On the eve of the Trades Union Congress a YouGov poll showed that the British public now oppose missile attacks by more than three to one. This is substantially up from two to one before prime minister Cameron was humiliated in the Commons vote and is a defeat for the shameful attempt by Blairites to ramp up the war drive.
69% now oppose using British missiles against military sites inside Syria, while only 21% support.
Sending ‘defensive’ military aid to the insurgents is opposed by 62%, sending full-scale military supplies by 77%, up from 61%; and using British aircraft and missiles to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria is opposed by 50%, up from 42%.
The shift in public opinion is a decisive turning point in British politics, cementing public distrust of Western intentions in the Middle East and strengthening popular confidence that mass action can change government policy.
Unity asked Middle East and foreign affairs expert Kenny Coyle why the US and Britain have been so intent on finding a pretext for military intervention in Syria?
After more than two years of armed conflict, it is abundantly clear that the Assad regime retains the support of sizeable sections of the Syrian population, despite its unquestionably authoritarian character.
Outside attempts to provoke ethnic and sectarian divisions have backfired by strengthening the regime’s legitimacy as a secular state, this is despite Western media caricatures of the Damascus government as simply resting on the Alawite minority. The rebel groups are divided and largely dependent on foreign cash and fighters. So the only hope of toppling Assad is the use of decisive outside force, hence the need to find pretexts that would justify more blatant interference.
Let’s be clear though that Western intervention is both covert and overt; intelligence sharing, funding, training, arming and equipping of rebel forces has been happening for some time already.
However, it is also clear that sizeable divisions exist within the US and British establishments between direct military interventionists and those who fear the unpredictable consequences of aggression. The defeat of Cameron’s plan in parliament is the result of serious misgivings within the Tory party as well as the Lib Dems. It also represented a welcome policy break by Ed Miliband from New Labour’s subservience to Washington.
How far do the Arab dictatorships in the Gulf have similar objectives to the US and Britain – and how far do they differ among themselves?
It’s certainly too simplistic to see the Gulf regimes as mere puppets of the West. They have their own ambitions. Currently the most active states are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These two hugely wealthy states have jointly manipulated and bankrolled the Syrian civilian and armed opposition groups but seem to have suffered a serious split over Egypt. The Saudis supported the ousting of Morsi, while the Qataris were especially close to his Muslim Brotherhood government.
It’s not just cash that is used to buy influence. Saudi troops intervened in Bahrain in 2011 in support of its allied dictatorial regime when it faced mass pro-democracy protests.
Both the Saudi and Qatari regimes are heavily involved in supporting Wahhabi and Salafi sectarian groups across the region. Saudi Arabia has a significant Shia minority in its major oil producing regions and Bahrain’s population is largely Shia. Nowadays Western media coverage generally reduces conflicts within the Arab world to purely religious identities. By and large, these aren’t simply esoteric disputes about theology, the Sunni-Shia cleavage in a number of Arab countries often runs parallel with class and other social divisions.
Beyond the Gulf, we should also mention the importance of NATO member Turkey, which has its own imperial legacy in the region. The Kurdish national question across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria remains, along with Palestine, one of the key unresolved regional conflicts since the carving up of the Ottoman empire almost a century ago.
Aside from the US and Britain, we shouldn’t forget that France has a strong colonial imprint in the Middle East and seems especially willing to use its influence in its former colonial territories of Syria and Lebanon, as well as in parts of North and West Africa. Judging by John Kerry’s recent pointed statements about the historic US-French alliance, this seems to be something the US is intent on exploiting.
We have heard a lot in the past decade about US plans for regional reconfiguration in the greater Middle East. Are these plans still active?
Absolutely. In military terms alone, the US has moved from an era of Rapid Deployment Forces during the first Gulf War to permanent centralised command structures.
The United States Central Command covers most of the Middle East and Central Asia, while Africom oversees the African continent minus Egypt. Bahrain is a major naval base for both the US Fifth Fleet, as well as the UK, explaining Western support for the repression of Bahrain’s pro-democracy forces. Access to the Suez Canal is a perennial concern.
US policy in the region has to cope with a fundamental contradiction;cosying up to Arab regimes while simultaneously promoting the interests of its Israeli ally.
However, looking over the past decade there is a trend toward greater regional instability with much greater vulnerability of long-term US allied regimes, and this was certainly not factored into discussions a decade or so ago. There is a lot to play for.
What were the origins of the Arab Spring?
Unfortunately there was no uniform surge for popular democracy across the Arab world. In reality, specific national demands and crises emerged with quite distinct characteristics. While a regional overview is essential, political struggle continues to be shaped by these national features.
In Tunisia and Egypt, at least temporarily, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as political victors.
Why are communist parties in the Middle East so opposed to this organisation?
The Muslim Brotherhood is an essentially conservative force but it has deep roots in a number or Arab countries. This is due to two factors. First its record of opposition to existing regimes, for example it functioned as the main semi-legal electoral opposition to Mubarak for the past two decades in Egypt. Second it developed a network of charity and welfare organisations that met real immediate needs of the urban and rural poor. Yet it remains firmly opposed to any form of class-based politics. Communists have occasionally been able to work with the Brotherhood on certain issues but the long-term record of the Brotherhood has not been progressive. In the 1940s, for example, it played a major strikebreaking role in Egypt against communist-led unions.
It has to be remembered that many Arab states have substantial non-Muslim and non-Sunni minorities, such as many Christian denominations and varieties of Shia Islam. As a confessional organisation, the Brotherhood cannot represent this complex society, while Communists in the Middle East have generally worked to create alliances across religious and ethnic divides.
What tasks face democratic forces in Egypt today?
Egypt faces danger on several fronts. At least for now, the authoritarian and sectarian agenda of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has been beaten back. But this happened in a contradictory way; on the one hand through the power of popular mobilisation but, in the end, also by brutal military force. There are already trends, such as the recent moves to free ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak from his jail cell and the sealing of tunnels linking Egypt with the Gaza Strip, that run counter to both the demands of the original 2011 revolution and of the recent mass protests.
It will prove to be a fatal mistake if democratic forces give carte blanche to the military instead of consolidating democratic civilian power to tackle Egypt’s serious social problems. H
Kenny Coyle is a former international secretary of the Communist Party
This appears in Unity@TUC the Communist party daily issued to delegates to the 2013 Trades Union Congress meeting in Bournemouth
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