Palestine and Beyond: the Current Political Moment in the Middle East

by Oct 15, 2014Amandla Issue 35, Magazine

An Exclusive Amandla! Interview with Gilbert Achcar

A!: What impact has the conflict in Israel/Palestine had generally on the political situation in the Middle East?

GA: Basically it’s a further factor in radicalising the populations in the Arab world. You have increasing resentment because they’ve seen these tragedies unfolding, especially the one in Syria, which dwarfs any other tragedy now. To be fair, even during the onslaught on Gaza you had more people killed every day in Syria than you had in Gaza. And the fact that this was allowed to go on created such resentment that it enabled the rise of ISIS – ultra fundamentalist fanatical radicalisation to the point that Al-Qaeda now appears moderate.

A!: Is this resentment and radicalisation always going to lead to the rise of religious fundamentalists, rather than more secular democratic forces coming to the fore?

GA: Radicalisation and resentment do not lead in and of themselves to the development of this or that force; everything depends on the kind of subjective factors that exist and that can interact with these objective factors of radicalisation. This region has started what I call a long-term revolutionary process in 2011 that will go on for decades. When you have a revolutionary process, it’s not linear; it’s not one victory after the other until you have the red flag over some palace. It can get very nasty; you can see terrible counter revolutionary moments. The dominant perspective in the region is counter-revolutionary with the developments in Syria (the resilience of the Assad regime) and in Egypt (al-Sisi), as well as the development of ISIS. But that’s a moment in a long-term process.

This moment has been enabled by the failure of any potential left-wing forces in the region to act independently to build an alternative to both the old regime and to the Islamic forces. So you have the old regimes on the one hand, and you have Islamic forces on the other hand. But both are deeply counter revolutionary forces. If there’s no emergence of a third progressive popular force constituting an alternative, then we are stuck with this binary and with the dialectics of moving to the extreme on both sides of this binary. The old regime gets nastier (Sisi is actually nastier than Mubarak) and the Islamic side gets nastier (ISIS is much nastier than anything the Muslim Brotherhood represented). So you have a dialectics of extreme radicalisation on both sides of a counter-revolutionary binary in the absence of a progressive popular alternative.

A!: Wasn’t there an alternative when the masses of people in Tunisia and in Egypt came onto the street in a democratic, secular movement? Has that been preserved anywhere?

GA: The potential is there – not just a theoretical potential, but an actual potential. It’s uneven from country to country. In Tunisia, it’s embodied in the trade union UTT, which is by far the most important organised social and political force in the country. The problem is that it needs a different strategy.

The same goes for Egypt: you had a very strong, a very big potential of which we had a glimpse in 2012 when the left-nationalist candidate came third in the presidential elections. He got close to five million votes. So this showed a huge potential, quite comparable in size to both camps of counter-revolution represented by the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. And yet this was squandered by the Egyptian left when it moved from an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood to an alliance with the military. But the potential is still there, and the youth is still radicalised; it did not vote for Sisi and this is very important. Participation in the last presidential election was very low. They rigged the vote anyhow, with this ridiculous 95% for Sisi.

Even in Syria, the local co-ordination committees represented a very important progressive potential; but this was dissipated when these committees accepted the so-called national council, formed in Istanbul, and dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Since then we have been paying the price: the Syrian situation got caught between this weak official opposition and the very brutal regime, which led to the emergence of a more radical Islamic opposition represented by a myriad of groups, most important of which is ISIS.

And so the aspirations of the Syrian revolution have been crushed between these two counter-revolutionary forces – the regime on the one hand and the fanatical Islamic fundamentalists on the other. But the potential is still there with tens of thousands of people, including the youth, opposing the regime. The regime arrested thousands of progressives who were organising the uprising while at the same time releasing Jihadists from jail. So the regime itself fostered by every possible means the emergence of the hard-line Islamic tendency in the opposition. Because this suits the regime, exactly as Islamic radicalisation suits the Israeli right-wing. They are playing the same game.

A!: And is any side getting the upper hand in the conflict now?

GA: Two years ago Assad was on the verge of defeat, and that’s when Iran decided to intervene on the ground not only by giving him support, but by sending troops; because of the language factor, they sent Arab troops of Iran’s allies – Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Iraq. And these forces helped the regime in launching a successful counter-offensive and regaining a lot of the ground that they had lost in the previous periods.

However, the ISIS phenomenon is creating constraints on Iran and the Iraqis, who have to fight on different fronts now. In addition to fighting the mainstream Syrian opposition, they have to worry about ISIS, because Iraq is also a major stronghold of Iranian influence in the region. There are signs of exhaustion within the Syrian regime, the military basis of which is relatively thin.

So despite all appearances presently, the Syrian regime is again facing problems, but it is invoking the so-called “war on terror”. You can see here the similarities between the Syrian regime, Egypt, and the Israeli government. They all speak the same language, the language of the war of terror, and in the name of this war on terror they want a carte blanche for all brutalities. And now they are telling Washington, look, you see you have ISIS and all that – we are your best friends, supporting us will be in your interest.

A!: And the US attitude to the emergence of ISIS, is it one of containment rather than eradication?

GA: Your choice of terms is correct. Presently it is contained; that is they intervened to stop the advance by ISIS, but they didn’t want to move back from containment before achieving a political goal. Washington sees this ISIS business as a leverage to get rid of Maliki and to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq – because Maliki has become very closely connected to Iran, and the tensions between Maliki and Washington have been increasing since the end of the direct US military presence in Iraq in 2011.

Their relations with Maliki have deteriorated to the point that Maliki even went to Moscow to discuss an arms deal. Actually Sisi is doing the same – so you can see how much Washington is losing ground in the region. Now with ISIS there, Iraq is dependent on US military support, because a lot of the US weaponry there has been seized by ISIS. The U.S. has set conditions for enhancing their support, demanding the departure of Maliki. They got what they wanted: Maliki has stepped down and been replaced.

Washington would like to repeat what it did in 2006 after losing ground in the face of Al-Qaeda. At that point, the US bought the Sunni tribes, the very constituency that Al-Qaeda was developing among. They managed in that way to turn the Sunni tribes into allies of the United States, thus practically eradicating Al-Qaeda in Iraq. What we are seeing now is a repetition of that strategy; now the Sunni tribes have become completely alienated by the sectarian attitude of Maliki, backed by Iran. So much resentment is building among them, that when ISIS came they just aligned with ISIS.

Now what we have got is not ISIS alone taking over parts of Iraq; it’s ISIS plus the Arab Sunni forces, tribes, other groups, etcetera. And this is what happened in Iraq previously when, after the massacre in Fallujah in 2004, the Sunnis became so alienated that they let Al-Qaeda in and backed it until Washington changed its strategy. So now we are seeing a repetition of the same scenario, the Sunni tribes having this time allowed ISIS in, with Washington wanting to get to the same strategy of alliance with the Sunni tribes, but for this they had to remove Maliki. This is now achieved and we’ll see what will be the next step.

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