This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
In this unexpectedly grimdark cyberpunk future, where a heap of factions ranging from local big boys Iran and Saudi Arabia to fading superpowers and ex-superpowers like the UK, USA, and Russia to freshly minted wildcards like ISIS are busily tearing Syria to bits directly and/or via proxy, it’s a timely moment to remember that fucking about in the general region’s affairs is an old game to some of those involved. The Great Game between Britain and Russia saw the two jockeying for position to be top dog in the region once the low-hanging fruit of the Ottoman regime finally dropped; once World War I finally put paid to the Ottomans, France and Britain grabbed great chunks of the Middle East and had the League of Nations declare it legit, whilst the new Turkish state scrambled to get its house in order and the Soviet Union was momentarily busy putting down the White Russians. World War II found Soviet, French and British interests in the area aligning for once, but the Cold War soon put paid to that, with the Americans and Soviets working to sway governments into one sphere of influence or the other and France and Britain desperately trying to keep some semblance of colonial power there.
The problem with being a waning superpower is that typically your efforts to retain power and participate in massively complex geopolitical games end up making you look silly. The Suez Crisis put paid to Anthony Eden’s time as Prime Minister, for instance, but perhaps the greatest embarrassment to the British establishment during the Cold War era was the scandal of the Cambridge spy ring, who having been recruited as Communist agents during their student days in the 1930s had ended up gaining important government positions and selling a decade’s worth of secrets and services to the Soviets. And out of the three individuals concerned, perhaps the most infamous – for the damage he managed to do, the sensitivity of the position he managed to obtain, and the circumstances of his defection – was Kim Philby.