Less like Shake­speare than panto

The Southland Times - - COMMENT&OPINION -

Iwill do such things – What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be The ter­rors of the earth. King Lear, Act II, Scene 4 There are oc­ca­sions when only Shake­speare will do, and Don­ald Trump was re­ally, re­ally cross. There’s still no proof that the As­sad regime was re­spon­si­ble for the poi­son gas at­tack that killed, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous re­ports, forty or seventy-five or even more peo­ple in the be­sieged Syr­ian town of Douma.

In­deed, Moscow sug­gests that the video footage was faked by the Is­lamist rebels, or per­haps taken from some pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sion.

There has been no proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion, although the Rus­sians of­fered to es­cort a team from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons to the site of the al­leged at­tack as early as Tues­day.

But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was de­ter­mined to pun­ish the evil ones.

And he did act, although his ac­tions were not ex­actly ‘‘the ter­rors of the Earth’’. The mis­sile strike, ac­cord­ing to the US de­fence sec­re­tary, Gen­eral James Mat­tis, in­volved ‘‘dou­ble’’ the num­ber of mis­siles that were used in last year’s sim­i­lar at­tack.

So that’s around 120 Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­siles, cost­ing around $100 mil­lion, de­liv­ered on three or four tar­gets that were al­most cer­tainly evac­u­ated last week­end.

It was a big enough at­tack to re­ar­range the land­scape around the al­leged ‘‘chem­i­cal weapons-type tar­gets’’, even if Syr­ian an­ti­air­craft fire shot down a few of the un­manned mis­siles (as the Syr­i­ans claim).

Es­sen­tially, how­ever, it was a pan­tomime event de­signed to im­press a small and un­so­phis­ti­cated au­di­ence: Don­ald J. Trump.

It would ap­pear that the grownups re­ally are still in charge in the White House.

They couldn’t ac­tu­ally dis­obey or­ders, but they could ar­range things so that no­body got se­ri­ously hurt.

They specif­i­cally chose tar­gets that would ‘‘mit­i­gate the risk of Rus­sian forces be­ing in­volved,’’ and the Syr­i­ans ob­vi­ously had time to get their peo­ple out of the likely tar­gets too.

The United States even warned the Rus­sians to clear the airspace along the tracks the mis­siles would fol­low, so that there would be no ac­ci­den­tal en­coun­ters with Rus­sian (or Syr­ian) air­craft.

‘‘We used the nor­mal de­con­flic­tion chan­nel to de­con­flict airspace,’’ ex­plained the Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs, Gen­eral Joseph Dun­ford.

And the Rus­sians oblig­ingly turned off their air de­fences, since the West­ern at­tacks weren’t go­ing to do any se­ri­ous harm any­way.

Pres­i­dent Trump did say that ‘‘We are pre­pared to sus­tain this re­sponse un­til the Syr­ian regime stops its use of pro­hib­ited chem­i­cal agents,’’ but that is a per­fectly mean­ing­less com­mit­ment since Syria is not us­ing them now.

If it did use them last week, it has al­ready stopped.

As Gen­eral Mat­tis said: ‘‘Right now, this is a one-time shot.’’ So move along, folks. Noth­ing more to see here.

And spare us all the talk (most re­cently by United Na­tions Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res) about a ‘‘new Cold War’’. There can’t be a new Cold War, be­cause the Rus­sians don’t have the re­sources to hold up their end of it.

The Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion has half the pop­u­la­tion of the old Soviet Union, and its econ­omy is about the same size as Italy’s.

If Italy spent its bud­get the way Rus­sia does, it too could have big con­ven­tional forces and a nu­clear strik­ing force big enough to de­ter even the United States from at­tack­ing it – but it could not sus­tain a global mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with the NATO pow­ers for even one year.

Nei­ther could Rus­sia. Moscow only com­mits its forces to ar­eas that re­ally threaten its se­cu­rity (or at least ap­peal to its own some­times para­noid def­i­ni­tion of what con­sti­tutes a se­cu­rity threat).

Syria is quite close to Rus­sia, whose own pop­u­la­tion is more than one-tenth Mus­lim, so Moscow was un­will­ing to let Is­lamist ex­trem­ists win the Syr­ian civil war, and in Septem­ber 2015 it in­ter­vened to stop them.

The Rus­sia in­ter­ven­tion in Syria has been al­most en­tirely suc­cess­ful: Bashar al-As­sad has won the war, and al­ready con­trols all the big cities and most of the coun­try’s ‘‘use­ful’’ land.

The Wash­ing­ton for­eign pol­icy estab­lish­ment hates this out­come, but it never had a plau­si­ble al­ter­na­tive to ped­dle, nor (af­ter Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the po­lit­i­cal will in the United States for a ma­jor mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Syria.

The Syr­ian war will end in a year or two, and fleabites like this week’s air strikes will have no in­flu­ence on the out­come. And Moscow will stop there: it has no fur­ther am­bi­tions in the Mid­dle East.

Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Don­ald Trump: A pan­tomime airstrike was or­ches­trated for his ben­e­fit.

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