Checkmate in Syria

It's become a cliché to say the struggle in Syria is stalemated. After all, dozens of people are still being killed daily, despite Kofi Annan's efforts to broker a ceasefire. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave new meaning to the chess metaphor on Sunday when he met for three hours with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE).

Ilyumzhinov is no ordinary pawn in international diplomacy. He is the former president of the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia who enjoyed a long relationship with Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi -- the two played a game of chess even while NATO warplanes were bombarding Qaddafi's forces, and spoke by phone as Libyan rebels surrounded Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli. Oh, and let's not forget that Ilyumzhinov is on record saying that he was abducted by aliens.

So how does a repressive dictator and an eccentric chess guru pass the time? According to a press release put out by FIDE, the two men discussed organizing the "first international youth chess tournament," which would bring Arabs from across the region to Damascus to test their skills.  "The Syrian president plays chess very well -- since his studies in London," Ilyumzhinov said.

Assad also used the opportunity to try to woo more high-profile international visitors to Syria. "President Assad said that on the Syrian territory there is one of the most ancient Buddhist temples erected about two thousand years ago," Ilyumzhinov said. "He would like to invite H.H. Dalai Lama to sanctify this temple."

Now we know, at least, that international diplomatic efforts aren't so intensive that Assad can't deal personally with such concerns.



European leaders consider Euro Cup boycott over Tymoshenko

There seems to be a growing movement among European politicians to use the upcoming Euro cup -- co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland -- as an opportunity to take a stand on human rights conditions in Ukraine, particularly the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now on a hunger strike and reportedly in poor health.  

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Redding and EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso both say they will boycott the event. Czech President Vaclav Klaus and German President Joachim Gauck have already canceled participation in summit planned in Ukraine for next week because of Tymoshenko's treatment. Chancellor Angela Merkel says she will not attend Euro 2012 unless Tymoshenko's conditions improve. The Dutch parliament has passed a resolution saying that no one representing the government should attend. 

So far there's no talk of teams or players boycotting the games, though Bayern Munich president and German soccer icon Uli Hoeness did say that he "would have respect for every player who publicly took a stand on this issue."

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Ukrainian boxer and pro-democracy activist Vitali Klitschko said he did not support a boycott,  but asked players to be aware of the conditions in Ukraine:

I am against the politicization of sports. But athletes also need to be clear about what is happening in a country in which they are competing. Think about the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. At the time, regime opponents were tortured and killed by the military junta, in some instances in the very stadiums where the World Cup matches were later played. Berti Vogts, the captain of the German national team at the time, said only that he hadn't seen a single political prisoner and that Argentina was a country where order was maintained.

Klitschko said he hoped the tournament would be "an excellent opportunity to draw the world's attention to the maladministration in our country."

After the Beijing Olympics, I'm a bit skeptical of the argument that events like these can effectively highlight human rights issues in a host country. The incentive of the organizers, sponsors, and players is to have a smooth-running competition, not provide opportunity for Jesse Owens moments. On the other hand, the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain did seem to draw some attention to a forgotten human rights crisis.  

In any event, the Ukraine controversy may be just a prelude to Sochi 2014.