military action and the Palestinian side shall respond with another intifada, making Abbas less than irrelevant.

At bottom, the situations in Iraq and Palestine are remarkably similar. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that Ayatollah Ali al Sistani has cobbled together out of various right-wing Shia factions has accepted the basic framework of the U.S. occupation within which the elections were held. However, this very coalition could not face its own constituency without affirming the basic demands of the Iraqi people. Therefore, UIA's declared political programme, issued in preparation for the balloting, demands a fixed time-frame for the withdrawal of all occupation forces, promises to adopt "a social security system under which the state guarantees a job for every fit Iraqi... and offers facilities to citizens to build homes". The UIA also pledges "to write off Iraq's debts, cancel reparations and use the oil wealth for economic development projects". This is in keeping with the kind of welfare state Iraqis have known before the Americans dismantled it but is also deeply opposed to far-reaching free-market policies imposed by the U.S. Indeed, any serious effort to write off the debt while also demanding U.S. withdrawal may bring upon Iraq the wrath of many more forces than just the U.S. Within days of the elections, U.S. and Britain dismissed the idea of a timetable for a withdrawal, and it is unlikely that they will allow a regime under their tutelage to expand the public sector, re-build a social state, reserve the oil for national reconstruction and repudiate the debt. Sistani and his UIA are thus caught. They either abandon their electoral promises, get discredited and concede the ground of anti-imperialist nationalism altogether to the resistance; or, they try to implement their programme and run into direct collision with the very masters who created the conditions of their ascendancy and brought them to power in the first place.

Mahmoud Abbas is in a similar situation. He cannot retain the confidence of the Palestinians and the Israelis simultaneously. He offers a ceasefire to the Israelis and promises to negotiate and compromise with them unconditionally, but even to get the vote from 28 per cent of the Palestinian voters he had to pledge, point by point, that he would not deviate from any of the basic positions that Palestinians have cherished through decades of occupation. Sharon wants him to liquidate the armed resistance but he has no power to do so, and if he attempts, there may be a civil war among the Palestinians themselves between the capitulators and the resistance - which is precisely what Sharon wants but which will also spell the end of Abbas himself. Sistani is in exactly the same situation. If the coalition he supervises substantially deviates from the very programme it has presented, in response to popular aspirations, it will lose ground to Moqtada al Sadr even among the Shia, because the poor among the Shia of Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala and elsewhere are politically closer to him and his movement, and Moqtada and his men shall go on the rampage on the issues of economic nationalism, foreign occupation and social provision for the poor and the unemployed. Nor would Moqtada be alone in this. The secular Baathists, who are so much at the heart of what gets called "Sunni insurgency" will take up the same issues elsewhere. If Sistani's coalition cannot deliver on its promises, many of his followers would then shift their loyalties to the combined force of Moqtada's religious opposition, the Sunni religious opposition of Falluja and elsewhere, the secular opposition of Sunnis and Shias alike across the country, and the sprinkling of powerful tribal leaders in central Iraq. This is the coalition of forces that can be expected to try and save Iraq from the communalisation and sectarian civil war that the U.S. is provoking in the country.

The situation is much more dire in Palestine than in Iraq but, on the whole, room for manoeuvre for both Mahmoud Abbas and Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the man in the business suit and the man in the turban, is limited for identical reasons. Both live in societies marked by great suffering and sacrifice, intense political consciousness, hatred of foreign occupation, organised armed resistance. Once in positions of political authority, they are expected to either stand and fight for certain values or step aside, to make room for those who resist. The situation in Palestine is perhaps much more extreme, options for Abbas are probably narrower, and he is perhaps already much too compromised to re-invent himself as the leader of a nation ready to do battle. His fall may come sooner. In desperation, he may actually order his men to suppress Hamas and its allies through military means, which is likely to split the Fatah itself and even perhaps provoke a Palestinian civil war.

The situation in Iraq is more fluid. The emerging dispensation in which the coalition of the Kurdish parties and Sistanis men have risen to power is much too new to be discredited quickly. They will now concentrate on the key task of drafting a constitution, in which Kurds would try to maximise their autonomy to the extent that they can virtually have a semi-independent state of their own that will nominally remain a part of Iraq for now, and Sistani's men will concentrate on maximising the role of the Sharia in Iraqi public life. Neither of these objectives can be achieved easily. Kurds want the oil-rich region of Tamim, which has a mixed Arab-Kurdish population, to be a part of the autonomous Kurdish region, which is bound to create communal friction, and too great a quantum of quasi-independence for the Kurds shall be deeply opposed by neighbouring Turkey which has its own Kurdish problem and which is likely to use its influence with the U.S. and E.U. to curtail the bid of Kurds in Iraq to gain such a degree of autonomy that it will lay the foundations for a separate, fully independent Kurdistan in the foreseeable future. Sistani's own bloc, which controls 48 per cent of the new legislature, would want a much more centralised state, to stabilise its control over the whole of the Iraqi state.

On the other hand, too great a role for the Sharia would be opposed by substantial sections of the population, a cross-section of the new legislature itself - including Kurds as well as secular-minded Shias and Sunnis alike and by the Americans. Political communalisation of the Iraqi is what the Americans want, to keep the internal conflicts going, not any lasting Islamisation of the Iraqi state. And, which version of the Sharia, the Shia variant or the Sunni one? This is the first time in modern Arab history that a religiously motivated Shia state is arising anywhere in the Arab world, and the settled propagandist idea that Shias account for some 60 per cent of the Iraqi population is itself something of a political fiction. Official statistics in modern Iraq, such as the Census figures, do not register religious affiliation, so that one is always working with estimates, and there are other estimates which suggest that Shias may be less than half of the population. Moreover, the current interim constitution requires a two-thirds majority for any major decision in the new legislature, which is itself transitional. Getting this legislature to agree to a Shia theocratic setup, on the model of Iran, and getting the American puppet masters to agree to that, is an uphill task. Moreover, too strong a grip of the Shia bloc over the Iraqi state conjures up for the U.S. right-wing radicals (that is, the so-called neo-conservatives) the nightmare of an emerging "Shia Crescent" comprised of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and possibly a breakaway Shia mini-state in the eastern zone of today's Saudi Arabia. The idea is not to stabilize these entities but to communalise them and get them embroiled in lasting internecine conflicts, which erodes them all.

While these issues get debated over the next many months, the resistance shall continue, and so will the campaign of mysterious assassinations of top Shia leaders and bomb blasts at Shia congregations designed to accentuate Shia-Sunni conflict. And, while the Shia bloc is brought to the apex of legislative power with obvious U.S. connivance, savage military attacks on the so-called "Sunni triangle" shall also continue, in an effort to create among the Sunnis the conviction that they are the special targets of the U.S. occupation while the Shias are its special beneficiaries, so that the interests of the two sectarian communities are irreconcilable. In the midst of all these contradictions and complexities, the suffering Iraqi population shall be watching to see whether the newly anointed legislators would keep their electoral promises of a welfare state and a nationalist economy. It is too early to tell what the outcome shall be.

BUT the battle is being joined elsewhere as well. The assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, is likely to have as many consequences there, and in the region as a whole, as the staging of elections in Palestine and Iraq. Within hours of the assassination, the U.S. recalled its Ambassador from Syria, thus putting the blame squarely on the Syrians with no evidence that they were involved and despite the fact that not a single expert in Arab politics has been able to show what Syria could gain from masterminding that assassination. Not only the Syrian and Iranian governments but a variety of Arab newspapers and political analyses have blamed the Israeli secret services instead, and the very magnitude of the bomb blast that killed Hariri and 17 others, with automobiles bomb-proof Mercedes cars getting ripped apart and some flying so high that large parts of one got perched in the upper floor of an adjacent building, had an eerie resemblance to the kind of blasts the Israelis have been using to assassinate Palestinian leaders in what they openly call "targeted killings".

This assassination can have only three possible objectives: (a) the revival of the sectarian civil war which raged in Lebanon during 1975-1990, paving the way for a future U.S./Israeli intervention, (b) embroiling into this civil war of Hezbollah, the paramilitary Lebanese organisation which fought the Israelis hard enough to force them to terminate their occupation of southern Lebanon and which has been designated by the U.S. as a "terrorist organisation" at par with Al Qaeda, and (3) intensification of the campaign against Syria as a principal source of "terrorism" and a worthy candidate for sanctions, invasion or at least "surgical" strikes of the kind that Iraq suffered for a decade before it was fully invaded and occupied. So clear is this intent behind Hariri's assassination that the Iranian and Syrian governments immediately declared publicly that the two countries need to draw closer in an alliance to protect themselves against the menacing U.S.-Israeli designs against them, and virtually every Arab government called upon the Lebanese themselves not to fall for this provocation and maintain the unity among the various religious and sectarian communities.

Syria has been a major target for the U.S., which has levelled a variety of charges against it, in addition to the routine charge of being a principal purveyor of "terrorism". It has been charged with possessing a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, of receiving the nuclear arsenal and other weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, of harbouring senior leaders of the dismantled Saddam regime as well as Iraqi nuclear scientists, of serving as a transit point for foreign jehadis entering Iraq during the occupation, of sponsoring not only Hezbollah in Lebanon but also Hamas and Islamic Jehad in Palestine, and so on. The U.S. Congress has passed a Syria Accountability Act, and the U.N. Security Council recently passed a resolution, prodded by the U.S. and France alike, that Syria abandon its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and that armed groups there (meaning Hezbollah) be liquidated. The "neocons" have been clamouring for a full-fledged invasion of Syria, in the wake of the Iraqi occupation and as a prelude to an invasion of Iran.

This renewed focus on Syria is in keeping with a settled strategic vision which was outlined for the then Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, by a group of U.S. and Israeli neocons, including such luminaries of the first Bush administration as Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, in a famous 1996 paper prepared for Tel Aviv's Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm". Conceiving of the whole of West Asia as Israel's "realm", the paper had made, among other observations, the following recommendation: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right, as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions." The removal of Saddam Hussein thus appears to be just a preparation for "rolling back" of Syria.

Syria has responded by trying to deflect the American wrath through cooperation on a number of issues, by sealing its border with Iraq, passing on to the U.S. information on a variety of jehadi groups, helping to get Moqtada al Sadr to withdraw his armed insurgency, offering unconditional talks with Israel on the question of Israeli occupation of Syrian territories in the Golan Heights, and so on. All this is not enough from the American-Israeli standpoint because Syria does have a strategic interest in Lebanon and in maintaining the military-political strength of the Hezbollah there, while Israel wants to dominate Lebanon and liquidate the Hezbollah there, just as it wishes to dominate the Palestinian territories in perpetuity and to liquidate the armed Palestinian resistance.

IN some respects, Syria's strategy of competitive collaboration, in which it wins a reprieve for itself through many kinds of cooperation but also protects its fundamental national interests in opposition to the U.S.-Israeli axis, is not dissimilar to the posture adopted by Iran, the other state which is slated for military action and which is really the prize of all prizes in the region. The kind of propaganda that is emanating from Washington on the issue of Iran's nuclear programme greatly resembles the propaganda regarding Saddam's purported weapons of mass destruction which paved the way for invasion. Iran's current capabilities are far greater than that of the Saddam regime on the eve of the invasion, and a full-scale invasion is unlikely in the very near future. However, we now know that Israel has been carrying out high-level exercises in preparation for striking at Iran's various nuclear installations, that secret U.S. squads have been operating inside Iran since at least last summer for identifying targets, that a large number of Iranian groups from the royalists to the Mujahideen-e-Khalq have been mobilised for intelligence-gathering and internal subversion, that there has been high-level discussions at the Pentagon to consider the option of Israeli-style "target killings" of key leaders in Iran.

In context, a number of Israeli political and military leaders have said time and again that it will carry out a pre-emptive strike against Iran well before it gets to a point where it is actually able to assemble a nuclear warhead, and that it is a matter not of years but of months before Israel undertakes such strikes, unless the U.S. does so itself. On his part, Vice-President Dick Cheney has said that "Iran is at the top of the list" and has openly endorsed the idea of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. When asked about this, Bush simply said that Iran's nuclear programme is truly dangerous and the U.S. would fully understand what Israel needs to do to ensure its own security. All this, despite the fact that Israel itself is an undeclared nuclear power with a couple of hundred nuclear warheads of its own and a missile system that can deliver these warheads anywhere in West Asia and as far as Pakistan. These war designs against Iran, on the pretext that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, run in the face of what high-level inspectors of Iran's nuclear installations have said. For instance, in a talk on October 3, 2004, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed El Baradei said unambiguously that "Iran has no nuclear weapons programme", and then repeated himself for emphasis: "Iran has no nuclear weapons programme, but I personally don't rush to conclusions before all the realities are clarified. So far I see nothing that could be called an imminent danger. I have seen no nuclear weapons programme in Iran. What I have seen is that Iran is trying to gain access to nuclear enrichment technology, and so far there is no danger from Iran." Elsewhere, he was even more explicit: "Our findings in Iraq proved that the agency was right because we didn't find anything which indicated the presence of nuclear weapons in Iraq. If we want to take a lesson from Iraq, we should not rush before all realities are clarified, and this is what we want to do about Iran."

None of it makes any difference to the U.S.-Israeli axis, however, any more than it did in the case of Saddam Hussein. We shall return to the complexities of the situation pertaining to Syria and Iran in a later piece. Suffice it to say that, like Syria, Iran too has sought to win time for itself by cooperating with the U.S. wherever it can, notably in Iraq, without compromising its own vital national interests. Despite all his substantial differences with some tendencies in Iranian Shiism, Sistani is for all purposes Iran's man in Iraq and would not have cooperated so fully with the U.S. without Iran's active support. This legitimisation of the U.S.-sponsored political process in Iraq is an enormously significant service Iran has rendered, and in the process it has refused to support the radical elements among the Iraqi Shia, led by Moqtada al Sadr, who would have liked to continue their armed opposition to the forces of occupation. For this reason alone, the U.S. is in something of a fix. Bush's ambitious plan to re-make the whole of West Asia in accordance with strategic visions of the radical right now governing the Pentagon, combined with Israel's ambitions in the region, requires emasculation of Iran, and it is only because the U.S. itself is militarily bogged down in Iraq that this policy has not been implemented thus far and the ambition has been scaled down from visions of a full-scale invasion to a combination of internal subversion and strikes from air and sea. However, Iran has made it quite clear that a strike against its nuclear facilities shall be treated as an invasion of the country and that it will respond with "full force". This full force includes not only Iran's own substantial military capabilities, including the ability to choke off traffic of oil tankers through the strategic Hormuz Straits, but also its immense political influence among the Shias of all persuasions in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as its strategic alliance with Syria. It is difficult to predict what the consequences would be if the U.S.-Israel axis does carry out the strikes it promises so loudly and vehemently.

We are living through a period of imperial overreach and the "President of Fabricated Crises" has already manufactured crises involving Syria and Iran out of thin air. Any radical escalation of these crises, involving military action against either or both these countries, may in fact fabricate a region-wide crisis which even American might may not be able to control to its own advantage. Those who reach too far tend to fall. This principle applies even to the most powerful of imperial designs.

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