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

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - JANET DA­LEY

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

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