When I used to think that baseball was important, I knew that you couldn't tell the players without a scorecard.
There isn't a scorecard for Syria.
There are experts who can say who are the key players, and what drives them.
What they cannot tell us is what will emerge from their complex, fluid, and contradictory motives. Or what will happen because one key player speaks loudly, but does not carry any stick.
Teddy Roosevelt (Speak softly and carry a big stick) may be spinning in his grave on account of Barack Obama and John Kerry.
Currently those actually doing things are Russia, Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, and whatever is the Islamic State. There are other dozens of militias opposing one or all of the above and one another, in a morass that is most difficult for the experts to describe.
I'm no expert. However, Israeli media provide me with daily inputs from a number of observers and commentators who know the languages and the cultures. They're in a different league from American journalists who are flown around the world from one crisis to the next, and are expected to learn enough from locals to provide sound bites to the consumers.
The clearest pair, and the most violent is the Russians and Assad. They do not play by western rules of avoiding civilian casualties. They are ethnic cleansers, being fierce against Sunni concentrations and seeing their mass exodus as the solution to keeping Assad in power.
Guesses are that Syria as known prior to the onset of the civil war is no more. With half a million dead and close to half the population displaced, observers are betting on the development of enclaves for ethnic groups or Muslim sects: a major one for Assad and the Alewis, another for the Kurds, and the rest subject to who emerges on top in various regions.
Some of the time we hear that Russia is in business primarily for itself, and may be willing to abandon Assad.
Iran and Hezbollah are fighting on the ground, ostensibly for Assad and his regime, but maybe for themselves, and whatever part of Syria they may be able to claim.
The Turks and the Saudis are supporting and acting in behalf of Sunnis, and against Assad. They also claim to be operating against militias of the Islamic State, but both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have dealt with the Islamic State, either providing money outright (Saudi Arabia) or buying oil from areas of Iraq under its control (Turkey).
Turkey has also attacked Kurd installations in an extension of a long on again off again war against Kurds in Turkey and Iraq.
We can assume that the Kurds are looking after themselves, with at least some of them thinking about expanding the enclave carved out in Iraq, and doing something about being the world's largest ethnic group without a state.
In the way of a Kurdish state, however, are divisions within the Kurds' leadership, as well as the intense opposition of Turkey, whose leaders fear what that would mean for their own large Kurdish minority.
The Druze are somewhere in the mix, but may have paid a price for dithering between Assad and anti-Assad forces, or doing what they can to stay out of the conflict.
The Christians of Syria, like those of Iraq, are major losers in the collapse of strongmen (Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad) who had protected them and other minorities that few in the west knew about. Prominent here, if "prominent" is appropriate for a people largely unknown outside of themselves, are the Yazidi. For a glimpse into Middle Eastern exotica, click here.
The most dangerous possibility is a confrontation between Russia and Turkey. It wasn't the wisest of moves for the Turks to shoot down a Russian plane that flew into a slice of Turkish airspace for several seconds, and was said to be out of Turkey by the time the missile arrived. A Turkish blunder when going after the Kurds anywhere near Russians in Syria has the potential for more serious conflict. The Turks might imagine they have the support of NATO against Russia, but that seems more a recipe for disaster than anything like victory in a renewed Cold War.
The United States has become more a source of wonder than any serious estimates of what it might do. Obama weakened himself in the Middle East by a disastrous speech that began by threatening action against Syrian use of chemical weapons, and then ending with deference toward opposition in Congress. That came after floundering in the name of democracy with respect to Egypt, and has been followed by his repeated platitude that there'd be no American boots on the ground.
In a region that respects power, that's a sure route to becoming of the target of ridicule. Bombing this or that cluster of militias, or providing money and munitions to other militias seems likely to gain more enemies among who gets hurt than friends for the flabbiness of US actions, especially when the Russians are investing in much more force in behalf of the regime that the US says must be replaced.
The US, Russia, Assad, and several other players have declared cease fires for the sake of humanitarian relief, but they have petered out prior to becoming established. The latest effort is poised to go into effect in a couple of days, but it's limited to the players who have signed on. Enough firepower is outside of those signatories (some of them aided by the signatories), and signers have noted their intention to continue attacking "terrorists" to make it unlikely that significant humanitarian activities will be possible.
Saudi Arabia has confused things by saying it would end its financial support of the Lebanese military. This may reflect the Saudis' greater concern for a direct confrontation against Iran in Yemen, as well as economic problems associated with the fall in oil prices. It is a blow for the once powerful Sunnis of Lebanon, who now may see the Saudis abandoning their country to Hezbollah and the Shiites. It has Americans wondering how they might get the Middle East back to something they recognize and know how to deal with.
Israel is concerned to stay out of Syria, but to keep its eye on the area just over the border on the Golan. It may become involved in a big way if it sees Hezbollah or Iranians getting control of that area, and getting ready to cause problems.
Baseball was simpler, but it was made by and for Americans. It's done well in Japan and the Caribbean, but Middle Easterners play by other rules..
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem