When the elephants fight, it was said of the Vietnam War, the grass gets trampled. That rather apt analogy nicely described the suffering of Vietnamese civilians and their country as North Vietnam (with backing from China and the former U.S.S.R.) and South Vietnam (with backing from the U.S. and various allies/friends)fought over the future of Vietnam. 3 million people died in the 30 years from 1945 when the French decided that they were going to try to take Vietnam back as a colony, to the American evacuation of Saigon just before the North Vietnamese overran it in April 1975.
40 years after the Vietnam war ended, several thousand kilometres away in Syria, the analogy again looks rather apt. Multiple elephants appear to be fighting in this case, but the outcome is the same – the people are suffering dreadfully. Here, aside from the Russian backed regime of Bashar al Assad and the U.S. backed rebels, a third group of militants competing with each other to establish some sort of Islamic state in their own warped view are hard at work sowing terror. So, how does this messy triangle work of fighting elephants work? It would seem that a significant part of the problem is sectarian and that none of these elephants really have a claim to the patch of grass that they are fighting over.
Islamic State, the brutal militant group wanting to wind the region back to the dark ages, are a force to be reckoned with and little understood by those fighting it (and bears an uncanny resemblance to the Global Liberation Army in the computer game Command and Conquer: Generals). blow up archaeological wonders that have survived centuries of war and survived. They rape and brutalize women, but run away whenever a female Kurdish fighter turns a gun on them. They have considerable resources not legitimately gained, but simply looted from places they have overrun. Their disregard for international or local law is absolute.
The United States, perhaps tiring of decades of wars that it often helped to start in order to pursue a Pax Americana agenda of U.S. domination, seems only somewhat interested in what is happening in Syria. Perhaps it is because the U.S. Presidential elections happen in 2016 and in the certain knowledge that President Barak Obama’s tenure is coming to an end, they are focussed on who will replace him. The Republican hopefuls for their party’s nomination talk the talk of war. Nearly all want boots on the ground, believing that American military muscle in force is the only way to resolve the I.S. threat, whilst completely ignoring the history.
And then there is the cold, calculating Vladimir Putin of Russia. Mr Putin likes to think of himself as an action man for the good of the world. He has been seen fishing bare chested; as a fighter pilot; tranquilizing Siberian tigers for tracking purposes. All clever propaganda to stuff down the throats of Russians via the Kremlin controlled/dominated media. Whilst Islamic State have brutalized and the U.S. have dithered, Russia has been slowly but steadily ratcheting up its support for the Syrian regime. From sporadic airstrikes a couple of weeks ago, there is now talk that Russia may make as many as 300 in a day. Russian warships are on the move in the Black Sea, firing missiles and reinforcing the Syrian navy.
And the Syrian people? They are the grass being trampled on by three fighting elephants in a tug of war over whose land Syria should be. And the trampling that is going on is pretty hard to watch.