21-05-2020 by: FAROOQ SULEHRIA

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The war was the worst possible way to get rid of Saddam Hussain, says Gilbert Achcar. The USA will not go for full-scale war against Iran and Syria, he thinks. Counting on the recent activities by communists inside Iraq, he points out the possibility of left renaissance in the Arab world for the first time in 20 years.

A Lebanese Marxist, living in Paris for almost two decades, Gilbert is a leading expert on Middle East affairs in particular and Muslim world in general. His recent book ‘Clash of Barbarisms’, is an interesting study on political Islam and the Arab world.

By profession, he is a university teacher, teaching International Relations at the University of Paris. Workers Struggle recently held an exclusive interview with him in Paris. Excerpts:

Workers Struggle: What implications the Iraq war will have on the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general?
GA: Obviously this is perceived as a new move and another step towards Western and US domination of the Arab world. The US involvement brings the level of Western hegemony to an unprecedented level since World War 2. For the first time since the colonial period, this amounts to a full scale US invasion of an Arab country to install a government of its choice. It is therefore obvious that the resentment in the Muslim world against Western and US hegemony will reach new heights.
The resentment against the West and US imperialism is already very high in the Arab world, in particular, and the Muslim world, in general, as compared to other parts of the third world. Over and above the reasons for such resentment and hatred towards imperialism due to the feelings of exploitation and oppression common to all the third world, there are certain specific reasons for this hatred in the Middle East. First, it is because of the fact that imperialist domination in that part of the world is maintained through very despotic regimes. In contrast, other parts of the third world have seen a wave of democratisation which makes the pill easier to swallow. Second, one should not forget the impact of cultural resentment. For instance, Latin America does not have the same problem of cultural estrangement. Furthermore, Israel has been a focal point of tension, keeping the temperatures very high. Against this background, the Iraq war will bring the tension to an even higher degree.

Workers Struggle: What would it lead to?
GA: The important question is into what this resentment will translate. For the last 20 years, the trend has been that Islamic fundamentalists have been in the forefront to exploit this resentment. Building on this social anger, will the invasion of Iraq lead to a renewal of progressive forces? This is a big question. We cannot make any prognosis. We can only hope. And there are good reasons for hope. One reason for hope is that Iraq, in the Arab world, used to have the most important left-wing tradition. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, we have seen some left-wing activity. The Communist Party of Iraq has opened it’s headquarter; it has organised demonstrations and has started publishing its paper People’s Path. It is important that the left is part of the movement unfolding in Iraq. We have not been used to that for the last 20 years when the scene was dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. This low-scale left renewal might be fostered by the fact that imperialism will find ways to collaborate with some Islamic fundamentalists. At present, US imperialism is not targeting fundamentalists, but nationalist secular forces like the Syrian Baath regime and the Arafat-led PLO. This objective situation should make things easier for the left-wing in terms of political consciousness. I stress again that in the 50s and 60s, the anti-imperialist movement in the Arab world was lead either by Marxists or bourgeois nationalists. The Islamic fundamentalists were marginalized. We are still in the historical cycle that followed, in which they have become the dominant influence on mass protest. It is not a question of popular religious faith, but of historical cycle. The fundamentalists will not dominate forever. Things will change. The task of the left is to hasten this reversal.

Workers Struggle: Has the Iraq war not re-enforced the “clash of civilisations” theory being the second war against a Muslim country in two years?
GA: On the contrary, the Iraq war has played against that interpretation. The war in Afghanistan could fit into that theory when the USA attacked two very fundamentalist Islamic forces: the Taliban and Al-Qaida. But the Islamic fundamentalists used to consider the Iraqi Baath regime as infidel or atheist. For them, this regime was part of the enemy configuration. Inside the Arab world, it was not seen as a religious attack on Islam as much as a national attack on the Arab world. It fits into the general framework of aggression that this area has suffered since World War 2. This war can fit into only that kind of interpretation. Now the problem is how the situation will develop within Iraq? If the Islamic fundamentalists get an upper hand and lead the resistance movement into a clash with US occupation forces then we will be drawn back to the “clash of religions” model. But if – and this possibility should not be excluded – the resistance is led by a national front including Islamic fundamentalists along with secular forces, and then it could have another political impact.

Workers Struggle: But who do you think will lead this possible resistance movement, Islamic fundamentalists or some kind of national front?
GA: It is difficult to say right now. It depends to a great extent on the Iranian attitude. The Shia population is not only represented by the fundamentalist Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, linked to Tehran. There are independent organisations as well. Washington is trying to get Tehran on board. If Tehran agrees to collaboration, the fundamentalists will go for cooperation with the USA. On the contrary, if Iran decides to support the anti-US struggle, it will strengthen the hegemony of Islamic fundamentalist forces.

Workers Struggle: Do you see Iran opposing the USA when US forces are present in two of its neighbouring countries: Iraq and Afghanistan?
GA: Iran at the moment is playing a smart but dangerous game. It is true that Iran has been encircled by the USA. This pushes Tehran to develop relations with Moscow and these relations are strategically very important for Iran. This is an attempt by Tehran not to get suffocated by the US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran also knows that it cannot stop the US from intervening in these countries. The fact is also that Tehran had an interest in getting rid of the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq which were seen as enemy regimes. Iran has tried to make the best out of the situation. It has pushed its own agenda in these two countries. We have seen in Afghanistan that the US had to topple the Taliban through the Northern Alliance that had close links with Russia and Iran. Tehran has actually reinforced its presence in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban. It has the same calculations in Iraq where it is trying to outsmart the USA. It’s a game they are playing skilfully. The risk however is that the US might react violently. It already has threatened Iran, though the USA will not go for a full-fledged war against Iran as was the case in Iraq.

Workers Struggle: How come you are excluding this possibility while Iran is a part of the ‘axis of evil’?
GA: Well, in the foreseeable future it is unlikely that the USA will launch a full-fledged war against Iran. There is a growing anti-regime movement there that has pro-US inclinations. The USA will wait until it gets ripe. Moreover the Iranian regime has a much wider constituency than the Saddam Hussein regime ever had and Iran is a much larger country. A full-fledged war would be too costly. However, a limited strike cannot be excluded, or even an attack by Israel with a green light from the US. Israel or the US might attack Iranian nuclear facilities as happened in 1981 when Israel attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor built by France.

Workers Struggle: What about Syria. Will USA go for a war against Syria?
GA: That too is now becoming unlikely. It was soon after occupying Baghdad that the USA started threatening Syria. This had two reasons. First, it was to exploit the impact of occupying Iraq. The aim was to frighten Syria so that it complies with US demands with regard to Palestine. It is obvious that there is a need for the US to move forward on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Syria is important for that as it has links with the Palestinian opposition. Damascus also is an ally of the Iranian regime and was warned against any intervention in Iraq through these threats.
The second reason was to invent an excuse for not finding any weapons of mass destruction.
The Syrian regime, however, understood the warning and made it clear to the USA that it would cooperate. That’s why Collin Powel visited Syria.

Workers Struggle: How come the Palestine question figures in this whole scenario?
GA: As I said before the US administration wants to move forward on the Palestinian issue. In order to consolidate the US order in the Middle East, Washington needs to settle this issue as it is the most burning issue in this region that keeps tensions and anti-US feelings very high. They have to quell it. They did the same in 1991 after the first Iraq war when Bush Senior exerted strong pressure on Israel. We are seeing a repetition of the 1991 situation. That’s why the “roadmap” has been published and a prime minister of US choice been imposed on Palestine. However, a lot has happened in the meantime. We have had the Oslo process, the second Intifada and the terrible repression by Sharon. The question is whether the US will really exert pressure on Sharon. For the time being, Sharon is trying to win time. He will not say No to the USA but he will practice obstruction till next year when there will be an election in the US. During elections, the administration is weak. In 1991, then Israeli Prime Minister Shame did the same. He obstructed the process launched in Madrid soon after the Gulf war. It was not until 1993 when there was a change of government in Israel that a process could get really started.

Workers Struggle: Back to Iraq. Do you think getting rid of a repressive regime like Saddam’s through US intervention was the only solution for the Iraqi population?
GA: I would say that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was definitely a welcome step for a majority of the Iraqi masses but what happened was the worst way of getting rid of the Baathist regime. There was an alternative: popular overthrow as could have happened in 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf war. But at that time the USA colluded with Saddam Hussein. He was given a green light by Washington for repression. After that, the US imposed an embargo on Iraq that impoverished and weakened the Iraqi masses. This embargo prevented the Iraqi people from acting against Saddam Hussein. Now the US has launched a war to get rid of him, but this goal has been achieved at a terrible cost in terms of the loss of human lives, destruction of the national wealth and so on. Above all, Iraq is now occupied and this occupation is resented by most of the Iraqis. This war was definitely the worst possible way to get rid of Saddam Hussain.

Workers Struggle: What in your opinion is the solution to the Iraq crisis now?
GA: First, an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all US and British occupation forces. Second, free and fair elections in Iraq under a comprehensively representative national interim government.



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