A ‘Game of Thrones’ in Damascus

By Mike Sard
May 8, 2013

In last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, Lord Baelish and Lord Varys, perhaps the show’s most Machiavellian characters, discuss their political philosophies. While admiring the <a “href=”http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Iron_Throne”>Iron Throne, the show’s iconic symbol of absolute power, they debate the true nature of the realm: What power, they ask, holds the seven kingdoms of Westeros together?

Lord Baelish: “Do you know what the realm is? A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie. But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?”

Lord Varys: “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”

It might be bleak and melodramatic, but this resembles today’s global order. In the wake of the financial crisis, the first Group of 20 summit helped save the financial system, but it was fear for survival rather than fealty to a common worldview that drove progress. Since then, it’s become all too clear that the G-20 is more of an aspiration than an institution: There are simply too many member countries with too many conflicting interests.

What we really have is a global order (or lack thereof) in which no country or group of countries can drive the international agenda. The global rules and referees are falling by the wayside; pressing challenges like climate change, nuclear proliferation and cybersecurity go unaddressed. Varys dubs it “a gaping pit” of leadership —Ian Bremmer, Reuters columnist and my boss, calls it the G-Zero.

Petyr Baelish responds with the second prong of the G-Zero argument. In every risk lies opportunity; a power vacuum creates winners and losers alike. “Chaos isn’t a pit,” he says “Chaos is a ladder.”

Westeros has plenty to tell us about our own global problems. In a G-Zero world, there is no quick fix for the chaos in Syria. It’s a hybrid of these competing views: The Syrian civil war is a pit and a ladder. So who are the geopolitical winners and losers?

The regime

Baelish: “Some cling to the realm.”

The past week has been the most eventful yet in the Syrian conflict. The violence is intensifying, we’ve heard reports of a “large-scale massacre” of civilians and Israel has engaged in two direct strikes against military targets on Syrian soil. Last week, for the first time, the Obama administration publicly acknowledged that “arming the rebels [is] an option.” Meanwhile, reports surfaced that the regime was to blame for deploying chemical weapons, a United Nations human rights investigator accused the rebels of doing so and an independent U.N. panel shied away from that claim with “no conclusive findings” of chemical weapons use as of yet.

As we move beyond the deadly status quo of the past two years, what is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s play? For Assad, relinquishing power has never been a viable choice — he’d stand accountable for his crimes. The more things deteriorate, the more he will dig in his heels. That’s what we’ve seen of late, as the president consolidates his military position and violence escalates.

Even if Assad’s chances of climbing back up the ladder are virtually non-existent, he will cling to every rung on the way down.

The United States

Varys: “A gaping pit waiting to swallow us.”

The Obama administration has inched toward deeper intervention amid worsening violence and reports of Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons, a previously stated “red line.” But why would the administration draw a distinction between the 70,000 Syrian deaths from conventional versus chemical weapons? Chemical weapons seemed like a fair line in the sand when it was unlikely to be crossed. Obama has tried to walk back his claims, restating the red line as the “systematic use” of chemical weapons. That’s because the American people aren’t eager to intervene — in a recent poll, only 10 percent wanted the United States to get involved — giving the administration reason to procrastinate.

But inertia is taking the United States to the brink: This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel became the first senior official in the administration to publicly acknowledge the option of arming the rebels, and Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, introduced legislation that would provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. The likely eventual decision to arm the Syrian rebels is a meaningful step toward direct military engagement.

While the United States is doing its best not to fall in, it’s being dragged closer and closer to the edge of the pit.

The opposition

Baelish: “Some are given a chance to climb.”

For two years the Americans have hesitated to support the opposition as the adage remained true: Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. There is a large contingent of radical Islamists among the rebels. While this makes the United States hesitant to provide military aid, Assad’s increasingly brutal tactics are making intervention more likely. Growing international support is key for the rebels to build staying power and become sufficiently well funded, armed and trained to emerge as a new regional player. The less secular the rebels become, the more likely it is that we’ll see expansive sectarian fighting beyond Syria’s borders as they rise to power.

Israel 

While the United States is trying to blur its “red lines” to stay out of Syria, Israel is clarifying its own by going in. Israel committed two direct airstrikes, unannounced, through Lebanese airspace, on Iranian surface-to-surface missile stockpiles in Syria that it believed were destined for delivery to Hezbollah. What was the rationale? Israel felt it was essential to establish its deterrence policy with a show of force. That’s the longstanding Israeli military doctrine, one deemed critical in order to prove to Iranian leaders that Israeli (and American) warnings about their nuclear program are credible, too.

Israel judged that the opportunity vastly outweighed the risks: The Assad regime has its hands full with the rebels, rendering it highly unlikely to retaliate with anything more than rhetoric. This wasn’t an Israeli attempt to tilt the balance of power in Syria. Rather, it was an opportunistic show of force meant for Hezbollah and Iran that the Syrian conflict made possible.

Russia

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Russia has stood by Assad and hampered U.N. resolutions against his regime. But in this new phase of the civil war, President Vladimir Putin might ask himself: What would backing away from Assad be worth to Western powers? There could be a quid pro quo after the Boston Marathon bombings: Perhaps Putin will seek American cover for Russia’s war against Chechnya and its broader fight in the north Caucasus. He may pitch a “trade” to Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Moscow in which Russia steps back from its pro-Assad stance — a position that has become increasingly problematic as the conflict has grown — and in return the U.S. lends the Kremlin legitimacy and tacit support for a hard-line Chechen policy.

Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been leveraging the Syrian war as a cover to pursue a tougher sectarian fight against his own Sunni and Kurdish populations. We’re seeing that economically, as he pushes punitive deals between center and periphery. Politically, Maliki is using the judicial branch to go after key opposition members. Militarily, Maliki is disarming Sunni militias and building up Shia military capacity in Sunni areas.

The violence in Iraq has grown to its highest levels since 2008. In the Sunni-Shia conflict, we’ll see more bombings and harsher government reprisals. Meanwhile, the Kurds have deployed Peshmerga forces to advance positions in Kirkuk, preparing to engage directly with Iraqi government forces. For Iraq, the Syrian conflict is a chaos pit — but Maliki sees a path up the ladder.

***

The Syrian war is metastasizing, with dangerous implications for the entire region. Assad’s regime will act more harshly. and radicalized Sunni rebels are poised to become more empowered and important on the regional stage. The United States will reluctantly slip into the chaos pit. Iraq will slide toward civil war. Israel is using the power vacuum to support its defense policy, while Russia is looking to cut a deal on the way out.

 

One thing is for sure — in Syria, winter has come.

 

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