“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” is the famous quotation of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky’s quote, now quoted and requoted around the globe, by far sums up best the war worries many have, including the Duterte government, on the escalating tensions in the Middle East following the killing in Baghdad, Iraq by the United States of a senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani.
Last Monday, Mr. Duterte himself expressed of war’s interest on us: “Kinakabahan ako (I am nervous). Iran seems to be hell-bent on a retaliation, which I think will come. It’s a matter of time.”
We cannot utterly dismiss Mr. Duterte’s fears. Most about every Middle East watcher are agreed it is not now a question of whether Iran will retaliate or not but rather when, where and how they will retaliate.
And answering where, when and how is crystal ball gazing. As one worried Iraqi diplomat told a newspaper this week: “There is no way to be ready for what comes next, because anything could be a target.”
While generally many of us feel lost, being merely bit players — as so are many other people in other countries — we have further cause for worry.
We cannot hide nor can we run from the gathering war clouds for one stark fact — scores of Filipinos will be caught in the crossfire should war erupt.
Mr. Duterte, in spite of the shortcomings of many of his speeches, sums up correctly this time around an all too familiar threat: “I do not have anything, nary a worry, were it not for a fact that there are a lot of Filipinos there… We need the money. I need it before it actually starts.”
“I am afraid for the so many lives of our countrymen in jeopardy,” Mr. Duterte bluntly added.
Facing up to his gnawing fears, Mr. Duterte has ordered the military to prepare for the dangerous move of deploying its aircraft and ships “at any moment’s notice” to evacuate Filipinos, roughly estimated to be about 4,000, in both Iraq and Iran.
Mr. Duterte is also urging Congress to hold a special session on the problem, particularly for a “standby fund” in the event of an emergency repatriation of Filipino workers.
It will take a “huge and gargantuan” effort on government to evacuate Filipinos in the volatile region. But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should be more than ready to cope with the general situation and the nitty-gritties of a mass evacuation — the DFA has had a previous mass evacuation experience.
Unless, of course, present DFA bosses ignore the under-fire experiences of the team of former DFA secretary Albert del Rosario during the 2012 evacuation of Filipinos from the Syrian conflict.
While the safety and welfare of Filipino OFW in either Iran or Iraq are the immediate concern, we cannot also rest easy. Any war engulfing the whole of the Middle East risks, as is well known, the more than 1.2 million Filipino OFW working there.
Even if we are able to safely bring back home all Filipinos, including the undocumented, the prospect of huge job losses boggles the imagination. This is Mr. Duterte’s other worry.
The Middle East Filipino labor force is the second-largest source of cash remittances from overseas Filipinos. Imagine the devastation if that is all gone on the country’s economy and on OFW families?
Clearly, with all the instability what we are only left with is the proverbial “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
We have no choice but hope peace holds, imperialist war held at bay and the main protagonists don’t miscalculate, the biggest danger as that’s how wars start.
Yet, amid fast developments, we civilians also cannot simply shy away from trying to understand the convoluted geopolitics of the Middle East, even if little knowledge is dangerous.
True, many complex issues, including US President Donald Trump’s domestic political motives, bedevil the present stand-off between Iran and the US, there are at least some facts many experts seem to agree on.
One is Trump had always blamed Iran for all of the Middle East’s problems, as does US-ally Saudi Arabia. In fact, as one journalist noted years ago, “Saudi leaders have long urged the US to go to war with Iran and ‘cut off the head of the snake,’ but they have never intended to fight a war themselves. The same rhetoric holds sway in Israel.”
With the confrontation between Iran and the US now beyond rhetoric, many experts are also now telling us that should conventional war happen, Iraq will likely be the military battlefield.
As one Iraqi expert said: “The Iranians are very smart. They do not send their armies abroad. Once you do that you are lost. They do it by proxy to make fronts outside their own borders.”
What this essentially means is that the conventional warfare is unlikely on Iranian soil. While it is true that Iran’s military is much more powerful than those of other Middle Eastern states the US has been in conflict with recently, conventional war with Iran needs context.
The context is the US defense budget is 50 percent larger than Iran’s entire economy, with Iran’s military spending at only $14.5 billion.
However, the drone strike on Soleimani immediately ignited concerns of “asymmetrical warfare,” which Soleimani famously championed and which likely would not only survive his death but also avenge it.
“Asymmetrical warfare” is largely an unfamiliar concept for most of us but it is defined as “unconventional strategies and tactics adopted by a force when the military capabilities
of belligerent powers are not simply unequal but are so significantly different that they cannot make the same sort of attacks on each other.”
“Asymmetrical warfare,” therefore, is what we should watch out for. This not only includes “cyberwar” on the Internet but also the physical targeting of soft targets anywhere in the world by Iranian proxies, including the personal interests of Trump himself — there is a Trump tower in Makati.