The pot is bubbling furiously as militias and mercenaries abound
Has the pinpoint precision of the US, British and French airstrikes lifted the threat of a wider conflict between the West and President Assad’s major allies, Russia and Iran? Or has it only made it worse?
Both Russian and Iranian media have dismissed the attacks as “pinpricks”. They gloat that for all his tweeted bluster, President Trump dared do no more for fear of the Russian reaction to anything harsher. The cold comfort in those sneers might be that the immediate risk of a wider war has been avoided. That’s where the good news ends. On the ground in Syria, the major sources of potential conflict which could draw the big powers in are still very active.
The brutal civil war continues, with the risk of more chemical attacks. But, worse, it is a complex, multi-layered struggle with a host of militias and foreign fighters involved. Unlike in the Cold War, neither Washington nor Moscow is in control of their proxies.
The West and Russia may want to avoid a conflict, and stick to scoring points in a propaganda battle, but our friends and theirs in combat stand to benefit from keeping tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals as high as possible. So while Russia could be satisfied with a score draw, Iran’s hardliners are anxious to poke America in the eye. They are ridiculing Trump as a “paper tiger”. Any tacit agreement between the Kremlin and Washington to keep a lid on the Syrian situation is worrying for Iran. Bad blood between Moscow and America makes Russia a more reliable ally.
Both the Revolutionary Guard and Hizbollah need Russia’s air defence umbrella in Syria. Putin’s tacit understanding with Israel last week – letting the Israeli air force strike at Iranian and Hizbollah targets only in Syria – has already shown they are vulnerable without Russian protection.
Russia probably does not want a conflict with Israel any more than a real war with the West, but Assad and his Shiite allies want to clear the eastern slopes of the Golan Heights of anti-regime fighters only 40 miles from Damascus. Israel is determined to stop the threat it faces from Hizbollah in southern Lebanon being extended to its north-east flank, even if that means an unholy alliance with jihadists. Complicating matters in Syria’s north is the intervention by Turkey, a Nato member, against the Anglo-American allies, the Kurds. Throw in Iraq’s two-faced stance as a US ally which lets Iran use its airspace and even its roads for the re-supply of its forces in Syria and the pot bubbles ferociously. Making it even more fiendishly difficult to supervise is the host of non-state troublemakers in Syria. Militias and mercenaries abound, many quite autonomous. The risk of revenge attacks on US, UK and French interests in the region by some of these groups is high, and could provoke a spiral of violence if Russia or Iran is blamed, whatever their denials.
These militias include Russian mercenaries, who are viscerally anti-US. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s new secretary of state, told his confirmation hearing that US airstrikes had killed “a couple of hundred” Russian soldiers of fortune approaching a US special forces’ base in eastern Syria in March. Moscow let that attack pass, denying there were any Russian troops there anyway. But whether Putin could turn a blind eye to another loss like that may be doubted in the current climate.
Those bad relations could easily encourage a reckless Russian freebooter, prompted and paid by Iran, to try his luck getting revenge on the pockets of US and British forces operating in eastern Syria.
Britain is more exposed to potential revenge attacks, despite only four Tornados taking part in the strikes, because they flew from Akrotiri in Cyprus – so close to Syria and to Lebanon. Security around our sovereign bases is tight, but cannot be hermetic because civilian Cypriots need to cross them on a daily basis.
‘Unlike in the Cold War, neither Washington nor Moscow is in control of their proxies’