Sunday, 12 February 2012

Syria and ‘The Great Game’

It would probably surprise many of you out there that a conflict that started two hundred years ago is still alive, well and directly or indirectly affecting you- more so if you are in the Middle East.

The ‘Great Game’ was a term describing the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia.

The classic ‘Great Game’ period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. A second, less intensive phase followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and then with the Cold war 1945 - 1991.

Recent events in the Middle East suggest that the ‘Great Game’ has been revived or that in fact it never died. Not even the players have changed. The game is still dominated by two players: the Anglo Saxon ‘West’ and Russian ‘East’. The stakes are still the same and the battlegrounds remain- take the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1838- Afghanistan was captured by the British to act as a buffer between Russia and the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ India. By the 1890s, the Great Game was ready to move eastwards to China, with Russia sending envoys to collect information on the possibility of reform and modernisation in China.

Throughout the 20th century, the battle for Afghanistan continued, resulting in the county's total destruction and creating a no-man’s land between the two great empires. China has flourished economically and since the fall of the Soviet Union, relations between the two countries have improved dramatically with great scale cooperation economically, militarily and of course with regards to foreign policy. It would appear that the Anglo-Saxon dream of dominating Persia has gone unabated.

So what has changed? Of course, there have been developments across the world over the last two hundred years- the main centre for the Anglo Saxon forces has moved from Britain to the US and new economic powers have emerged in the Gulf which have significantly impacted the balance of the Great Game. What remains unclear is whether those forces – principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar – will be able to manipulate the big political powers sufficiently to achieve their own ends or whether they will be consumed, losing all sense of identity and ability to set their own agendas. Money talks but then one must remember that the main players of the Great Game have been playing for much longer.

Since the 1950s, the largely Socialist regimes of the Middle East were considered satellites of the Soviet Union, whereas Israel was a point on the map for the West, it may even be argued that one of the main reasons for Western backing of the Zionist state was in order to have a strong ally in the middle of the region. Subsequent extensive armament funding would seem to substantiate this belief.

With the decline of the Soviet Union, many Arab states were also to discover that their socialist dreams were also to go up in smoke and many turned to Western free market economies in an attempt to keep their flailing economies afloat.

By the end of the 20th century, it became painfully obvious that most of the Arab countries were failed states, to varying degrees. A former giant of the Arab world, Egypt found itself dependent on handouts from the US government, which would continue to be poured into the army and not on the wellbeing of the country’s impoverished citizens. Iraq welcomed in the 21st century with a US invasion which has destroyed the country’s infrastructure and ignited sectarian tensions. Ten years since that invasion and Iraq is still in a state of complete chaos. Syria has been dominated by one ruling family for forty years and like the rest of the Arab world has suffered decades of human rights abuses, nepotism and a complete absence of democracy.

The UN Security Council meeting on Syria in February 2012, should have made it clear that none of the members of the committee care for the suffering of thousands of people paying the price in Syria, it should also tell us that the game is still going and seems to be escalating.

Cables from the US embassy in Damascus, released by Wikileaks, provide evidence to the suspicion that the Syrian Revolution has been employed as a pawn in a much larger game- ultimately insignificant to the top players’ endgame. The cables reveal how the US government cynically and systematically identified key points of weakness in the Syrian regime and went onto identify ways in which these could be exploited. Out of nine action points, most have been exploited to varying degrees, culminating with the outbreak of the Arab uprisings of 2011 which threw the entire region into disarray.

Syria has proven to be a more complex scenario than most, due to its diverse sectarian make up and unequivocal support from Tehran, by extension making the country a satellite of Russia and China. But the Western and Gulf backed media have launched a grand scale media attack, which will surely be later noted as one of great historical significance. The Syrian regime, partly played into this with their reluctance to allow media coverage, but also, the one sided portrayal and almost sole reliance on anonymous 'activists' makes a mockery of journalistic codes of objectivity and non-partisan reporting.

Unfortunately, the prognosis is not good for Syria or for the people being cynically maneuvered to fight on the ground. As Indian born British novelist Rudyard Kipling said “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before”.

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