Alphen, the Netherlands. 13 February. Rudyard Kipling’s famous 19th century novel Kim is set against the background of the Great Game, the fight for supremacy over Central Asia between the British and Russian Empires. The book’s hero captures the essence of the struggle with a simple, chilling phrase, “The Great Game is not over until everyone is dead. Not before”. Scroll forward 150 years and the Great Game is alive and well and preying on the people of Syria.
The Great Game is about power and influence and for this most base of strategic reasons the Syrian people can expect no redemption from the world’s great and good. With Damascus having last night “utterly rejected” the latest Arab League peace plan and with it the prospect of a UN-Arab League monitoring mission, the struggle to oust President Assad will be long, bad and bloody complicated as it is by the ambitions of all the great powers both from the Middle East and beyond.
Like many Arab societies destabilising Syria is not difficult. Syria is a ‘mosaic society’ divided into three distinct elements; town, village and tribe. The power of President Assad has been built on a careful system of patronage through the Baath Party and the security services. Indeed, Assad can still count on the support of some 300,000 troops and much of the population in Damascus who have done relatively well under the regime. Moreover, the opposition, such as it is comprises of many different and differing groups that find it hard to coalesce around a single leader. Sadly, in what is now a prolonged civil war outside powers are taking sides as they pursue their own regional-strategic and strategic ambitions at a moment that will shape the twenty-first century.
Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the key neighbouring powers. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been locked in a Cold War for regional-strategic supremacy. There is clear evidence that Mohammed Ali Jafari, the Chief Commander of the elite Iranian Al-Quds Force is in Syria both helping to co-ordinate the regime’s operations and supplying weapons and tactics. The prize for Tehran is clear; enhanced Iranian influence over Syria would further strengthen Iranian influence over Lebanon thus driving a wedge between Israel, Turkey and in time Saudi Arabia. With Iranian President Ahmadinejad about to announce “great nuclear achievements” Iranian activity in Syria is part of Tehran’s much wider strategic ambitions that quite clearly take the region ever closer to war. If war comes, and it is far closer than people think, soon-to-be nuclear Iran and already nuclear Israel will be pitted against each other, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States forced to choose between them. It would be a war that could re-write the map of the Middle East forever...and much of the world beyond.
In such circumstances, Turkey will not be able to stand idly by. Indeed, of all the powers both in the region and beyond it is Ankara which seems to have the clearest strategic picture of what is going on and what it could mean. Turkey is thus doing all it can to keep this struggle focussed on the future governance of Syria whilst fully aware of the wider forces at work. If Turkey gets involved in a wider war triggered by the Syrian civil war then NATO will inevitably become involved. Then what?
But here is the crunch; much of the wider struggle implicit in Syria is a function of the West’s retreat from central Asia and the Middle East. The obsession in the West with solving the current budget crisis over a short parliamentary cycle, rather than over a longer strategic cycle, is now destabilising the wider world. With massive defence cuts the high-profile centre of such efforts European security in particular is fast becoming detached from world security to the detriment of both. The West's strategic ambition and unity of purpose is being fatally undermined and with it all elements of statecraft. In Europe's backyard Syria is in the front-line of the most profound of power shifts as the West’s stabilising influence is critically reduced just at the moment when the Arab Spring, and Iran’s regional-strategic ambitions are turning the entire region into a powder keg of competing ambitions and dangerous technologies. Indeed, it is the artificially-accelerated self-decline of the West that is making this crisis so dangerous and turning Syria’s civil war into a proxy war.
This is exactly how Beijing and Moscow see it. Forget the false claim to principle made on Saturday by Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin. Moscow has no interest in early elections in Syria. Russia, like China, is playing the Great Game, as they both move to seize an opportunity to push the West out of the Middle East and strengthen their respective strategic and commercial interests and influence in this critical region. To listen to Ambassador Churkin speak about Syria and the Middle East is eerily reminiscent of the Cold War. Long live the new Soviet Union.
In an ideal world the United Nations would be in the lead to find a solution. However, not only have China and Russia effectively and cynically blocked effective UN mediation, but UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon is simply not up to the job. There was a time when the UN Secretary-General was the world’s top diplomat. For all the failings of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld, U Thant, and even Kofi Annan, had real influence. Sadly, Mr Moon is being eclipsed by events, not shaping them. The failure of the UN will not only hasten the descent into the new balance of power implicit in the Syrian struggle but provide the field upon which the Great Game is to be played, thus setting the terms of reference of international relations in the twenty-first century.
The Great Game is not over until everyone is dead. Not before.