A pow­der keg wait­ing to blow

Amid the para­noia and jostling of agen­das over Syria lie dis­turb­ing echoes of the eve of the first world war, says Ju­lian Borger

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page -

As UN sec­re­tary gen­eral, it is An­tónio Guter­res’s in­creas­ingly fre­quent duty to warn the ma­jor pow­ers they are rush­ing to­wards catas­tro­phe. Last Fri­day, on the eve of the US-led airstrikes, it was the for­mer Por­tuguese prime min­is­ter’s turn once again to raise the alarm at the lat­est of a se­ries of dead­locked se­cu­rity coun­cil ses­sions on Syria. “The cold war is back with a vengeance and a dif­fer­ence,” he said.

The dif­fer­ence is it is no longer cold. US troops are a grenade’s toss away from Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans in Syria, and last week­end mis­siles and planes from the US, UK and France flew against the Syr­ian regime.

“The mech­a­nisms and safe­guards that ex­isted to pre­vent es­ca­la­tion in the past no longer seem to be present,” Guter­res said. It is de­bat­able ex­actly when the world last found it­self in such a per­ilous sit­u­a­tion. Per­haps the 1983 mis­sile stand­off in Europe, when a Nato ex­er­cise, Able Archer, al­most trig­gered a pan­icked nu­clear launch by the Soviet Union.

The level of para­noia has not yet reached that pitch, but other as­pects of the cur­rent cri­sis are ar­guably more dan­ger­ous. There is less com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Moscow and there are no longer just two play­ers in the game, but a jostling scrum of ma­jor pow­ers in de­cline and mid­dling pow­ers on the rise. Pur­su­ing na­tional agen­das on such a crowded bat­tle­field with­out col­lid­ing with oth­ers is in­creas­ingly hard. The pre­cise tar­get­ing of the airstrikes was all about avoid­ing such a po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic col­li­sion. But US de­fence sec­re­tary James Mat­tis and his gen­er­als were re­port­edly under pres­sure from the White House to use the strikes as an op­por­tu­nity to take a swipe at Iran.

Those temp­ta­tions are not go­ing to go away, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the ar­rival in the White House of John Bolton, a hawk on Iran, whose new po­si­tion as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser at Trump’s ear will echo what Trump is hear­ing from Is­rael, Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates.

In the grav­i­ta­tional pull of these agen­das and al­lies, there are dis­turb­ing echoes of the eve of the first world war – with nu­clear weapons loom­ing not far off stage. The bat­tle lines in Syria are more com­pli­cated than the Balkans in 1914. Syria’s west is dom­i­nated by the regime, its Rus­sian and Ira­nian back­ers and their var­i­ous client mili­tias. The rebels in the re­main­ing west­ern en­claves mix self-de­fence with al­le­giance to re­gional spon­sors.

In the north-west, a Turk­ish of­fen­sive has taken Afrin, and now threat­ens Man­bij, where Kur­dish units are al­lied with US spe­cial forces in an anti-Isis coali­tion. The con­tin­u­ing

ten­sion puts in doubt US Cen­tral Com­mand’s abil­ity to use its air­base in Tur­key near the Syr­ian bor­der at In­cir­lik. It does not ap­pear to have played a part in last Satur­day morn­ing’s airstrikes.

The fight against Isis leaves the US and its al­lies vul­ner­a­ble to other un­in­tended con­se­quences. As com­pe­ti­tion for ter­ri­tory and oil fields quick­ens among the van­quish­ers of Isis, US troops fight­ing along­side Kurds and other rebels have shot down Ira­nian drones and ex­changed fire with Rus­sian con­trac­tors work­ing for a pro-regime mili­tia. In the south-west, Is­rael has looked on with dis­may as Iran, and the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps (IRGC) in par­tic­u­lar, has con­sol­i­dated its po­si­tion in Syria, carv­ing out a solid land link from Tehran to the Le­banese coast.

IRGC-trained Shia mili­tias have pro­vided ef­fec­tive ground troops on the regime’s side. Is­rael has car­ried out airstrikes to pre­vent heavy arms trans­fers to Hezbol­lah and to keep Ira­nian-backed forces away from the Golan Heights, but it has held back from any ma­jor en­gage­ment.

Af­ter los­ing hope of a ma­jor US in­ter­ven­tion against As­sad and Iran, the Is­raeli leader, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, has tried to con­vince Moscow to rein in Ira­nian mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion near Is­raeli ter­ri­tory. So far Rus­sia has not used its air de­fences against Is­raeli planes, most re­cently last week when Is­rael bombed a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard drone base in Homs prov­ince, de­spite Ira­nian ap­peals for pro­tec­tion. Tehran has vowed vengeance for the in­ci­dent, in which seven IRGC guards­men were killed. “In the ab­sence of a solid com­pre­hen­sive un­der­stand­ing be­tween the US and Rus­sia, Is­rael and the Ira­ni­ans are on a col­li­sion course,” said Ehud Yaari, an in­ter­na­tional fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy. “It’s get­ting very tricky. I haven’t felt the sit­u­a­tion was this dan­ger­ous in years.”

The bat­tle lines are not just geo­graph­i­cal. The US, UK and France say they car­ried out the airstrikes to en­force a ban on the use of chem­i­cal weapons that has been breached only on a hand­ful of oc­ca­sions over the course of a cen­tury. The chal­lenge fac­ing the west­ern coali­tion was what scale of at­tack would con­sti­tute ef­fec­tive de­ter­rence, given that the last US airstrikes, a year ago, failed to stop the regime’s use of gas. There were voices call­ing for a much more ex­pan­sive range of tar­gets and goals. How­ever, the more am­bi­tious the cam­paign, the higher the risk of es­ca­la­tion. Mat­tis fought hard to keep the airstrikes nar­rowly fo­cused on the three al­leged chem­i­cal weapons fa­cil­i­ties. The Rus­sian mil­i­tary is equally aware of the risks, and ap­pears not to have ac­ti­vated its for­mi­da­ble air de­fences when the mo­ment came, not­ing that the mis­siles had not come any­where near their main bases at Latakia and Tar­tus.

This min­uet with high ex­plo­sives ap­pears to have been suc­cess­fully ex­e­cuted on this oc­ca­sion, but that of­fers no guar­an­tees it will work in the fu­ture. It has al­ways been un­clear how much lever­age Moscow has over As­sad, and use of chem­i­cal weapons has been an ef­fec­tive tool in crush­ing rebel en­claves. Douma sur­ren­dered a few days af­ter the chem­i­cal weapons at­tack.

If Trump, with Bolton’s en­cour­age­ment, walks out of the nu­clear deal with Iran next month, as he has re­peat­edly threat­ened to do, Iran’s sense of threat will in­crease. If Tehran re­sponds by restor­ing its ura­nium en­rich­ment pro­gramme, it will

In the ab­sence of a solid US-Rus­sia un­der­stand­ing, Is­rael and the Ira­ni­ans are on a col­li­sion course

lead to a re­turn to a mil­i­tary stand­off pit­ting the US, Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia against Iran. Syria will be one of the bat­tle­fields, most likely the key bat­tle­field, and it is hard to see this White House stay­ing out of the fight.

Rus­sia may wish to ab­sent it­self from that strug­gle, but with so much mil­i­tary hard­ware fly­ing around in such a con­fined space the po­ten­tial for mis­cal­cu­la­tion rises steadily.

As the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion closes in, Trump’s def­er­ence to Vladimir Putin ap­pears, for now, to have soured into hos­til­ity, fu­elled by his sense of be­trayal that Moscow has not kept As­sad in check. It was Rus­sia Trump warned to “get ready” for in­com­ing mis­siles af­ter the Douma at­tack, and Rus­sia he warned would pay a “big price” for bet­ting on As­sad.

If an unforeseen and un­planned clash takes place, the com­man­derin-chief’s state of mind is crit­i­cally im­por­tant. The ab­sence of any check in the nu­clear launch pro­to­col that would al­low any other US of­fi­cial to coun­ter­mand a di­rect pres­i­den­tial or­der re­mains ar­guably the world’s scari­est fact.

AP

Tar­get … a Syr­ian sol­dier films dam­age at one of the sites hit by Amer­i­can-led airstrikes

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