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Jody Sabral Headshot

Syria: A Geo-Political Game Changer

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"We were glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban," An Iranian foreign ministry employee whispered in my ear at a conference in Istanbul, a year after the disputed Iranian elections of 2009. These wars benefitted Iran by disposing of two common enemies and replacing them with friendlier regimes, yet Iranian media constantly spin the US occupation of both countries as "an imperialist plot."

But will Iran be glad to see the back of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad? Obviously not. Assad is a loyal ally to Iran and forms part of the Shia Crescent that runs from Iran to Syria and Lebanon with Hezbollah.

There are rumbles of militarily intervening in Syria and with the Friends of Syria meeting being held in Tunisia this is sure to gain some momentum in certain quarters. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton openly talked of arming opposition forces, the idea was backed by the Saudis.

Meanwhile one opposition movement, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), boycotted the meeting, citing they have been excluded from the debate.

Foreign powers have yet to collectively recognise one sole leader of the Syrian opposition movement as they did in Libya. The Syrian National Council (SNC) looks like the obvious choice - empowered at the Tunisia meeting by US support - but this has yet to be officially written into the history books.

And while Russia continues to come unstuck on the Syrian question, NATO member Turkey - a close ally of the US and Saudi Arabia - is aiding arming the opposition by providing space for them to organise. Reports of training camps on Turkish soil have been confirmed to me now by two sources, one an MP and the other a journalist who says he saw the high-walled encampment with his own eyes.

This must be one of the most geo-political conflicts of the last decade and Turkey is ahead of the game. A commentator on Russia Today cut one of his guest speakers short to reaffirm Russia's good intentions. But does he think the argument against military intervention can be translated to mean good intention.

Emotions do not factor into foreign policy. Strategy does, and Russia has been seemingly caught off guard on the Syrian crisis. Turkey however, has been ahead of the curve after learning their lessons in Libya, a country that Turkish businessmen had invested an estimated 16 billion dollars in prior to the war.

The same host on Russia Today said that estimates of deaths in Syria were inflated, his rational being that journalists were not able to report there to verify numbers. There are endless reports coming out from Syria by journalists willing to risk their lives inside the war-stricken Homs. The news that veteran war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in a military strike should be a stark reminder that the killing can be both targetted and indiscriminate. Her last report included a graphic description of a child who had been killed in the conflict.

The question in all of this is, how can the Western-educated Assads slaughter their own people? I asked a friend who met Assad while working on the Damascus city planning project to describe the man that is now historically an ugly dictator: "What's happening is not really his (Assad) cup of tea, but I wouldn't vouch for his supporters."

Perhaps Assad did not set out to kill his own people, but they are dying as are foreign journalists who are trying to uncover the massacre unfolding infront of world conscience. It is clear there is a real push pull in Syria. The vastness of ethnicities and religious sects is overwhelming to anyone who reads on the Middle East.

The most popular line used by commentators today is: "no one knows what to do because no one knows what will come next", in the meantime people are dying and Assad is responsible.

The argument that no action is okay because action will lead to the unknown is no longer valid. And while I do not under any circumstances advocate military intervention of the type we saw in Iraq or Libya, standing by and doing nothing while innocent children are killed is not the type of humanitarian crisis I want to live with.

Those who blame the Syrian crisis on Israeli desires to oust Assad with the ultimate goal of going up against Iran may have a point, but they are failing to see the reality on the ground for the Syrian people. Many of these commentators wrongly defend Assad. It is easy to talk political strategy from a safe and secure seat in the West, but something must be done and should be done to empower the Syrian's right to determine their own future. Whether there is a geo-political game at play should not detract from Assad's ruthless reaction to it. Assad's ability to indiscriminately kill his own people is at the heart of the Syrian crisis and gets lost in the academic debates.

Kofi Annan has been tasked with the job of mediating a dignified way out for the Syrian president. It would be nice to think that Assad would eventually move over - not unlike what happened in Yemen - to pave the way for a slower and more stable transition to a brighter future for the Syrian people that would hopefully lower the death toll, but is this realistic? Time will tell.

I recently met a Syrian activist in Istanbul who had fled the fighting in fear of his life. He felt guilty that he had left, but also empowered by his new sense of freedom. "We know that the Iranians and the Russians don't care about us. It is a political game. They deny they have their own problems, but history will show them. You can't run from freedom forever."

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