Syria and global governance

Blog No.78.

I am now halfway through the second year of weekly postings on this blog. In the past year it has received approx. 25,000 visitors. The subjects dealt with are mainly climate change and global political interactions – with particular emphasis on East-West conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. If something is worth saying it is worth hearing! If any of the readers consider a blog to be of particular merit or interest, I’d be grateful if they could help expand its readership by sharing that particular blog with their social media contacts. Thanks.


I ended my previous blog on Syria with a promise to look at the individual players in the conflict and their relationships with each other. Before starting my composition I attempted to simplify the task by outlining the complex situation on a spreadsheet. Syria conflicts

Looking at my spreadsheet, I soon realised that it should be the subject of a book, rather than a blog. Worse, that as those relationships were in constant motion, such a book would be out of date before ever it could be published.

The completed spreadsheet displayed in excess of two hundred separate relationships between fifteen individual state and non-state actors. Most of those relationships, were each to be adequately analysed, would in themselves, have offered sufficient material for a separate blog. (Here is just one such article confirming the complex and long-standing collaborative relationship between the USA and those of its allies actively involved in the support of Islamist terrorism. )

The spreadsheet as a stand-alone is a gross simplification of the reality on the ground. For instance, it has just two columns for ‘Kurds’ but there are multiple Kurdish factions pursuing separate goals. Likewise ‘Syrian rebels’ have just one column, but there, in fact are huge divergences  between the hundred or so seperate rebel groups, ranging from ISIS front organisations to near allies of the Syrian government.

The predominantly Kurdish town of Cizre, in SE Turkey, under attack by Turkish armour.

Furthermore, the explanatory legend classifying relationships as ‘Hostile’ ‘Cautious’ and ‘Friendly’ is a crude measure to say the least. The realities of any particular relationship are often hidden deep within governments. For instance, I have marked Israel’s relationship with ISIS as ‘Cautious.’ The truth is, I simply don’t know. There are some, who would take an extreme position and argue that ISIS actually stands for ‘Israeli Secret Intelligence Service.’ There are others, who would argue that Israel is so frightened by what ISIS could portend, that there is total hostility between the two parties and zero room for any possible cooperation. The truth will be found somewhere between those two extremes. Certainly, ISIS is helping achieve a long standing Israeli foreign policy objective of breaking up the Syrian and Iraqi states and we know that Israel has been offering assistance to some of the al-Qaeda sympathetic groups rebelling against the Assad government. It would be surprising if there were no areas of cooperation between the two, but the extent of it is hard to fathom.  If Israel is officially prepared to admit to such limited collaboration, it is safe to assume that there is considerably more that is being kept out of the public eye.

I was daunted: I abandoned my task. The tangled complexity of the Syrian conflict that the players have created is now such that anyone who would unravel the Gordian knot, with anything other than a sword, is going to find themselves faced with an impossible task.

If ever the international community should decide that it has eaten its fill of Syrian death and suffering, then the only obvious exit route is for the outside players to cut their losses and abandon whatever their initial ambitions that now are lost. They have the choice; either withdraw from the game, or throw their support behind whichever faction is most likely to be the probable winner. Given the currently entrenched positions, and despite the recently brokered truce and recent significant gains by the Assad/Russian alliance (and a noticeably less hawkish, more realistic tone from Washington) such a development still seems a little way off. The war is likely to continue for some time yet.

Gordian Knot
Alexander cuts the Gordian knot

In the 1960s, when I was working as a political officer in Oman, I reported to a Scot, an old Middle East hand, who had seen it all. In one town, which I will leave nameless, we were faced with the task of solving the murder of one of the Sultan’s soldiers. As our investigation dove deeper into the politics of the town, we discovered a midden of unnerving complexity. Different tribal groups were struggling for advancement. Gradually, as we uncovered layer after layer of the puzzle, it appeared increasingly likely that the murder was a false flag by one of the several parties involved. The aim was to cast a rival party into the Sultan’s disfavour – and thus, possibly, score a few date gardens at their expense.

Tasked with writing a report on so complex a picture, I asked my Scottish superior how he would best describe the situation. “Eels copulating in a bucket of snot,” was his suggestion.


If that would summarise the situation in one medieval town of a few thousand, very wretched inhabitants, I could now best describe the situation in Syria as a shoal of giant squid copulating in an oxidation pond.

I recently chose for my bedside reading, a very short (135 page) book of lectures, first published in 2004. Ronald Wright’s “A short history of progress” is a book that should be read by every wannabe politician. Wright’s fundamental argument is that in the past, civilisations have risen and have fallen, but with a couple of exceptions (such as Easter Island) most, as in the case of Rome or Greece, have managed to leave some sort of a cultural inheritance to enrich the future.

Wright gives three phases of a civilisation’s progress. The first is the ‘Run-away train.’ A primarily agricultural and egalitarian society develops technology that allows it to produce a surplus of food, which enables it to support specialist skills quite apart from agriculture. As the population explodes, so too does inequality with the development of specialised hierarchies of royalty, priesthoods and warriors.

The second is the ‘Dinosaur’ phase. Here, the leadership is so entrenched with, and entranced by, its power, wealth and sense of superiority that it is loath to accept signs that all might not be well. Though the ecology on which the civilisation depends for its sustenance, is now running down through its being exploited beyond its natural bearing capacity, the dinosaurs cling to their privileges and refuse to make any of the behavioural sacrifices demanded by the developing situation. A characteristic of this phase is a rapid growth in social disparity and inequalities in individual wealth. (Wright memorably dismisses the current, neo-liberal economic theory of ‘trickle-down’ as one in which the horses justify their gorging themselves on oats with the claim that some of the grains passing through their gut remain relatively intact and provide a valuable source of food for the sparrows.)

The third phase is the ‘House of cards.’ Here, as the eco-system collapses around their ears, barbarians, sensing their time has come, press at the gates, while internally, hunger, social unrest and civil war break-out. Population levels drop dramatically. Wright illustrates how in the past, multiple civilisations have been able to co-exist in relative isolation on the same planet, despite their all following the familiar basic pattern of run-away train and dinosaur leadership, to be followed by the collapse of the elaborate construction.

house of cards
Years to build: seconds to collapse

In most cases, as the planet was still relatively lightly populated, the eco-system collapses were limited to the civilisation’s centre. At the periphery, there was usually fresh lands to exploit and opportunity for survivors to pass on the inheritance of their failed civilisation and culture to another standard–bearer.

Wright’s worry is that with the present age’s globalisation, the runaway train of global population (a six-fold increase in less than two centuries) has enabled the current civilisation to occupy the whole of habitable Earth. With the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the profit-centred capitalist system showing every sign of dinosaurism (well indicated by its long and successful fight against the scientific community’s repeated warning of the probable consequence of impending fatal climate change) should the house of cards collapse, as was the case of isolated Easter Island, there will be no peripheries for the survivors to cling onto and no up-and-coming civilisation, to which the torch could be passed.

Easter Island in what was once a forest

To return to my chart of the player interaction over the Syrian conflict; if one looks at the whole structure of now globalised interactions, as represented at the United Nations, the complexity involved increases exponentially. Wright’s dilemma is not going to be resolved, as was attempted at the recent Paris summit on climate change, by PR promises of action made by individual national governments, but unsupported by any meaningful obligations.

Currently, the fate of global civilisation is divided between two power-centres. On the one hand, and growing rapidly in influence, are the corporate juggernauts, with no interest other than selfish profit. On the other are the individual nations, only the most economically and militarily dominant of which still retain significant degrees of national sovereignty. Since the foundation of the nation state, national leaderships have been and remain dependent for their privileged positions on their ability to persuade (by force or by cajoling) their publics that they are able to score a national advantage over their neighbours.

In 2004, appalled by the illegal and stupid American invasion of Iraq, I largely withdrew from our family business and became involved in the search for a more rational and functional system of international governance. I set up a website at and started attending international conferences on world governance and meeting many of those involved in NGOs working towards that end.

I was forced to abandon this endeavour at the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, when I had to return to my company duties and help defend my sole means of earning a living. Since then, the Sapiens site has drifted on, unloved and unattended. I hadn’t revisited the site for nearly a decade until inspired to do so by reading Wright’s book. I am amazed by how relevant it still seems – though the international situation then described has, if anything, deteriorated. Here is an extract: there is little I would change, other than to note the burgeoning of corporate power in the interim and the greatly increased threat posed by unaddressed global warming.

“A nation has no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Winston Churchill

In most cases, the interests Churchill is referring to are additional benefits to be gained at the expense of neighbours. As long as humanity is grouped into fully sovereign nation states, there will be neither peace on Earth nor uninhibited mutual collaboration for the greater benefit of all humanity.

The needs for international collaboration are obvious and increase with every advance in technology and global population. To satisfy these needs, ad hoc treaties between nations are called into being as convenience demands. The most significant and comprehensive of such treaties gave existence to the United Nations. As circumstances calling for unified global action become more frequent and more pressing, so too do expectations of the UN grow. Disenchantment with the UN’s performance increases at a similar rate. How could it be otherwise?

The UN has no powers other than those granted to it by the nation states that are its members. The most powerful of these only ratified the treaty after they had ensured they had the power to veto decisions that, though of benefit to humanity at large, were not advantageous to their own national interests.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. The UN is funded by what are in effect, optional contributions from member states. The larger and more powerful the state, the larger its contribution and the more influence it has over how it is spent. The UN has no powers to fund its own activities through taxation. Its officials are in effect simply servants of their paymasters. It has no independent executive powers, no independent armed forces, no independent judiciary and no independent ability to exercise any initiatives that do not have the agreement of all the major nations, which control the Security Council through their powers of veto.

There are many proposals for reform of the operating mechanics of the UN, such as increasing the number of nations on the Security Council, but the only proposal, which would tackle the fundamental problem facing humanity is one which advocates its transformation into a democratic parliamentary system. The nation states, who benefit most from the present system that gives them the power to manipulate the outcomes from the UN decision-making process, will not abandon that power unless faced by overwhelming public pressure.

If the UN were doing the job of providing collective security for which it was intended (but deliberately not designed), would there still be nations eager to proliferate nuclear weapons? What has the UN been able to do to prevent the ongoing racial massacres in Africa, settle the impending oil-fired frontier disputes in Asia or dampen the USA’s penchant for violent interference in the affairs of less powerful states? How many UN resolutions has Israel been able to ignore, or has had deflected by an American veto, while continuing with its illegal acquisition of additional Palestinian land? What has the UN been able to do to prevent the exploitation of so many of the Earth’s resources to the point now reached where future generations are going to have to live without them?

The concept of total national sovereignty makes our world a free-for-all scramble; the devil takes the hindermost and the most powerful take the lion’s share. The world’s population needs enforceable world law. Humankind needs a government of universally recognised legitimacy that has the power to make laws applicable to all people, the power to demand of member states that those laws are obeyed, and the authority and executive power to ensure their compliance. The present and fast deteriorating situation will not change until Homo sapiens has a parliament which has power and legitimacy given to it by the democratic vote of the people of Earth: its members appointed directly by mechanisms quite separate from the election or appointment of the political managers responsible for looking after the less significant, but nonetheless essential and legitimate, interests of individual nation states.


I would only add one final comment, should such a system of democratic international governance ever be arrived at (and, given the entrenchment of the dinosaurs’ perceptions of immediate self-interest, I am deeply pessimistic that such will occur) there would have to be a constitutional device (possibly an upper chamber) for the input of wisdom and learning into the decision making process. Current national democratic processes seem to lack any guarantees that their chosen leaderships will have either of those two qualities. The requiem for Ozymandias could well prove to be that of a globalised civilisation.

Ozymandias2 Ozymandias3

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