- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
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.