Keeping score in the great Syria chess game

It is not possible to say who won or who lost. The Great “Game” will take a long time to reach a conclusion. All that can be done is to see who’s winning and who’s losing.

David Cameron is losing and may have lost. He took a slap in the face from the House of Commons. If he had managed the vote in his favour, the US strike on Syria would have taken place almost immediately. Whether the strike would have achieved much will never be known but Obama would have “walked” his “talk”. Milliband seemed to be winning since he had defeated Cameron but it is becoming clear that he had played his trump far too soon and allowed Putin to make his play. And Milliband can be credited for letting down the US and the special relationship. Tony Blair lost. He showed up as a “rabid dog” revelling in going to war (to try and justify his bad judgements during the Iraq war). And nobody took him very seriously.

Barack Obama is losing. He has confirmed his reputation as a ditherer and that he is risk-averse to the point of being  seen as being ruled by his fears. He has effectively shifted the balance of power in going to war from the Presidency towards Congress. This power given up will be difficult to regain. Without the backing of the UK he was forced to look for ways to extricate himself from his “red line” box.

John Kerry was point-man for Obama and was – for a time – the potential scape-goat. But he has repositioned himself and may even take away some credit for the Russian play. His throw-away line about “no strike if Syria gave up their chemical weapons” is now being spun as an intentional statement.

Francois Hollande is losing. His support for Obama was not enough to allow the US to carry out a strike on Syria. The value of French support – compared to the UK support which was not forthcoming – was diminished. And then to make matters worse his Parliamentarians made it quite clear that they did not support his position even though they were not required to vote. Having supported a strike he was not quite adroit enough to claim any credit for the alternate diplomatic path that resulted. Getting Freedom Fries reverting to be French Fries was his only consolation.

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov are winning. The diplomatic path is now their creation. Suddenly Russia is the peace-maker in the face of US war-mongering! Not only was the US strike on their ally delayed indefinitely, it is now Assad’s Syria – and not the various opposition groups – which is required to engage with the international community. Any opposition forces who seem to be coming in the way of inspecting or securing control of the chemical weapons can now be attacked by Assad with the full support of the international community. Russia can continue supplying Syria with conventional weapons.

The Syrian Opposition groups (including Al Qaida) are losing the civil war. Assad can now get more weapons replacements than they can. Al Qaida need a weakened Assad to create a winning position and they need a prolonged civil war to achieve dominance among the opposition groups. Both objectives would have been assisted by a US strike.

Bashar al-Assad is winning. He does not really need chemical weapons which cannot effectively be used anyway. Any US strike on his forces is postponed indefinitely. With no prospect of any no-fly zone being declared his air-force could be decisive in the civil war. The supply of conventional weapons from Russia is assured. His claim that rebels and terrorists were responsible for the use of Sarin is backed up by Russia and the UN weapons inspectors have no option but to investigate this (and they are on their way back to Syria).

Iran is winning. President Hassan Rohani is on a roll. First Hizbollah – at Iran’s bidding – helped to keep the Syrian opposition groups at bay when they seemed to be gaining ground. Then he supported the Russian diplomatic initiative. That was followed by an interview  on NBC  and an op-ed in the Washington Post to assure the US and the world that Iran had no intention of developing WMD of any kind including nuclear weapons. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sent Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter and caught the Israelis off-guard. Now Rohani is on his way to address the UN General Assembly. Willy-nilly they are now a part of the diplomatic path for Syria and cannot just be ignored. That engagement allows the Iranian charm offensive to proceed as well on other fronts.

Israel is both winning and losing. It was Israeli intelligence intercepts – not US  – which led to Obama’s threatened strike. A strike by the US was definitely preferred by the Israelis though their objective was to maximise turbulence for as long as possible in Syria.  To be able to get the US to threaten a strike as they wished based on selective intelligence was a coup. Not to have the strike consummated was a setback. If the Iran/Russia influence grows and Assad is more secure than before, then these are also setbacks.

Turkey is losing. The Islamic government was perhaps the strongest supporter of a strike on Assad. Their dislike of Assad is so strong that they would even have supported a strike by Israel. But Turkey’s subservience to and support for all groups Islamic ( Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) is now becoming an embarrassment for Europe. Their application to join the EU is – I think – already lost.

The Great Game has a long way to run. It has been running for a thousand years and there are many more twists and turns to come. Many pieces will be lost and won by all the parties and there may never be a check-mate and a clear winner in this game. Having a clear winner always requires having a clear loser. Having a clear loser in the Middle East is not always a good thing.

And so a stalemate is probably the closest there is to a win-win.

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