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A high stakes game on the road to Damascus

  Illumination depicting St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, from “Livre d'Heures d'Étienne Chevalier” (circa 1450–1460), a  book of hours  by  Jean Fouquet  in the  Château de Chantilly  in France. While on the road, Paul, a persecutor of the early Christians, was temporarily blinded by a vision of Jesus. The players in the current Syrian civil war seem to have had no revelations of their own.

Illumination depicting St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, from “Livre d'Heures d'Étienne Chevalier” (circa 1450–1460), a book of hours by Jean Fouquet in the Château de Chantilly in France. While on the road, Paul, a persecutor of the early Christians, was temporarily blinded by a vision of Jesus. The players in the current Syrian civil war seem to have had no revelations of their own.

The United States – using what President Donald J. Trumpet called its “righteous power,” which is an interesting turn of phrase from Stormy Daniels’ alleged one-night stand – has joined longtime allies Great Britain and France in launching 100 missiles at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons depots and research facilities in Damascus and Homs.

Already, El Presidente – who has the attention span of a flea – has declared “Mission Accomplished.” I really wish American presidents would stop using that I’m-a-tough-guy-even-though-I-never-served-in-a-war phrase. Some 15 years after President George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” we’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan. You see where we’re going with this. Even now The New York Times is reporting that Assad has likely retained some chemical weapons capabilities. And, rest assured, he will use them.

So, what’s the point? And how does this help the ravaged Syrian people? This is not so much “Mission Accomplished” in Syria as the Churchillian “end of the beginning.” Seven years into the Syrian civil war, the major players who are basically fighting a proxy war there are just revving up. That’s because everyone involved has an increasing stake, not the least of which is their own egos. If it weren’t so tragic for the Syrians, it would be fascinating, as it is proof of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s famous observation that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Can’t tell the players without a scorecard? Here’s an excellent lineup put together by The Atlantic that demonstrates how complex the situation is.

  Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul” (1600), oil on cypress wood. Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome.

Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul” (1600), oil on cypress wood. Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome.

The United States is there to oppose ISIS and contain Assad, and because no matter how much Trump and Russkie President Vladimir “Vlad the Lad, Rootin’ Tootin’” Putin proclaim their undying love for each other, the U.S. and Russia will never be buddy-buddy. And Russia’s already there bucking up Assad and shoring up its Mediterranean naval base, because Putin has to keep convincing the Russian people and himself that Russia’s still a major player in world affairs. The British and the French – who are really responsible for the mess that is the Middle East, see the end of World War I – are in it not only because of ISIS but because of the refugee crisis induced by the Syrian civil war, although whether this will contain that crisis or exacerbate it is anybody’s guess.

The Iranians are in it to bedevil Israel and because they want to control the Middle East, which is something neither the Israelis nor the Saudi Arabians are going to let them do, hence their involvement. The Kurds are in it, because, well, I forgot why they’re in it. They’re terrific fighters, and they have been instrumental in defeating ISIS, but they want to be a free people – hey, who doesn’t? – something Turkey opposes, which is why the Turks are in Syria.

If there is one thing we have learned from Vietnam it’s that you can’t win someone else’s civil war. Yes, the stakes are high for everyone, but they are only personal for the Syrian people.

Far from being “accomplished,” the struggle that is Syria is likely to go on for the foreseeable future.