World’s big pow­ers are play­ing Rus­sian roulette

The Sunday Independent - - Leader - Shan­non Ebrahim stavka ■ Ebrahim is Group For­eign Edi­tor

RUS­SIA and the US are tee­ter­ing on the verge of a full-scale proxy war in Syria that could have dev­as­tat­ing im­pli­ca­tions for in­ter­na­tional peace and se­cu­rity. The es­ca­la­tion be­gan fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions by the white hel­mets (a vol­un­teer or­gan­i­sa­tion that op­er­ates in parts of rebel-con­trolled Syria) that on April 7, chem­i­cal weapons were used to at­tack civil­ians in Douma, East­ern Ghouta.

A day fol­low­ing the at­tack, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin bore re­spon­si­bil­ity for the atroc­ity be­cause of his sup­port for the Syr­ian govern­ment.

On Wed­nes­day, Trump tweeted: “Rus­sia vows to shoot down any and all mis­siles fired at Syria. Get ready Rus­sia, be­cause they will be com­ing, nice and new and smart.”

That prompted the Rus­sian De­fence Min­istry to re­spond, say­ing: “Rus­sia’s army and fleet have stepped up ac­tiv­ity in the Black Sea, Mediter­ranean and Caspian Seas. Kal­ibr strikes may be launched on US fa­cil­i­ties and bases in the Mid­dle East if the Pen­tagon at­tacks Rus­sian bases in Tar­tus and Hmeymin.” Moscow’s Am­bas­sador to the UN, Vass­ily Neben­zia, has said he “can­not ex­clude” the pos­si­bil­ity of a war between Rus­sia and the US.

What makes this es­ca­la­tion par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous is that a num­ber of opin­ion pieces emerg­ing in Rus­sian news­pa­pers are tak­ing the view that sink­ing US ships or us­ing Kal­i­brs on US forces in the Mid­dle East is now in­evitable.

Ever since the Skri­pal in­ci­dent, there is a grow­ing per­cep­tion among Rus­sians that talk­ing to the Bri­tish govern­ment is now a fu­tile ex­er­cise.

What of­fers a glimpse of hope is that as of Fri­day, Rus­sia and the US seemed to be back-ped­dalling on the war talk with Trump, say­ing that the US may fire mis­siles and it may not, and Moscow say­ing it may not carry out threats to re­tal­i­ate against a US strike.

While the two sides may end up pulling back from the brink, the ten­sion between Rus­sia and the West has reached such a boil­ing point that there are sig­nif­i­cant rum­blings within Rus­sia that, fol­low­ing Putin’s in­au­gu­ra­tion on May 7, he will com­pose a cab­i­net re­ferred to as a or war cab­i­net. The idea be­ing to put hawks in key po­si­tions so that Rus­sia would be able to fight a war on all fronts.

On the other side, there is the prob­lem of Trump’s per­pet­ual un­pre­dictabil­ity.

While he has seemed in­ter­ested in main­tain­ing good re­la­tions with Putin, hav­ing called to con­grat­u­late him on his pres­i­den­tial re-elec­tion and in­vited him to Wash­ing­ton, there will be other fac­tors at play. For one, he may want to ap­pease the neo-con­ser­va­tives as well as the Saudis and Is­raelis, and look tough by tak­ing pre-emp­tive mea­sures.

There may also be a de­sire to act on his rhetoric and fol­low through on prom­ises of de­liv­er­ing smart new mis­siles.

Per­haps even more con­cern­ing is the pres­sure com­ing from the hawks in his own se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus that want to see Iran weak­ened by deal­ing a fa­tal blow to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad.

When As­sad spoke to the me­dia this week along­side Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati, the top ad­viser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it was like wav­ing a red flag to a bull. It is likely that max­i­mum pres­sure is be­ing put on Trump to fire on Syr­ian forces to weaken As­sad’s po­si­tion and in the process Iran’s key ally.

This time, the Euro­peans will be less ret­i­cent to en­ter the fray given their new­found unity against Rus­sia as a com­mon enemy.

French Pres­i­dent Emanuel Macron has al­ready sig­nalled a will­ing­ness to join the US in strik­ing Syria, and sim­i­larly Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May has al­ready been dis­cussing back­ing mil­i­tary ac­tion.

In eval­u­at­ing the over­all like­li­hood of a ma­jor con­fla­gra­tion, one has to con­sider whose in­ter­ests will be served, and the sad re­al­ity is that this time there are more per­ceived ad­van­tages in the minds of the pro­tag­o­nists. For many in Rus­sia, peace­time has meant eco­nomic stag­na­tion, and some take the view that a new era of mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion will spur the econ­omy and unite the coun­try even fur­ther.

It is also clear there are pow­er­ful el­e­ments in the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ments of both Bri­tain and the US that seek a mil­i­tary show­down with Rus­sia, as ev­i­denced in the rush to blame Rus­sia for the Skri­pal poi­son­ing with lit­tle, if any, proof.

The great­est losers in this great game of Rus­sian roulette will again be the Syr­ian peo­ple, who will suf­fer yet more dev­as­ta­tion, trauma and vi­o­la­tion of their rights.

Their suf­fer­ing is seem­ingly end­less as the great pow­ers pre­pare to take the con­flict in Syria to a new level.

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