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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Explosive letters for the Middle East


Guide to the world's tinderbox, from Armageddon to Zyklon B.

It is 12 years this week since New York's twin towers fell. Photo / AP
It is 12 years this week since New York's twin towers fell. Photo / AP

Another year, another crisis in the Middle East. For those who struggle to keep track of them, here's a cut out and keep guide to the world's tinderbox.

A is for Armageddon which is both a place in Israel and the final battle between the forces of good and evil at the end of the world which will take place there. Or so says the Bible. Whenever there's a Middle Eastern crisis, someone will insist this is it. Armageddon, that is.

B is for bombs which are always going off in the Middle East. There are car bombs, roadside bombs, human bombs and, if the US launches an air strike, high-tech bombs falling from a great height.

C is for cyanide which Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's father used on rebels when he faced an insurgency in the early 1980s.

D is for the dog that isn't there. According to those who want the West to stay out of Syria, "We don't have a dog in this fight".

E is for Egypt where a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government was recently ousted by a military coup, creating a dilemma for those who don't like Islamists or military dictatorships.

F is for Farouk, the last king of Egypt, glutton, kleptomaniac and proud owner of the world's largest pornography collection. After having a nightmare in which he was chased by a lion, Farouk went to Cairo Zoo and shot two lions in their cage.

G is for the Gulf War in which 34 nations liberated Kuwait from Iraqi invaders. Hopes that it would become the template for a new era of international co-operation and collective security were soon dashed.

H is for Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni Islamist party regarded by the West as a terrorist organisation. Not to be confused with Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia Islamist party regarded by the West as a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah backs Assad; Hamas backs the rebels.

I is for Iraq. According to the neo-conservative architects of the 2003 invasion, Iraq should now be a prosperous, civilised democracy and shining example to the region. In fact 3000 people have been killed in recent months (see B) raising fears the country is sliding into all-out sectarian war.

J is for the Jews. Israel's enemies argue that if it didn't exist, the Middle East wouldn't be the world's tinderbox. The prevalence of civil and sectarian strife elsewhere in the region suggests otherwise. (See B, C, E, I.)

K is for the Kremlin which does have a dog in this fight. An increasingly rabid one.

L is for leadership which Barack Obama supposedly lacks because he hasn't been "decisive" over Syria. Of course he suffers by comparison with his predecessor George W. Bush, one of the most "decisive" leaders in history.

M is for "Munich moment" as US Secretary of State John Kerry called the August 21 chemical attacks. He was referring to the 1938 Munich Agreement at which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain secured "peace in our time" by appeasing Adolf Hitler. Within a year World War II was under way.

N is for nuclear weapons which Iran is expected to be able to produce by 2015, if not before. America and Israel have vowed not to let that happen. (See A.)

O is for Obama who will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. (See L.)

P is for "peace" which doesn't necessarily mean the absence of conflict. It can mean trying to make a virtue of looking the other way when children are being gassed.

Q is for Qom, a holy site for Shia Islam and hometown to former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini who still casts a long shadow over the region 24 years after his death.

R is for red lines. Once drawn, hard to erase.

S is for strongman, an epithet the Western media curiously bestows on brutal dictators.

T is for the twin towers which fell 12 years ago this week. Lest we forget.

U is for United Nations, many of whose members are led by strongmen and without whose authorisation nothing should be done. Whenever the UN decides that, actually, something must be done, it's then up to the United States to do it.

V is for volte face, a French term meaning to change position in order to look in the opposite direction.

W is for weapons of mass destruction, of which there were none last time around. However see C, M, N.

X is for xenophobia, hatred of foreigners or their politics or culture. Endemic in the region.

Y is Yahweh, a Hebrew term for God. Never far from the scene of the crime in the Middle East.

Z is for Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide used in Nazi extermination camps.

- NZ Herald

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