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MIDDLE EAST CAULDRON

Turkey & Possibly Iran Join Wave of Upheaval & Uncertainty in Middle East

Tectonic Shifts in Middle East

 'Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.'  

 Could the Bard's memorable lines also portend that two non-Arab countries, Turkey and Iran, will now embark on the course of the 'Arab Spring'. Will Iran follow the latest round of anti-government protests that have rocked Turkey? Ten days before Iran's upcoming presidential election on June 14th, tens of thousands of Iranian mourners flocked to the funeral of dissident cleric Ayatollah Jalaluddin Teheri in the town of Isfahan. It was described as the biggest anti-government demonstration against the 'dictator' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in recent years. The protesters also demanded the release of thousands of political prisoners who were slammed behind bars for demonstrating against the rigged election of 2009. That same political chicanery is happening again - the government has restricted the list of presidential candidates to supporters of the Khamenei regime. So how will Iranians who aspire to a more democratic society react to the 'election' of a new puppet to replace Muhammad Ahmadinejad? Will they again take to the streets in Tehran and other urban centers to challenge the Ayatollahs, who are supported by Muslims in the rural regions of Iran?

The international community now concurs with Israel's assessment ... The only question is when ...

 It is not only a struggle for human rights and freedom, but also a struggle for a fairer shake of the Iranian economy that has taken a nose dive since 2009. The latest international sanctions have hit hard: inflation is running at 30% annually with unemployment topping 15% (the proportion of young educated Iranians without jobs is actually far higher). It is the price the people of Iran are paying for their leaders drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Yukiya Amano, the IAEA's director-general in Vienna, has reported that the nuclear talks with Iran are going nowhere - in his words, Iran's negotiators were 'going around in circles'. And what else is new?  The latest IAEA report has revealed the Iranians are escalating their output of enriched uranium at the Natanz facility. After years of beating around the bush, the international community now concurs with Israel's assessment that Tehran is advancing at all levels toward uranium enrichment and weaponization of a nuclear warhead for their Shihab missiles that can already target Israel. The only question is when the Iranians will make a dash for 93% weapons grade uranium that will signal their breakout for the Bomb. 

 Aftermath of Iran's sham election...

 The upcoming presidential election could be another turning point in the ongoing saga if there is a violent backlash against the result. Both the U.S. and, subsequently, Israel have adopted a 'wait and see' approach to what ensues, although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said: 'I do not have high expectations that the election is going to change the fundamental calculus of Iran'. Well you do not have to be a mathematician to put two and two together when you consider another remark by Kerry: 'Every month that goes by gets more dangerous. And the reality is that Israel will do what it needs to do to defend itself''.  This appears to be a new American take on Israel going it alone. Although it is not a clear green light from Washington, it does seem amber. Certainly it did not look like the red light flashed to Jerusalem by former American officials such as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen, Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who admonished Israel by declaring: 'I don't want to be complicit if Israel chose to do it'. Kerry's tone now sounded as if Obama would not be terribly upset if Netanyahu does go for broke.  

This appears to be a new American take on Israel going it alone.

 Jerusalem did get an unequivocal show of support from the U.S. Senate that voted unanimously by 99-0 in the face-off with Iran. Its resolution read: 

 'If the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program, the U.S. government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with U.S. law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people and existence'. 

In presenting the resolution, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stated: 'Israel should always understand that the U.S. has its back; that we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear capability'. (He echoed President Obama's statement in Jerusalem). These words from both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government sound very explicit, and a far cry from being 'complicit' with Israel.

 Syria's inferno to war of attrition... 

Assad's forces and the rebels are embroiled in a war of attrition. It is now a question of which side has the greatest staying power.

 But not only Iran hangs in the balance. The Syrian inferno, which rivals the horrors of Alighieri Dante's epic work, has moved down to the Golan Heights and the border with Israel. After Syrian army forces beefed up by Hezbollah retook the strategic city of Qusayr from the Free Syria Army, the rebels tried to recoup their defeat. They concentrated their forces for an attack on Quneitra, another strategic location just over the Syrian cease-fire line with Israel. The rebels were able to take and hold Quneitra for several hours, but then Syrian tanks moved in and routed the rebels, who lack tanks and artillery. Again like in Qusayr, the rebels’ light weapons, rockets and mortars cannot stand up to the better equipped Syrian Army in a fixed battle. Israelis on the Golan near the border got a front row view of the battle that raged just a mile or so away - the sound of gunfire, Syrian tanks, plumes of smoke, and big brush fires ignited by the explosives. It served as a microcosm of the civil war and how it is being waged. Actually, it is a mistake to speak of the Free Syrian Army as one group; it is comprised of various groups of fighters that act independently of each other without any real command and control structure. In a pinch they are able to muster a sizeable force that they can then concentrate on one specific target, in this case Quneitra. For reasons of prestige, they sought an immediate victory to compensate for the loss of Qusayr to Assad's army.  (Actually, Assad violated the disengagement agreement with Israel by moving tanks into the Quneitra area on the border).  So after two years of slugging it out, Assad's forces and the rebels are embroiled in a war of attrition. It is now a question of which side has the greatest staying power.  The pendulum first swung to the side of the rebels, who control up to 60% of the country, but they lack the decisive military power and unity to defeat the Syrian Army that is reinforced by thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian soldiers and the Syrian Air Force. Combine this with Russia's unlimited supply of weapons and ammunition, as well as political support in the diplomatic arena, and Assad is now on the ascendancy. By all indications, President Vladimir Putin will not back down. He sees the current conflict as a kind of Cold War extension of his rivalry with the U.S. in the Middle East. Note the latest Moscow decision to dispatch: 'Up to five or six Russian naval ships on a permanent basis in the Mediterranean Sea.'  Supply vessels will also accompany this permanent force.  Putin has signaled that he is in Syria for keeps, and will do everything he can to prevent the fall of Bashar Assad's regime, his sole ally in the region.  On the other hand, the West chooses to stay out and let the rebels fend for themselves with whatever support they can muster from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and possibly Turkey. The rebels are now licking their wounds and beseeching the West to ship them weapons, food and ammunition. Just how a Geneva Conference can resolve this bitter conflict remains to be seen, bearing in mind that neither side appears ready to compromise.          

It is still an open question just who Israel should be rooting for - the rebels that include Al Qaeda and other Muslim fanatics out to destroy Israel, or Assad and his Hezbollah and Iranian cohorts.

 With the fighting drawing close to the Israeli border, the IDF was naturally on high alert but did not send reinforcements to the border area. In fact, despite the intense fighting, no shells landed inside Israel. Two mortars did hit a UNDOF position, (UN Disengagement of Forces) that monitors the cease-fire between Israel and Syria. It is still an open question just who Israel should be rooting for - the rebels that include Al Qaeda and other Muslim fanatics out to destroy Israel, or Assad and his Hezbollah and Iranian cohorts. In Israeli eyes, it's a 'Hobson's choice' between cholera and the plague. It is reminiscent of the eight-year long Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, two other dictatorships bent on annihilating the Jewish state. From Jerusalem's point of view, as long as they were clobbering one another, Israel had less to worry about. From a Machiavellian perspective, this is also applicable today when it comes to one side comprised of Assad-Hezbollah and Iran fighting the rebels-Al Qaeda and other Muslim fanatics from all over the Middle East and beyond. 

 Lebanon & Jordan not far behind...

the Mid-East cauldron is also simmering in Lebanon.

 But, the fact that Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are at each others’ throats in Syria is bound to spill over into Lebanon, and not just with the isolated incidents of rebels in Syria launching several rockets over the border at Hezbollah Shi'a strongholds in Lebanon. It could be only a matter of time before the conflagration spreads to that country, which like Syria, is a mosaic of different religious and ethnic communities that despise one another. Make no mistake; the Mid-East cauldron is also simmering in Lebanon. Of the four Arab states on Israel's border, Jordan is the only one that is quiet, at least for the moment. But with the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees and shifting demographics that now give the Palestinians a clear-cut majority, King Abdullah II has a lot to worry about.  

 Taksim Square prefers Ataturk to Erdogan...

Erdogan ... is perceived as fostering an Islamist agenda that is encroaching on the democratic values established in 1923

 And farther to the north, Turkey.  Could Istanbul's Taksim Square follow the course of Cairo's Tahrir Square that eventually banished the regime of Hosni Mubarak?  Not very likely. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led his Justice & Development Party to victory three times in democratic elections since 2002. But if he has administered over a booming economy with high economic growth and low unemployment, what's gone wrong? What sparked the biggest demonstrations for decades by secular Turks? Ostensibly, it was the government plan to replace the beautiful Taksim Square area with a business complex. But this seemingly environmental issue was only the catalyst, like the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia that sparked the start of the 'Arab Spring' in 2010'. And here's the rub - although Erdogan is given full credit for his country's economic success, he is perceived as fostering an Islamist agenda that is encroaching on the democratic values established in 1923 by President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of the Turkish Republic. At Taksim Square, Turkish police apparently took their cue from Erdogan and waded in with tear gas and water cannons against the peaceful protesters. In subsequent demonstrations, three people have been killed and scores more injured. Journalists and TV crews are reportedly being targeted by the police, which comes as no surprise. Despite it being a democracy, Turkey holds the world record for imprisoning more reporters than any other country; accounts range from forty to ninety.      

 Recently a popular musician and a well-known author have been prosecuted for blasphemy. Even Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's bestselling author, has been targeted.  Pamuk was prosecuted for saying: 'A million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds have been killed in this country and I'm the only one to talk about it'. After the ensuing international uproar over the trial, the charges were dropped. The government has also ordered a ban on selling alcoholic drinks between ten at night until six in the morning. Then came a restriction on public kissing on the Istanbul subway - a group of secular Turks demonstrated in protest, one was stabbed by an Islamist. Turkish Airlines has also tried banning cabin crews from wearing lipstick and nail polish due to some Islamic sensitivity. It all adds up in the minds of those Turks who reject the idea of turning their state into another Iran. 

 Tectonic Middle East...

 This is the regional landscape as viewed from Jerusalem. Enter U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with the best intentions of promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Kerry is trying to make headway in a region that is undergoing a kind of a 'tectonic shift'. In geology that is a gigantic movement of underground plates that can even affect the formation of a continent. In my view, this is an apt assessment of the potential political shifts in the Middle East at this time. Against this background, lots of luck Secretary Kerry!

David Essing

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