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Opinion: The Syrian Chessboard | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Syrian troops patrol the village of Haydariyah, some seven kilometers outside the rebel-held city of Qusayr, after taking control of it, on May 13, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID)

The comparison of international struggles to a chessboard was first used by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, in his book The Grand Chessboard. The expression is a fitting description of politics’ conflicts, complexities, the way it is intertwined with ideology, and legacies of the past, all of which can be seen in Syria.

The Syrian crisis has three levels: international, regional and domestic. As for the international level, it has become commonly known that Russia has a vision and a will and is putting it into action, whereas the retreating US is seemingly short of both—at least for now. The US seems to have decided to split its international influence and power with Russia once again. This was made increasingly apparent following prolonged controversies in American political circles—in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the so-called New World Order during the time of the elder George Bush—over whether the US must remain the sole leader of such an order, or if it should have one partner or several partners. If the latter is the answer, then should this partner be the unified Europe, Russia or China? If Russia is to be the partner, then would the partnership be with the Democratic Russia or with new Tsardom of Russia?

Somewhere between the two sides of Europe and Russia lies China, which is now biased somewhat towards Russia. Yet China has high aspirations of establishing stronger relations with the US. Similarly, Europe is bewildered, as both Britain and France have vision and will, yet implementation is contingent upon American approval, which is currently lacking. However, it must be admitted that Obama’s decision to appoint Susan Rice as the National Security Adviser may suggest some change in the US attitude.

Regionally, Iran is drawn towards a policy of regional domination, motivated by memories of old Persian glory which it seeks to revive, apart from its revolutionary ideology and Shi’ite sectarianism. Despite the deplorable state of its economy, Iran is meeting its requirements through the budget of Iraq, the economy of which is recovering at a remarkable speed.

Internally in Syria, there are two parties: the first party is the Assad regime and its fatigued troops, Russian experts, ethnic militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The second party is the Syrian opposition alliance, the Free Syrian Army, the Al-Nusra Front, fighters who flock to Syria as the crisis escalates, and, most important of all, the great majority of the Syrian people.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II spoke of the emergence of a “Shi’ite crescent” some years ago, but now the region has two crescents. The first is the Shi’ite one that extends from Tehran and Iraq under Maliki and Syria under Assad to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The second is the Muslim Brotherhood crescent, or rather the crescent of political Islam, which extends from Sudan to the “Arab Spring” states ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt and Tunisia, and other states where the Brotherhood have enormous influence.

The crescent, when marked on the map, gives a fair description, yet politics is more complicated than simple geography. In Yemen, there are the Houthis who adhere to the Shi’ite crescent, and there are also Muslim Brotherhood followers who aspire to power and who also adhere to the Brotherhood crescent. Similarly, Gaza’s Hamas government has shifted from the former crescent to the latter, though it has failed to denounce the Syrian government for its brutal response to the uprising, and has instead tried to maintain links with both the Arab states and Iran.

Now there seems to be a third crescent being formed—one that can be called the Sunni crescent. Though still incomplete, it can form a security axis vis-à-vis the two existing crescents. This third crescent extends from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states all the way down to Jordan. Through strategic partnerships, Iraqi Kurds could join that crescent, particularly in view of the new understanding these states have reached with Turkey. This could be made possible by standing up for the rights of suppressed political parties, currents and popular groups—whether Sunnis or Shi’ites—in Iraq, that hate to see the Iraq in the hands of the supreme guide of the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

Leaving aside the map as a tool to understand the Sunni crescent, Arab states such as Morocco and Islamic ones such as Pakistan, as well as others, all are important actors that could back that third crescent.

Any strategy for confronting the Iranian crescent must not exclude any of the strengths of these states. This incorporates strong relations, international alliances, booming economies, strong Sunni ideology—the latter being a strength Iran has voluntarily refreshed among decision-makers as well as among the people—military deterrence and public opinion, through the coverage of the war of extermination being waged against the Syrian people. In fact, the strength of the media, particularly when screening the scenes of massacres, destruction and chemical weapons, must be of great impact on numerous international human organizations that are capable of mounting pressure on decision makers.

In view of this new axis and the many major conflicts, which seek to set the political scene in the region at the expense of those states being targeted, these states must benefit from their strengths in order to prove that they cannot be overlooked, and also to protect their own people and interests. Sometimes allies, just like enemies, need to be reminded of your strengths.

In fact, this group has great potential for success in affecting the regional scene and in impacting the international scene, as well as in protecting the interests of its nations and allies. This crescent also has the potential convince other states that its members are peaceful states that aspire for development and progress, but also have claws to protect themselves against those who incite sedition and who are using sectarianism as a shield. Thus, these states must declare their attitudes more explicitly, call things by their true names and make decisions to curb the infiltration of Iranian influence. We can start by declaring Hezbollah as an occupying enemy and a terrorist organization, pursue its investments in the Gulf States and Turkey, expel all its affiliated elements and besiege it by all means possible.

The Arab world now lives in the era of post-Pan-Arabism. The states that were the first to raise the banner of Pan-Arabism are now the same ones that act most contrary to it. This deed was performed by the late President Nasser, who incited and attempted to promote coups abroad. This was also disgracefully performed by Saddam Hussein when occupying Kuwait, and by also Bashar Al-Assad when completely abandoning the Arabs and fully engaging in the Iranian/Persian project.

When the Iranian crescent announces that “no voice must be louder than that of the battle,” the Sunni crescent must declare that “no voice must be louder than that of reason.” This is because if it is true that reason sometimes inclines towards wisdom, reason also sometimes inclines towards steadfastness.