Imperialism and rising instability in the Middle East

By Paul Roberts

Having recouped the setbacks it experienced in the Middle East in 2011/12, imperialism has now hit some problems. These have largely arisen because imperialism, facing obstacles in the form of the Russia-China veto in the UN, the failure of Britain to back a military strike against Syria and pressures on its own military budgets, has relied on proxy military forces, including al-Qaeda inspired groups, to pursue its campaign to overthrow Assad. These now pose a threat to the West.

Deteriorating economic conditions are fuelling increased instability, and with there being less Western military capacity to intervene; the US is trying to get several areas of chaos under control at the same time. It is pressing its allies to eliminate various Islamist fighting groups and trying to stop a general spread of political disorder into more countries.

Middle East stagnation

With world economic growth slowing and a new wave of financial instability spreading across developing economies, social instability is on the rise through the semi colonial countries. In the Middle East the current turmoil can be expected to increase. Across many of the region’s countries growth has already halted, with the World Bank reporting that Middle East developing countries (i.e. all of them less Israel and the Gulf oil exporters) contracted by 0.1 per cent in 2013.

US foreign policy starts at home

As outlined here on this website, the US’s current economic priorities involve the transfer of resources from military spending to investment. US officially declared ‘defence’ spending has been cut by one tenth in real terms since 2009. As a share of GDP it has diminished by more than one per cent, having steadily risen since 2001, as illustrated by the chart below.

Source: Calculated from US Bureau of Economic Analysis

On top of that reduction in overall military spending, the ‘pivot to the Pacific’ is further decreasing available military resources not targeted on China. The resulting cuts to its military in the Middle East means the US does not want to risk having to engage in another land war there at present. As a result it has had to turn to proxies to pursue military action, relying on the European imperialists, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Islamist military groups.

These imperialist relays share some of the US’s goals, but also pursue their own interests that do not coincide. Recent diplomatic strains amongst Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, France and the US reflect some of the clashing objectives. Nonetheless, for the time being, overall imperialism continues to advance.


In Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who recently arranged his own promotion to ‘Field Marshal,’ is consolidating a ‘Mubarak mark 2’ type of regime. Imperialist claims that democracy is being restored are hollow propaganda. The military is back in charge deploying its considerable experience in rigging elections. So no surprise was expressed when it announced a 98 per cent ‘Yes’ vote in January’s referendum, which granted greater constitution powers to the Army. An equally flawed Presidential election is being prepared for April, where the military’s candidate will ‘win’, with various coup supporting candidates also running to give the farce some semblance of legitimacy.

With Egypt’s economy still in crisis the coup regime is relying on more than $12 billion of Gulf state aid to prop up the situation till after the elections. Then the military’s economic policy is to impose severe austerity measures on the population. The generals anticipate that discontent, which is already widespread, will rise. So they are determined to cow all opposition forces now.

The military’s principal target is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), because it has the largest mass support. A terror campaign has been unleashed, thousands of MB supporters have been shot dead and injured on peaceful demonstrations and the killings are still continuing. The MB’s organisation has been outlawed, tens of thousands of its members imprisoned and its leaders, including former President Mohamed Morsi, are being arraigned before show trials.

The regime is also repressing those parts of the left that are now opposing military rule; protest without the state’s permission has been criminalised and some left activists imprisoned.

The MB urgently needs solidarity and campaigns against this brutal onslaught should be supported. Whatever its weaknesses, the Morsi government was a distinct advance for the Egyptian people. With the military restored the repression it previously organised for 30 years, executions, torture and terror, is all back again.

The MB is unfortunately paying a huge price for a catastrophic error of political orientation. Instead of building alliances with the left and nationalist forces both in Egypt and across the region, on the basis of opposition to imperialism’s impositions, it instead sided against the former forces and allied with the same imperialists and Saudi Arabia that were preparing the coup against Morsi.


Since 2006, when UN sanctions were first imposed on Iran for pursuing its nuclear programme, the US has been determined to get the research and development halted well before there is any possibility of constructing a weapon. The US priority is to maintain the current military balance within the region, where the sole nuclear arsenal is that of Israel. So Iran has been subjected to eight years of wide ranging sanctions and threats of military attack to persuade it to stop advancing its programme.

The recently signed interim agreement with Iran is a significant step forward for the US. Iran has agreed to constrain several dimensions of its nuclear activity and will have to commit to dismantling aspects of the programme before a final agreement will be signed off by the US. In return Iran is benefitting from some temporary easing of sanctions, although the most hard hitting ones remain in place to pressure Iran to further concede to US demands in the forthcoming negotiations.

There are clearly deepening tensions within Iran between President Hassan Rouhani and other political forces, including within the state, that believe the proposed deal will severely weaken the country.


The Palestinian struggle remains very much on the defensive. Egypt’s generals have tightened the siege around Gaza and are working with Israel and the US to depose Hamas. Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it has increased the demolition of Palestinian property and displacement of its occupants.

The US and Israeli governments want to impose a long term settlement on the Palestinians when the latter are at a disadvantage. A ‘framework agreement’ is currently under negotiation between the US, Israel and Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas, which heads the government in Gaza and won the last set of PA elections, continues to be excluded from all discussions, because it refuses to capitulate to imperialism’s demands.

The proposed framework is fundamentally about conferring international legitimacy on to the de facto situation that exists on the ground. Israeli annexations, such as the Wall and settlements, which are widely recognised as illegal, are just accepted as gains for Israel. The Palestinians’ right to return is also to be annulled. Mahmoud Abbas’s PA is going along with this proposed capitulation, only arguing with the US and Israel over minor issues.


Imperialism is currently also exploiting recent openings in Turkey’s political situation where a pro-US opposition is being built up against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. As with the MB, the AKP maintains a framework of alliances with imperialism and against the left and nationalists, which for similar reasons makes it vulnerable.

The AKP pursues a somewhat independent line from US interests, for example positive relations with Russia, China, Iran and Hamas in Gaza plus more negative ones with Israel. The Turkish military were a more reliable US conduit, but since 2002 the AKP has decisively won the three general elections.

Now the AKP’s popularity is faltering. Turkey’s growth has slowed these past two years and a crisis is unfolding in the economy. The lira has fallen by a third against the dollar in recent months. Unrest and political opposition to the government has been rising. Last summer there were street protests that mobilised the left, but which were encouraged by the military and US for their own ends.

This year conflict has broken out between different currents within Turkish political Islam, that threatens to divide the AKP’s electoral base. The Islamist Gullen movement has orchestrated a campaign of corruption allegations against the AKP, making use of its network of supporters in the police and judiciary. The Gullen leadership is based in, and supported, by the US. It is aiming to secure the AKP’s defeat in the forthcoming elections; local ones in March, the country’s first direct presidential election in August in which Erdogan plans to stand and the 2015 general election.

Imperialism’s dangerous proxies take on a life of their own

Having relied on proxy armed forces to remove Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and reduce Assad’s control in Syria, imperialism has unleashed another set of problems for itself. The Western states plus Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all been aiding different Islamic military groups to carry out the fighting. Large components of these forces are inspired by al-Qaeda, which have expanded, acquired weaponry and established popular bases with territorial control.

Taken alongside recent al-Qaeda linked attacks across north and east Africa the US considers the situation is getting out of control. As previously occurred when the US armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, a substantial new threat to imperialism is emerging which now itself has to be driven back.


Imperialism’s progress in Syria at present has lost all momentum. On the one hand Assad is weakened by the removal of chemical weapons which were a key line of defence against nuclear armed Israel and imperialist attack. On the other, the West has a major problem that areas where Assad has lost control have been consolidated by al-Qaeda inspired forces.

These Islamist groups have established mass bases across north eastern Syria and built some popular support. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) last year took over Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city and the only one under rebel control. The various different fighting units now have thousands of armed militants under their command. This poses an altogether larger threat to imperialism than the small al-Qaeda network that existed on 9/11.

The US has pressed its allies to stop assisting these forces, but some are resistant. It suits Saudi Arabia, in particular, for Syria to be partitioned with parts under Islamist control. Its priority is the elimination of the Syrian regime as that will help isolate Iran, the latter it deems as the main threat to Saudi feudal rule. The US wants to maintain Syrian territorial unity because a break up would add to instability, including in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Jordan.

This January differences between the main Islamist fighting forces in Syria escalated into military conflict between them. A coordinated offensive of various groups is being waged against ISIL. The offensive is backed by imperialism, which benefits from both sides grinding each other down as its goal is that pro-Western forces eventually take control of the battlefield against Assad.

The fighting between the Islamist forces is giving some respite to Syria’s government. In the international talks in Geneva the US cannot achieve its demand for regime change. The negotiations are having to recognise that Assad is no longer losing ground.

Iraq and Lebanon

The conflict this past three years in Syria has impacted on its neighbours.

Iraq’s Anbar province is the direct conduit for fighters and armaments from Saudi Arabia. It is also the base of ISIL. In January Iraqi government forces lost control of Ramadi and Fallujah, to various forces including ISIL. The US is currently assisting Iraq, with military hardware and intelligence, to regain control of these two Anbar cities.

In Lebanon the formation of a government has been paralysed for 10 months, as the pro-imperialist (‘March 14’) bloc has exploited the war in Syria to create division within Lebanon and have been insisting proposals for a new cabinet must exclude Hezbollah. If such a government could function, which is in doubt, it would lead to confrontation with a large part of the population and create a crisis in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and France have for months been backing this intransigent stance. The US has recently decisively intervened to insist on the formation of another unity government, meaning with Hezbollah, as the current chaos risks spinning out of control. Saad Hariri and his ‘March 14’ coalition indicate they will cede to US concerns.


Libya’s political crisis has deepened. The NATO installed regime has not managed to regain control in the east. Additionally now, in the south of the country, it is also having to fight various groups including one’s armed by Saudi Arabia.


In areas where imperialism has lost control of the situation, particularly to al-Qaeda inspired forces, it faces a threat that is difficult to eliminate. The US has turned to the same regional allies that built up these forces for help in crushing them. How successful this will prove remains to be seen, although Saudi Arabia is bending to US pressure and has indicated it will now discourage the flow of fighters into Syria.

The US needs to secure imperialist command over the military struggle against Assad and bring the situations in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya more under control.

With fewer resources to militarily intervene itself in the Middle East imperialism is likely to confront more problems. It already has created a dangerous threat to itself by turning to proxy forces. Whilst overall since 2011 it has advanced its interests, with social instability in the region again on the rise, it is guaranteed to face further challenges.