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John Wight

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Middle East Reaching Point of No Return

Posted: 4/02/2012 10:21

Continuing bloodshed in Syria, violent protests in Egypt, and a ramping up of tensions between Israel and Iran.

It would be hard to think of a more dangerous period in this the most contentious region on the planet, which given its location at the epicentre of the ongoing struggle over control of the planet's natural resources reveals the extent to which the so-called Arab Spring has laid bare the region's deep and many contradictions.

The failure of the military hierarchy in Egypt to palliate the country's desire for qualitative reform, by cobbling together a democratic process that leaves the military in place as the power of last resort, is expressed in the backlash that has met the deaths of 74 people at a football match in Port Said, when visiting fans of Cairo side al-Ahly were attacked by supporters of the home team al-Masry during a pitch invasion.

A welter of reports have emerged in the aftermath that the violence in Port Said was premeditated and orchestrated by the military itself, revenge for the role the ultras of al-Ahly played in the street battles in Cairo that helped topple the western-backed and pro-Israel Mubarak dictatorship in 2011. Even if these reports are exaggerated, the current backlash is evidence that the military leadership's continued control over Egypt's political and economic trajectory will not go unchallenged even after the country's recent elections. Here the West's commitment to democracy in the region is caught between its fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, who won a significant majority at the polls, and the very real possibility of the military governing council being swept aside in a renewed revolutionary upsurge that would end decades of subservience to western interests.

Meanwhile in Syria events appear to have reached the point of no return with the Syrian military's shelling of the city of Homs in the west of the country, whose population currently finds itself on the receiving end of the regime's inability to quell a growing and armed insurrection. However, the weasel words of concern in the West over the violence should cut no ice with those interested in ending the crisis and arriving at a peaceful resolution.

NATO's military intervention in Libya, which has left the country destabilised and mired in chaos, would undoubtedly be Syria's fate if not for the undoubted support that the Assad regime still retains in the country, along with the relative strength and cohesion of the Syrian military compared to its Libyan counterpart under Gaddafi. Regardless, the fact remains that the Syrian government is struggling to regain control of the situation on the ground. The fate of Libya and Iraq as recent examples of western-backed or imposed regime change has had the unintended consequence of ensuring that the current struggle taking place in Syria has been a zero-sum game from the very beginning, not only for the continued survival of the regime but for the likely explosion of sectarian violence that will explode across the country in the event that it falls.

With the Arab League enjoying little credibility in the eyes of those who understand it as a collection of puppet dictatorships with an agenda that accords to one drawn up in Washington, Tel Aviv and European capitals, this leaves Russia, China and the other members of the BRIC bloc of states as the only forces capable of effecting meaningful intervention at this stage.

Opponents of the Syrian regime must understand that stopping the bloodshed and regime change constitute different objectives. Indeed, the latter will only ensure more of the former in Syria. Assad's ability to remain in power may now be growing more unlikely with each passing day, but whether any transition that takes place ends in a peaceful outcome or one that fractures the country along sectarian and confessional lines will depend on the manner of the resolution to the crisis, and the nature of any outside intervention. Assad retains significant support within Syria and both pro-regime and anti-regime forces are involved in the violence currently taking place.

When it comes to Iran the determination on the part of Israeli hawks, led by defence minister Ehud Barak, to mount a military strike on the country's nuclear facilities has revealed the political weakness of the Obama administration when it comes to reining in its ally and most important strategic asset. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's recent statement to the effect that he believes Israel will attack Iran within the next few months was instructive.

There is of course the possibility that it was intended to exert more pressure on the Islamic Republic, but if so it underestimates the determination of Iran to exercise its sovereignty and resist the axis of domination in the region, made up of the US, Israel, and their European allies. The continued distortion by Israel and its supporters of the Iranian leadership's statements calling for the destruction not of Israel but of Israel as as an apartheid and racist state have succeeded in the objective of painting Tehran as the major threat to security and stability in the region, and increasingly the world.

The opposite is the case.

Israel's objective of maintaining the imbalance of military power it currently enjoys, and its ability to continue with the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, lies behind its desire to remove the resistance to this process on the part of Iran, expressed in the material support it provides to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The fact is that war with Iran is already underway, with the new round of sanctions levelled against its economy by the West constituting the latest stage. The series of assassinations of Iranian scientists engaged in the country's nuclear programme has only increased the Islamic Republic's resolve rather than weaken it, with the danger of a major conflagration closer now than it's ever been. The inability of hawks in Israel and its allies to learn the lessons of history, or their repeated pattern of learning the wrong lessons, is clear. The barbarity and racism implicit in Israel's iron heel policy towards the Palestinians is the major cause of instability and insecurity in the region.

This is a truth that western policymakers know but refuse to admit.