Alex Callinicos on the situation in the Middle East today

Issue: 146

Interview for Marx 21—the anti-capitalist network within the left party Die Linke in Germany.

Despite earlier Saudi claims that airstrikes have been stopped, attacks against the Houthi militia in Yemen continue. What does Saudi Arabia fight for?

Let’s start from the overall position of the Saudi royal family. They preside over the key conservative Sunni Arab regime, which simultaneously provides the main political leadership of Gulf capitalism, now an important centre of the world economy, whose capital is active globally, and in the rest of the Middle East. But they face a number of threats. Economically, the rise of shale production in the United States represents a significant challenge to Saudi Arabia’s position as the key oil producer.

Simultaneously, the Saudis face political threats within the region—from Iran, which is a double challenge, simultaneously geopolitical and ideological, since Tehran stands for a rival version of Islam that is both Shi’ite and rhetorically at least anti-imperialist, and also from the Arab revolutions. One of the immediate beneficiaries of the 2011 risings was the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, whom the Saudis hate as much as the Iranians because the Brotherhood challenge their legitimating ideology as the protectors of orthodox Sunni Islam.

The trend since the US invasion removed Saddam Hussein in Iraq, allowing the political self-assertion of the hitherto oppressed Shia majority in that country, has been for Iranian influence to grow. The Saudis have hit back—seeking to canalise the Syrian revolution into a sectarian Sunni direction and backing the counter-revolution in Egypt (which has particularly targeted the Brotherhood). But one result of all this is ISIS. This has strengthened the position of the Assad regime, which is backed by Tehran. Recently an Iranian MP boasted that Iran now dominates three great Arab capitals—Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus.

So now the Saudis, under a new King, Salman, who has just reshuffled the royal succession and key ministries, are hitting back. They had already refused to cut oil production to halt the fall in the oil price—with the aim of bankrupting US shale producers whose profitability depends on high prices. Now they have orchestrated this big military operation in Yemen to stop the victory of the Houthi militias, who are Shia. The Saudis are paranoid about the spread of Iranian influence, and fear that the Houthis are merely one of Tehran’s fingers. Let’s not forget that in 2011 the Saudi National Guard intervened to crush the revolution in Bahrain, a close neighbour with an oppressed Shi’ite majority.

The US support the Saudi attacks on the Houthi militia. At the same time the US strikes a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme and relies on Iranian allies to fight IS in Syria and Iraq. What are the strategic goals of the US in the region?

Obama even before he came to office was talking about a deal with Iran. He is trying to recalibrate US imperial domination of the Middle East in the light of defeat in Iraq. His strategy is to encourage regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and Iran to play the frontline role in managing local crises. But of course these powers have conflicting interests. This is helpful to the US inasmuch as it allows it to play divide and rule and prevent anyone else from dominating the region, but it can also be very complicated. Iran is the biggest complication. When Bush and Cheney wanted to attack Iran in 2005-6, the Pentagon effectively mutinied to stop it. It’s more or less inconceivable that the US could successfully invade Iran, a much bigger and more populous country than Iraq with a regime that has a real social base.

Obama’s alternative is to negotiate the nuclear deal with Tehran. But what Henry Kissinger used to call “linkage”—in this case, the nuclear deal leading to cooperation between the US and Iran on other issues—is weak. So Iran is pursuing its own agenda in propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria and fighting ISIS in Iraq. There is a confluence of interests with the US at least in the latter case, but that’s not the same as an alliance. Right-wing US commentators are right to point out that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and some of the Iraqi Shi’ite militias now fighting ISIS killed American soldiers during the occupation.

One constraint on Obama is that drawing closer to Iran more generally would make the Saudis even angrier and more paranoid than they are already. Supporting them in Yemen plays a double purpose—keeping ISIS and Al Qaeda out and reassuring the Saudis. But the bombing campaign seems to have had little effect and the Saudis are clearly wary about sending in ground troops. The great Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser waged a proxy war with them in Yemen during the 1960s that drained away his power both in Egypt and in the region. A number of other states that the Saudis have tried to involve in the military campaign—Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt—have refused. The US apparently think the Saudis are making a mess in Yemen but don’t want to antagonise them by challenging them too strongly.

Is this a valid strategy for peace in the Greater Middle East?

Of course not! But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the US is interested in peace. After all, Obama has given up on the always pretty farcical “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. The game is about maintaining the domination of US imperialism in a key region of the world economy. If that causes death and suffering, too bad. Obama seems to prefer a continuation of the terrible war in Syria to forces he doesn’t like—either Assad or ISIS—winning.

From Yemen, Syria and Iraq to Ukraine or even Mali. Is there a rising level of conflicts globally? And, if so, why?

Yes, there is a rising level of conflict, though—aside from Syria—the body count is much less than in the great wars of the Cold War era—Korea, Vietnam, Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. The fundamental cause is the relative weakening of US hegemony in the context of the biggest crisis capitalism has suffered since the 1930s. We can see this most clearly in the Middle East, where the existing political order has suffered two hammer blows—first the US invasion of Iraq and the defeat of the occupation, then the 2011 revolutions.

But also in the case of Ukraine, even though Putin acted defensively, to prevent the EU-NATO nexus reaching Russia’s borders, his confidence is greater thanks to US relative decline. Look, for example, at how he successfully challenged Obama’s threatened airstrike against Assad over chemical attacks in September 2013.

In all this, we mustn’t ignore the deep structural change caused by China’s emergence as the second biggest economy in the world and largest manufacturer and exporter. Given that Beijing is outside the web of alliances Washington created after the Second World War and is fairly open about its determination to reduce US geopolitical and military dominance of the Asia-Pacific region, this is much the most serious long-term problem facing American imperialism. The conflicts are much less overt than in the case of Ukraine or the Middle East, but Asia is becoming a zone of inter-imperialist competition, involving not just the US and China, but also Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and so on.1

Developments today remind us of a period before the First World War with rising conflicts between the Great Powers. The result then was global war. Is this a real threat today? And what can we do to stop it?

There are analogies with 1914. First, geopolitical competition is growing. Secondly, one crucial destabilising factor in the early 20th century was that geopolitical and economic competition were mutually reinforcing: Germany and the US were challenging Britain’s industrial and naval dominance, forcing the British to ally with one to defeat the other. Similarly, China is both a major economic challenger to the US but is also building up militarily to end American naval domination of the western Pacific.

But we shouldn’t overstate the analogies. In the years before August 1914 Europe became polarised between two increasingly antagonistic Great Power blocs. There’s nothing comparable today. The US may be weaker, but it’s still by far the strongest capitalist state and continues to be at the centre of key networks of capitalist states. And there’s plenty of scope for it to play the game of divide and rule in Asia with the aim of isolating China. The Chinese leadership has played into American hands by throwing their weight around regionally, for example in the various territorial disputes in the South China Sea, scaring smaller powers.

But my impression is that the Chinese Communist Party is preoccupied with internal issues such as the slowdown of the economy, growing environmental problems and president Xi Jinping’s drive for personal domination (using the anti-corruption drive, which has now claimed some major scalps). Maybe in the future domestic crises can lead to a more aggressive foreign policy on Beijing’s part, but this doesn’t seem to be on the agenda now.

This is no reason for complacency, however. The Ukraine war—which no one expected—is a frightening example of how dangerous crises can blow up very quickly with the potential for inter-imperialist clashes, in this case between the US and Russia. This shows the importance of continuing to build the anti-war movement—but also of doing so without siding with one imperialist power against another.

The temptation of “campism”—in this case of seeing Russia and China as “progressive” counterweights to the US—obscures that imperialism is a system of competing capitalist powers. Supporting one rival power against another essentially means abandoning independent left politics. We need to maintain the stance of Lenin and Luxemburg during the First World War, when they rejected the idea that one imperialist alliance was somehow better than the other. Our aim must be to build a mass movement capable of overthrowing this system altogether.

4 May 2015

The original interview, in German, is available at


1:See Callinicos, Alex, 2014, “The Multiple Crises of Imperialism”, International Socialism 144 (autumn), /the-multiple-crises-of-imperialism/