The Syrian Chessboard

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Exactly 21 years ago, in November, 1994, during the heady days of the Oslo Accords, I cut my political teeth working against the stationing of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights. This seemingly innocuous move on the part of the American government under President Bill Clinton was in actuality a ruse to sweeten a bitter deal for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. I had the honor off working very closely with what the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak ad called, “Likud’s Gang of Three”, Yoram Ettinger, Yossi Ben Aharon, and Yigal Carmon.

This epithet was not given as a compliment. So seduced were they by the clarion call of peace that Evans and Novak could not possibly allow themselves to see beyond petty, domestic Israeli politics of Labor versus Likud, and would not allow themselves to have an open and free discussion about the merits of such a deal for the interests of the United Sates.

Looking now at the chaos that is Syria, I am so grateful that I had been given the opportunity to work on this issue, together with some of the greatest of  Israeli and American analysts, and  was able to help play a role, no matter how small, of preventing the Golan Heights from falling into Syrian hands.

I titled my piece, “The Syrian Chessboard”. But it is not just one, single chessboard. Conceive in your mind, if you will, five different Lucite or glass chessboards vertically staked, one upon the other, with various players with various interests trying to flex their muscles. That is present day Syria.

And up until very recently, President Obama had all but removed all American  pieces from the board, That was up until last week, when President Obama committed no more than 50 special operations forces for quote/unquote “consultations with Iraqi Prime Minister Hadar al-Abadi” to establish a special operations task force. This is despite President Obama’s longstanding opposition to “boots on the ground”. So now, he wants us all to believe that we are sending some of our finest and bravest into that ruinous stink hole that is present-day Syria, without committing boots on ground. (I suppose the president would like us all to believe that he is sending our special ops teams tip toeing into the ruins of Syria, wearing ballet slippers.)

If we look at the Middle East right now, we see that the straight, even lines that the colonialists drew during World War I are imploding. This colossal failure dates back to May 16, 1916, when Sir Martin Sykes from Britain and Francois  George Picot from France  got together and tried to fuse together into nation states neighboring tribes that despised one another, and lacked any unifying identity, history, culture or religion to bond them together.

What we once thought of as Syria is now fracturing into various tribal ethnic groups and enclaves of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Mandeans, Salafis, and Yazidis, which has further fractured off into scores of fighting militias.

Syria’s fragmentation has resulted in separate enclaves: Western to Central Syria which is controlled by Assad with the assistance of Russia and Iranian-backed Hizb’allah, the Kurds in the north on the border with Turkey, the Islamic State, which draws on fighters from across the world and boasts that it controls a “caliphate” stretching from Aleppo in Northwestern Syria, down to southern Syria and including parts of Damascus and eastward to Falujah and Ramadi in Iraq.

And the Syrian conflict is not just one conflict, but at least 5 separate conflicts-1) the original Sunni rebels against the forces of Assad, with the help of Iran, Hizb’allah and Russia 2) the conflict between the between the Kurds and ISIS, 3) the battle between ISIS and the Sunni rebels 4) clashes between ISIS and the forces of Assad, and 5) and in the north the battle between the Turks and the Kurds.

And now, with suspicions that ISIS might have attacked a Russian jetliner in Egypt, the question is whether this will become a widening battleground of Russia against ISIS. With both Russia and now the United States in Syria, any accident can elevate this proxy war into a very hot world war. We already see that alliances are swiftly lining up.

If you’re confused, you are not alone. Syria has become the quintessential Hobbesian state of a war of “man against man”.

America’s retreat from this Middle Eastern chessboard, and its withdrawal of all of its pieces has played a huge role in this disintegration and in the massive wholesale slaughter of over 250,000 Syrians and the resulting, colossal refugee crisis-of over 9 million Syrians fleeing their homes into neighboring Jordan and Turkey and now flooding into Europe at the rate of ten thousand a day.

We all remember when President Obama had said to the world on August 20, 2012, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

And then, almost one year later, to the day, we witnessed on our television screens on August 21st 2013, images of 1,429 Syrian people in the town of Ghouta, who had been brutally gassed, their bodies flinching and moaning in pain. We then heard President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry’s impassioned pleas to go to war against Assad.  Then President Obama put his finger to the wind, and when he realized that he lacked the people’s support for this, he decided to punt the ball to Congress. And when he realized he would not have the congressional votes for a military action against Assad, he decided to let Russia and the international community take care of the disposal of the chemical weapons.

And finally, during a press conference in Stockholm on September 4, 2013, President Obama said, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

This had been a transformational moment where President Obama telegraphed to the world in bright, neon lights that 1) America’s promises, words and our international credibility under this president has a value of something less than zero, 2) America was retreating from the world’s stage, and 3) With America in that retreat, it was open season for all the moral cockroaches of the world, such as Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei, Bashir al Assad  as well as  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to  crawl out of the woodwork and to flex their muscles.

The disastrous Iranian nuclear deal that was just concluded by the P5 plus I nations, (the U.S., Russia England, France, China, plus Germany) has not only given Iran at least 150 billion dollars in unfrozen assets upon implementation day, but it also  will be putting untold billions of dollars into the Iranian economy in sanctions relief. Already Imam Ali Khamenei Tehran Airport is buzzing with Lufthansa, Air France, Aeroflot and other greedy European and Eurasian businessmen hungry to do business with the oil-rich nation.

And even if just 10 percent of this new cash infusion goes into the pockets of its military and paramilitary operations, plus all of the terrorist group that Iran sponsors, they can do a heck of a lot of mischief with all of that money.

Iran, which is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism now will be flush with cash to poor into its proxy state, Hizb’allah in Syria, which has 100,000 missiles aimed against the Jewish state.

So here we have Iran, who is one of the world’s leading human rights violators, who by  the estimate of several human rights groups estimate will have executed more than 1,000 people in 2015 alone, for  the crimes of blogging against the regime, being a religious minority, for being gay, or — if you are a woman — for being raped, (men never are executed for the crime of rape), being given an internationally agreed upon path to a nuclear weapon, and a cash infusion of billions upon billions of dollars.

Most analysts have looked at the way that Israel has responded to the Syrian conflict and have agreed that Israel has been wise in not taking sides. Initially, its main concern has been the transfer of additional arms to Hizb’allah, and more recently with the Russian involvement in Syria it has been to make sure there are no accidental military exchanges between Israel and Russia, in the air and on the ground.

In his recent meeting with Putin, it has been speculated that they discussed Israel’s case and the importance to guard against further weapons transfers to Hizb’allah.

In 1995, I was sitting in at a discussion in which, then Ambassador Dennis Ross, who had been America’s envoy for the peace talks vis-à-vis Syria under President Bill Clinton, and Mr. Ross had casually mentioned that every day he watches Boeing 747s land in Damascus Airport transferring arms and men en route to Lebanon, to fight with Hizb’allah.

When I asked him how he could be sitting around the peace table with then Syrian President Hafez al Assad, he said “Oh we have brought this up with President Assad, and told him we were very unhappy about it. (I wonder if he even went so far as to wag a finger at him).

And today, in one of the most dramatic examples of the already upside-down Orwellian universe that President Obama has tried to create, in which Israel, our one liberal, democratic nation in the Middle East, which is an anchor of stability, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, in this rapidly imploding, and increasingly radicalized region of the world, whose  prime minister  has been constantly  maligned by our president for trying to protect the survival of his people against a genocidal attack from an Iranian nuclear bomb, is pretty much thrown out into the cold.

And  the status of Iran, the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism, human rights abuses, and instability in the region, particularly in Syria and Lebanon, who for decades has been aiding the forces of Hafez al Assad and Hizb’allah, has been  elevated to “Peace Negotiator” by the Obama administration. If anyone would have told us ten years ago that the Iranians participating in the peace talks that are now ongoing in Vienna about what to do about the Syrian crisis, we would have promptly given him a referral to the closest psychiatrist.

“Keep your enemies close, but your friends at a distance.” When it comes to President Obama’s foreign policy, however, it is more accurate to upend this to: “You elevate your enemies into peacemakers. And you throw your friends under the bus.”
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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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