The pot is bub­bling fu­ri­ously as mili­tias and mer­ce­nar­ies abound

The Sunday Telegraph - - Syria Strikes - By Mark Al­mond Mark Al­mond is di­rec­tor of the Cri­sis Re­search In­sti­tute, Ox­ford

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’

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