A pretty minimal punishment for a series of appalling war crimes
The West’s strikes on Syria mask a dangerous feud between the cowboys and the professionals
We are into it at last, but what is it exactly that we are into? Certainly the hardware strike was much more limited and tactically precise than the verbal assaults have been. In fact, the constrained nature of the attacks was in such contrast to the incontinence (and in the case of Russia, the outright absurdity) of the rhetoric that some observers seemed positively disappointed. Is that it? And if so, what is the goal?
It looks like a pretty minimal punishment for what has been described as a series of appalling war crimes. So is Washington (and the West) determined to install a new world order, in which not only the immediate problem of chemical weapons use will be addressed, but the shamelessly belligerent antics of a New Russia can be hauled back to reasonable standards? Or is this just a token warning which everybody can safely ignore?
Much has been made of the wildness of Russia’s present behaviour. The old Cold War rules are being broken with startling impunity: Moscow seems to have decided that constant shock and deranging unpredictability are the keys to global influence. As, presumably, Putin would have hoped, the confusion this has generated is manifest.
There seem to be contradictory messages coming out of Washington: Donald Trump still sounded absolutist in his pronouncements, promising more where that came from, but James Mattis, his defence secretary, seemed to suggest that this was the end, a surgical hit which was designed, as they say, to send a signal.
This is the Trump who came to office with an implicit promise to deal with America’s domestic problems and leave the rest of the world to go hang. Now he speaks like a committed interventionist, and it is his military advisers who present the restraining influence. Just when clarity and unanimity are crucial there seems to be an internal struggle for control over foreign and defence policy – perhaps on both sides.
The noisy, bellicose battle between national leaders for global dominance might be providing cover for a power struggle between the cowboys (Trump and Putin plus their political henchmen) and the self-appointed grown-ups (security professionals) who have traditionally run these things.
In the midst of all the thunderous clamour of absurd lies (Russia) and enraged accusations (the rest of the world), it was quietly being argued (mainly by Russia) that the diplomatic back channels between Russia and the United States were functioning quite normally behind the scenes. All the necessary arrangements were being made for what is known as “deconfliction”: avoiding the risks of any wider military confrontation. In the event, the long pause before the action gave plenty of scope for moving personnel out of harm’s way – as indeed seems to have happened, since no Russian casualties were reported.
The political leaders might bluster and shout but the detailed strategic arrangements were being made by people who had been running this business for years.
By disastrous coincidence, the political leaders of both Russia and the US are hysterically populist and so they must continue to bellow and declaim – in Russia’s case to tell ever more preposterous untruths which will make the task of the experienced “realists” more difficult.
Last week’s pronouncements from Moscow by Sergei Lavrov were so outrageous that they will be almost impossible to withdraw. On Friday, he claimed that his country had established definitively that the alleged chemical attack in Douma was another “fabrication” in the “Russophobic” campaign conducted by a state which he declined to name. This was obviously the UK, which was also responsible – according to Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador in London – for the poisoning of the Skripals.
In another bravura press conference last week, Mr Yakovenko uttered a succession of breathtaking accusations which simply inverted every charge against his own country. There was no chemical attack in Syria: the phoney incident was staged. It was the UK who poisoned the Skripals, not Russia. (He failed to explain why the British, after trying to assassinate Sergei and Yulia Skripal, should then successfully nurse them back to health.) Anyway, he added, incredibly, Russia never developed or possessed Novichok. The bizarre deluge was intended to create a time-wasting morass of confusion and logically impossible demands: the UK must “prove”, for example, that it had not deliberately destroyed evidence in the Skripal case (it is, of course, impossible to prove a negative).
But it also serves the purposes of Russia’s fellow travellers in the Corbyn camp and any opportunist politicians who just want to make as much difficulty for Theresa May as possible. It is, oddly, both a genuine product of Russian paranoia and a means of reinforcing it back at home.
Because, make no mistake, this whole show is really aimed at the home audience, for whom Mr Putin must be both hero of the New Russia and victim of the world’s irrational hatred. As must Mr Trump be to his home crowd. When trying to predict what happens next, to Syria, Russia, the USA and the world, this may be the most dangerous aspect of what could have been a difficult but ultimately manageable situation.
The two national leaders facing off in the most incendiary region of the world must be regarded as peculiarly capricious and irresponsible. And both of them rely on maintaining their reputations for being invincibly aggressive and uncompromising. So even if there is a hotline ringing away in the back offices of Washington and Moscow to avert the worst possible consequences, how can this febrile tension be wound down?
Some genius will have to create a formula in which nobody has to admit losing face. But there is bigger problem for geopolitics: how is the world to deal with a post-Soviet Russia which regards chaos and pandemonium as its best weapons?
Both Putin and Trump rely on maintaining their reputations for being invincibly aggressive