A powder keg waiting to blow
Amid the paranoia and jostling of agendas over Syria lie disturbing echoes of the eve of the first world war, says Julian Borger
As UN secretary general, it is António Guterres’s increasingly frequent duty to warn the major powers they are rushing towards catastrophe. Last Friday, on the eve of the US-led airstrikes, it was the former Portuguese prime minister’s turn once again to raise the alarm at the latest of a series of deadlocked security council sessions on Syria. “The cold war is back with a vengeance and a difference,” he said.
The difference is it is no longer cold. US troops are a grenade’s toss away from Russians and Iranians in Syria, and last weekend missiles and planes from the US, UK and France flew against the Syrian regime.
“The mechanisms and safeguards that existed to prevent escalation in the past no longer seem to be present,” Guterres said. It is debatable exactly when the world last found itself in such a perilous situation. Perhaps the 1983 missile standoff in Europe, when a Nato exercise, Able Archer, almost triggered a panicked nuclear launch by the Soviet Union.
The level of paranoia has not yet reached that pitch, but other aspects of the current crisis are arguably more dangerous. There is less communication between Washington and Moscow and there are no longer just two players in the game, but a jostling scrum of major powers in decline and middling powers on the rise. Pursuing national agendas on such a crowded battlefield without colliding with others is increasingly hard. The precise targeting of the airstrikes was all about avoiding such a potentially catastrophic collision. But US defence secretary James Mattis and his generals were reportedly under pressure from the White House to use the strikes as an opportunity to take a swipe at Iran.
Those temptations are not going to go away, particularly after the arrival in the White House of John Bolton, a hawk on Iran, whose new position as national security adviser at Trump’s ear will echo what Trump is hearing from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the gravitational pull of these agendas and allies, there are disturbing echoes of the eve of the first world war – with nuclear weapons looming not far off stage. The battle lines in Syria are more complicated than the Balkans in 1914. Syria’s west is dominated by the regime, its Russian and Iranian backers and their various client militias. The rebels in the remaining western enclaves mix self-defence with allegiance to regional sponsors.
In the north-west, a Turkish offensive has taken Afrin, and now threatens Manbij, where Kurdish units are allied with US special forces in an anti-Isis coalition. The continuing
tension puts in doubt US Central Command’s ability to use its airbase in Turkey near the Syrian border at Incirlik. It does not appear to have played a part in last Saturday morning’s airstrikes.
The fight against Isis leaves the US and its allies vulnerable to other unintended consequences. As competition for territory and oil fields quickens among the vanquishers of Isis, US troops fighting alongside Kurds and other rebels have shot down Iranian drones and exchanged fire with Russian contractors working for a pro-regime militia. In the south-west, Israel has looked on with dismay as Iran, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in particular, has consolidated its position in Syria, carving out a solid land link from Tehran to the Lebanese coast.
IRGC-trained Shia militias have provided effective ground troops on the regime’s side. Israel has carried out airstrikes to prevent heavy arms transfers to Hezbollah and to keep Iranian-backed forces away from the Golan Heights, but it has held back from any major engagement.
After losing hope of a major US intervention against Assad and Iran, the Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has tried to convince Moscow to rein in Iranian military expansion near Israeli territory. So far Russia has not used its air defences against Israeli planes, most recently last week when Israel bombed a Revolutionary Guard drone base in Homs province, despite Iranian appeals for protection. Tehran has vowed vengeance for the incident, in which seven IRGC guardsmen were killed. “In the absence of a solid comprehensive understanding between the US and Russia, Israel and the Iranians are on a collision course,” said Ehud Yaari, an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s getting very tricky. I haven’t felt the situation was this dangerous in years.”
The battle lines are not just geographical. The US, UK and France say they carried out the airstrikes to enforce a ban on the use of chemical weapons that has been breached only on a handful of occasions over the course of a century. The challenge facing the western coalition was what scale of attack would constitute effective deterrence, given that the last US airstrikes, a year ago, failed to stop the regime’s use of gas. There were voices calling for a much more expansive range of targets and goals. However, the more ambitious the campaign, the higher the risk of escalation. Mattis fought hard to keep the airstrikes narrowly focused on the three alleged chemical weapons facilities. The Russian military is equally aware of the risks, and appears not to have activated its formidable air defences when the moment came, noting that the missiles had not come anywhere near their main bases at Latakia and Tartus.
This minuet with high explosives appears to have been successfully executed on this occasion, but that offers no guarantees it will work in the future. It has always been unclear how much leverage Moscow has over Assad, and use of chemical weapons has been an effective tool in crushing rebel enclaves. Douma surrendered a few days after the chemical weapons attack.
If Trump, with Bolton’s encouragement, walks out of the nuclear deal with Iran next month, as he has repeatedly threatened to do, Iran’s sense of threat will increase. If Tehran responds by restoring its uranium enrichment programme, it will
In the absence of a solid US-Russia understanding, Israel and the Iranians are on a collision course
lead to a return to a military standoff pitting the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran. Syria will be one of the battlefields, most likely the key battlefield, and it is hard to see this White House staying out of the fight.
Russia may wish to absent itself from that struggle, but with so much military hardware flying around in such a confined space the potential for miscalculation rises steadily.
As the Russia investigation closes in, Trump’s deference to Vladimir Putin appears, for now, to have soured into hostility, fuelled by his sense of betrayal that Moscow has not kept Assad in check. It was Russia Trump warned to “get ready” for incoming missiles after the Douma attack, and Russia he warned would pay a “big price” for betting on Assad.
If an unforeseen and unplanned clash takes place, the commanderin-chief’s state of mind is critically important. The absence of any check in the nuclear launch protocol that would allow any other US official to countermand a direct presidential order remains arguably the world’s scariest fact.
Target … a Syrian soldier films damage at one of the sites hit by American-led airstrikes