Just pawns in the game – a cynic’s veiw of Syria


Supporters of Bashar Assad wave a Russian flag made of balloons in Damascus on Tuesday as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s convoy speeds past.

Supporters of Bashar Assad wave a Russian flag made of balloons in Damascus on Tuesday as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s convoy speeds past. Moscow Times, 2-7-12

Syria has never made sense to me.  Not since T. E. Lawrence rode into Damascus and tried to form an Arab state, have I been able to follow the ups and downs of regimes.  That includes the French, when France had a mandate from the League of Nations to government Syria. In case you missed the movie Lawrence of Arabia – that was one of the key elements of Lawrence’s campaign; he organized the Arabs to fight against Germany and Turkey on the belief that after the war they could form their own country.  It was a bait and switch plan on the part of Britain – his majesty’s government never ended to support Arab independence, but before turning over that card it needed Arab soldiers to fight for the English cause. In the aftermath of the war England and France simply divided up the Arab world to suit their tastes.

World War II brought the end of colonialism and an Arab nationalism that lead to the founding of most of the independent Arab states of today.  The first decade after WWII, was one of turmoil and change all over the Arab world, not unlike 2011.  By the 1960s most had settled down, but not Syria, in the 1960s governments changed more often in Syria than I changed my socks during those years; too often for me to ever get a grasp on the details of any of the governments.  But the real confusion for me has been this last year – something is going on in Syria.  But, what?  There is fighting and people are dying.  The government is fighting some protestors – sounds simple except the fighting goes on day after day; that raises a question or two.  If the government was really sending a modern, fully-equipped army in against unarmed civilians waving flags and banners wouldn’t the civil disobedience have ended a little sooner?  If the anti-Assad movement has no arms, how do they hold out for days against tanks and artillery?  Where do they get the bullets for the guns they don’t have?  There are no answers; the news reports are all in the “he said – she said” vein.  Two separate narratives diametrically opposed; around the world people just choose a narrative according to their politics.

The majority of the political leaders outside of Syria,  continue to say Assad is butchering the Syrians and demanding that he step down; the Arab League threatened, ordered and even pleaded for Assad to resign.  The United Nations – minus Russia and China –  demanded the same thing and has added an ever increasing number of sanctions to force a change.  This week the Gulf Arab states, France, Italy, the US, Belgium and Britain have broken diplomatic relations with Assad’s government. Assad, for his part and in response to all of the pressure, has promised to do something a number of times, no specifics, but hasn’t.  This week, he may be making some new promises, he is being offered some new incentives and options.  We will have to wait and see what Assad chooses to do.

Having said all of that, I think I finally see something I understand; there is more than one battle being fought in Syria.  There is the battle for control that has been going on for a year.  The second battle that I think we can add to the first, is the battle for influence.  Turkey and Russia are both in the process of developing a new plan for solving the crisis – suddenly Syria fits into the Arab Spring context for me.  One consistent fact in all of the change and turmoil across the Arab world, has been that second battle, or game if you will,  for influence.  The leading players in game of influence have been France, Russia and Turkey.  All three want to be seen as a) a major world power capable of influencing world events; b) a model for the future for each of the new states in the region; and c) the Arabs’ friend in an otherwise hostile international community.  The United States and China seem to be content with hoping for an outcome that will support their global diplomatic and economic agendas. The other three want be players in the game as opposed to just beneficiaries of the new regimes.

Putin wants to be president again and he wants Russia to be as important in the world as the old Soviet state was in the past.  Sarkozy wants the same, to win the election and return France to the glory and prestige  it enjoyed as a colonial power.  Turkey too, is trying to reestablish itself as the leader of the Muslim world, maybe even the home of the caliphate or supreme religious authority  – a position it lost in  WWI.  On the stage of those agendas, poor Syria, and all of the people who are dying, are just a pawns in their game.

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