Green Room

The next two weeks in the Middle East: Mahdi Madness, Naksa Day, and the future of Turkey

posted at 1:58 am on May 31, 2011 by


Many readers will be aware of the reported power struggle in Iran, in which Mahmoud “Israel is a cancerous tumor” Ahmadinejad is perhaps the more brain-fevered, but by no means the only hard-line, combatant.  Pseudonymous blogger “Reza Khalili” reported at Pajamas Media last week that, according to the hard-liners opposed to Ahmadinejad, his faction believes there will be a big development on 5 June relating to the emergence of the long-awaited 12th imam, or Mahdi.

Members of Team Ahmadinejad predict that an “important event,” in the form of an accident to a high-ranking regime leader, will soon produce developments favorable to Ahmadinejad.  If, as the faction claims, the Mahdi’s covert emergence is already in progress, then there would be nothing unexpected about accidents to even the highest current officials.  The Mahdi outranks them.

“Khalili” cites the son of a senior ayatollah predicting at his website that there will have to be

a bloody reckoning between Ahmadinejad’s allies and the supreme leader — that the “Godzilla” of power wants to destroy everything in sight. He emphasizes that there is no way to remedy the situation and that Godzilla will devour everything, big and small, in its path:

“It is too late and there is no way out. All I can say is that I am sorry for you! And a great nation must not only be witness to the destruction of the haves and have-nots, but specifically, its entire existence.”

Tough times for Iranian political officials and Mahdi watchers alike.

Anti-Israel mob action

Meanwhile, further west, Intifadists who failed to score with Nakba Day in mid-May are piling their chips on Naksa Day, also to unfold 5 June (the 44th anniversary of the “Naksa,” or “setback,” in the 1967 war).  Israeli authorities are likely to take seriously the possibility of border-breaching this time, particularly since Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing into Gaza.  Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed concern this weekend that Egypt is having increased difficulty controlling the Sinai, and that Hamas is moving its headquarters from Syria to Egypt.  In the lead-up to the Nakba mob surges two weeks ago, Egyptian authorities prevented buses full of anti-Israel demonstrators from crossing the Sinai to protest at the Gaza border, but it is not clear how such initiatives will be dealt with now that the Rafah crossing is “permanently open.”

Turkey — military rumblings

Turkey’s big event, the national parliamentary election, occurs a week later on 12 June.  This election is widely expected to consolidate Prime Minister Erdogan’s hold on power – and serve as an endorsement of the constitutional changes voted on last year, which will enable him to entrench himself further.  Turkey watchers predict Erdogan’s AKP will secure a majority of the seats in parliament with little difficulty, even if his political opponents make gains.

Something odd is going on in Turkey, however, perhaps indicative of an anticipated power struggle.  Officials in Prime Minister Erdogan’s government were reportedly taken by surprise last week when the Turkish General Staff cancelled two major exercises with no explanation.  Both exercises are showcases for Turkish military power, involving large numbers of troops and weapon systems; one, Deniz Kurdu (Sea Wolf), is a lengthy naval and air exercise held – without fail – in the Aegean Sea, where Turkey has extensive disputes with Greece over air and maritime claims.

The exercises began on schedule, but were terminated by the military on 24 May, the day before a press tour of the activities was to begin.  Turks are speculating that the General Staff cut off the drills as a form of protest over the detention and questioning of additional flag and general officers in the never-ending investigation of the alleged “Sledgehammer” coup plot of 2003.  (One general, the highest-ranking to date, was jailed on Monday.)

That the military would be engaged in pointless demonstrations of pique seems uncharacteristic, however.  For one thing, nearly 200 military officers have already been subjected to “investigation” in the years of the Sledgehammer affair, but the General Staff hasn’t cancelled any major exercises until now.  Veteran military watchers in Turkey – which has a robust cadre of aficionados, bloggers, and online forum participants – were universally caught off-guard by the move.

And it was a big move, affecting – aside from anything else – a very large portion of the military.  Instead of having the media out to watch its maneuvers in the final days of May, the military cancelled its plans, which means that starting on 25 May, all those troops, aircraft, ships, etc. were (in theory at least) no longer doing what the civil government thought they’d be doing the day before.

Hostile activity by large military formations is not what we would expect if the General Staff were organizing something; that’s not their historical M.O., and no evidence of such a thing has been detectable in media reporting (old media or new).  But calling the forces back from their broad-scale exercise posture would be consistent with sorting out command loyalties and consolidating direct control across the force, unit by unit.

The question would be whether it’s the General Staff doing this, or the Erdogan government.  One clue may lie in the fact that Erdogan is accusing practically every opponent in Turkey (the PKK Kurds, the opposition political parties), as well as “foreign intelligence” agencies, of trying to sabotage the upcoming election and defraud the people – but the very unusual action of a military that’s been under unrelenting suspicion for the last several years is getting what amounts to a pass, in both the government’s statements and the regime-friendly media.  Political officials have actually said very little about it.  Whatever concern the Erdogan government may have about the exercise cancellation, it isn’t the same kind of concern it has about the other threats it perceives.

As a matter of history, recalling an army from maneuvers has more often been a power-consolidation measure taken by political leaders than something military leaders have felt a need to do.  Military commanders are best positioned to hold the loyalty of their forces when they are deployed and actively performing operational tasks, rather than in garrison.

It may be a long time before we know what happened on 24 May.  The lack of unusual events reported since then is unlikely to mean that this strange action of the military was insignificant.  The jury should still be out on its import.  At this point, however, it doesn’t look as much like the prelude to a coup as like the quiet suppression of one.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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Good intel!

NaCly dog on May 31, 2011 at 11:06 AM

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