“Dark War Clouds Loom on Mid-East Horizon” by Herbert London

The gathering storm in the Middle East is gaining momentum. War clouds are on the horizon and, as with conditions prior to World War I, all it takes for explosive action to commence is a trigger.

Turkey’s provocative flotilla—often described in Orwellian terms as a humanitarian mission—has set in motion a flurry of diplomatic activity, but if the Iranians send escort vessels for the next round of Turkish ships, it could present a casus belli.

It is also instructive that Syria is playing a dangerous game with both missile deployment and rearming Hezbollah. According to most public accounts, Hezbollah is sitting on 40,000 long-, medium- and short-range missiles and Syrian territory has served as a conduit for military material from Iran since the end of the 2006 Lebanon War.

Should Syria move its own scuds to Lebanon or deploy its troops as reinforcement for Hezbollah, a wider regional war with Israel could not be contained.

In the backdrop is an Iran with sufficient fissionable material to produce a couple of nuclear weapons. It will take some time to weaponize missiles, but the road to that goal is synchronized in green lights, since neither diplomacy nor diluted sanctions can convince Iran to change course.

Iran is poised to be the hegemon in the Middle East. It is increasingly considered the “strong horse,” as American forces incrementally retreat from the region. Even Iraq, ironically, may depend on Iranian ties in order to maintain internal stability. From Qatar to Afghanistan, all political eyes are on Iran.

For Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, regional strategic vision is a combination of deal-making to offset the Iranian Shia advantage and attempting to buy or develop nuclear weapons as a counterweight to Iranian ambition. However, both of these governments are in a precarious state.

Should either fall, all bets are off in the Middle East neighborhood. It has long been said that the Sunni “tent” must stand on two legs, if one, falls, the tent collapses.

Should that tent collapse and should Iran take advantage of that calamity, it could incite a Sunni-Shia war. Or feeling its oats and no longer dissuaded by an escalation scenario with nuclear weapons in tow, war against Israel is a distinct possibility. However implausible it may seem at the moment, the possible annihilation of Israel and the prospect of a second Holocaust could lead to a nuclear exchange.

The only wild card that can change this slide into warfare is an active United States policy. Yet curiously, the U.S. is engaged in both an emotional and physical retreat from the region. Despite rhetoric that suggests an Iran with nuclear weapons is intolerable, that rhetoric has done nothing to forestall that eventual outcome. Despite the investment in blood and treasure to allow a stable government to emerge in Iraq, the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. forces has prompted President Maliki to travel to Tehran on a regular basis. And despite historic links to Israel that gave the U.S. leverage in the region and a democratic ally, the Obama Administration treats Israel as a national-security albatross that must be disposed of as soon as possible.

As a consequence, the U.S. is perceived in the region as the “weak horse,” the one that is dangerous to ride. In every Middle East capital the words “unreliable and United States” are linked. Those seeking a moderate course of action are now in a distinct minority. A political vacuum is emerging, one that is not sustainable and one the Iranian leadership looks to with imperial exhilaration.

It is no longer a question of whether war will occur, but rather when it will occur and where it will break out. There are many triggers for igniting the explosion, but not many scenarios for containment. Could it be a regional war in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia watch from the sidelines, but secretly wish for Israeli victory? Or is this a war in which there aren’t victors, only devastation? Moreover, should war break out, what does the U.S. do?

This is a description far more dire than any in the last century and, even if some believe my view is overly pessimistic, Arab and Jew, Persian and Egyptian, Muslim and Maronite tend to believe in its veracity. That is a truly bad sign.

Dr. London is president of the Hudson Institute, John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University, publisher of American Outlook, and author of the recently published Decade of Denial.

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