The Middle East Channel

Former Israeli Leader Ariel Sharon in Critical Condition

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 85, who has been in a coma since a 2006 stroke, is experiencing multiple organ failure and is in critical condition. According to reports on Wednesday, Sharon has been suffering from kidney malfunction. Zeev Rotstein, director of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where Sharon has been receiving care, said Sharon's situation has worsened and that "there is definitely a threat to his life." While Rotstein said Sharon is not on dialysis, doctors have been administering antibiotics to deal with multiple infections. Rotstein noted, "He's getting all the treatment necessary," but some sources say he is not expected to live for more than a few days.

Syria

Syria has missed a December 31, 2013 deadline for the removal of part of its chemical weapons arsenal. Security concerns, bad weather, and bureaucratic issues caused the delay, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) although inspectors maintain the mission is still on track. Norwegian and Danish ships slated to transport the chemical weapons to Italy returned to port in Cyprus after containers failed to arrive in the Syrian port of Latakia. The vessels are expected to return to sea in the coming days. Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that over 130,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines  

  • Lebanese military authorities have arrested Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, head of al Qaeda linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which claimed responsibility for a November attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
  • The Syrian Electronic Army has claimed responsibility for hacking into the Microsoft-owned Skype's social media accounts Wednesday in an apparent protest against NSA surveillance.
  • Heavy clashes have continued between the military and al Qaeda linked militants in Iraq's Anbar province, meanwhile the death toll in the country reportedly hit 8,868 in 2013.
  • Clashes between Egyptian police and pro-Islamist protesters have killed two people in the coastal city of Alexandria.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has returned to the Middle East to push for a "framework" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as Israel delays an announcement of bids for new settlement construction

Arguments and Analysis

'The Danger of New Iran Sanctions' (Colin Kahl, National Interest)

"The Revolutionary Guard and other hardliners are already fighting a rearguard action against the Geneva agreement, with a war of words breaking out in recent weeks between Zarif and the Guards' top commander, Major General Mohammad Jafari, over the course of Iran's nuclear and foreign policy. These same forces would undoubtedly seize on Congressional legislation threatening new sanctions and demanding de facto nuclear surrender as the latest example of American perfidy, using it to rebut Rouhani's claim that an accommodation with the West that protects core Iranian interests is possible. Hardliners have consistently argued that Iranian compromise is just a prelude to greater U.S. pressure. Khamenei suspects this too. Threatening new sanctions in the immediate aftermath of the first meaningful Iranian concessions in a decade, as the proposed Senate legislation does, risks validating that view.

The Senate bill could also lead to provocative Iranian counter-reactions at an extraordinarily delicate moment for diplomacy. Indeed, nearly one hundred hardline Iranian parliamentarians have already drafted legislation that would mandate escalating enrichment to the nearly-bomb-grade 60 percent level if more U.S. sanctions are imposed. Given thirty-five years of distrust between Tehran and Washington, it would not take much perceived bad faith by either party to reverse the modicum of confidence built at Geneva. It is difficult to imagine negotiations surviving such a tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle."

'A Deadly Mix in Benghazi' (David Kirkpatrick, New York Times)

"The United States waded deeply into post-Qaddafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda. It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies.

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria's civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests."

'Bashar Al Assad: An Intimate Profile of a Mass Murderer' (Annia Ciezadlo, New Republic)

"For years, many Western analysts and diplomats have viewed Assad as malleable, even naïve. But his former aides describe a man who is accustomed to being underestimated and adept at exploiting those misperceptions. Before negotiations, Assad would tell his team to let the other side think they had won: 'Give them always nice words, nice meetings, nice phrases,' Abdelnour recalls him saying. 'They will be happy, they will say good things about us, and they cannot withdraw from it later.' In the end, though, Assad rarely delivers on the concessions that he grants so courteously. He always has an excuse, a variable beyond his control: Yes, he would try to stop the flow of jihadists into Iraq, but he could not police the entire border.

According to another former aide, Assad took pleasure in toying with the West. 'He told me once, "When I sit with the Arabs, it's a session of takazu" -- mutual lying, we say in Arabic,' says the former adviser. 'But when I sit with those foreigners, and you see me on television, really it's a game of Tom and Jerry.'"

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Icarus and Erdogan's corruption scandal

After monopolizing political power and dominating the public realm for years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly thought nothing could stop him from flying high. Like Icarus from the Greek myth, however, Erdogan's flight has taken him too close to the sun. Recent mounting scandal and protest have forced Erdogan into a cabinet reshuffle that resulted in the resignation of four ministers accused of corruption. Icarus did not survive his encounter with the sun's rays. It may be too early to count Erdogan out, but Turkey's internal dynamics and relations with its allies have been altered permanently.

Erdogan, like Icarus, has been badly burned by the sin of hubris. In his 12 years of power, he has come to completely dominate Turkish politics in a way that no other leader since Ataturk's one-party state days. He achieved this dominance not just because he was a good politician but also because he faced a hapless opposition unable to challenge him or elaborate a convincing alternative vision. Ironically, early on in his term one of his closest advisors, who is now in the cabinet, confided "Turkey's greatest misfortune was that it lacked a credible opposition." 

The current crisis erupted when prosecutors armed with search warrants raided the residences of three serving ministers' sons and the CEO of Halkbank, a government owned bank that had raised eyebrows in the United States and Europe for having been the intermediary in the gold trade with Iran designed to help Tehran avoid sanctions. The prosecutors found $4.5 million dollars and other currencies stashed in shoeboxes as well as numerous safes and money counting machines. The sons and other suspects were accused of money laundering, influence peddling, and bribery among other crimes. The three sons were those of the interior minister, who had been in office less than a year, the economy minister, and the environment and urban planning minister. A fourth minister in charge of relations with the European Union was also implicated.

Erdogan's current challenge is not simply the loss of credibility that the corruption scandal entails. There are few people in Turkey who had not suspected or gotten a whiff of scandal. But for years the Turkish public had an implicit social contract with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leaders: As long as the economic picture improved and more services were made available to the public, the corruption would be overlooked. As extra insurance, Erdogan also made sure that the majority of the press, print and electronic, would be controlled by his allies and he cowed journalists into submission by pressuring their bosses.

So what has changed? In May and June, Istanbul and other cities were rocked by demonstrations against the government that took Erdogan and company by surprise. The size and duration of the protests unhinged the government. It was then that Erdogan made a critical mistake. Instead of searching for a political solution, he decided not just to confront the demonstrators but also to delegitimize them and their demands by inventing a vast external conspiracy as the source of the protests. He and his supporters in the government, media, and elsewhere unleashed a virulent and non-stop campaign backed by imaginary information of how "an interest lobby," the United States, European countries, the German airline Lufthansa, the foreign media, the Financial Times, Reuters, CNN, and the Economist, to name a few, and of course the Jews and Israel together cooperated in this endeavor. The protesters and their allies in civil society and even in some business circles were therefore nothing more than the pawns of this evil cabal.

There were two problems with this campaign. First, Erdogan, possibly misled by his advisors, appears to have not understood the depth of the protests and the extent to which this was about his increasingly authoritarian tendencies. More importantly, the AKP brass came to believe that this strategy solidified his electoral base in advance of the March 2014 municipal elections. Second, it damaged Turkey's image abroad and harmed Ankara's most important international alliances. Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama, who two weeks before the Gezi protests in May and June had dined with Erdogan in the White House, has allegedly stopped talking to him. Washington and European capitals were understandably shocked that they were blamed for attempting to overthrow him.

Nevertheless, when the most recent scandal emerged Erdogan and the AKP once again unleashed the conspiracy weapon. The pro-AKP press is once again drowning in a sea of conspiracy; the usual suspects have been fingered. This time there is a bit more flourish: The AKP openly suspected the hand of the movement of the religious conservative Fethullah Gulen, once an erstwhile ally and fellow traveler who increasingly became fearful of Erdogan's accumulation of power. There is something to be said about the enmity of the opaque Gulen movement and the AKP. Gulen who has been residing in rural Pennsylvania since the late 1990s when he sought refuge from the Turkish military, has built a vast network of business associations, media properties, and schools. His adepts are said to populate many state institutions, including the police and judiciary. The alliance collapsed with the defeat of the military as both Gulen and Erdogan began to perceive each other as having accumulated too much power. The corruption inquiry is seen as another skirmish in the battle between the two.

The flourish also came with manufactured stories about the U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone and his embassy personnel. Embassy and State Department denials notwithstanding, Erdogan threatened Riccardone with expulsion. One day four pro-AKP government news sites appeared with almost identical story lines if not headlines directly or indirectly calling for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador. Now they have decided on a common narrative -- that this is a coup attempt organized by the United States, Israel, and the Gulen movement.

Erdogan's initial reaction to lock down the hatches by dismissing police chiefs and changing reporting regulations to prevent further investigations into his party and even his own family has struck a raw nerve. The public this time seems far more skeptical of the conspiracy theories. For one thing the images of the $4.5 million, money counting machines, and many safes -- almost straight out of a Hollywood movie -- are difficult to erase. Furthermore, the explanations have stretched credulity: They range from the foreign conspirators planting the money and equipment to monies collected to build a school somewhere in Turkey or to be donated to a Balkan university -- take your pick.

Uncharacteristically, Erdogan this time yielded under pressure and reshuffled his cabinet. While he may recover, he is a much more diminished person at home and internationally. He will suffer losses in the municipal elections, but he has time to recover even if not completely before the presidential and general elections. Still, the Gezi protests have had a cumulative impact on his predicament. At home it is becoming more and more difficult for the public to buy into the fantastical conspiracy theories that target Turkey and Erdogan. Business confidence, a mainstay of the AKP's rule, has been shaken to the core as its currency has plunged to new lows. 

Will Erdogan throw all caution to the wind in pursuit of short-term benefits and adopt a policy of confrontation with his real and imaginary enemies? This will further divide Turkey and, especially if the United States becomes a target, the costs, economic and political, in the long run could become prohibitive. The U.S.-Turkish relationship has been severely damaged as confidence in an ally leader who accuses Washington for fomenting a coup against him has been zeroed. The United States will continue working with Turkey; it has no other choice as everyday Turkish and U.S. officials engage in hundreds if not thousands of transactions. They range from exchanges within the NATO alliance to Afghanistan to trade and other economic relations to conversations over Syria and the rest of the Middle East. These are not about to disappear -- but Erdogan's hubris has already done real harm to a once close partnership.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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