Trump, Syria and the Greek Myth

By Ehsan Ullah Khan.

You may have come across the idiom “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and if you are a literature aficionado, you might well be acquainted with other versions of the same idiom with slightly specified implications. One particular version of this idiom – between Scylla and Charybdis – originates from Greek mythology. Though the idiom indicates any perilous journey from which there is little or no escape, it is highly relatable to Trump’s journey through the quicksand called Syria.

The anecdote from which the phrase stems, surrounds around Odysseus – A Greek leader of the Trojan War and protagonist of the Odyssey who came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. It narrates Odysseus’ journey from a successful conquest of Troy to his palace on the Island of Ithaca. Where, upon his return, he had to pass through the Strait of Messina, between the coast of Sicily and the Italian mainland. As prudent, powerful and shrewd Odysseus was, it called for plain sailing except for the sides of the Strait were inhabited by two monsters “Scylla” and “Charybdis”. Scylla was a six headed sea monster on the Italian side of the Strait whereas Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. The distance between both was marginal to the extent that the situation posed an inevitable threat as avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice-versa. A safe passage without any loss was off the table. Though there was something to cheer about, Scylla implied minimal damage when Charybdis threatened to drown the whole boat.

Much for an anecdote.

But don’t be mistaken, Trump is no Odysseus, nor are the American incursions in the Middle East anywhere near to parallel the Trojan war in glory or magnitude. There is only one parallel that can be drawn. Trump’s future course through Syria sounds much like Odysseus’ passage through the Strait of Messina. A safe way without incurring any loss is off the table.

As of now, Aleppo has fallen to Al-Assad, the Russians have ratcheted up the race for Raqqah and the scramble for Deir ez Zor has reached a tipping point – also tending to tilt in favor of the Syrian Arab Army. Tehran is eager, more than ever, to assist Al-Assad as it keeps bolstering a variety of allied Shiite Militias and Hezbollah exudes energy while it makes a dash for Deir az Zor. The Quadrilateral nexus is no mood to capitulate or concede anything. Also, the moderate rebels, like the FSA and certain other ragtag AK-47 wielding groups, on which the US counts, in tandem with its Air Campaign, for extracting a share of external influence out of Syria are etiolated and enfeebled. Further to the chagrin of US, the Turks are tilting towards Russia as evident by the recent S-400 Missile Air Defense System deal.

During the course of these happenings, there are two options on the table for the US, it can assert its interests and reiterate itself through increased involvement or it can exercise diplomatic prudence and bade bye to the Syrian crisis.

The former option entails enhanced American leverage in the Middle East and provides the US with a powerful platform to counter Russian ambitions. But without the commitment of “Ultra-ample” resources nothing seems to be happening. The moderate rebels are on the back foot despite American assistance in training and ammunition, and the Air campaign waged by the US is becoming increasingly counterproductive as it intends to strike the only potent adversary of Al-Assad, IS.

Dropping ammo and ambrosia from the air, here and there, won’t suffice for reinvigorating the rebels. So what else have the US got? Boots on the ground seem to be an option, but a highly desperate one. Two things are to be seen to it, boots on the ground brings with it the possibility of outright confrontation with the Russians and secondly, the Americans certainly don’t want another Afghanistan to become bogged down in. As a result, this option looks more like hugging Charybdis and risking the whole boat.

The latter option of leaving Syria for good might sound deleterious, in short-term, to American interests and influence in the region but it comes without the possibility of risking another Afghanistan or even another Vietnam as the Syrian quagmire is much more than the Afghan imbroglio in terms of both, intensity and opposition. This option seems more like passing in the vicinity of Scylla: damage would be done, but the boat won’t be compromised.

Fair to say, Trump is between Scylla and charybdis.

At the end of the anecdote, Odysseus exercised his prudence and chose Scylla to pass near to, as he deemed it better to lose a few sailors than risk the whole boat.

Let’s see what Trump does.

About Author:

Ehsan Ullah Khan is a  student of Economics at Quaid-e-Azam University and has a flair for International Relations and Geopolitics.

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