Syrian Sands Thru the Hourglass

Literature abounds with references to the hourglass. On one end of the spectrum, W.B. Yeats, an important player in early 20th Century literature wrote a play, The Hourglass, in

Courtesy of the Library of congress

Courtesy of the Library of congress

1903. While at the other end of the spectrum, Hourglass, a Syrian heavy metal band formed in 2002, released two, apparently popular, full length albums. An hourglass is used as a lead-in to a popular daily soap opera in the U.S. and by myriad poets to depict deep introspection.  The hourglass is a significant peace keeper during games of strategy and tactics. Some, like me, just like the physical being of hourglasses; end-to-end sealed wine glasses connected by a small straw through which an exact measure of sand flows at a determined rate to mark the passage of time.  An afternoon spent observing the movement of sand between the vessels of an hourglass may shed a small measure of understanding about the world around us.

U.S. brinkmanship, under the guise of peace maker, is a game refined and polished during the Cold War (1947-1991). It is a strategy game the U.S. has frequently and successfully used to align the ‘Free World’ for engagements in  mini-wars to liberate some part of the world from an evil government or its leader. While labeled a strategy game, the plays have become so familiar that the game may appear more like a child’s Tic-Tac-Toe game than Days of Wonder’s Memoir ’44 game, which “requires strategic card play, timely dice rolling and an aggressive, yet flexible battle plan to achieve victory.[1]  Recently, the U.S. engaged brinkmanship with Kim Jong-un and North Korea but the game evaporated in the exploding Benghazi scandal.

Now, a few months later, the game is with Syria and the ‘evil’ Assad. Like the smooth, uniform sands flowing at a prescribed rate through the neck of an hourglass, the evolution of the sand pile’s shape in the receiving receptacle may be predictable on a stable base; however, the roll of any individual grain of sand is not.

The same may be said of the players in the U.S. game of brinkmanship. While there have been a few monumental blow-back disasters like the Gulf of Tonkin incident that initiated130831_hancock1971tonkin the war in Vietnam[2], most of the games have been pretty belt and suspenders PsyOps (psychological operations) similar to the recent North Korea saber rattling.

The war drums are beating announcing the newest game with Syria. For the better part of two weeks, the players and spectators have been weighing in on the Syrian brinkmanship game. No one can accuse President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry of not telegraphing U.S. military’s intent. Of course, it is rather difficult to hide war ships in the Mediterranean Sea.  And, the news reports are filled with U.S. negotiations to use runways, bases and facilities in various strategically located countries.  PsyOps is in full voice and on center stage. There has been sufficient time to evacuate Damascus and Syria’s other major population centers so, theoretically, no one should be injured by any of the cold war era missiles the U.S. is proposing to launch. Unfortunately, Syria doesn’t have a lot of geography so relocating the masses is problematic.

President Obama says that a Syrian administration change is not the goal but there remains 130831_Mediterranean Mapa price that must be paid for the use of chemical or nerve agents. Missiles are not individual surgical weapons as is a sniper with a target; missiles kill randomly.  Does that mean the U.S. is proposing to kill non-combatant civilians with missiles in retaliation for an unproven allegation that the Syrian government killed non-combatant civilians with chemical or nerve agents?  It may take some time to wrap a logical mind around that concept.

Egypt is a wildcard headed toward the sand pile. The Syrians and Egyptians led a federation of Arab states that invaded a surprised Israel in 1973 in what became known as the Yom Kippur War. Israel barely survived and paid a great price to relearn the lesson of never underestimating the enemy. The ties between Syria and Egypt remain strong and many in Egypt are calling for the Egyptian government to close the Suez Canal.  “…According to Drewry’s ‘what if’ calculations, were the Suez Canal to close tomorrow, Europe’s supply chains would be thrown into immediate turmoil, but it wouldn’t last long as there is sufficient surplus vessel capacity already operating between Asia and Europe to absorb the shock…”[3]  Europe might be able to do a quick work around suffering only the increased costs of goods and delayed delivery times. Israel, on the other hand, would not be so lucky. They are dependent on the Suez Canal remaining open, and the U.S. has a continuing commitment dating back to the Eisenhower administration to keep the canal open.  If the U.S. decides to rumble with Syria, it certainly would be nice to know where that grain of sand will land.

Saudi Arabia has threatened Russia’s Putin that if he doesn’t back away from Syria, there will be terrorist attacks at the Olympic Games. Directly threatening the Russian bear in his own den is an interesting ploy. It will be fun to see how that works out for the Saudis. Of more importance is the Saudi Arabian entry onto the world political stage.  It highlights the reality that the Syrian situation is an old confrontation between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam that dates back to the 7th century.  Dr. C. George Boeree explains, “…After Mohammed’s death in 632, leadership of the Islamic community passed to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, one of Mohammed’s closest companions.  Some in the community felt that this succession was not legitimate, and that the title of caliph really belonged to Ali ibn Abi Talib.  Ali’s claim was

Green:  Sunni  Blue: Shiite

Green: Sunni
Blue: Shiite

supported by the fact that he was Mohammed’s cousin, his adopted son, his first convert (at the age of nine), and husband of his daughter Fatima.  Both sides believe that Mohammed specifically designated their man:  Supporters of Abu became the Sunnis, those of ibn Ali the Shiites…”[4]  Few of us in the Western world understand the significance or impact of this centuries old battle resulting in the West’s clumsy interventions, which further exacerbate the problems and cause more strife and terrible deaths.  It is a Saudi grain of sand that may attract unwelcome followers aspiring to glory through atrocity.

Russia and China are two more grains of sand flowing through the hourglass. Both are moving military assets while calling for cooler heads to prevail in the game. I doubt that either one individually is willing to challenge the U.S.  Aligned, however, Russian and China certainly could make the granddame Superpower work for survival.  At the moment the boys

Dmitry Rogozin

Dmitry Rogozin

in the U.S. and the Kremlin are engaged in a schoolyard brawl of words. The RIA Novosti reported, “Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, said on Twitter: “The West behaves towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade.[5]  President Obama countered with the allegation that Russia thwarted the U.S. effort to gain a UN sanction for an attack on Syria. PsyOps and more PsyOps….

In addition to the many grains of sand in the Syrian hourglass that fall in unpredictable ways, the U.S. has no moral authority to attack Syria. Over the years, the U.S. chose to overlook terrible atrocities, like the documented chemical agent attacks on the Kurds. Secondly, there is no U.S. National Security dog in the Syrian Civil War battles.  Attacking Syria actually increases the National Security risk. Finally, the U.S. cannot afford a warrantless armed conflict either in terms of lives or money.

President Obama has failed to garner support from England. Poor old Cameron must take the hit for failing to gain parliamentary approval for conflict for the first time since 1782, according to the Globe and Mail.[6]  President Obama is riding rough-shod over a congress that is demanding its rightful place in the process and he has failed to acquire UN support for military action. Only France, with its burgeoning Muslim population, is ready to march with the U.S.

The Library of Congress’ Everyday Mysteries points out that the hourglass’ reliability depends on several variables: the volume of sand; the size and angle of the glass bulbs; the quality of

Google Earth Tong Chang-dong

Google Earth Tong Chang-dong

the sand (fine, dry and consistently formed so it can flow smoothly); the width of the neck; a tight seal; and a flat and level surface.[7] Play with any of these variables and the hourglass will operate randomly and is no longer a reliable peace keeper during a game with timed play.  It is time to quietly fade out of this particular game of brinkmanship.  Will the political egos let it go? Probably because there is a face-saving way out;  North Korea is ramping-up again. [8] An the circle of near-conflict continues.






[1]; Memoir ’44; Days of Wonder product description;

[2] George Washington University; National Security Archives; August 4, 2004; Edited by John Prados; The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 40 Years Later;

[3] World Maritime News; Mar 18th, 2013; Drewry: Impact of Potential Closure of Suez Canal;

[4] Shippensburg University; Dr. C. George Boeree; Sunnis and Shiites;

[5] RIA Novost; 27/08/2013 ; Russian Deputy Premier Calls West ‘Monkey With Hand Grenade’;

[6] The Globe and Mail; Aug. 30 2013; Andrew Osborn; U.S., U.K. ‘special relationship’ in doubt after Cameron’s stunning defeat over Syria;

[7] Library of Congress; Everyday Mysteries; Hourglass;

[8] Fox News; August 31, 2013; Associated Press; Satellite images show North Korea expanding rocket launch site, analysts say;

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