Chris Mitchell

CBN News Middle East Bureau Chief

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Middle East in Turmoil


The Middle East is in turmoil: a civil war in Syria, civil unrest in Turkey, Iran racing to build a nuclear arsenal and talk of a possible war in Israel this summer. Here's a briefing of what's happening in the Middle East in June 2013.

A Rebound Victory for the Russian/Syrian/Iran Axis

Encouraged by a sizable supply of drones and other weaponry from Tehran and Moscow, and abetted by an infusion of troops from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria's Bashar Assad won an important victory last Wednesday after two weeks of fighting in the strategic town of Qusair, on the Lebanese border near Homs.

The re-taking of the town by the Syrian army is considered a turning point in the Syrian "civil war," as it evolves into an expanded Sunni-Shia regional conflict. While Hezbollah fighters heeded the calls of their Shia mullahs and swarmed across the border, the disunified Sunni opposition did not benefit from the pleas of Sunni clerics such as Egypt's Sheik Qaradawi, who had called from Qatar for all trained Sunni fighters to gather in Syria. "Why do we stand idle [in the face of Iran]?" Qaradawi asked.

The next move for Assad may be the city of Homs, where a successful ousting of the opposition by government forces would cut the rebels off from southern Syria. The instability in Syria prompted Austria to pull its forces from the international "peacekeeping" contingent on the Golan heights last week. Putin graciously offered to replace them with Russian troops, which the U.N. politely declined.

The death toll in Syria has now topped 70,000. Nearly 1.5 million refugees have fled, and another two million find themselves displaced within the country's borders.

Jonathan Spyer of Israel's Gloria Institute recently wrote the following:

While the Sunni powers certainly have their problems, the Shia bloc is avowedly anti-Western and dedicated to a radical Islamist ideology. The west's inability to form a coherent policy on Syria makes it look weak-and most importantly-vulnerable to defeat in the eyes of its regional enemies. Like it or not, the west has chosen sides in the Syrian conflict, and if it cannot or will not take the measures necessary to ensure the victory of its allies, it could face potential disaster in the future.

According to an Associated Press report Sunday, the White House is strongly considering arming the rebels. But the critical decision will be whether to enforce a no-fly zone, which would be the only truly effective action against Assad.

Until now, the administration has been quite consistent with its policies concerning Iran and Russia. It dithers, kowtows and obfuscates whenever the Russians and Iranians are publicly involved, as part of a larger effort to reduce America's international influence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't announce his "red lines," but he acts to back them up. President Obama generally doesn't.

Now the most pertinent questions are at what point do Netanyahu and his security advisors determine that the dissolving international force on the Golan and the importation of ever more sophisticated missiles and drones on the ground in Syria pose a threat to Israel that must be addressed? And how hard will Putin push to keep Assad in power and will he jump through the opening provided by the American power vacuum to expand Russia's military role in the Middle East?

'Historical Game-Changer'

Meanwhile, Iran is scheduled to hold its eleventh presidential elections this Friday, June 14. Current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who has made quite a name for himself as a leading anti-Semite -- has served two terms and therefore cannot run again.

But some say any new president won't change things as far as a nuclear Iran is concerned. Israel's Strategic Affairs minister Yuval Steinitz said this week that for 20 years Iranian leaders have made no secret of their desire to change the balance of power between Islam and the West and they intend to use their nuclear program to do so.

The United States, Israel and Europe are underestimating Iran's desire for a nuclear bomb, he said. It's not one bomb they want but a whole arsenal.

For example, Steinitz said, Iran's main enrichment facility in Natanz has 12,000 centrifuges, but the plan is for 54,000 centrifuges that would eventually enable them to produce enough enriched uranium to make 20-30 bombs each year.

He called it an "historical game changer" that would create a "dangerous new world" and have a "terrible, dramatic effect" on Israel, the Middle East, Europe, the U.S. and beyond.

Talking Turkey

Protests over constructing a building on a city park in Istanbul turned violent about a week ago and morphed into a general protest against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his increasing Islamization of the country.

Even though it was a peaceful protest, police used water cannons and tear gas to quench the protest.

But some say this is not to be compared to the so-called Arab Spring and as one analyst told CBN News Turks look down on Arabs and so that was definitely not their inspiration. It's nothing like Tahrir square in Egypt, he said.

Turkey is the most advanced Muslim country in the Middle East, with its own auto industry.

Erdogan has not been particularly friendly to his ally Israel but he is an elected official who has won three terms in office. He's popular, though some say he may have lost a bit of popularity from this episode that left several people dead.

Moribund Peace Process

Secretary of State John Kerry won't be coming to Israel this week after all. He planned to arrive Tuesday for round five of intensive shuttle diplomacy aimed at restarting moribund Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Despite Kerry's enthusiasm and determination, he has yet to convince the Palestinian authority to sit down with Israel without preconditions, most of which Israel can't and won't meet.

Last week, the P.A. swore in a new government under Rami Hamdallah, the former dean of al-Najah university in Nablus. The English professor is seen as a potential pawn in Mahmoud Abbas' hands, unlike former prime minister Salam Fayyad whose popularity among Western leaders reportedly threatened Abbas.

In an op-ed posted Monday, Palestinian affairs analyst Khaled Toameh blamed P.A. leadership for the impasse.

Toameh said by continually inciting against Israel, the "leadership itself bears almost full responsibility for radicalizing Palestinians." According to Toameh, P.A. leaders have made it nearly impossible to talk peace with Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon refused to allow senior Fatah central committee member Jibril Rajoub attend a conference in Israel, citing Rajoub's hateful anti-Israel rhetoric.

Rajoub said on Lebanese television on May 1, "until now, we don't have nuclear weapons. Believe me, if we had nuclear weapons, we would use them tomorrow morning."

Toameh says the defense minister actually did Jibril a favor because his own Fatah faction would have ostracized him for violating the ban on 'normalization' with Israel by attending the Israeli conference.

According to Toameh, Abbas, Rajoub, Erekat and other Palestinian leaders have convinced most of their colleagues not to seek peace with Israel.

Last week, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat pulled a rabbit out of the hat as Israelis marked the 46th anniversary of the Six-Day War.

Erekat, who heads the PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department, invited a group of journalists and diplomats to Latrun to talk about a new campaign they're calling "The Latrun Valley -- an Integral Part of the State of Palestine."

One Israeli official said the P.A.'s latest deal breaker "raises concerns as to their seriousness."

"No Israeli government, no Israeli prime minister, can seriously entertain that this area would be going to the Palestinians," he said.

Not to be left out, former Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti -- serving five consecutive life sentences for masterminding terror attacks against Israelis -- wrote a letter his lawyer forwarded to China's state Xinhua (ITALICS) news agency. In it, the former commander of Fatah's Tanzim militia called on Kerry to pressure Israel to end its "occupation" of Palestinian land.

And last but not least, Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Sunday the Jewish state has no future on Palestinian land. Haniyeh said the Palestinians were "subjected to the greatest international piracy at the hands of Zionist gangs."

Vroooom!!

Believe it or not Jerusalem is due to host a Formula One race this Thursday and Friday. The course will take participants past the Old City walls and the famous King David Hotel.

The idea behind these kinds of events, says Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, is to present the Holy City in a positive light. "A picture is worth a thousand words," the mayor said.

Print     Email to a Friend    posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 6:03 AM



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