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May 28, 2013

Syria’s Multi-Sided Chess Game

March 31, 2013 by

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

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime— Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents— Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.  Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

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Examining Israel’s Syria Bombing

February 18, 2013 by

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 via The Boston Globe

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.”

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Benjamin Netanyahu weakened following Elections

January 24, 2013 by

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem, 23 January 2013. Netanyahu narrowly won an election in which disgruntled voters catapulted a new centrist challenger into second place. Darren Whiteside/EPA via The Conversation

It was the incalculable element – would Israel veer more broadly to the right, or would that course be checked by various political elements to the centre? The money was on a good showing by orthodox and nationalist forces that would push Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition into an even more extreme position on compromise (or non-compromise) with the Palestinians.

Instead, the political commentators were baffled. Benjamin Netanyahu won the narrowest of victories for his right-wing bloc (his own Likud-Biteinu grouping getting 31 seats), assailed by a good showing by Yesh Atid, party whose slogan is “We’ve come to make a change.”

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Iran’s Inroads in Latin America

January 3, 2013 by

Reading the text of a bill that was recently signed into law by President Barack Obama would instill fear in the hearts of ordinary Americans. Apparently, barbarians coming from distant lands are at work. They are gathering at the US-Mexico border, cutting fences and ready to wreak havoc on an otherwise serene American landscape.

Never mind that crazed, armed to the teeth, homegrown American terrorists are killing children and terrorizing whole cities. It is the Iranian menace that we are meant to fear according to the new law. When compounded with the other imagined threats of Hezbollah and Hamas, all with sinister agendas, then the time is right for Americans to return to their homes, bolt their doors and squat in shelters awaiting further instructions, for evidently, “The Iranians are coming.”

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US Foreign Policy and the Middle East: The Next Four Years

November 11, 2012 by

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

Syria

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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Turkey Haunted by its own Hubris

November 1, 2012 by

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.

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.

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Turkey’s Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

October 12, 2012 by

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ra’ed Qutena/Flickr

It seems that media consensus has been conclusively reached: Turkey has been forced into a Middle Eastern mess not of its own making; the ‘Zero Problems with Neighbors’ notion, once the foreign policy centerpiece of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is all but a romantic notion of no use in realpolitik.

Turkey’s “policy’s goal – to build strong economic, political, and social ties with the country’s immediate neighbors while decreasing its dependency on the United States – seemed to be within sight,” wrote Sinan Ulgen nearly a year ago. “But the Arab Spring exposed the policy’s vulnerabilities, and Turkey must now seek a new guiding principle for regional engagement.”

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Can a Nuclear Armed Iran Be Contained?

October 9, 2012 by

This is the sixth post in a TMP series titled “The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.

During his address at the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a diagram of a bomb to urge international action against Iran’s nuclear program. He emphasized that soon Iran will have enough enriched uranium to become a threat to the existence of Israel, and said the world has until next summer at the latest to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

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Self-Immolations Speak of Israel’s Economic Pains

July 28, 2012 by

Israeli housing protest in Tel Aviv. Gerrit De Vynck/Flickr

In the past weeks, the streets of Tel Aviv have been witness to desperate people setting themselves on fire in protest against the growing social and economic inequalities and the rising cost of living in Israel.

Almost one year after 400,000 Israelis filled Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in protest at the increasing economic difficulties, a wave of civil unrest and upsurges is again encompassing the country. The latest victim of the protests was 57-year-old Moshe Silman, a disabled war veteran who sustained severe injuries after setting himself ablaze at a bus stop near Tel Aviv on July 14.

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Clinton meets with Morsi to Chart a Diplomatic Path

July 17, 2012 by

Over the past weekend Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt for the first time since the election in late June of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Dr. Muhammad Morsi. During her visit, Clinton not only met with the new president but also sat with Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the same military council that has been effectively ruling the country since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.

According to the New York Times, Clinton declared during her meeting with the Egyptian Islamist president that the U.S. “supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails” and emphasized the need for “building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum.” The following day Clinton met with Tantawi after which she declared that the U.S. would like to see the Egyptian military return to “purely national security role.”

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Iran Sanctions: War by Other Means

July 14, 2012 by

Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran.  Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.

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What Israeli Airport Security Teaches the World

June 19, 2012 by

Ben Gurion International Airport. llee_wu/Flickr

No country in the world faces more terrorist threats than Israel, and no airport in the world faces more such threats than Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. The Israelis have of course been the gold standard for establishing and maintaining security in all its forms.  Much of the airport’s security protocol is achieved through a combination of comprehensive due diligence, common sense, and consistency - which, one would think would be the objective of airport authorities throughout the world.  Yet very few other airports have achieved the level of security that exists at Ben Gurion. We explore why that is the case.

All vehicles that arrive at Ben Gurion must first pass through a preliminary security checkpoint where armed guards search the vehicle and exchange a few words with the driver and occupants to gauge their mood and intentions.  Plain clothes officers patrol the area outside the terminal building, assisted by sophisticated hidden surveillance cameras which operate around the clock.

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Iran, Israel and the U.S.: The Slide To War

February 23, 2012 by

President Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pete Souza/White House

Wars are fought because some people decide it is in their interests to fight them.

World War I was not started over the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, nor was it triggered by the alliance system. An “incident” may set the stage for war, but no one keeps shooting unless they think it’s a good idea. The Great War started because the countries involved decided they would profit by it, delusional as that conclusion was.

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Hezbollah’s Missiles: A Brilliant Madness?

February 5, 2012 by

Ehud Barak with IDF Commanders. Ariel Hermoni/IDF

The Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, whose violent opposition to Israel’s right to exist remains firmly intact, has been stepping up its incessant preparations for war in recent months, clearly unfazed by the intensity of the military projections that Israel could unleash on them and their country, in a future conflict

The most recent reports coming from the region suggest that the movement, fearing the eventual demise of its long-time ally, Syria, has been helping itself to vast quantities of sophisticated military equipment belonging to the Syrian military.

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Arab Spring, Israeli Isolation

October 13, 2011 by

President Barack Obama talks with members of his Middle East Policy team, including from right, George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East Peace; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Dennis Ross, senior director for the Central Region; and Dan Shapiro, senior director for the Middle East, in the Oval Office, Sept. 1, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

With the Arab uprisings gradually reconfiguring the regional political landscape, Israel is finding itself increasingly isolated. For at least a decade, Israel has identified Iran as its main strategic nemesis, but the Arab spring has rekindled simmering tensions between Israel on one hand, and Arab states as well as Turkey on the other.

The ongoing conflict within Syria could also jeopardize the implicit modus vivendi between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israel, paving the way for a potential conflict in the future. The whole Arab landscape has actually shifted: the Hezbollah faction is playing a central role in Lebanese politics; the Egyptian public is demanding a reassessment of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty; and the Jordanian government is facing growing domestic political pressure. Israel is grappling with a totally new emerging regional order.

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