As the temperature begins to drop in the Levant, it is a certainty that Syria will not be enjoying a Christmas truce this year, similar to that experienced on the Western front in December 1914. Despite the straw clutching going on in Vienna there will be no football match between the Free Syrian Army and the Hezbollah trenches. Mrs Bashir Al-Assad won’t be passing her luxury mince pies across the barricades of Damascus to members of the al-Nusra Front nor will IS and al-Qaeda fighters be exchanging tobacco products and other sundry gifts.
For while there is no palpable military solution to the war, there is still a great deal to fight over. Months – perhaps even years – ago we passed the point where the current entity known as the Syrian Arab Republic would be able to remain intact, so any future solution will inevitably involve breaking up the country. The Syrian civilisation is one of the oldest and richest in the world yet its modern borders only date back 100 years to when the victorious powers redrew the frontiers of the region at the end of the First World War.
The most famous of these lines in the sand was the basis of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whereby the British and the French secretly devised a plan to divide the collapsing Ottoman Empire into two spheres of influence. Sir Mark Sykes, then advising the cabinet and using a contemporary map for reference, rather pompously described his idea to Arthur Balfour in 1916 as, “I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk.” He did. Thus creating the southern border of modern day Syria.
The British must also accept the blame for the crude manner in which they created the main fracture in the region (and beyond), that of the partition of Palestine. Problems continue to emanate from this ground zero of territorial conflicts along the rulered frontiers of the Middle East, creating a region permanently consumed by conflict. Fuelled by recent interventions from the global powers this has sparked a proxy sectarian war between Sunni and Shia ideology. Against such a shambolic geopolitical backdrop the battle for Syria has developed into the most complex example of state of the art multi-dimensional war mongering.
Here’s a recap, in case you have understandably lost the brutal plot to this relentless tragedy. The dictatorship of Bashir Al-Assad has been facing an armed uprising, which has already being going on longer than the First World War. He is trying to put this down with the help of his friends Iran, Russia and Hezbollah from Lebanon. On the other side we have the US, Turkey, the Gulf Arab states and most of the Western World, including Britain and France, who want Assad removed and so have been arming many of the rebels opposing him.
However one of the rebel groups is Islamic State (IS), originally formed in the detention centres under the US occupation of Iraq, and everyone – including the other rebels – opposes them. Recently Russia says it has started bombing IS but this is in fact a (literal) smoke screen for bombing the other rebels, some of which are backed by Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are enemies of Shia Iran.
Turkey isn’t bombing Assad at all or IS very much, but instead is bombing the Kurds, who are enemies of Assad and IS, and like Turkey, also backed by the US, which incidentally is only bombing IS and not Assad. Add to this the fact that Turkey has just shot down a Russian jet, killing its pilot, and France seems to have formed some sort of alliance with Russia, then you have a narrative more complicated than an Umberto Eco novel.
Ironically as partition seems more and more likely there are increasing reasons to fight, as the new borders of the region will be drawn along the lines of the old adage “possession is nine tenths of the law.” Again the post-imperial powers will be involved in this latest carve up. However, this time, with so many different warring parties involved, rather than Sykes’ ruler, a large box of coloured crayons might be of more use.