At the end of July 2014 we are just one week short of the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. Rising tensions in Europe, from the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th June1914, to the British declaration of war on the 4th of August, led to the inexorable drive to war during that month being referred to later as “the July Crisis”. Actually, the main focus in Britain in July 1914 had been on events in Ireland where the clash between the Irish nationalists and the Ulster volunteers had brought the country to the brink of civil war. The Liberal government’s response to Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality swept the “Irish Question” under the carpet – at least temporarily - as Ulster unionists and Irish nationalists rushed to enlist in the British army.
The imperialist war that broke out in 1914 is now being memorialized in Britain. Officially the commemoration is proceeding in a way guaranteed to minimize any attempt to suggest that it was anything but a noble patriotic effort to make the world safe for democracy. This means that analysis of its causes and close study of the European and wider global context in which it occurred will be minimal to non-existent. For all the denial that this is so, it is being treated as a heroic national effort in which those who perished gave their lives for “King and Country”. It has not escaped notice that this contrasts with the way the centenary is being treated in Germany. For reasons which are probably too obvious to need explaining, Germany, unlike Britain, has few war memorials. British war memorials, like those in the United States such as the Washington memorial to U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam, take their heroism and self-sacrifice in a just cause for granted while, as in the case of Vietnam, ignoring the humanity of the hundreds o f thousands of Vietnamese who were killed resisting them. Such war memorials as there are in Germany are Mahnmale . The German word, Mahnmal, carries a sense of warning or admonition, which is absent from the English word. They pointedly avoid association with heroism and patriotism. The sites of concentration camps in Germany are also called Mahnmale. The decisive defeat of Nazi imperialism in World War Two has finally succeeded in of purging Germany of all notions of a heroic national history and replacing it with a reflective sobriety about militarism and war. That, in addition to hard-headed economic calculations, may also be a factor in Angela Merkel’s lack of enthusiasm for the U.S and British clamour for more stringent sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
But glorifying and heroizing those killed in “The Great War” is part of the national narrative that is substituted for history in Britain. It is part of the de-contextualization of the war which prevents serious consideration of its causes and its consequences. And, most important today, it hinders any attempt to make historical comparisons. It should be obvious to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the European imperialist rivalries, the awakening national movements and the fervid armaments race of the “Great Powers” prior to 1914, that there are similar forces at work in the world today. Likewise, it should be obvious that the re-shaped international order stemming from the revolutionary upheavals and the peace settlement imposed between 1919 and 1923, has unravelled and is now further unravelling with a vengeance in the Middle East. None of this is to suggest that the crises of July 2014 will lead to the World War Three in August or, for that matter, any time at all. But a serious consideration of the present constellation of economic factors and political and military forces operating from the Middle East through parts of Africa into Russia and Eastern Europe, and the involvement of the United States, the E.U. and Russia, leaves no room for complacency about how dangerous the situation is. A tunnel vision view of all this can see only each particular aspect isolated from the wider context. An example has been the coverage during the past few weeks of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. This has pushed the Isis advance in Iraq out of the news, yet it should be obvious that they cannot be so arbitrarily separated. They are closely connected in the alarming collapse of the unstable status quo in the Middle East.
What follows does not attempt to predict the outcome of the present crop of burgeoning armed conflicts. It simply considers how they could or may develop. It also looks at the ways in which they are or may become connected and how they could draw in the more powerful states that have a vested interest in their outcome. If the picture that emerges seems bleak, the intention is not to be alarmist but to be realistic. First, a brief look at some of the facts on the ground.
The Middle East
Israel/Palestine The latest phase of the Israel/Palestine tragedy was entirely predictable, though this makes it no less horrific. If the present Israeli bombardment is not stopped the numbers of dead Palestinian civilians, particularly women and children, in this confined land strip will soon run into thousands with many more thousands wounded and homes and infrastructure destroyed on such a scale that much, perhaps most, of Gaza will be rendered uninhabitable. Such an outcome is unavoidable as is the spiralling death toll given the relentless bombardment of such a small strip of such densely populated land. The logic behind the claim that Hamas is to blame for the deaths of women and children killed by Israeli rockets because it uses them as human shields, is, by extension, used to excuse the deaths of any and every Palestinian still to be killed. The infrastructure necessary for sustaining the basic conditions for human existence will be largely destroyed, rendering the continuation of Palestinian life in Gaza impossible. It is becoming increasingly clear that the majority of Israelis would be happy to see all Palestinians leave Gaza one way or another. The rockets fired by Hamas, if continued, will continue to be ineffective due largely to the inferiority of the weapons and the superiority of Israeli defences against them. But more members of the IDF are likely to be killed inside Gaza and some Israeli civilians may be victims of rocket attacks or suicide bombers. The numbers of Israeli casualties are likely to remain small. War brutalizes and dehumanizes those fighting it and those caught up in it. It is estimated that up to 90% of Israelis support their government’s bombardment of Gaza and have hardened their hearts against the Palestinians. Palestinian hatred for Israel and Israelis will intensify. The prospects for any negotiated settlement of the Israel/Palestine problem seem more remote than ever.
Syria and Iraq The opposition to Assad’s regime has, since 2011, morphed into a rag-bag of fanatical Islamists. Continued Western opposition to Assad can only assist the jihadists. The Syrian civil war is the greatest tragedy in the Middle East, having resulted in many thousands of deaths, mainly civilian, and millions of refugees – perhaps the worst refugee crisis in modern history - destabilizing Jordan and Lebanon. The longer it continues the worse it will become. Isis, dominant over the opposition in Syria, has now established its stranglehold in northern Iraq where its latest outrage is the expulsion of the sizeable Christian minority from Mosul , having given them (as an option to expulsion) the choice of forcible conversion to Islam or execution by beheading. This is the force that aims to take over the whole of Iraq. Should they succeed, they will no doubt offer the same delectable choice to Shia Muslims.
Hezbollah Hezbollah militias, from their base in Lebanon are fighting in large numbers in support of Assad in Syria. They are backed by Iran. Assad is also backed by Russia. They will do everything in their power to ensure that he is not defeated, and it looks increasingly as though they will turn the tide in his favour. They will also operate against Isis in Iraq. But Hezbollah has now broken with Hamas which sided with Assad’s enemies in the Syrian civil war, so this has compromised their relationship with the Palestinians. If they are successful in securing Assad in Syria and turning the tide against Isis in Iraq, it will strengthen both Russian and Iranian influence in Syria and Iran’s influence in Iraq. This will not please Israel or the United States. The alternative, an Isis “caliphate” from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, will be most unwelcome to Israel and the United States. It will be a catastrophe for the whole region and the consequences of such destabilization will be felt much further afield.
Iran and Israel The Israeli government continues to regard Iran as enemy No. 1 and is ready to strike against their nuclear facilities if they conclude that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons. But, despite British and U.S. hostility to Iran, recently there have been suggestions that they may welcome Iranian support against Isis in Iraq. Any thawing of relations between Iran and the west will alarm both Israel and Saudi Arabia whose loathing of the Iranian regime prevents any compromise with it.
Egypt. The military dictatorship in Egypt is strongly opposed to Sunni fundamentalism and to Iran. It is, as was Mubarak, a de facto ally of Israel and has no sympathy with Hamas.
Russia, Ukraine and the West
Western – particularly British and U.S. – reaction to Russia over Ukraine has been hypocritical in the extreme. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union NATO and the EU have extended their reach eastwards despite Reagan having promised Gorbachev that NATO had no intention of poaching the former states of the Soviet Union. The Western governments that supported the break-up of Yugoslavia, involving the secession of Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo, opposed the secession of Crimea from Ukraine and supported an ultra-rightist government brought to power in Kiev by a coup. They have blamed Russia for shooting down Malaysian airliner MH17, which was clearly an accident. It was probably shot down by the pro-Russian forces in error. There is no evidence that the Russians were responsible. They are likely to have been shocked and dismayed. The hypocrisy of the British government which, with the U.S. is pressing for tougher sanctions against Russia while welcoming billionaire oligarchs to buy multi-million properties in London and contribute to the election fund of the Tory party, is most striking. The pressure on Russia is being stepped up as the fighting in eastern Ukraine is intensified with more than 1000 reported killed so far. Little heed seems to be taken about the possible consequences of this.
The spread of fanatical, violent Sunni jihadists across swathes of the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb into Mali and Nigeria, is an alarming development. Similarly, the forthcoming re-conquest of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the further consolidation of their base in Pakistan are part of the same pattern. The rise and dominance of this deeply reactionary Islamist barbarism can be traced to the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. The present confrontation between pro-Russian Ukrainians in the east of the country supported by Russia, and the ultra-nationalist neo-fascist forces backed by the U.S. and the E.U in Kiev, can be traced back to the anti-Russian eastward drive of the U.S., NATO and the EU pursued relentlessly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The patchwork of these various apparently disparate elements started to take on the appearance of a global crisis in July of this year. It begins to look as though the fragile post-cold war dispensation, the patched-up disorder that has been staggering on for the past twenty years or so, is on the point of breaking down. Fourteen years into the 21st century it seems the world may be about to reap the whirlwind. The disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the financial crash of 2008 from which there has been no real recovery; the renewed confrontation between the NATO powers and Russia; the never-ending and deepening disaster of Israel/Palestine – all are now merging into a confluent critical stream. And, if we can bear to face the painful truth, all this seems relatively unimportant compared to the prospect of irreversible environmental pollution threatening future generations brought about by man-made climate change. Global corporate capitalism, unless it is stopped from doing so, is set to despoil the planet.
How, if the present downward spiral continues, might the critical situation outlined above result in a crisis of unmanageable proportions? Any one of the following scenarios could push things over the brink. Two or more occurring contemporaneously could result in a conflagration worse than anything seen since the second world war.
- Russia and Ukraine. After bitter fighting the Ukrainian armed forces crush the pro-Russian forces in the east and begin the systematic ethnic cleansing of the population and attempt to re-take Crimea. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians are driven out. The Russians decide to intervene to defend them. This begins to turn the tide. The Kiev regime calls on NATO to come to its defence. NATO forces enter western Ukraine and begin to mass along Russia’s borders with the Baltic states and Poland. Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Eastern Europe and Germany.
- The Middle East. Israel continues the bombardment of Gaza. The death toll rises to several thousands and all power and water supplies are destroyed. Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. The Israel death toll climbs above one hundred. Palestinians in the West Bank rise up in revolt and face massive Israeli military force. Iran starts to send large numbers of fighters to Iraq and Syria. Renewed conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon. Israel begins to shell sites in Lebanon. Isis renews its drive to take Baghdad. Muqtada al Sadr’s militias oust the al Malaki government in Baghdad. Full scale fighting develops between Isis and the Shia militias. Isis continues the systematic murder of Christians in Mosul and the north. Kurdistan declares full independence from Iraq. In Syria Assad’s forces backed by Hezbollah continue to make gains against Isis and the western-backed opposition while more of the country is laid waste. The refugee crisis worsens, further destabilizing Jordan and Lebanon. The Iranians strengthen their position in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli government, fearing that it cannot rely on the U.S. to take a firm line against Iran, threatens the country with a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike unless the Iranians withdraw from Iraq and Syria. Iran refuses.
All very unlikely? But impossible?