The Great Game – Modern Warfare IX – Syria

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his “friends” the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878), Wikipedia

There is “civil unrest”and “violence” in Syria – it started about 18 months ago. Originally, it was seen by everyone in the world, except Bashar Assad, as a continuation of the now famous Arab Spring.  The Arab Spring was characterized as a populous movement – Arabs across North Africa and the Middle East were rising up, protesting and demanding democratic and representative government.  “Enough!” they seem to be saying, “of dictatorships, repression and fear, we want to live, to work and to hope.”  The Arab Spring turned into a new season everywhere – the rhetoric, the protestors and the promises have all changed; each county has its own version, but none resemble the idealistic picture that was painted as the year 2011 began.

In Syria, the idealistic demonstrations and the rhetoric of hope appeared to have died in the fighting – but even if they have not been killed, they have gone into hiding.  All along, Assad has maintained that the civil disobedience in his country was not the result of political discontent, but the work of foreigners, outsiders and saboteurs; and all along we have laughed at Assad, demonized him and worked to undo him.   However, as the situation developed the lines between right and wrong have become somewhat blurred.  The west and the United Nations are quite certain that Assad must go; Russia continues to insist that before Assad goes a process for transition must exist.  Russia is supporting Assad politically and possibly militarily – although the helicopters that Russia is said to have sent to aid the Syrian army seem to have been used and purchased from private contractors.  That of course is part of the problem and part of the confusion, non-governmental arms dealers.  There are people in the world with weapons to sell – and they are willing to sell them to anyone with the money to buy them, regardless of the politics of the situation.   Arms dealers sell to buyers, buyers with money – both sides in Syria are buyers with money.

Assad does not talk about were he gets his weapons, but he does talk about where the opposition gets theirs.  In the western press, we talk about where Assad gets his weapons, but not where the opposition gets theirs.  However, te story is leaking out; the Guardian has a couple of articles on the subject today. One of those stories is being picked up and carried as fact in all of the major Arab press outlets – “Saudi Arabia is going to pay salaries to those fighting against Assad.”  In classical British press speak the Guardian does not cite its sources, but says instead, “The Guardian has learned.”  In the Guardian article, the United States and the Arab League are involved in negotiating a deal with the Saudis for supporting the opposition army .  Just calling it an army instead of civil resistance is a major change in thinking.  The story begs another question, if Saudi Arabia is going to begin to pay the soldiers, who was paying them up to this point?   Soldiers might be volunteers, fighting without pay, although that is rare, but they cannot fight without support, food, arms, ammunition, transportation, intelligence and in the modern world air support. – Remember it was the NATO air support that turned the tide in Libya.

And that brings me to the second major story of the day from Syria – Syria announced that it had shot down a Turkish fighter jet.  Turkey announced that it had lost a fighter jet; for once total agreement on the basic facts, in itself a very rare thing in Syria.  Turkey is hinting at military action as a response, but promises to wait until it knows the facts.  The question for Turkey is simple, did Syria shoot down the plane in international or Turkish territory?  If so punishment will follow.  Syria of course says the jet was in Syrian territory – flying low and fast.  The most amazing statement in this story so far comes from Turkey; Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, said – “it is not unusual for fighter jets to go in and out of another country’s territory – they fly too fast to control.” No harm, no foul Gul said.  Now, to a simple outsider, sitting in Reno, Nevada that sounds to me like a man who has ordered his fighters to fly over Syria, gather intelligence and maybe, just maybe provide a little air support for his friends on the ground.

There is nothing about Assad and his government that makes me what to support him, or  feel sympathetic toward him.   But it is impossible for me to view Assad as the sole cause of the problem, nor his demise as the sole solution.  It is no longer possible to think any longer that the events in Syria are driven by freedom loving Syrians demanding democratic elections and a large role in the running of the country.  Those people may exist, but they are not the ones fighting Assad.  Assad said the fighting was backed and driven by foreign forces – and indeed it is.  So what is to do?  We could start by not being hypocritical and, if not dishonest, at least disingenuous.  We could start by telling the truth about our role in Syria.  The west is doing what it accuses the Russians of doing.

A century ago it was called the Great Game; Syria is beginning to resemble Afghanistan in the 19th century – where a game over control of Afghanistan and the region was played between Russia and England.  Or one could use a more updated metaphor – Egypt; in the middle of the 20th century Egypt was a battleground between Russia and the United States for control of the Middle East.   The Great Game (and its decedents) was played with surrogates, friends or pawns, if you wish.  To play, one mus first purchase some pawns.  Pawns were purchased with the currency of the game and then employed to combat one’s opponent.

Traditionally, we have used money to buy friendly pawns around the world and then asked our friends to take up our cause – the Russians bought their friendly pawns with weapons, knowing they would use those weapons to oppose our friends; Syria is just the latest edition of the game – The Great Game – Modern Warfare IX – Syria.  Didn’t we, the citizens of the world, vow to end this kind of secret, dishonest and dangerous diplomacy at the end of the first world war?  Didn’t colonialism die with the French in Algeria and the British in India?

This Great Game is no game – it only feels like a game because we are so far removed from the fighting and dying.  Our families and friends are not dying, we cannot taste or smell the blood and we can sleep at night without fear of being shot in our beds.  At that end of the day we can roll up the game board, put away our pieces and go off to dinner or a movie – but people in Syria cannot leave the game.  A great game indeed.


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June 2012
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