Was Trump’s attack on the lira Putin’s idea?

 

Trump Impeachment Odds Slashed to Shortest Ever After ...

What did Trump and Putin agree in their secret meeting in Helsinki in July? Trump’s attack on the Turkish economy has given Putin just the leverage he needs with Erdogan over Idlib.

Trump’s critics warn us that his belligerent policies towards Iran and Turkey are pushing them into Moscow’s arms, even as they seek evidence of ‘Russian collusion’ in all the wrong places. This collusion is not to be found in shady backroom campaign meetings; it is hiding in plain sight.

“He does things the right way” Trump said of Erdogan last month. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; the two men have much in common after all: nationalist tubthumping autocrats with a contempt for constitutional limits on presidential might, who see few problems which cannot be solved through the right combination of willpower and firepower. His comment specifically referred to Erdogan’s ability to ignore his own parliament, and was followed up with a mutually aggrandising fistbump. Yet the budding bromance was to be short-lived.

 

Days later, Trump entered his now infamous two-hour private meeting with Putin in Helsinki. According to their own account, one of the main items on the agenda was Syria, which for seven years has been the battleground for a proxy war between (among others) the two men’s respective countries. In this war, Turkey and the US were supposed to be on the same side; yet Trump, on Syria as so many issues, has been ambivalent as to US goals in the conflict. The original objective, of course, was to transform Syria – an independent regional power allied to both Iran and Hezbollah – into a failed state on the Iraqi/ Libyan/ Afghan model. Yet the Syrian state – with a level of popular support surprising to those western observers susceptible to their own propaganda – stubbornly refused to be destroyed. Russian intervention helped turn the tide in September 2015, and since then, one victory after another – most notably in Aleppo – has made it clear that not only will the Syrian government survive, but that it will very likely restore its authority nationwide. Most rebel-held cities have now been retaken by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), whilst the Kurdish YPG – who have always, correctly, feared the US-backed sectarian insurgency far more than they have feared Assad – have entered into negotiations with the government, leading to a growing role for the SAA in YPG-held areas as well. The only major population centre still fully outside government control, then, is Idlib, home to almost 3 million, and largely under the control of Hay’et Tahrir Al Sham, the latest rebrand of Syria’s Al Qaeda franchise.

 

All the signs are that a government offensive on this last rebel stronghold is imminent, with government forces amassing at the western edge of the province near Jisr al Shughour. Yet one major obstacle remains. Turkey.

 

Turkish troops are now present on the ground in Idlib at around a dozen ‘observation posts’ set up under the terms of the ‘de-escalation zones’ agreed by Iran, Turkey and Russia at the Astana conference, making a direct assault on the governorate very difficult without risking a major escalation with Turkey – still, despite everything, a NATO member. Furthermore, Turkey wields extensive influence over many of the rebel groups present in Idlib. Back in May, Turkey formed a coalition of around a dozen anti-government militias there under the banner of the ‘National Liberation Front’. Earlier this month, they persuaded two HTS splinters – Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the US-UK-funded group infamous for their livestream beheading of an 11 year old, and Ahrar al-Sham, another Al-Qaeda in all but name and attitude to the west – to sign up. Through this force, Turkey now claims to control up to 100,000 fighters in Idlib, in addition to its own troops on the ground. In other words – Turkey has positioned itself to act as a major spoiler to any forthcoming Idlib operation.

 

Russia, then, seeks to pressure Turkey into agreeing to, if not a surrender of the province, then at least the removal of its troops, and a negotiated settlement with its NLF proxies – perhaps even a joint operation against HTS by the SAA, the NLF and Russia. This might be acceptable to Turkey – given a guarantee of influence in the aftermath – and Russia, but would be very hard to swallow for the Syrian government, who have no desire to share power with Al Qaeda lite. What Russia needs, then, in order to oversee an Idlib settlement on its own terms, is some kind of leverage over Turkey.

 

Enter Trump. Trump’s attack on the Turkish currency – already under pressure from the rising dollar due to its huge mountain of debt – precipitated an unprecedented decline in its value, only stemmed by a $15 billion loan from Qatar. But this is likely to only be a temporary solution. Cut out of US markets, and facing further sanctions over its purchases of Iranian oil, what Erdogan needs is a new, more dependable ally than his volatile erstwhile buddy in the White House.

 

Enter Putin. On August 10th, following the Trump tweet that triggered the lira’s plunge, Erdogan immediately spoke to Putin to discuss “trade and economic cooperation”. 3 days later, Erdogan explained that he had “made advancements in our ties with Russia in accordance to our benefits and interests”. This was followed up with a visit to Ankara by Foreign Minister Lavrov the next day and then, at the end of last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was received in Moscow by Putin himself. Russia had already reaffirmed its commitment to the delivery of its much-feared S-400 missile system by early next year, and made some vague promises to use the lira in its transactions with Turkey at some unspecified point in the future. But nothing new, nothing concrete. Russia was signalling that it was ready to come to Turkey’s aid; but at a price. That price may well be Turkish support for Russian proposals in Idlib, which Putin will be hoping to finalise in the forthcoming Syria summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran next week. Already, the statements coming out of Turkey following the various meetings which have taken place have indicated something of a shift in the Turkish position, with Cavusoglu admitting the presence of “terrorist groups” in Idlib, which need to “neutralised” – “to alleviate the concerns of our Russian counterparts”. At the same time, Putin can use the prospect of Turkish acquiescence to an operation in Idlib as leverage on the Syrian government to accept both its own proposals for recognition of Kurdish autonomy and Israeli demands on the Iranian presence in Syria. Such an outcome would allow both Netanyahu and Trump to claim a much-needed victory in their campaign to ‘rollback’ Iran, whilst simultaneously increasing Iranian and Syrian dependence on Russia. Trump’s attack on the lira, in other words, by throwing Turkey into Moscow’s arms, may have been the key to unlock the final stages of a Syria settlement under Russian tutelage. This is the real Trump-Russia collusion: not in backroom campaign meetings, but hiding in plain sight.

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye 

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Is Russia facilitating Trump’s strangulation of Iran?

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Since the earliest days on the campaign trail, it has never been in doubt who Trump and his team have had in their sights. “Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests,” Defence Secretary Mattis told his Senate confirmation hearing, having previously claimed the country posed a bigger security threat than either ISIS or Al Qaeda. Mike Pence called Iran the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” whilst new National Security Advisor John Bolton has for years called for Iran to be bombed. Trump himself, in his own little remix of Pence’s phrase, has called Iran “The Number One State of Sponsored Terror”, which presumably means something derogatory.

 

China, of course, was famously accused of “raping our country” by Trump in 2016, whilst White House aide Peter Navarro claimed the country was waging “economic aggression” against the US. Former National Security Advisor Steve Bannon announced this week that “we are at war with China”.

 

Iran and China, then, have been favoured rhetorical targets since day one – but this year that rhetoric has morphed into all-out economic warfare. This month alone, Trump has unleashed tariffs on $60 billion of Chinese goods, threatened to do so on $500billion more, and announced his intention to cut Iranian oil exports to zero by November. These weapons of financial destruction are openly aimed at crippling and sabotaging China and Iran in order to stymie their development and bring them to their knees. Yet at the same time as this is happening, the leader of Iran and China’s major geopolitical ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has continued to be courted and flattered by Trump. What is going on?

 

On the face of it, these hostile acts against two of Russia’s key allies have, as one might expect, been condemned by Putin’s government. Prior to Trump’s May announcement that he would intended to violate the Iranian nuclear deal by restoring sanctions, the Kremlin warned of “harmful consequences” should he do so. And following the recent Helsinki summit between the two leaders, Putin continued to back the deal (albeit on the grounds of limiting Iranian sovereignty rather than defending it) stating that “The Russian position remains unchanged regarding the Iranian nuclear program, and we believe that the JCPOA is an instrument that makes it possible to guarantee the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in general and in the region in particular,” adding that the deal had turned Iran into one of the most heavily IAEA-monitored countries in the world. Russia similarly denounced the tariffs slapped on China earlier this month.

 

Yet, behind the rhetorical opposition, Russian actions are facilitating Trump’s aggression. Following 18 months of oil production cuts agreed by Russia and Saudi Arabia in 2016, which had successfully raised oil prices out of the slump into which they had fallen, Russia last month proposed an unexpected and immediate reversal of this policy. The low oil prices which had plagued oil markets before the 2016 cuts were agreed had caused huge problems for producer countries such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, leading many to believe that the Saudis had been ordered by the US to flood the market in order to sabotage the economies of its geopolitical foes. The new production quotas, then, had given these countries some much-needed breathing space; yet, this June, Russia put forward a proposal to OPEC to increase production by 1.8million barrels per day (bpd) – and, unusually, proposed that these increases were to start kicking in within weeks. In the end, a pact to increase production by 1 million barrels per day – spearheaded by Russia and Saudi Arabia – was agreed by OPEC and non-OPEC countries in late June. The rise was opposed by Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and Algeria, with Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh commenting ahead of the meeting that “OPEC is not the organization to receive instruction from President Trump … OPEC is not part of the Department of Energy of the United States”.

 

Within days of the adoption of the Russian-led production increase, the Trump administration announced its plans to “reduce Iranian oil exports to zero” by November 4th. Questioned on whether such a policy might cause disruption as countries scrambled to replace supplies, State Department policy director Brian Hooks remarked that “we are confident there is sufficient global spare oil capacity.” Russia’s push for increased production had, in effect, smoothed the path for the next round of Trump’s strangulation of Iran. It was precisely this deal which lay behind Trump’s brazen claim that world oil supplies would plug the gap created by the loss of Iranian crude; without the end to Russian-Saudi production limits, this would have been unthinkable. As things stand, however, all the pieces are in place for Trump to apply serious pressure on all importers of Iranian oil. Whilst the Russian-Saudi deal offers alternative sources of supply, the trade war now underway demonstrates Trump’s willingness to use tariffs against those who do not bend to his geopolitical will. Whilst Trump has openly threatened sanctions against those who do not heed his call to end their dealings with Iran, it is quite possible that those who do heed it will be rewarded with tariff exemptions. China, in particular – Iran’s biggest trading partner, and now threatened with tariffs on all $500bilion of their exports to the US – will be particularly under pressure.

 

On the surface, then, Russia’s actions appear self-defeating. The end to the, hugely successful, production quotas of the previous 18 months immediately triggered a drop in oil prices – Russia’s main export commodity – whilst facilitating the escalation of US economic warfare against key Russian ally Iran. Yet there are several reasons Russia may be supporting Trump’s moves.

 

Most obviously, Iran is a major competitor with Russia for oil export markets – especially in Europe. European hopes to reduce dependence on Russian energy supplies are likely to be seriously dashed if they can no longer turn to Iran as an alternative supplier. Quite simply, Russia will sell more oil without Iranian competition.

 

More than this, however, even Trump’s use of tariffs as leverage to push countries away from Iran could be to Russia’s benefit. If Trump does indeed make tariff-free access to the US market conditional on cutting investment and trade with Iran, China would face a major dilemma.

 

China has for some years been not only Iran’s major trading partner, but investment financier as well. In 2011, China  signed a  $20 billion  agreement  to  boost  bilateral  cooperation  in Iran’s industrial and mining sectors. Today, China is poised to take over development of the massive South Pars oil and gas field should the French company TOTAL pull out, as they are widely expected to do, whilst a $3billion deal was recently signed giving SINOPEC the right to expand the Abadan oil refinery in Khuzestan Province. Meanwhile, reports Fox News, “With the U.S. Treasury putting pressure on Western banks to not make any deals with Iran, the Chinese state-owned CITIC bank is extending lines of credit worth $10 billion for Iranian banks. This funding will finance water, energy and transport projects. To bypass U.S. sanctions, the lines of credit will use euros and yuan currencies”.

But most significant for Russia is the 2017 $1.5 billion deal made by the Chinese Export-Import Bank to finance a high-speed railway between Tehran and Mashhad. The railway is envisioned to become part of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ , creating a high-speed transit route between central Asia and Europe that will shave weeks off current travel times.

This May – in a clear act of defiance to the US – China opened a new train line between China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Tehran, shortening travel time by 20 days compared to cargo ship. Once the full vision of  a Chinese built high-tech, high-speed rail network across central Asia is realised, however, the current ‘Northern route’ through Russia is likely to be rendered all but redundant.

 

Could it be, then, that Russia sees it as in its own interests to facilitate Trump’s quest to chase Chinese investment out of Iran in order to preserve its trade routes and access to European oil markets?

 

If so, it is likely to be disappointed. For Iran is central not only to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s multi-trillion, multi-decade long ‘geoeconomic’ programme – but also to its defence strategy. As correctly observed in a recent piece published by The Diplomat, “Iran constitutes [China’s] true priority. China has nurtured bilateral relations with Tehran for decades, leveraging a common resentment toward Western dominance. This partnership has great geostrategic importance to both nations. Thanks to its oil and gas reserves, Iran could help Beijing withstand a U.S. attack on its SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication).”

For China, much as it naturally seeks to avoid further punishment from the US, Iran is simply too important to be bargained away. Unfortunately not so, it seems, for Moscow.

Originally published in Middle East Eye, July 2018

The war on Iran has begun. Russia must end it.

Things are escalating again in one of Syria’s many wars. Last Sunday, 29th April, two massive strikes – presumed by Israel – reportedly hit the Syrian Arab Army’s 47th Brigade military base and arms depots near Hama, as well as Nairab Military Airport in Aleppo. The attack, thought to have been carried out using powerful ‘bunker-buster’ missiles, created a fireball which could be seen for miles, and triggered a shock measuring 2.6 on the Richter scale, felt as far as Turkey and Lebanon.  It is thought the strikes targeted Iranian surface-to-surface missiles intended for deployment in Syria, and killed 26 – 38 people, including 11 Iranians.

 

The attack appears to have been coordinated with the USA, coming just hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Jerusalem – where, according to Haaretz, he had “thrilled Netanyahu with hawkish talk on Iran”. That same day, noted the Times of Israel, “news also broke of a phone call between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump”, whilst Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was meeting his US counterpart James Mattis in Washington. This feverish activity came less than a week after “Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the US army’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose sphere of responsibility includes Syria and Iran, made a largely unpublicized visit to Israel.” The article concluded that “All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli-American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria — simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington.” The war on Iran, in other words, has begun.

 

In hindsight, it has been underway for some time. Israel has reportedly conducted over 100 airstrikes in Syria since 2011, but a stepchange occurred last July. On July 9th 2017, Russia and the US agreed on a de-escalation zone in Southwest Syria, which, according to Foreign Policy journal analyst Jonathan Spyer, Israel believed “could seriously complicate the de facto Israeli safeguards in place against Iranian infiltration of the border”. In the four months which followed this agreement, Israeli jets made over 750 incursions into Syrian airspace, an average of six per day, and totalling 3200 hours in the country. Clearly, some serious reconnaissance activity was taking place. Then on October 16th, Israeli jets struck a Russian-supplied S-200 air defense battery in the Damascus area. The attack took place during a meeting in Tel Aviv between the Israeli and Russian Defence Ministers, and was perhaps calculated to send a message to Syria that they can not rely on Russian protection.

 

Then, in January 2018, with the battle against IS almost won, Rex Tillerson announced new goals for the 2000 US troops in Syria, vowing that they would remain until “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.” This was followed in February by calls by the French foreign minister for Iran to ‘leave Syria’, and a warning from the International Crisis Group that Israel had “updated its red lines – signalling it would take matters into its own hands if necessary to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria”.

 

Since then, Israel has moved from targeting Syrian army and Hezbollah convoys to the directly targeting of Iranian personnel and facilities.It’s shooting down of an Iranian drone on February 9th led to one of its own F-16s being downed by the Syrian army after it bombed the drone’s command centre, the first time an Israeli warplane had been shot down since the 1980s. Yet, in a very rare admission of responsibility, Israel still called the mission a success, claiming that between one third and one half of Syria’s air defences had been destroyed in the strikes.

 

Two months later, on April 9th, Israeli missiles again struck the same ‘T4’ military base they hit in February. The target this time, however, was specifically Iranian installations and equipment, and 14 Iranian soldiers were killed. According to one Israeli official, this was first time Israel had attacked ‘live Iranian targets’. It was also, apparently, the first time Israel had failed to inform Russia to provide advance warning of an upcoming strike, breaking the ‘de-confliction’ agreement made between Israel and Russia right at the start of Russian entry into the Syrian conflict in 2015.

 

Russia’s response was similarly unprecedented, with Russia immediately revealing Israel’s role in the attack, and Putin calling Netanyahu to warn him that Israel can no longer expect to be able to attack Syria with impunity. Then, following the US-UK-French airstrikes on Syria on 13th April, the chief of the Russian General Staff’s main operations directorate, Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, floated the idea of providing Syria with the powerful Russian-made S300 air defence system. The S300, capable of tracking up to 100 targets simultaneously over a range of 200km, “would create a no-go situation for Israel if allowed to be made operational by the Syrian regime”, according to former US naval officer Jennifer Dyer, adding that “The kinds of low-level, preemptive strikes (in Syria) the IAF [Israeli Air Force] has executed in the last few years, against Hezbollah targets and the special weapons targets of Iran and the Assad regime, would become virtually impossible. Israel would lose the ability to preempt the ‘build-up’ to war ”. Russia had originally signed a contract with Syria to deliver the S300 system in 2010, but this was scrapped after pressure from Israel. But, on April 23rd, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the decision to reverse that suspension and supply the S300 had now been made, with only the technical details left to iron out. Two days later, the Syrian embassy in Moscow claimed that the S300 had in fact already arrived a month ago and was being deployed. The Russian authorities immediately denied this, and reiterated that no final decision on whether or not to supply the S300 had in fact been taken. A few days later, the Israelis struck again, this time with their earth-shaking bunker busters, directly targeting Iranian troops and equipment for the second time. No S300, you see.

 

Media reports, both mainstream and alternative (my own included!), are increasingly nervous about the scenario now unfolding, and rightly so. Yet, whilst the danger of escalation and miscalculation – and specifically, the drawing in of Russia into the Israeli-Iranian conflict developing in Syria – remains real, many analysts have overstated the friction between Russia and Israel – and, indeed, the convergence of interests between Russia and Iran.

 

Despite both being opposed to western-backed regime change in Syria, Russian and Iranian objectives in the region are in fact very different. According to intelligence analysts Stratfor, “Russia’s strategic vision is chiefly focused on eliminating sources of instability and preventing U.S.-led military interventions”, with a “broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East”. In Syria, therefore, the Russians have the “limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength” in order to create a mediated, negotiated settlement, overseen and guaranteed by Russia.

 

The Iranians, however, are more focused on “containing Saudi Arabia’s power projection capacity across the Arab world”, leading to an “unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces….Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership.” Furthermore, “Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point of weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel.”

 

From this point of view, far from seeking to protect Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Russia has a direct interest in restricting it. Israel’s strikes may thus serve a function for Russia, putting pressure on Iran to ‘rein in’ the activities Russia views as disruptive to its own aims. Furthermore, Russia may believe that the Iranian presence in Iran – as an alternative source of support for President Assad – makes the Syrian government itself less willing to sign up to Russia’s diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, on a very basic level, a reduced Iranian presence leaves Assad more thoroughly dependent on Russia – a point, no doubt, made by Netanyahu on at least one of his seven meetings with Putin over the last year. And anyway, a cynic might argue, now the rebellion has been all but quashed, haven’t the Iranians served their purpose?

 

Many people claim that the alliance with Iran is too important for Russia to risk a gambit like this. And no doubt it is. But what if there is no risk? Whilst the Russian-Iranian alliance remains crucial for Moscow’s projection of power into the Middle East, Russia may well calculate that Iran has no interest in jeopardising this however poorly they are treated by their Russian ‘ally’ in Syria. After all, the provision of protection against a US attack on Iran is hardly a buyer’s market – Russia is a monopoly supplier. Safe in the knowledge that Iran really has no-one else to turn to, Russia can afford to let Israel loose on them.

 

Certainly, Israel’s belligerent Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman does not appear to see Russia as an obstacle to Israeli plans for Syria. “What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” he said in Washington recently, “At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys, it’s possible to close deals with them and we understand what is their interest,”. He certainly doesn’t sound like he is referring to a steadfast ally of Israel’s number one foe.

 

It may even be that Russia are still, against all hope, expecting to get something out of the Trump administration, in the form of sanctions relief, or at least some recognition of their security concerns in Ukraine and eastern Europe. Such hopes are surely forlorn.

 

I would like to think Russia is not so cynical as to stand back and allow Israeli aggression against Iran in order to gain leverage in its own relationship with both the Iranians and Syrians, nor so naive as to expect anything from the US. But the omens are not good. The failure to deliver the S300s, or to create any other meaningful deterrent, even after the opening shots in this new war on Iran were fired on April 9th, suggests either cowardice or collusion. And the Russians are not cowards.

 

Yet acquiescing to western aggression has not turned out well for the Russians in the past. Their failure to veto the UN-blessed crucifixion of Iraq in 1991, let’s not forget, was rewarded with nothing more than an economic straitjacket leading to the biggest collapse of living standards (outside of war) in recorded history. Twenty years later, when Russia agreed not to veto the west’s destruction of Libya, what followed was not gratitude, or acceptance, or respect, but western support for an anti-Russian fascist coup on Russia’s western flank, followed by the imposition of a vicious sanctions regime.

 

If Russia really are going to allow their erstwhile Iranian comrades to get wiped out, they really should understand that this is not simply a matter of Israel’s ‘legitimate security concerns’. This is about eliminating Iran’s chance of building up a deterrent in advance of an all-out war against Iran itself. And the destruction of states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran is, in turn, about isolating Russia when its own turn comes. This year will see the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, another occasion when major powers sacrificed supposed allies in the hope of saving their own skins. That didn’t go so well. Never mind the S300s, Russia need to provide S400s to the Syrian Arab Army and put a stop to this new war before its too late.

 

Yes, a world war is imminent

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Just over a quarter-century before the outbreak of the First World War, global capitalism was in the throes of a deep economic crisis. This original ‘Great Depression’, which lasted from 1873 to 1896, saw tens of millions perish from famine as the ‘great powers’ shifted the burden as far as possible onto their colonies; whilst, at home, anti-systemic movements such as the ‘New Unionism’ burst onto the scene in the capitalist heartlands, presenting a serious challenge to bourgeois rule. Africa was torn apart by imperial powers desperate to secure monopoly access to its riches, and rivalries between these powers constantly threatened to erupt into outright war. In the midst of all this, one particularly astute political commentator gave a disturbingly prophetic insight as to how the crisis would ultimately be resolved, predicting a: “world war of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years War compressed into three or four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutter by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of seeing where it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle; only one consequence is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.”

The commentator was Marx’s lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels. The accuracy of his prediction – right down to the numbers killed and the length of the war, not to mention the revolutions and collapse of empires that would result – is truly remarkable. Yet Engels had no crystal ball. What he foresaw was nothing more than the logical outcome of the workings of the global capitalist-imperialist system, which constantly and inexorably pushes towards world war.

The logic is basically this. Capitalism, with its combination of rapid technological progress plus derisory wage payments – both tendencies a ‘natural’ result of competition – leads to a situation where markets cannot be found for its goods. This is because capital’s capacity to produce constantly outstrips the capacity of consumers to consume, as these consumers are, in the main, the very workers whose wages are driven down, or who are made redundant altogether, by improved technology. Ultimately, this results in a crisis of overproduction, with markets glutted, and workers thrown out of work in their millions. Already in 1848, four decades before his prediction of world war, Engels (and Marx) had written that such crises tended to be “resolved” through “the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” – in other words, the wholesale closure of industry. Through closures of the most inefficient industries, surplus production would eventually be reduced, and profitability restored. But in so doing, capitalists were effectively increasing the concentration of capital in the hands of the most ‘efficient’ industries, whose productive capacity in the future would render the underlying contradiction yet more insoluble still, and were thereby “paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and diminishing the means whereby crises are avoided”. For Engels, the crisis underway by the 1880s was so extensive that the destruction of capital required to overcome it would take more than mere closures – it would take all-out war.

The destruction of capital, however, is not the only means by which to overcome overproduction crises. The other option, said Marx and Engels, is “the conquest of new markets or the more thorough exploitation of old ones”. The period of the late-nineteenth century saw a renewed ‘Scramble for Africa’ as each imperial power sought to grab territories which might one day serve as both sources of raw materials and markets for surplus capital. In North America, the USA was completing its own colonisation of the West and South in imperial wars against the Native Americans and Mexico. By the close of the century, however, all the ‘available’ territories had been conquered. From then on in, argued Lenin, the capture of new colonies could only be at the expense of another colonial power – ushering in a new, imperial, phase of capitalism with an inbuilt drive towards world war.

We have now witnessed two episodes of this cycle of capitalist crisis mutating into world war, the second much more successful in terms of the destruction of capital than the first. Indeed it was so successful that it paved the way for a ‘Golden Era’ of capitalist prosperity lasting almost three decades. But then, once again, the inevitable crisis tendencies began to set in.

The colonial, imperialist nature of postwar capitalism has, to some extent, been disguised by the formal political independence of most of the formerly colonised world. With an unambiguous and unrivalled lead in technological capacity, the Western nations have not required direct colonisation in order to guarantee essentially ‘captive’ markets for their goods and capital. The former colonies have largely been dependent on products, finance and technology from the imperial world without the need for formal political control – and this dependence has been backed up with economic blackmail through international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank where possible, and direct military force against resistant nations where necessary.

Such dependence, however, has been decisively eroded since the beginning of the new millenium. The rise of China, in particular, has completely destroyed the West’s monopoly on finance and market access for the global South: African, Asian and Latin American countries no longer have to rely on US markets for their goods or on World Bank loans for their infrastructure development. China is now an alternative provider of all these, and generally on far superior terms of trade than those offered by the West. In times of continued economic stagnation, however, this loss of their (neo)colonies is entirely unacceptable to the Western capitalist nations, and threatens the entire carefully crafted system of global extortion on which their own prosperity is based.

Increasingly unable to rely on economic coercion alone to keep countries within its ‘sphere of influence’, then, the West have been turning more and more to military force. Indeed, the US, UK and France have been permanently at war since the eve of the new millennium – starting with Yugoslavia, through Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria and Yemen (to say nothing of proxy wars such as that in the Congo, or the ‘drone wars’ waged in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere). In each case, the aim has been the same – to create, as far as possible, conditions of total state collapse. For the creation of ‘failed states’ serves not only to thwart any genuinely independent development, but also to restrict the flow of resources to China (by disrupting nationally-controlled production and facilitating western-run private piracy), create new markets in private security, and provide liquidity for the western banking system through facilitating major criminal enterprises (such as growing heroin, recruiting private sectarian armies to use against other states, and people smuggling). And ultimately, state collapse is deemed a necessary imposition when even the CIA-favoured anti-communist strongmen of the past can no longer be relied on to snub China in favour of the West; indeed, it is entirely indicative of this new era of decreasing western economic power that several of these wars were waged against states whose leaders were once in the pocket of the US (Iraq and Afghanistan) or who they had hoped to buy off (Libya and Syria).

Thus, where it was once, at least in part, the product of productive superiority, the continued supremacy of the West in international affairs is increasingly reliant on military force alone. And even this military superiority is diminishing daily.

Predictions of the length of time left before the Chinese economy overtakes the US economy continue to shrink. In 2016, China’s share of the world economy had grown to 15%, compared to the USA’s 25%. But with a growth rate currently three times that of the USA, the difference is expected to decline rapidly; at this rate, the Chinese economy is on course to overtake that of the US by 2026. In fact, once adjustments are made for purchasing power parity and differential prices, the Chinese economy is already larger. Furthermore, Chinese manufacturing output has been higher than that of the US for over a decade, and exports are one third higher, whilst China produces double the number of graduates annually than the US.

Such developments, however, are not of economic significance only: for it is only a matter of time before economic superiority is converted into military superiority. And this gives the US and its hangers-on an ever-diminishing window of opportunity in which to actually USE their military superiority in order to preserve their deteriorating global power.

Clearly the strategy hitherto has been to avoid direct war with China and its key ally Russia, and instead to focus on ‘taking out’ its real or potential allies amongst states less able to defend themselves. But Russia’s role as a spoiler in the regime change operation in Syria has demonstrated to the US that this may no longer be possible. This has led to a split within the US ruling class on the issue of how to deal with Russia, with one side seeking to purchase Russian acquiescence to wars against Iran and China (advocated by the faction supporting Trump) and the other aiming to simply ‘regime change’ Russia itself (advocated by the Hillary faction). At the heart of both is the attempt to break the alliance between Russia and China, in the case of Hillary by pulling China away from Russia, and for Trump, pulling Russia away from China.

The point is, however, that neither strategy is likely to work, as clearly the breaking of the China-Russia axis is aimed at weakening both of them. Furthermore, even if Putin were prepared to ditch Iran, or even China, for the right price (such as lifting sanctions, or recognising Russian sovereignty over Crimea), there is no way Congress would allow Trump to pay such a price. Trump would dearly love to offer to lift sanctions – but this is not within his gift; instead he can merely offer sops such as withdrawal from Syria, or pre-warning of missile attacks on Russia’s allies – hardly enough to lure Russia into the suicidal severing of alliances with its most important allies.

This conundrum puts the unthinkable squarely on the agenda: direct war with Russia. The last month has shown clearly how, and how rapidly, this is developing. Britain’s carefully calibrated efforts to create a worldwide diplomatic break with Russia can now clearly be seen as a prelude to what was almost certainly planned to be – and may yet become – an all-out war with Iran on the Syrian battlefield. This scenario appears to have been averted for now by Russia’s refusal to countenance it, and the West’s fear of launching such an operation in the face of direct Russian threats, but such incidents are only likely to increase. It is only a matter of time before Russia will be put to the test.

It is easy to see how the Syrian war could lead to a major escalation: indeed, it is difficult to see how it could not. In Washington, there is much talk of the need to ‘confront’ Iran in Syria, and recent Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria indicate that they are itching to get this confrontation under way, with or without prior US approval. Once underway, however, an Iranian-Israeli conflict could very easily draw in Russia and the US. Russia could hardly be expected to stand back whilst Israel reversed all its hard fought gains of the past two and a half years – whilst demonstrating the feebleness of Russian ‘protection’ – and would likely retaliate, or at the very least (and more likely) provide its allies with the means to do so. Indeed, Putin reportedly warned Netanyahu last week that he can no longer expect to attack Syria with impunity. And once Israelis start getting killed by Russian hardware, it is hard to see how the US could not get involved.

This is just one possible scenario for the kind of escalation that would lead to war with Russia. Economic war with China is already underway, and US warships are already readying themselves to cut off China’s supply lines in the South China Sea. Each specific provocation and escalation may or may not lead to a direct showdown with one or both of these powers. What is clear, however, is that this is the direction in which Western imperialism is clearly headed. It has built up its unparalleled armoury for one reason only – to protect its dominant world position. The time is soon coming when it will have to use it – and use it against a power that can actually fight back – whilst it still has a chance of winning.

An edited version of this article was originally published on Middle East Eye

The West clearly now has Iran in its sights (March 2017)

The British-US plan to weaken Iran via the proxy war on Syria has spectacularly backfired. Now they are more desperate than ever to bring Iran to its knees.

Western think tanks and ‘strategic institutes’ have been getting themselves in a cold sweat about Iranian influence for some time. In 2012, Frederick Kagan (former Bush advisor and Project for a New American Century neo-con) co-authored a report for the Institute for the Study of War warning “the US and its allies and partners in the region and beyond must not only understand Iran’s regional strategy and influence but also develop a coherent strategy of their own with which to confront them. Considering the religious, economic, political and diplomatic power of the two sides, it is simply unacceptable for the US and its allies to allow even such progress as it has [already] made in these realms.” Since Kagan made those comments four years ago, Iran’s “unacceptable…progress” has continued apace.

Its military cooperation with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah has developed into an increasingly formalized alliance (the so-called “4+1”), in which it played a leading role in the liberation of the Syrian city of Aleppo earlier this year. In Iraq, the Shi’ite militias it sponsors have been the indispensable vanguard of many of the battles against Islamic State, and it wields considerable influence over the rebel forces in both Bahrain and (supposedly) Yemen. The fall of Mosul will only consolidate this power.

Indeed, according to the Guardian, the territory west of Mosul that is currently being secured by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization forces is one of the final pieces of a jigsaw completing an arc of influence stretching all the way from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Such a ‘land bridge’ to the Mediterranean would significantly strengthen Iran’s independence and ability to withstand, for example, any future blockades or sieges. This is making Western planners particularly nervous, as it significantly weakens the West’s ability to control and corral the Iranians; with a long time Centcom advisor Ali Khedery, for example, claiming that such a development “should trouble every Western leader and our regional allies because this will further embolden Iran.”

Forbes, meanwhile, wrote that “Iranian influence in Iraq has the potential to destabilize global oil policy and the global oil market” given that the two countries combined oil reserves almost equal those of Saudi Arabia.

For here, as ever, lies the empire’s real fear – that the people of the Middle East might actually gain control over their own resources, and start using them strategically for their own development. Genuine independence has always been the fear of the region’s British, US and Israeli overlords. And Iran’s potential makes this independence a greater threat than most.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons spelled this out in a report in 2014: “Iran has the potential to be a major international power… it could be the “engine roomof the Middle East. It lies in a very significant strategic position, with Iraq to the west, former Soviet states to the north which have only relatively recently gained independence, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to the east and the Persian Gulf—a prime route for oil exports—to the south. It has a large and youthful population—75 million or more, of whom 55 percent are aged under 30. Iran ranks 76th out of the 187 countries classified under the UNDP Human Development Index, based upon assessments of life expectancy, access to knowledge and standard of living, placing it higher than any of its land neighbors. Youth literacy is near-universal. The country’s economy is relatively diverse, with supplies of essential commodities and an engineering, research and manufacturing base. Iran has substantial resources of natural gas (second only to the Russian Federation) and enough oil to enable it to be a leading exporter.”

Unacceptable progress” indeed!

Clearly, the US has been rattled by Iran for some time. Contrary to Trump’s assertions, for example, the Iranian ‘nuclear deal’ was less a ‘gift’ to Iran than a changing of tack to a longer game allowing the West to cultivate a fifth column in the country in preparation for a future attack.

Yet, US belligerence has apparently been stepped up under Trump, with new sanctions, an enormous ramping up of hostile rhetoric and the dispatch of another warship to Iran’s borders in January following an entirely legal Iranian missile test.

But most worryingly, the US has been sending large numbers of US troops to Iran’s neighbors in recent weeks. The initial deployment of 500 US troops in Syria was followed on March 9 by a further 400, with the Washington Post announcing on March 15 that another 1,000 are on the way.

These are just part of a massive flotilla of almost 5,000 US soldiers currently en route to the region, with troops from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE also being considered. This was revealed just one day after Trump met Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, following meetings earlier in the week between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the foreign ministers of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These troops are ostensibly going to aid the fight to oust ISIS from their stronghold in Raqqa. The real reason is to cement US influence and confront the Iranians. This is the US ground invasion which the ‘Gulfis’ have been calling for for years. Its aim is to keep the civil war alive by keeping the Syrian Arab Army out of Raqqa.

In Iraq, Secretary of Defense James Mattis (an avowed anti-Iran hawk who has claimed the country is a bigger problem than ISIS) announced he plans to keep US troops in Mosul long after the city is recaptured from ISIS. Again, this is nothing to do with ‘stability’ but all about countering Iranian influence. Indeed, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, Trump promised that he would “double US support, not just continue it” following Mosul’s capture; support here meaning the deployment of occupation troops.

But deploying troops to Iraq and Syria to contain Iranian influence is just the start of it. Ultimately, Trump’s Cabinet of anti-Iran warmongers seek to destroy the Islamic Republic itself. Their difficulty is how to convince Russia to go along with this: Syria has taught them that without Russian acquiescence, regime change can be very difficult indeed.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on Trump’s plans to “drive a wedge” between Iran and Russia, quoting a European official that there was “daylight” between the two countries. Indeed, differences do seem to have emerged over, for example, Assad’s future in Syria and, as political analyst Eric Draitser has pointed out, the two countries have a certain rivalry over supplying Europe’s energy markets.

Nevertheless, it would be utter suicide for Russia to go along with any US attempts to undermine its number one Middle Eastern ally.

As the deputy director of the Institute of the CIS, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Yevseyev told Sputnik, “the logic of the White House is simple: any deterioration of relations, whether Russian-Iranian or Russian-Turkish is strengthening the US position in the region.” Neither side has an interest in that.

Indeed, Obama’s so-called ‘reset’ of US-Russian relations did not end well for Russia: then Prime Minister Medvedev supported tough UN sanctions on Iran and delayed the delivery of anti-missile batteries to Iran, not to mention acquiescing to NATO aggression against Libya, only to find the US going back on its commitments to roll back its missile defenses in Eastern Europe, organizing an anti-Russian coup in Ukraine, initiating a major sanctions regime, and sponsoring a proxy war against Russia’s ally Syria. So much for gratitude!

Thankfully, Iranian and Russian interests are deeply converged and a split highly unlikely. As the Institute for the Study of War has pointed out, the list of shared interests is long, ranging from support for the Syrian government, the desire to limit US influence in the Middle East and support for Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey, forming a relationship that “rests on a deep foundation of common strategic objectives and interests”. The key, however, is to approach matters with eyes wide open. Trump’s rushing of troops to Syria is nothing to do with any ‘common front’ against ISIS and everything to do with weakening Iran. And in the end, this means weakening Russia too.

This article originally appeared on RT.