Foreign Policy Blogs

How many times can the game change?


In January 1864, some strangely dressed men with odd accents arrived in the camp of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose troops had been reeling from shortages of arms and supplies. They demonstrate a new weapon – an amazingly high powered accurate “repeater” rifle – and offer it to Lee.

He accepts. And the arming of his troops with AK-47s brought to him from 2014 changes the course of the Civil War. As the reports read, “With the new weapons, the South wins the war and history is changed.”

In the genres of alternative history and science fiction, there is no greater example of a “game changer” that this example in Harry Turtledove’s novel “Guns of the South.” So today, perhaps with a nod to this high benchmark, we hear again and again the term “game changer” to refer to weapons or actions in the ongoing bloody fighting in Syria.

So let us ask now, and let us be clear: What really constitutes a game changer? How many times can the game changers change the game?  When do they cancel each other out?  And are they really game changers, or are we once again latching onto a catchy phrase that is rapidly becoming a cliché because of ease of use and needing little thought?

Here is what we have in the last few weeks.

One of the recent uses of “game changer” came after we heard that after an unknown government (thought to be Israel) took out a weapons storage facility in Syria. The Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, announced that Syria would provide the Shiite Lebanese movement with more weapons to replace those destroyed in airstrike in Damascus.  He said those will be “game changing” weapons that will “break the balance” of power in the region.

That airstrike itself, to be clear, was aimed at eliminating unspecific game changing weapons in the Syrian arsenal that could be used by its rouges-in-arms. So the air strike that was designed to stop game changing now may lead to new game changing. (See above questions.)

Then we hear renewed talk from the U.S. and others of establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. It’s an idea that is seriously being debated by some but has not risen to “game changer” levels as of yet.  There is deep irony in that because a similar no-fly zone established in neighboring Iraq in 1991 helped the Kurds lay the foundation for their infant democracy that is prospering today. That was a huge game changer for the region, yet not one deigned with the honorific nom de guerre, for Syria.

In the next move, as soon as that no fly discussion picked up steam, the Russians announced they are considering selling Syria advanced surface to air missiles. The S-3000 system is considered one of the most potent air defenses systems in use. It can track up to 100 incoming aircraft or missiles at once and engage maybe a dozen simultaneously.

Supplying that system to the Syrians would be a threat to any no-fly zone enforcement and, of course be a “game changer,” one unnamed western diplomat said.

Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned Russia against selling advanced surface to air missiles to Syria, warning that such a sale would undercut efforts to find apolitical solution and threaten Israel. Here is the reality: It is that the political solution pushed by Kerry – far less defined than a clinical, stark weapon – that has the potential to be the true game changer. It could bring actual peace, not a change in war tactics.

The game changers in Syria almost seem flavor of the week. These are not stingers in Afghanistan, the atomic bomb in World War II, the M-1 Garand rifle, the bayonet, the Hoplon shield, the flintlock, the Gatling gun, the longbow, the Roman Gladius sword, the Maxim gun, the AK-47. Those were game changers. The game changers in history may have involved a weapon, but they came with a clear strategy of use and reasonable goal. Not more calamity; a quest for clarity.

These in Syria do not.

The conference Kerry is pushing is a frame for that, to find a political process that would lead to a negotiated settlement to end the bloodshed. The tools needed to make it succeed include firm, consistent diplomatic support and some resolve to take tighter steps against the players in Syria, even against those the U.S. and others wish to support.

Kerry’s plan has Syrian President Assad’s leaving not a pre-condition before any talks begin – but only after a transitional government body is formed. That is a game changer in settlement strategy – ending the fighting, then sorting out who rules Syria.

As the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that “we are not interested in the face of certain persons.”

We will see. And if the Russian keep their word, that will be a game changer as well.

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Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.