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Wave of turmoil prepares to engulf the Middle East

FlLUID, frightening and occasionally fortuitous is the only way to sum up the current political crises sweeping the Middle East.

For those reasons alone, there is a pressing need, even in the limited confines of a column like this, to occasionally step back and take stock of the bigger picture emerging daily from the region.

Coups, leadership transitions, revolutions, civil war, even by the perennially volatile standards of the area, something bigger and quite different appears to be happening. Let's just pause to consider the extent and implications of these developments.

To begin with, in the past month alone, three crucial regional players, Iran, Qatar and Egypt have undergone pretty much unexpected changes of leadership.

In Iran, the election of Hassan Rohani to the presidency can at best be described as fortuitous. Labelled a "reformer", many believe Mr Rohani will at least offer a less belligerent style of leadership from that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A positive sign, too, came from Qatar, an Arab nation that on the world diplomatic stage has long punched above its weight and become a key role player in the Arab Spring uprisings. The emir of the gas-rich country abdicated in favour of his son Sheik Tamim, making him the youngest sovereign of any of the Gulf Arab monarchies.

By freely stepping down, the emir has laid down a marker in the Arab world where autocratic rulers held power uncontested for decades until the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Indeed, this traditionally complex relationship between a new leader and the prior regime is what lies at the core of the current Egyptian power struggle that has dominated the headlines from the region these past weeks and created such fear and concern.

In Cairo over the past few days Egypt's new military-led government broadened its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, issuing arrest warrants for nine top Brotherhood officials, including Mohamed Badie, the group's spiritual leader.

In the weeks ahead the Brotherhood will no doubt attempt to prolong its street protests to undermine the military-backed transitional government as long as its interests continue to be excluded.

Using the perceived injustice of former Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi's ousting, the Brotherhood may well move away from electoral politics and revert to violence as the main means of furthering its agenda. Disappointing and worrying as this is, an even bigger fear is that regional jihadist players will likewise leap upon Mr Mursi's removal to reinforce their message that holy war and violence is the only way to bring about change.

And still on the themes of fear, concern and jihadists, Syria's civil war stalemate daily becomes more deadly with the country now the pivot of a broader sectarian conflict in the region.

On the one hand, increasing external support in the shape of money, weapons and fighters from the likes of Iran and Lebanon's Hizbollah will mean President Bashar al Assad's regime will continue to put up a stiff defence in its fight for survival. It will likely even launch more counter-offensives against rebel-held areas as has been evident in recent days in the districts of Homs.

For their part, Sunni rebel factions will receive their own supplies of guns, rocket launchers and cash from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar while a worrying number of foreign fighters – many jihadist inspired – keep arriving to swell the rebel ranks.

It is estimated the number of foreign fighters originating from European countries as far afield as Ireland, Germany and Norway may now be in the thousands. Should they return home as fully committed Islamic militants it would constitute what French Interior Minister Manuel Valls recently called "a ticking time bomb".

Part of the problem in assessing this new emerging order – some might say chaos – in the Middle East is that, for so long now, there has been a situation in which most regional disputes have been between states. Think Egypt against Libya, Israel against its neighbours, Iraq against Iran, Turkey against Syria and you will understand what I mean.

But as the thrust of a recent lecture at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, an influential Vienna-based think-tank pointed out, this framework has radically changed.

The lecture's content which was picked up by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, highlights how today's conflicts in the Middle East are pouring across borders.

Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, are all points in case in the fallout from Syria. Few doubt the car bomb a few days ago that wounded dozens of people in the Beirut stronghold of Lebanon's Shia militant group Hezbollah was almost certainly in retaliation for Hizbollah's battlefield alliance with Mr al Assad's forces inside Syria.

Israel has had its own experience of this cross-border brush fire the Syrian conflict has become. This has included clashes in the Golan Heights and the Israeli government's own decision to launch air strikes against targets inside Syria fearing weapons there were falling into the hands of their bitter enemies Hizbollah or might reach other Sunni jihadist groups.

On a wider and more general level, the thesis put forward by the Bruno Kreisky Forum also interestingly points to how, throughout the Middle East, state-based nationalism is declining and "something larger and older is taking over".

Among these factors is the Sunni-Shi'ite struggle for dominance and the region again becoming a focal point in the global struggle among major powers quarrelling over spheres of influence much larger than their areas of sovereignty.

While leadership transitions like those in Iran and Qatar are to be welcomed, the jury is still out on Egypt and Syria. Yesterday in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood pledged to continue its resistance to the army's removal of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Across the region the situation remains fluid and frightening, punctuated by the occasional fortuitous political step forward. That said, there is now absolutely no doubt the Middle East is facing a wave of crises the likes of which has rarely been seen before.

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