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Lebanon

Tag Archives | Lebanon

Torpedoing the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks

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President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel hold a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Sept. 30, 2013.  Pete Souza/White House

As Western powers prepare for another round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, powerful and wealthy opponents—from the halls of Congress to Middle East capitals—are maneuvering to torpedo them.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel hold a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Sept. 30, 2013. Pete Souza/White House

At stake is the real possibility of a war with consequences infinitely greater than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany—the so-called “P5+1”—sit down with Iran’s negotiators in Geneva on Nov. 7, those talks will be shadowed by an alliance of hawkish U.S. Congress members, an influential Israeli lobby, and a new regional alliance that upends traditional foes and friends in the Middle East. The fact that the first round of talks on Oct.15 was hailed by Iran and the P5+1 as “positive” has energized opponents of the negotiations, who are moving to block any attempts at softening international sanctions against Teheran, while at the same time pressing for a military solution to the conflict.

Current international sanctions have halved the amount of oil Iran sells on the international market, blocked Teheran from international banking, and deeply damaged the Iranian economy. The worsening economic conditions are the backdrop for the recent election of pragmatist Hassan Rowhani as president of Iran. Hassan’s subsequent efforts to move away from the confrontational politics of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears a signal that Iran wants to peacefully resolve a crisis that has heightened tensions in the region and led to everything from the assassination of Iranian scientists to the world’s first cyber war.

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In Kurdish Syria, a Different War

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Kurdish fighters along the Iran-Iraq border. Photo: James Gordon

On August 15, a car bomb ripped through a Beirut suburb, killing 21 people.

Kurdish fighters along the Iran-Iraq border. Photo: James Gordon

The explosion was but the latest in a wave of attacks across Lebanon throughout 2012 and 2013 that were linked to events inside Syria. The ease with which violence in Iraq and Syria has negatively impacted surrounding countries underscores the declining significance of borders throughout the Levant. Sectarian and ethnic identities, rather than citizenship, are proving increasingly influential in shaping the political orientation of communities throughout the region. From Beirut to Baghdad, conservative Sunni Islamists wish to rid the Arab world of Iranian influence, weaken Hezbollah’s position, and restore Sunni rule to Iraq and Syria. Naturally, the Levant’s Shia and Alawite communities are unified in opposition to this agenda.

Amid these deepening regional divisions, a new opening has emerged for one of the Middle East’s longest-suffering minority groups: the Kurds. The shifting regional balance of power has enabled the Kurds to exercise greater control over their destiny. While the future is unpredictable, it is entirely plausible that Syria’s Kurds will maintain autonomy in northeastern Syria when the dust eventually settles. However, the ongoing war between jihadist and Kurdish militias over control of northern Syria—a conflict far less well known than the battle between Assad and the rest of the Syrian rebels—will likely lead to a major humanitarian catastrophe for Syria’s Kurds before any political gains can be consolidated.

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A Dangerous Game: Israel, Syria and U.S. Air Strikes

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Watchful: Israel faces Syria across the Golan Heights. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Times of Israel reacted strongly on Friday to the UK’s vote against joining America in punitive air strikes against Syria’s Assad regime: “Perfidious Albion hands murderous Assad a spectacular victory” thundered one headline, denouncing what founding editor David Horovitz called a “perfect storm of political ineptitude, short-sighted expediency, and gutlessness.”

Watchful: Israel faces Syria across the Golan Heights. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Elsewhere, as speculation of the form and timing of a possible US military intervention in Syria gathered pace, editorials talked up the moral rectitude of action against Syria while at the same time cautioning readers about the dangers this posed to Israel’s security as emphasised by a comment from Syria that: “If Damascus is attacked, Tel Aviv will burn.”

“There can be no passivity when a coterie of evil powers hurls deadly threats at Israel in the context of a struggle in which it is uninvolved,” opined the Jerusalem Post. Israel has generally avoided any entanglement in the uprisings and political changes of the Arab Spring. This avoidance of internal Arab politics has been wise, reducing the chance of getting sucked in and issues being reframed in the classic Arab-Israeli conflict paradigm. Though most Israelis – as expressed in Ha’aretz and Yedioth Ahronot – undoubtedly share Obama’s and Cameron’s conviction against the use of chemical weapons, it is clear that an Israeli punitive strike would be too provocative to consider. When Israel has perceived its vital interests as being threatened by the Syrian civil war, however, they have reacted.

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Post-Benghazi, U.S. Embassies are Still Vulnerable

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Bahraini security reinforces U.S. Embassy security just outside a gate to the building in Manama. Hasan Jamali/AP

Bahraini security reinforces U.S. Embassy security just outside a gate to the building in Manama. Hasan Jamali/AP

Last Thursday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty Embassy Security, Threat Mitigation, and Personnel Protection Act of 2013” named after the four Americans killed by Islamists at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The attacks reinforced the fact that the State Department failed to implement established security measures and procedures at our overseas posts.

We could have learned a lesson from the 36 suicide attacks against Americans in Lebanon in the early 1980’s. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed by Hezbollah in April 1983, killing 63 people. Truck bombs struck two barracks housing a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in which 299 American and French soldiers were killed by the Islamic Jihad. In December a truck filled with explosives rammed into the three-story wing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City killing five people, an attack by Shiite Islamists with ties to Iran.

As a result of these attacks an Advisory Panel on Overseas Security was formed. The resulting Inman Report recommended a number of security measures including proper setbacks, structural upgrades, and new construction of at-risk missions. The study also called for the formation of the Diplomatic Security Service (DS) to oversee security measures at all our overseas operations.  A Regional Security Officer (RSO) would be assigned as the principal security advisor to all the embassies and consulates. As the senior officer this person would oversee the mission’s security staff, hiring of local guards, setting up surveillance detection teams, and interfacing with police and military authorities.

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Resettlement: Solution to the Syrian Refugee Crisis?

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A woman and child at Za’atri refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan.  Mark Garten/UN

“By the end of the year it is estimated that half of the population of Syria will be in need of aid. This includes an anticipated 3.45 million Syrian refugees and 6.8 million Syrians inside the country, many of whom will be displaced from their homes.” – UNHCR

A woman and child at Za’atri refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan. Mark Garten/UN

There is no end in sight for the Syrian civil war. The number of Syrian refugees has already reached 1.6 million and is predicted to grow to 3.45 million by the end of 2013, placing significant pressure on neighbor countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. There are currently 550,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, 480,000 in Jordan and 386,000 in Turkey. These countries have shown increasing signs of refugee fatigue and rightly or wrongly an unwillingness to accept more Syrians. Their citizens are becoming hostile and even aggressive toward the refugees.

Even Turkey, which had originally insisted that it would cover all the costs needed to support the refugees, has started appealing for international financial assistance and for third country resettlement. Its refugee-related expenses have reached over 1.5 billion and will continue to rise, given that a total of 1 million refugees are expected by the end of 2013. In an effort to alleviate some of the burden falling on neighboring countries, the United Nations recently launched its largest humanitarian appeal in history, demanding $5 billion to assist Syrian refugees in 2013. Moreover, the UN aims to resettle around 10,000 refugees and has asked Western countries to consider resettling some of the refugees.

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Morsi Plays the Sectarian Card

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Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi

Last week President Morsi announced that Egypt would be the third Arab state to sever ties with Syria and voiced his support for a western-imposed no-fly zone.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi

He made the announcement while standing with hardline Sunni clerics who called on young Egyptian jihadists to wage a holy war against President Al-Assad’s Army and Hezbollah militants in Syria. While Egypt remains far less influential in Syria than other powers opposed to Assad, Morsi’s shift underscores the Middle East’s dangerous move toward sectarianism. From the start of his presidency, Morsi expressed solidarity with the Syrian rebels and called on Assad to relinquish power. While expressing opposition to foreign military intervention, Egyptian policy was not to arm the Free Syrian Army. Instead, Morsi proposed that local powers (such as Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) attempt to resolve the conflict through a negotiated settlement.

As the Syrian crisis has progressed, relations between Egypt and Iran have become warmer, as indicated by restored diplomatic relations, visits between the heads-of-state and renewed bilateral tourism. Morsi’s improved ties with Syria’s most important state sponsor and his inclusion of Iran as party to a proposed diplomatic settlement limited the extent to which he could rightly claim that he had earned revolutionary credentials within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist rebels.

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Syria and the Monarchs: A Perfect Storm

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Free Syrian Army fighters take cover as they enter a Syrian Army base. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

America’s decision to directly supply weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up torpedoing the possibility of a political settlement.

Free Syrian Army fighters take cover in Damascus. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

It will almost certainly accelerate the chaos spreading from the almost three-year old civil war. It will also align the U.S. with one of the most undemocratic alliances on the planet, and one that looks increasingly unstable. In short, we are headed into a perfect political storm. While the rationale behind the White House’s decision to send light arms and ammunition to the rebels is that it will level the playing field and force the Assad regime to the bargaining table, it much more likely to do exactly the opposite. The US is now a direct participant in the war to bring down the Damascus regime, thus shedding any possibility that, along with Russia, it could act as a neutral force to bring the parties together.

Of course the US has hardly been a disinterested bystander in the Syrian civil war. For more than two years it has helped facilitate the flow of arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates across the Jordanian and Turkish borders, and the CIA is training insurgents in Jordan. But the White House has always given lip service to a “diplomatic solution,” albeit one whose outcome was preordained: “Assad must go” the President said in August 2011, a precondition that early on turned this into a fight to the death. As Ramzy Mardini, a former U.S. State Department official for Near Eastern affairs, recently wrote in the New York Times, “What’s the point of negotiating a political settlement if the outcome is already predetermined?”

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Syria: The World’s Next Genocide

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Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

The situation in Syria is in a dire state. Since the uprising began in March, 2011, over 60,000 Syrians have been killed and 600,000 displaced.

Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

With a recent petition by 58 UN member states to refer Syria to the ICC and the head of Syria’s opposition being invited to Moscow, Bashar al-Assad’s days in power are numbered. What would a post-Assad Syria look like? Would it even be peaceful? The sad reality is that the killings have just begun. Assad bears sole responsibility for starting the unrest, but he does not bear sole responsibility for crimes already committed or for crimes yet to come. We will bear witness to the world’s next genocide against the 2.5 million Alawites and possibly other ethnic minorities once Assad is overthrown. As the bloodshed continues, Syria is now entrenched along ethic and sectarian lines. Despite being a Sunni majority country, Syria’s economic, political and military leaders hail from the Alawite minority.

When Assad’s father Hafez came to power in 1970, he brought the Alawites from being persecuted to a group in the highest corridors of power. When the Arab Spring began, it brought up animosity and hatred of the Alawites that had been brewing for over 40 years. Memories of the 1982 Sunni Rebellion that was violently crushed were still very fresh in people’s minds. This, added with the bloody government crackdown is deepening the sectarian divide. The government has been cracking down and enforcing collective punishment on entire Sunni neighborhoods. The victims are mostly civilian men, women and children.

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Examining Israel’s Syria Bombing

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An Israeli military jeep near the Israel-Lebanon border. Israeli forces attacked a convoy in Syria on January 29th heightening tensions in the region.  Baz Ratner/Reuters

“If there is a need, we will take action to prevent chemical weapons from being transferred to Islamic terror organisations. We are obligated to keep our eye on it at all times, in the event chemical weapons fall into Hezbollah’s hands.” – Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom

An Israeli military jeep near the Israel-Lebanon border. Israeli forces attacked a convoy in Syria on January 29th heightening tensions in the region. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Now that the dust has settled—literally and figuratively—from Israel’s Jan. 29 air attack on Syria, the question is, why? According to Tel Aviv, the bombing was aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-craft missiles to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, which one former Israeli military intelligence officer said would be “a game-changer.” But there are major problems with that story. First, it is highly unlikely that Damascus would turn such a system over to Hezbollah, in part because the Russians would almost certainly not have allowed it, and, secondly, because the SA-17 would not be terribly useful to the Lebanese Shiite organization. In fact, we don’t even know if an SA-17 was the target. The Syrians deny it, claiming it was a military research center 15 miles northwest of Damascus that was bombed, killing two and wounding five. The Israelis are refusing to say anything. The story that the anti-aircraft system was the objective comes mainly from unnamed “western officials.”

The SA-17 is a capable, mid-range, anti-aircraft weapon. Designated “Grizzly” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it consists of four missiles mounted on a mobile launcher. It has a range of 30 miles, a ceiling of close to 50,000 feet, and can down anything from aircraft to cruise missiles. Introduced in 1998 as a replacement for the SA-11 “Gadfly,” the SA-17 has been sold to Egypt, Syria, Finland, China, Venezuela, India, Cyprus, Belarus, and the Ukraine. It has a bite. During the 2008 Russia-Georgian War, the SA-17 apparently downed three Russian SU-25s close support attack planes, and an ancient long-range Tupolev-22 bomber. It appears Georgia acquired the anti-aircraft system from the Ukraine without the Russians knowing about it.

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Turkey’s Foreign Policy: No Longer Neutral, Far From a Leader

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American Patriot missile batteries being delivered to Turkey to bolster their defenses amid heightened tensions

Responding to Turkey’s request for protection against a possible attack from Syria, the NATO Council mobilized six Patriot missile batteries to assist Ankara in defending the south-east and south-central provinces.

American Patriot missile batteries being delivered to Turkey to bolster their defenses amid heightened tensions

With materiel and personnel support becoming increasingly operational over the coming days, Turkey is further shifting its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy in favor of a proactive response to regional issues, which affords Ankara the opportunity to forge a new path in its foreign policy initiatives. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu developed the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy in 2009 as a means to push Turkey into a more international position that fulfilled Ataturk’s desire for ‘peace at home, peace in the world.’ Intending to position the nation into a more centralized role in global affairs, the Turkish government sought out opportunities to mediate inter- and intra-state disputes as a means to broker regional peace.

Through these measures, Ankara attempted to promote stronger relations with its autocratic neighbors, and the policy was initially utilized to justify signing the Tehran Declaration, as well as voting against United Nations sanctions against Iran. The initiative was short-lived and began to be dismantled after a 2010 NATO Summit where Ankara agreed to a radar-defense system deployed in its territory. Prior to the agreement, Tehran believed Turkey was distancing itself from its Western allies; however, the NATO agreement severely soured relations between the two countries. The escalating chaos that manifested from the Arab Spring showed the Turkish leadership that the ‘zero problems’ policy was an over-simplified solution to broad, complex problems throughout the region.

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2012 “Are You Serious?” Awards

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DoD Photo
DoD Photo

DoD Photo

Every year it is important to recognize news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for 2012 as recognized by Dispatches From The Edge. Dr. Strangelove Award to Lord John Gilbert, former UK defense minister in Tony Blair’s government, for a “solution” to stopping terrorist infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan: Nuke ‘em. Baron Gilbert proposes using Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blasts—informally known as “neutron bombs”—to seal off the border. According to Gilbert, “If we told them [terrorists] that some ERRB warheads were going to be dropped there and that it would be a very unpleasant place to go, they would not go there.”

The border between the two countries is a little over 1,600 miles of some of the most daunting terrain on the planet. And since the British arbitrarily imposed it on Afghanistan in 1896, most the people who live adjacent to it, including the Kabul government, don’t recognize it.

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Palestine’s New Status: A Rerun or a New Strategy?

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Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, with his delegation in the General Assembly Hall following the Assembly's decision.  Rick Bajornas/UN

Palestine has become a “non-member state” at the United Nations as of Thursday November 29, 2012.

Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, with his delegation in the General Assembly Hall following the Assembly’s decision. Rick Bajornas/UN

The draft of the UN resolution beckoning what many perceive as a historic moment passed with an overwhelming majority of General Assembly members: 138 votes in favor, nine against and 41 abstentions. It was accompanied by a passionate speech delivered by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But decades earlier, a more impressive and animated Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat sought international solidarity as well. The occasion then was also termed ‘historic’. Empowered by Arab support at the Rabat Arab League summit in October 1974, which bestowed on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the ever-opaque title “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, Arafat was invited to speak at the UN General Assembly.

Despite the fervor that accompanied the newly found global solidarity, Arafat’s language singled a departure from what was perceived by Western powers as radical and unrealistic political and territorial ambitions. In his speech on November 13, Arafat spoke of the growing PLO’s legitimacy that compelled his actions: “The PLO has earned its legitimacy because of the sacrifice inherent in its pioneering role and also because of its dedicated leadership of the struggle. It has also been granted this legitimacy by the Palestinian masses…The PLO has also gained its legitimacy by representing every faction, union or group as well as every Palestinian talent, either in the National Council or in people’s institutions.” The list went on, and, despite some reservations, each had a reasonable degree of merit.

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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Middle East: The Next Four Years

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Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Let’s start with the Middle East.

Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

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What the Middle East will Look Like if Iran is Attacked

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

“The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that.” – U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Two weeks ago the US denied that an agreement was made to meet with Iranian officials to discuss the Iranian nuclear program after the American election. It appears that Iranian officials either expect Mr. Obama to be reelected or are trying to get back to the negotiating table before they are forced to negotiate with a Romney administration. Iran seems to be signaling its opening position - that it will settle for a “break-out” nuclear capability (wherein the components of a weapon are available for assembly but not readily available) in exchange for the end of sanctions, or an agreement with Israel not to strike. Last month the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated its flexibility in negotiating to “ease western concerns.” In the face of crippling sanctions and an increasing likelihood that Israel may indeed bomb Iran, has Iran finally blinked?

We think not. There is nothing in Iran’s previous or current behavior to suggest that rumors of pending negotiations are true, nor that they would prove to be successful. More likely, any attempt at negotiation would simply be another stall tactic designed to bide time while Iran races toward full enrichment capability. As such, we must assume that Israel (and possibly the U.S.) believe an attack on Iran may ultimately be necessary. So what would the Middle East look like if Iran is attacked?

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Turkey Haunted by its own Hubris

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A rebel fighter fires a gun toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on Nov. 4.  Narciso Contreras/AP

Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

A rebel fighter fires a gun toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on Nov. 4. Narciso Contreras/AP

Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply. What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?

There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause. If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.

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