The Great Game: Power Politics or Free Play?

The “Great Game” being played in the Middle East with Syria and Iraq as the center rings bears a superficial similarity to the power political maneuverings of the dominant European states in their African and Asian periphery during the 19th century. There is a somewhat closer resemblance to the Spanish civil war in the mix of multiple local parties, external powers, and ideological militancy. Yet, what we are witnessing today is quite different in some crucial respects – adding to our confusion in trying to make sense of the plot. Complexity and confusion reinforce each other. That is true for the actors themselves.

One gets the distinct impression that most of the leaders involved in this imbroglio don’t know that they’re doing. The obvious exceptions are the Islamic State and al-Qaeda/al-Nusra who gain advantage from the others’ maladroit, contorted flailing about.  One could add Assad to the category of the knowing and witting. Among external parties, Putin stands out as the one rational actor with his feet on the ground and his head on his shoulders. The rest seem bereft of clear judgment and steady policy. Why?

Before trying to answer that question, let’s remind ourselves of how disjointed and incoherent those leaders have been. The United States overshadows all others in terms of its potential influence, readiness to engage by various means, and the diversity of links it has with other protagonists. Washington, would-be script-writer and casting director, has entangled itself in those multiple lines of connection. The obscurity of its objectives, beyond the fantastic expectation that everybody else will conform to the twists and turns of American thinking (and actions), has compounded its intrinsic dilemma. That is one of squaring circles, reconciling the irreconcilable, and experimenting with combustible mixes of “hard” and “soft” power. It hasn’t helped that no one in Washington has seemed to be in charge. When you don’t know where you’re going, any – and all – routes will get you there. So try them all – simultaneously.

The United States wants Assad out; it wants to crush the Islamic State; it wants to prevent al-Qaeda & Assoc from coming to power in Damascus; it wants to keep Saudi Arabia and its young turbo-charged de facto leader Mohammed bin-Salman happy and smiling in its direction; it wants to curb Iranian influence throughout the region and wishes for the death of the Islamic Republic; it wants to keep Tayyip Recep Erdogan happy and smiling in its direction; it wants to satisfy all of Israel’s desires; and it wants to teach Putin a lesson that will force him to crawl back into his lair instead of making believe that it’s 1973. It wants to keep its bases in the Persian Gulf plus new ones in Iraq and Syria (against the will of its sovereign government) – even though the latter will act as irritants that generate the very enemies and instability that they are meant to deal with – the perfect closed feedback loop. All this is a tall order for a squad of foreign policy novices, dogmatists and dilettantes. And all the more daunting given that the only locals sympathetic to the United States (the Iraq government of Haider al-Abadi and the secular moderates in Syria) are weak reeds to lean on.

The Saudi leadership, too, has placed itself in a seemingly impossible position. Since the American invasion of Iraq, which it staunchly opposed, the KSA has lost its composure – making one mistake after another.  Under the sway of the Crown Prince, Riyadh now is following a reckless go-for-broke strategy, a fuite en avant. Saudi behavior has become uncharacteristically compulsive and edgy in acute awareness of its vulnerability to the forces that itself, as well as others, have set loose across the region. The royal family has always perceived three potential threats to its rule. They are: a challenge from Islamist fundamentalists to its legitimacy as protector of the Holy Sites – a legitimacy anchored by its alliance with the wahhabi clerical establishment; secular democracy; and hostile external parties, e.g. Saddam’s Iraq. Since 2003, Shi’ite Iran has supplanted Saddam and added a religious dimension to its challenge.

The Saudis’ ambitious agenda in Syria should be understood in this context. The list of items is as long as the American one. The KSA wants to topple Assad; it wants to break the “Shi’ite crescent” running from Tehran through Syria to Hezbullah. It wants to isolate the IRI. Elsewhere, it wants to reduce Yemen to the status of a vassal state. It wants the GCC members to acknowledge its hegemony in the Gulf – and especially to bring a maverick Qatar to heal; its wants a tacit coalition with Erdogan in promoting Sunni regional interests; it wants, at the same time, to contain his ambition to revive Ottoman power; it wants the United States to stop its meddling in internal Arab politics by promoting democracy and cultivating Islamists unbeholden to Riyadh like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; it also wants America to hang around militarily so that it can come to the KSA’ rescue if necessary – as in 1991; it wants cordial relations with Israel so as to buttress its political influence in Washington and lobbying for a confrontation with the mullahs in Tehran. Finally, it wants to coopt takfiri radicals so as to neutralize the fundamentalist challenge to its legitimacy while reining in those groups like the Islamic State who are hostile to it and an instigator of unrest at home.

Obviously, the Saudi piles of chips spread across the table are as numerous as the American ones. Equally obvious, the KSA exhibits contradictions that are irresoluble and goals that are unreachable. Only the extraordinary indulgence of Washington, which repeatedly reveals the United States as ready to subordinate its own interests to Saudi ones (and to set aside good sense), allows the Saudi Royals to pursue their numerous wil o’ wisps and to avoid hard choices.  Mr. Trump has just reassured them on that score. He, thereby, made plain that his noisy campaign threat to stick it to the Saudis was as empty as the minds of those gullible souls who eagerly bit on his emotional lure.

What does KSA foresee as an acceptable outcome in Syria? Ahrar al-Sham along with other clients in power. Chances of success? Zero. Therefore? There is only vague speculation. It’s hard to know when even the Crown Prince probably is clueless as to what to do next.

Then there is Turkey – Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey. Here, too, we are in the realm of speculation. For the would-be Sultan’s attitude seems to change on a weekly basis. A year ago, his ambitions were aligned with those of the United States – however imperfectly. Then he accused Washington of fomenting the abortive coup d’etat. By November, he was mending relations with Russia and cozying up to Putin – joining him at Astana I which excluded the Americans. Two weeks later, that relationship had gone sour and at the moment he is returning to purring at Trump’s door. Yet, tensions are taut due to basic disagreements over the Kurds’ role in Manbij and Raqqa. This, of course, is all tactical. So what does Erdogan see as his hard objectives?

Long wish lists are all the rage in the Middle East these days. Erdogan, at the start of his intervention in Syria as a  sponsor and facilitator to both al-Nusra (with KSA) and the Islamic State (with Qatar), saw them as instruments to carve out a new Ottoman Turkish sphere of influence in Syria – perhaps Iraq, too. Visions of Aleppo, and maybe Mosul, danced in his head. The constant objective has been to prevent a revival of the PKK and to denature Kurdish nationalism. His soft approach of accommodation was working through 2014. Its very success, though, was creating peril for his AKP at the polls – threatening to deny Erdogan the power of a beefed-up Presidency that he covets. So, he ruthlessly reversed course through orchestrated acts of violent provocation that he blamed on the Kurds. The predictable, and desired, polarization occurred, the PKK loomed again. Erdogan had his civil insurrection, and reaped the electoral gains. That also provided an excuse for extending his crackdown on all opposition – the precursor to the massive purges he’s taken in the wake of the June 2016 officers’ revolt.

What has this meant for Turkey’s role in Syria? One, he wants to undercut the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, which threatens to create an autonomous Kurdish domain on Turkey’s border. Yet, the YPG is America’s principal local ally in fighting the Islamic State. Two, Erdogan wants Assad gone, the end of Iranian/Shi’ite political dominance in Syria, and friends ensconced in Damascus. Who are these friends? – al-Nusra, other associated Islamist groups, IS spin-offs, remnants of the Western backed  Free Syrian Army (FSA)? None are reliable partners. None are likely to take power now that Assad, with Russian and Iranian backing, has gained the upper-hand.

Three, Erdogan wants Turkey to regain its position as a regional ‘great power’ whose freedom of action is not constrained by the European Union or the United States. With his dreams about a Syrian sphere of influence fading, his Iraqi ambitions history, and his credibility in all capitals eroded, what options are left to him? The obvious one is to concentrate on consolidating his position as the Potentate on the Bosporus. All external relations would be reduced to subordinate considerations. So, his role in the long Syrian end-game might well be limited to that of a disruptive meddler whose one fixed point of reference is the Kurds.

Iran’s involvement has been multi-faceted; it’s strategic perspective relatively simple. There is no evidence of a grand plan, no Iranian-led shi’ite hegemony in the works. All of these outlandish goals ascribed to Khamenei by Washington and legions of commentators have no basis in fact. They fall in the category of scare-mongering designed to achieve other aims or to play to a domestic audience in need of a villain. The evidence that we have, along with the logic of circumstances, points to these Iranian interests and purposes in Syria.

In essence, they are defensive. That is to say, Teheran’s overriding concern is to foil the ambitions of others: the United States, the KSA, Turkey, the takfiri groups, Israel, and their allies farther afield. This means, in effect, a restoration and maintenance of the status quo ante: the Ba’ath regime in power; the Islamists at bay; ties with and access to Hezbullah kept intact; blocking the Saudi move to establish its hegemony over the Persian Gulf; and – insofar as the Americans are concerned – ensuring full implementation of all parts of the nuclear deal, and denying the hostile Trump administration the excuse for a military attack. All else is froth.

In this frame of reference, a working partnership with Russia is invaluable. Without Russian intervention, Syria would have been lost with untold consequences for both regional stability and Iranian interests. They will not let anything disrupt that productive relationship. Whatever divergences in outlook as may exist between Teheran and Moscow, they pale by comparison with the mutual benefits.

As to Russia, there are no great mysteries as to objectives and the impact that it has made. Putin stands head-and-shoulders above all other government leaders in clarity of strategic vision, diplomatic skill and probity. Moreover, he has been aided immeasurably by the bumbling of others – especially in Washington. The broad strategic perspective of Putin, and the consensus among Kremlin elites that he represents, is known. He has delineated it with unprecedented clarity, detail and comprehensiveness in a series of speeches and public interviews. Our leaders studied ignoring of them is inexcusable and dangerous.

In a nutshell, Putin’s conception is composed of these features: an international system of multiple powers who eschew violence among themselves in the interest of mutual economic gain and stability; a recognition of each party’s particular interests; consultation and multilateralism as its standard modus operandi; an attenuation of the American plan for imposing its neo-liberal design on the world; and concerted programs to deal with common threats, e.g. terrorism.

Specifically in Syria, Russia could not tolerate the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime on multiple grounds. One, it was an extension of the United States’ arrogation of a right to act unilaterally to topple national governments it disliked – whether by force or less kinetic means. Two, the attitude thereby expressed was an unqualified belief that the American-led Western powers were dedicated to shaping the world in their preferred political image. That was apiece with the push eastwards of NATO and the European Union in calculated disregard for Russian sensibilities, security concerns and the guarantees that it had received in 1990-1991. In addition, Moscow was acutely worried about the installation of a takfiri government in Syria that would serve as a base of operations and inspiration to violent jihadis within Russia – the Caucasus and beyond.

Westerners find it too easy to forget that Russia has suffered more from Islamist terrorism than has the United States and the Europeans. As Putin reiterates on every occasion, that state of affairs would not have been tolerated by Americans if the counterpart to Syria were located in Central America.

As to resolution and reconstitution in Syria, Moscow seems inclined to navigate the turbulent waters without a detailed road map in recognition that the topography will change in accordance with the preferences of other parties. What they will not abide is an autonomous territory controlled by takfiri groups. Their own preference looks to be for keeping the country intact (no partition), a degree of decentralization, a regime constituted on the principle of national unity, and free elections. The timing and exact route to reach these ends remains vague.

The Russia perspective on Syria summarized here suggests that a strong pragmatic case exists for Washington to cooperate with Putin to find a formula that could bring a measure of stability to the country. A level-headed interpretation of the situation would focus on these elements: the failure of

Washington to prevent violent jihadist groups from exploiting the rebellion against Assad to advance their own program hostile to the United States; the absence of a countervailing force ideologically acceptable to us; the threat posed to Russia by the expansion of terrorist groups that have Russian affiliates and that have recruited large numbers of fighters from Chechnya and elsewhere; and the opportunity that Putin has opened to find a resolution that squares the circle of our opposing both Assad and the Salafists. That attitude, though, would entail an agonizing reappraisal of the foundation stones of American policy set in place over the past five years. It also would require modifying the prevailing view of Russia as an intrinsically aggressive state challenging the West from Ukraine to the Middle East, and Putin as a thug. Finally, it would mean facing down Republican leaders and the neo-conservative/R2P alliance that agitates fiercely for escalating a confrontation with Moscow.

The Obama White House recoiled at the very thought of this last but promoted the narrative. Trump lacks the intellectual confidence and political fortitude to take the bold step. Indeed, his principal advisers – Mathis, McMaster, Pompeo, Haley – have voiced overtly hostile views of Russian and Putin. Mathis explicitly has ruled out any substantial military collaboration in acting against terrorist organizations in Syria.


Making sense of this singularly complicated policy field is all the more daunting for the presence of two unusual factors.  First, there is the disconcerting reality that a number of the main players are not rational actors – in the literal, nominal sense – since they are inclined toward illogical and/or impulsive behavior. That is true of Erdogan, Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman, and Trump. Bibi Netanyahu also shows signs of a loosening grip on reality after years of immersion in Israeli’s ultra-nationalist culture with its messianic tinge. He now has composed his own Talmud in which the Persians are cast as the villains who are to blame for all that has befallen the Hebrew people.* As for Washington, Trump’s predecessor was surely rational. But Obama’s undisciplined administration as a whole exhibited an incoherence that generated actions at variance with each other – and conditions in Syria. Of course, we must take account as well of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his al-Nusra & Assoc. counterparts. Psychiatric assessment aside, we can say indisputably that emotion rather than mind very often has driven actions. One is hard-pressed to find historical precedents to such a cast of unstable characters engaged in a high stakes game of power politics.

The second characteristic of the situation that distinguishes Syria writ large is the discrepancy between the intensity of the conflict, on the one hand, and the limited stakes for the external parties, on the other. A corollary is the discrepancy in stake between the domestic protagonists – for whom it truly is struggle for life or death, literally and politically, and the outsiders. If all the external parties had stakes of a similar magnitude, they likely would be more sober and prudent in their conduct.

Consider this: whatever transpires in Syria (and Iraq) life in the United States will go on with barely a ripple. Even its core international interests would be only marginally affected. Fluctuations in the present low rate of terrorism might be expected, in one direction or another; that’s about it. With some qualification, and not quite to the same degree, one could say the same about Russia.

As for Turkey, the only possible negative repercussion of developments in Syria is a reflux into Turkey of the takfiri fanatics it sponsored and whose transit it enabled. They would not constitute, though, a direct threat to either Erdogan’s rule or the Turkish state. For Iran, the main impact is on its regional presence. The link to Hezbullah is most important. For in the minds of Tehran’s leaders, the major deterrent to a possible Israel air assault on Iran is the threat of retaliation from Hezbullah missile batteries that the IRI has provided. The IRI’s political integrity, though, is not in jeopardy.

Of all the external parties, the KSA is the most exposed. Paradoxically, the one prospective danger that could become tangible emanates from the parties it has been bolstering – the takfiri jihadis. An Islamic State could have posed a direct threat across an open border while posing the indirect threat of inspiring and facilitating an internal Salafist opposition to the Royal Family. In short, another Osama bin-Laden – far more powerful and closer to home. The same might be said of al-Nusra & Assoc which has all the same features except for the allure.

It is frankly incomprehensible that American officials – from the President on down – should not have been impressing this on the Saudi leadership constantly – in our interest, in their interest, and in the interest of the Middle East.

Instead, contrary to all good sense, the so-called  strategists in Washington –  medaled or not – are making plans to join in the decimation of the Houthis out of blind hatred of Iran, habitual service to the Saudis -and egged on by the Israeli lobby. All buffered by a thick layer of cultivated ignorance. Their legions of accomplices are all the pundits, think tankers, op ed writers et al who have been misrepresenting the Yemeni civil war as a proxy was against the ISI.

Now the Chinese jump in to do what the U.S. never thought of doing and never was in a position to do: a serious attempt at conciliation at the seeming request of both parties. If successful, Beijing consolidates its relations with Iran and the KSA, and enhances its global reputation as a reliable mediator/underwriter. Washington? Evidently, the Orangutan’s blustering attempts to establish “street creds” by spasmodic bombing in all directions have impressed no –one. The killing within the past week of scores of Syrian, Yemeni and Somali innocents by Washington’s chest thumping leaders did impress the dead, the maimed and the orphaned.

Those acts also have succeeded in tarnishing America’s already soiled reputation as an accomplice to an international crime.

As to Iran, were KSA leaders thinking logically, they might see the IRI as currently constituted as an asset. It is not a military threat the way Saddam was. It has no purchase on Sunni fundamentalist sentiment within the Kingdom – although it theoretically might agitate among the KSA’ Shi’ite minority concentrated in the oil belt. It is hardly an irresistible model of Islamic democracy. Yet, the IRI’s very existence serves the regime by underscoring the key role of the KSA in countervailing Iran around the Gulf; by presenting itself as a vague external danger that rallies Saudis beneath the protective wing of the Royal family; by justifying military ties to the United States; and by heightening Saudi Arabia’s perceived importance to Washington.

The result of all this rampant mindlessness is a murderous conflict wherein the external powers seem moved by the admonition: do your own thing – and do it very badly.

P.S. It would be nice were there some way to make these judgements without resort to such robust language. Unfortunately there isn’t. For it is necessary to highlight the true nature and grievous implications of these acts. Why use weasel words that only perpetuate the opaqueness, or outright misrepresentations, that our rulers have used so assiduously to veil reality? Is it wrong to write “criminal?” Should we instead write “erroneous” or “mistaken?”  When a policy and attendant actions defy all logic, are self-contradictory, at variance with recent experience, and do harm to one’s stated interests and objectives – it qualifies to be called what it is. Anyone else who behaved in this manner automatically would be so labelled; why should our rulers be exempt – especially since the consequences of their misdeeds are so dire?

The two year air campaign that entails indiscriminate bombing of civilian Yemeni targets would have been impossible without American assistance (refueling and intelligence) – even before the current talk of a direct role for U.S. forces began. This is a crime by any objective standard. Were some other government whom we consider unfriendly to do anything similar, Washington would be raising holy hell – throwing around words like ‘genocide’. Not to call criminal acts by their name would be sheer hypocrisy. 

*”King Cyrus’ Edict of Restoration (actually two edicts) described in the Bible as being made by Cyrus the Great left a lasting legacy on the Jewish religion, where, because of his policies in Babylonia, he is referred to by the Jewish Bible as Messiah (lit. “His anointed one”) (Isaiah 45:1),[15] and is the only non-Jew to be called so.[16]

Cyrus was Persian – not a British Foreign Secretary.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.