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Archive for August 6th, 2014

A Yemeni boy painted with the colours of his national flag. Photograph: Muhammed Muheisen/AP

A Yemeni boy painted with the colours of his national flag. Photograph: Muhammed Muheisen/AP

For anyone like me who is struggling to get their head as well as their heart around the multifaceted problems raging in the Middle East right now, this Guardian review published on Monday is as good a place as any to begin. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

From Egypt to Syria, Palestine to Iraq, the hopes of the Arab spring lie in tatters. And with the latest conflict in Gaza, the Middle East is more violent, volatile and complex than ever.

It’s complicated – and extremely violent – in the Middle East these days. Iraq is in a state of war again after Sunni jihadis conquered swaths of territory. US troops – though now only “advisers” – are back in Shia-ruled Baghdad. In Syria, next door, the conflict rages on – bleeding into Iraq across a desert border drawn up during the first world war and now effectively erased by the Islamic State (Isis), the triumphant advocates of a seventh-century Islamic caliphate. Palestine, the region’s oldest conflict, has exploded spectacularly with the latest bout of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad has the upper hand. But large areas of the country remain beyond his control. The US, Britain and their allies shied away from overt intervention even when Assad crossed Barack Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own people. Sunni Saudi Arabia and its autocratic Gulf allies want the Syrian president to go, and have armed the rebels fighting him – though they fear “blowback” from Isis and al-Qaida. The Gulf states loathe Shia Iran, supporting Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad as well as Assad. The UK and other western countries fret about radicalised Muslims coming home from the battlefields of the Levant.

Everywhere the hopes of the Arab spring have been bitterly disappointed. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is ruled by Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, another repressive soldier-turned-president. Tahrir Square is a fading memory. The Gulf monarchs – maverick pro-Islamist Qatar apart – are using their oil wealth to bankroll counter-revolution at home and abroad.

In a landscape dominated by generals, autocrats and extremists, with the mainstream Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood repressed or discredited, political space is shrinking. Elections have been held in Syria and Egypt but these have hardly been shining examples of democracy and pluralism. Al-Qaida, hammered in its Afghan and Pakistani hideouts, seemed a spent force when Osama bin Laden was gunned down by US special forces three years ago. But now the jihadis are back — from Mosul to Mali. “Turkey, Israel and Iran are the only strong states in the region,” laments one veteran leader. “The Arabs are hell’s firewood.”

Internationally, strategies are being re-thought and alliances shifting as enemies’ enemies become friends, however temporarily. Allies on one issue back different sides on others. The US and Iran, at loggerheads for 35 years, share some interests in Iraq but remain at loggerheads over Syria and Israel. The intractable conflict between the nuclear-armed Jewish state and the still stateless Palestinians is experiencing another vicious bout of carnage in Gaza. More than 1,800 Palestinian dead, the majority civilians, is one consequence of years of missed opportunities and the failure of US efforts to revive a long-moribund peace process. The old idea of a two-state solution has few believers these days. But military might is no answer either. The coming months will tell whether a landmark nuclear deal can be struck between Washington and Tehran. Could that, as some hope, unlock the door to wider change across the Middle East? Or is that wishful thinking in the face of a chaotic and bloody reality?

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