Israel’s take on Syria’s unrest

The Jerusalem Post’s Jerusalem Report has produced this interesting analysis of different Israeli Syrian experts’ views on the current Syria unrest. Not surprisingly there is the preoccupation with Iran and how the weakening or even toppling of the Baath regime would impact on Damascus’ relations with Tehran.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and one of the country’s leading Syria scholars, maintains that if Assad falls or is forced to endure a long period of instability, the big losers will be Iran and its proxies. “Syria is the cornerstone of the pro-Iranian axis. A weakening of Assad’s regime, not to speak of its falling, would be a heavy blow to Iran, Hizballah and Hamas,” .

Personally i think it is a bit of a red herring to focus too much on any post-Baath Syria’s international or regional relations. Obviously some in Israel hope that were Bashar to fall (and this does not seem likely right now) that whoever comes next will distance Syria from Iran. This, however, confuses regime interests with national interests.

Were the Baath to fall, whoever followed would still likely stick to two principle strands of Baathist foreign policy which are, in effect, Syria’s national interests: the return of the Golan Heights and a dominating influence in Lebanon. Unless Israel was suddenly willing to hand over Golan as a sweetener to the new Damascus regime, which is highly unlikely, any new government would maintain the state of war with Tel Aviv and seek alliances with those that confront and harass Israel in an attempt to push them to the negotiating table. Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran would still offer to fulfil that role. The western allied Sunni regional powers – notably Saudi – would be hard pressed to offer something incredibly alluring to the new regime to tempt it away completely.

In short, Golan and Lebanon will remain any Syrian government’s number one foreign policy priorities, whoever is in power, and if Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas offer the best route to achieve that, there is no reason why the alliance would be abandoned after any change of government.

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Israel’s Forest Fires Reveal Hidden Past

This excellent piece by Max Blumenthal on what lies beneath Israel’s burning trees:

“Four days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to place thousands of migrant workers in a prison camp deep in the Negev Desert because, as he claimed, they pose a “threat to the character of [the] country,” a burning tree trunk fell into a bus full of Israeli Prison Service cadets, killing forty passengers. The tree was among hundreds of thousands turned to ash by the forest fire pouring across northern Israel, and which now threatens to engulf outskirts of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Over the last four days, more than 12,300 acres have burned in the Mount Carmel area, a devastating swath of destruction in a country the size of New Jersey. While the cause of the fire has not been established, it has laid bare the myths of Israel’s foundation.

Israelis are treating the fire as one of their greatest tragedies in recent years. A friend who grew up in the Haifa area told me over the weekend that he was devastated by the images of destruction he saw on TV. His friend’s brother was among those who perished in the bus accident. Though he is a dedicated Zionist who supported Netanyahu’s election bid in 2008, like so many Israelis, he was furious at the response — or lack of one — by the government. “Our leaders are complete idiots, but you already know that,” he told me. “They invested so much to prepare for all kinds of crazy war scenarios but didn’t do anything to protect civilians from the basic things you are supposed to take for granted.”

On 3 December, Netanyahu informed the country, “We do not have what it takes to put out the fire, but help is on the way.” To beat back the blaze, Bibi has had to beg for assistance from his counterpart in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and Israel’s American and British patrons. Israel is a wealthy country which boasts to the world about its innovative spirit — its US-based lobbyists market it as a “Start-Up Nation” — but its performance during the forest fire revealed the sad truth: its government has prioritized offensive military capacity and occupation maintenance so extensively that it has completely neglected the country’s infrastructure, emergency preparedness and most of all, the general welfare of its citizens.

Beyond the embarrassing spectacle of Turkish supply planes landing in Tel Aviv just six months after Israeli commandoes massacred Turkish aid volunteers on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, or the confessions of impotence by the hard-men Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the fire exposed a terrible history that had been concealed by layers of official mythology and piles of fallen pine needles…

…By now, both Ein Hod and Ayd Hawd are nearly empty. Most of their residents have fled for safer ground while the thousands of pine trees planted to provide Ein Hod’s artists with a sense of solitude are reduced to ash. As the trees burn, the fire exposes another dimension of Israel’s foundation that it has attempted to bury.

The pine trees themselves were instruments of concealment, strategically planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on the sites of the hundreds of Palestinian villages the Zionist militias evacuated and destroyed in 1948. With forests sprouting up where towns once stood, those who had been expelled would have nothing to come back to. Meanwhile, to outsiders beholding the strangely Alpine landscape of northern Israel for the first time, it seemed as though the Palestinians had never existed. And that was exactly the impression the JNF intended to create. The practice that David Ben Gurion and other prominent Zionists referred to as “redeeming the land” was in fact the ultimate form of greenwashing.

Described by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe as “the quintessential Zionist colonialist,” the first director of the JNF, Yossef Weitz, was a ruthless ideologue who helped orchestrate the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Weitz notoriously declared “It must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples … If the Arabs leave it, the country will become wide and spacious for us … The only solution is a Land of Israel … without Arabs … There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Palestinian Arabs of] Bethlehem, Nazareth and the old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one tribe.”

After Weitz’s wishes were fulfilled, the JNF planted hundreds of thousands of trees over freshly destroyed Palestinian villages like al-Tira, helping to establish the Carmel National Park. An area on the south slope of Mount Carmel so closely resembled the landscape of the Swiss Alps that it was nicknamed “Little Switzerland.” Of course, the nonindigenous trees of the JNF were poorly suited to the environment in Palestine. Most of the saplings the JNF plants at a site near Jerusalem simply do not survive, and require frequent replanting. Elsewhere, needles from the pine trees have killed native plant species and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. And as we have seen with the Carmel wildfire, the JNF’s trees go up like tinder in the dry heat.

But it seems that nothing can stop the JNF’s drive to “green” the land. Even in the parched Negev desert, the JNF is advancing plans to plant one million trees in a plot called “GOD TV Forest.” To accomplish the highly unusual feat of foresting a desert, the Israel Land Administration has ordered the expulsion of the Bedouin unrecognized village of al-Araqib, home to hundreds of Israeli citizens who have lived in the area for more than 100 years and who have served in the army’s frontline tracker units.

The Israeli government has tried time and again to force the people of al-Araqib into an American Indian reservation-style “development town,” but they have refused. The village has been razed to the ground by bulldozers on eight occasions, but each time the residents have rebuilt their homes, hoping to outlast a ruthless campaign to destroy their way of life.

What about the strange name for the proposed forest? It is a reference to GOD TV, a radical right-wing evangelical Christian broadcasting network that hosts faith-based fraudsters like Creflo Dollar and rapture-ready fanatics like Rory and Wendy Alec.

And why is GOD TV bankrolling the JNF’s ethnic cleansing campaign in the Negev desert? According to its website, “GOD TV is planting over ONE MILLION TREES across the Holy Land as a miraculous sign to Israel and to the world that Jesus is coming soon.”

In his 1970 short fiction story “Facing the Forest,” the famed Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua portrayed a mute Palestinian forest watchman who burns down a JNF forest to reveal the hidden ruins of his former village. Forty years later, as the JNF forests around Mount Carmel burn, right-wing Israeli lawmakers have demanded a search for the Arab who must have sparked the blaze, even though there is no firm evidence about the cause of the fire. Michael Ben Ari, a extremist Member of Knesset from the National Union Party, called for “the whole Shin Bet” — Israel’s domestic intelligence agency — to be mobilized to investigate what the right-wing media outlet Arutz Sheva said “may turn out to be the worst terror attack in Israel’s history.”

Lebanon: Blair’s other Middle East mistake

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian, 9th September 2010

A Journey presents Blair’s actions during the 2006 Lebanon war as those of a committed ideologue, not simply Bush’s poodle

When Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was released last week, columnists and reviewers focused on his fairly unrevealing comments about the Iraq war. Less widely reported is Blair’s account of his other major misjudgment in the Middle East: his stubborn refusal to call for a ceasefire during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The conflict, fought for a month between the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah, was estimated to have cost the lives of 1,191 Lebanese citizens and 159 Israelis (including 43 civilians). As the Shia militia fired rockets at Israeli cities and the IDF responded with massive bombings in Lebanon, Blair was urged by a huge swell of public opinion, the media, his cabinet and foreign policy advisers to join European leaders in calling for an immediate unconditional ceasefire.

Yet the prime minister stubbornly defied this advice and endorsed the Bush administration’s approach of foot-dragging on a UN ceasefire, allegedly to allow Israel more time to “knock out” Hezbollah.

Previous biographies, such as Anthony Seldon’s excellent Blair Unbound, suggested Blair told aides that his attitude in summer 2006 was to retain “leverage” with both the US and Israel, fearing that to openly criticise them would lose him clout. Indeed, this was a reason often given for sticking with Bush in Iraq: to earn the right to guide and influence. Yet his memoir reveals no such pragmatic concerns, misguided as they proved to be. Instead, Blair declares a deep ideological motivation for opposing a ceasefire. He states: “If I had condemned Israel, it would have been more than dishonest; it would have undermined the world view I had come to hold passionately.”

It is this world view that is most alarming about Blair’s account. Through this lens, Blair believed: “Lebanon was embroiled in something far bigger and more portentous than a temporary fight with Israel.” Instead, he sees it as a “wider struggle between the strain of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us”. He was thus willing to delay a ceasefire in order to win victory in this wider struggle, of which he saw Hezbollah as a key combatant, and Israel as one of “us”.

From Blair’s perspective this religious struggle defines the Middle East. He states: “To me, you can’t understand Hezbollah unless you understand the role of Iran; or understand Lebanon unless you understand Syria … or understand either country in its present state unless you understand the history not just of the region but of the religion, how it saw itself, how it had developed its own narrative, how it saw its own predicament.”

This includes a remarkable simplification of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he claims “is used as a potent source of friction and war because of religious difference”. The impact of other significant forces, notably nationalism and imperialism, are conveniently sidelined.

Blair hints that the civilians caught up in this struggle are regrettably expendable. Echoing Condoleezza Rice’s own distasteful remarks that the 2006 violence was the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”, Blair remarks that “just because we were shocked by the TV footage of the consequences of war, this could not blind us to the consequences of peace on the wrong terms”.

Yet his peace on the “right” terms seemed to include a form of collective punishment of the Lebanese. He articulates: “They [Hezbollah] had to understand that if they tried doing it again, there was a price to be paid that the people of Lebanon would not allow them to pay, at least not with the lives of their civilians.”

One wonders if Blair would have been willing to expend the lives of a thousand Israeli, or even British, civilians in order to make Hezbollah understand.

The use of force to achieve his goals is a further strand of his world view. He states: “The solution to me lay in neither the sole use of hard power nor the sole use of soft power but in the combination of the two.” Moreover, he was willing to overrule all advice and his public to achieve this. He remarks: “It wasn’t that I didn’t get public opinion on Lebanon, nor that I couldn’t have articulated it. My difficulty was that I didn’t agree with it.”

Yet there was a high cost to this ideological stubbornness. Blair’s book dwells on the domestic consequence of his actions, claiming they led to his departure from office, but the costs to Lebanon and the Middle East in general were far greater. When Hezbollah was still standing after the war it claimed a “divine victory” boosting its power and influence. At the same time, the Lebanese government that had come to power trying to reorientate Beirut into a more western orbit was hugely undermined, as its supposed new allies seemed powerless to defend its infrastructure and civilians from Israeli attacks. This caused more internal strife before a Syrian-Saudi-backed stability emerged in 2008.

The reverse of what Blair intended had occurred: Hezbollah and its allies were boosted, Israel was demoralised, the US and Britain were further discredited in Arab eyes, and an excessive number of civilians had died in the pursuit of an unobtainable ideological goal.

A Journey thus presents Blair’s actions in summer 2006 as those of a committed ideologue, not simply Bush’s poodle as previously charged. Blair seems driven by a world view that, though not explicitly neoconservative, certainly has similarities. He sees the Middle East through a largely religious lens, frames its complex conflicts though a simplified struggle between radical and moderate Islam and is willing to use force and sacrifice lives to achieve its aims, irrespective of public and expert opinion.

However, what is most alarming about this is not necessarily the ideology behind the misjudgment in Lebanon four years ago. It is that Blair retains this misguided zeal today and somehow expects to use it to deliver the “right peace” between Israelis and Palestinians in his role as quartet envoy.

A Peace Crime?

Interesting article in Haaretz from Gideon Levy:

It couldn’t have been spelled out more explicitly, clearly and emphatically. Read and judge for yourselves: “Our position is clear: When Israel returns the entire Golan Heights, of course we will sign a peace agreement with it …. What’s the point of peace if the embassy is surrounded by security, if there is no trade and tourism between the two countries? That’s not peace. That’s a permanent cease-fire agreement. This is what I say to whoever comes to us to talk about the Syrian track: We are interested in a comprehensive peace, i.e., normal relations.”

Who said this to whom? Syrian President Bashar Assad to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir last week. These astounding things were said to Arab, not Western ears, and they went virtually unnoticed here. Can you believe it?

What more can Assad say that he hasn’t already? How many more times does he have to declare his peaceful intentions before someone wakes up here? How long must he knock in vain on Israel’s locked door? And if that were not enough, he also called on Turkey to work to calm the crisis with Israel so it can mediate between Israel and Syria.

Assad’s words should have been headline news last week and in the coming weeks. Anwar Sadat said less before he came to Israel. In those days we were excited by his words, today we brazenly disregard such statements. This leads to only one conclusion: Israel does not want peace with Syria. Period. It prefers the Golan over peace with one of its biggest and most dangerous enemies. It prefers real estate, bed and breakfasts, mineral water, trendy wine and a few thousand settlers over a strategic change in its status.

Just imagine what would happen if we emerged from the ruins of our international status to sign a peace agreement with Syria – how the international climate regarding us would suddenly change, how the “axis of evil” would crack and Iran’s strongholds weaken, how Hezbollah would get a black eye, more than in all the Lebanon wars. And maybe even Gilad Shalit, held by the Damascus-based Hamas, would be freed. Sound too good to be true? Maybe, but Israel is not even trying. A prime minister who ignores this chance is no less than a peace criminal.

Instead of the Shalit march that has just ended, a different march should have set out this week, one more massive and determined, calling on the Israeli government, the peace refuser, to do something. Hoarse shouts should have gone up: Peace with Syria now. But this march will not go forward this week. Apparently it will never happen. Singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi, Zubin Mehta and the respectable demonstrators who marched on behalf of one soldier will not do so to support a move that could save the lives of many soldiers and civilians. Why? Because that takes courage. Why? Because Assad was right when he told La Repubblica in Italy: “Israeli society has tilted too far to the right, and it is not capable of making peace with Syria.”

True, they say the Mossad chief thinks that Assad will never make peace because the whole justification for his regime is based on hostility toward Israel. Our experts are never wrong, but similar things were said about Sadat. True, Assad also said other things. Other? Not really. He said that if he does not succeed through peace, he will try to liberate the Golan through resistance. Illogical? Illegitimate? Not a reason to try to challenge him? What do we have to lose but the chance? Even the latest fig leaf a few prime ministers have used here – the assessment that the U.S. opposes peace with Syria – is absurd. Does anyone see U.S. President Barack Obama opposing a peace move with Syria? What a pity that he is not pressing Israel to move ahead with it.

And then there is the old refrain: “Assad doesn’t mean it.” When Arab leaders make threats, they mean it; when they talk peace, they don’t. And also: “We’ll return the Golan and end up with a piece of paper and missiles.” Remember how that was said about Egypt? But we persist: The prime minister is criminally missing a historic chance for peace, and we yawn apathetically. Sounds logical, right?

Worrying events on Lebanon-Israel border

Various news outlets are reporting deaths in a skirmish on the Lebanon-Israel border today. Al Jazeera reports:

At least two Lebanese soldiers have been killed by Israeli forces during an exchange of rocket and gunfire along the border between the two countries.

A journalist was also killed and five more Lebanese soldiers wounded in the Israeli shelling on Tuesday, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Lebanon said.

“The Israelis fired four rockets that fell near a Lebanese army position in the village of Adaisseh and the Lebanese army fired back,” a Lebanese security official in the area said.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station said a high-ranking Israeli soldier was also killed in the border incident. The report could not be independently verified….

Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Jerusalem, said “the overall picture that seems to be emerging from Israeli television reports is that the whole incident seems to have started over some misunderstanding”.

“There was some kind of Israeli incursion perceived … to have crossed over into Lebanese territory” which precipitated the exchange of fire, Rowland said.

This comes amidst increased tension in Lebanon over Hezbollah’s alledged role in the Hariri assassination and a recent failed rocket attack on Eilat. Whilst Bashar al Assad has warned that a war is looking ever more likely, Robert Fisk suggests that the recent natural resources found off the coast of Lebanon and Israel might actually delay conflict for a year.

Past precedent would suggest that this is not the first shot in an Israeli invasion. In 1993, 1996, 2006 and of course 1982 Israel attacked quite suddenly and in great numbers, not following a quick fire fight. That said, we are entering the preferred ‘war season’ of summer. Lets hope that the various leaders on each side of the border keep their heads and don’t expose Lebanon to yet more carnage and destruction.

Turkey and Israel: the End of the Affair?

By Christopher Phillips, Shifting Sands 11th June 2010

As the dust from Israel’s 31st May attack on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship continues to settle, and the various sides push their own accounts of who violated which international laws and protocols, one thing is for certain: Turkish-Israeli relations are in dire straits. Despite a long history of friendship, tensions between the two have been simmering since Tel Aviv’s sudden invasion of Gaza in December 2008, further exacerbated by Israel’s public humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador and Ankara’s improving ties with the Jewish state’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus. However, the events 77 miles off the coast of Gaza, in which 4 Turks were amongst the 9 activists killed, has brought matters to a new low with Turkish PM Erdogan declaring the raid a ‘massacre’ and recalling his ambassador to Tel Aviv. So why has this decline come about?

Commentators in the pro-Israel camp have been quick to blame Ankara’s hostility on the Islamist roots of Turkey’s ruling AKP party. According to this narrative, the AKP, angry at continual rejection by the EU, is turning its attention eastwards to recast Turkey in the Ottoman role of dominant power in the Middle East. One writer, the Dayan Centre’s Joshua Teitelbaum, even went far enough to accuse Erdogan of waging ‘Jihad’ on Israel. Yet such analysis is severely flawed. The AKP have been in power since 2002 and, until the Gaza war of 2008, enjoyed excellent relations with Israel: extending military and economic cooperation and mediating Tel Aviv’s peace talks with Syria. Certainly no such Islamist ideological opposition to Israel was visible in those first six years.

Similarly Turkey has in no way turned its back on Europe. The EU remains Turkey’s principal trading partner, an economic relationship that has prompted the unprecedented growth that is allowing Ankara greater financial clout in the Middle East. Far from an Islamic idealism, Turkish foreign relations under the AKP has been characterised by a flexible realism. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s notion of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ has allowed Ankara to maintain and indeed strengthen its ties with Europe whilst abandoning historical hostilities with Russia, Greece, Syria and Iran in order to enhance Turkey’s influence in its surrounding countries.

The decline in relations with Tel Aviv is therefore better explained by Israel’s bizarrely provocative behaviour towards Turkey, rather than a renewed Islamic idealism in Ankara. Indeed, until recently Israel too could be considered a neighbour with which Turkey had ‘zero problems’, as illustrated by the first six years of AKP-Israel harmony. Yet Israel has seemed foolishly insensitive to Turkish national pride in its recent actions. Erdogan felt personally betrayed, for example, in 2008 when he had spent hours mediating a potential peace deal between Tel Aviv and Damascus, only for then Israeli Premier Olmert to scupper the talks by launching the Gaza invasion without any consultation with Ankara. Similarly current Israeli Foreign Officials deliberately humiliated the Turkish ambassador in 2009 by making him sit in a ‘low chair’ during a televised interview, prompting public outrage in Turkey. Now, following the flotilla crisis, despite Israel’s pleas that they had asked Ankara not to sanction the convoy, four bodies returned home to Turkey who had been shot at point-blank range by their government’s supposed ally – a difficult position for any leader to justify to an angry nationalist population.

Yet these actions point to a wider trend in the Middle East on behalf of both actors. For Israel, it displays an even greater siege mentality than usual under the stewardship of Premier Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman. This government’s willingness to discard any international criticism whether it be over the Gaza blockade or stolen western identities to assassinate Hamas leaders in Dubai, and their direct refusal of US wishes to halt West Bank settlements, suggests a leadership convinced of its own rectitude and steadfast refusal to compromise, whatever the costs to its international image. In this light, losing its oldest and most important Muslim ally is a price it seems strangely willing to pay.

For Turkey, we see an emerging regional power that has less and less need of an ally whose actions are increasingly indefensible. In the end, Israel is a tiny market of 6 million consumers, whilst the Arab and Muslim Middle East offer much more. Ankara, one suspects, would rather not have to choose, but conversely, Erdogan will be aware of his rising star in the Middle East as a champion of the Palestinians – even if his primary motivation remains Turkish national interests.

As such trends continue, Israel should be cautious not to disregard Turkey’s importance. This is no powerless Arab dictatorship but a thriving, militarily strong, democratic regional giant. Moreover, Western states, notably the US, have long looked to Turkey as its role model in the Muslim World: proof that Islam and democracy can be compatible. At the final analysis, Tel Aviv should understand that, from a realist perspective that ignores the power of domestic lobbies and sentimental attachments, Turkey is far more important to American and European long-term objectives in the Middle East than Israel is. The last thing Tel Aviv should do is to deliberately provoke circumstances whereby the West has to choose.

US hegemony in Middle East is ending

Talk of a Middle East cold war is inaccurate – Russia and Turkey are simply capitalising on the region’s new power vacuum

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian, 31sy May 2010

A recent arms deal between Russia and Syria has raised the prospect of a new cold war in the Middle East. Foreign Policy’s Josh Landis, for example, suggests that unconditional US support for Israel will draw Moscow back into its pre-1989 role as supporter and arms supplier for the enemies of Tel Aviv and Washington.

Yet Russia’s return to Syria, whether it be the sale of MiG-29s or building a naval dock on the Syrian coast, is not the action of a superpower challenging US hegemony as it was in 1945-89 but rather an assertive regional power taking advantage of the emerging power vacuum in the region. Instead of a new bi-polar cold war, regional powers such as Russia and Turkey are increasing their influence at the United States’ expense.

The idea of a new cold war has gained currency in some quarters for the wrong reasons. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself told La Repubblica last week that “Russia is reasserting itself. And the cold war is just a natural reaction to the attempt by America to dominate the world”.

In the same interview he asserted that there was a new triple alliance between Syria, Turkey and Iran – part of a “northern alliance” that Damascus has been trying to construct against Israel and the US – with Russia now cast in the role as superpower benefactor.

As leader of a small power attempting to defy the global hegemon, it is in Assad’s interests to exaggerate the strength of such an alliance. Yet no such cohesive united bloc actually exists. Russia is pursuing a realist regional agenda, ensuring it can maximise its influence without unnecessarily confronting the US – a cornerstone of Dmitry Medvedev’s foreign policy. A recent spat with Tehran over Russian support for Washington’s new UN sanctions on Iran hardly suggests a united anti-American/anti-Israeli front.

Turkey, too, is not tying itself to any camp. Damascus may regard Ankara’s rekindled relationship with Iraq, Iran and Syria as crucial for any new alignment, but Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy is not limited to those states on its southern border. Turkey is seeking influence and markets for its rapidly expanding economy across the region, including Israel.

Though prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric has been increasingly populist and anti-Israeli since the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the deep commercial, economic and military ties between the Turkish and Israeli establishments show no signs of receding. Like Russia, Turkey is pursuing its own interests by asserting its influence in the whole Middle East, not just as the lynchpin of an anti-America/Israel bloc.

Yet even though the return to cold war bi-polar blocs in the Middle East is unlikely, the region’s international relations are changing. US power is waning. Though Washington remains the world’s only superpower, the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the limits of US ambitions, while the economic crisis has forced the Obama administration to focus energy elsewhere.

While the Bush era saw the US hegemonic in the region, squeezing the defiant few like Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, today’s Middle East sees a power vacuum led by partial US retreat being filled by assertive regional and middle powers. Turkey and Brazil’s recent nuclear deal with Iran typify this emerging new climate.

Stephen Walt has highlighted that this shift in power is global, with Asia’s share of GDP already outstripping that of the US or Europe. As ever, it seems the Middle East could prove a microcosm of these international changes. If the age of American uni-polarity is coming to an end, perhaps hastened by unnecessary wars and economic shortsightedness, it is much more likely that international relations in the Middle East will come to reflect the multi-polar world that will follow rather than revert to a bi-polar cold war.

In such circumstances, it won’t just be Russia and Turkey expanding their reach in the region, but China, India and Brazil will all bid for a role, too – presumably having fewer demands than Washington about their clients pursuing democratic reforms and peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s growing relationship with China might signify the shape of things to come.

Not that this era is yet upon us. The US remains the superpower and could still effect serious change in the region, should it desire. However, the recent actions of Russia and Turkey in the Middle East do show a new assertiveness from regional powers to pursue their own path in defiance of US will, whether through arms deals, trade agreements or diplomatic coups. A new cold war is unlikely, but the age of unchallenged US hegemony in the Middle East could be ending.