In case you slept through it, the Americans have yet again taken up their tradition of misjudged assaults on foreign countries, initiating a bombardment of a Syrian air base. Multiple cruise missiles have been launched from naval assets in the Mediterranean, marking the most overt US action yet in Syria’s six year civil war.
As is known, the reason for this sudden escalation is the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Air Force. Adopting the language of his predecessor, President Trump claimed that such an incident crosses “many, many lines”, ultimately giving his seal of approval to last night’s bombardment.
Let’s get a few things out in the open. It seems fairly clear that chemical agents were indeed used at Khan Sheikhoun. It’s also being claimed that Syrian military aircraft were in the vicinity at the time, prompting the quite logical notion that the chem assault was delivered from the air. Any attack on a civilian target, chemical weapons or no, is evidently a violation of fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law. A war crime, in other words. That much is clear from the start.
What is not for certain is whether the Syrian government was behind such a move, nor why they would make such a catastrophic error in judgement as to intentionally antagonise the US and jeopardise it’s relationship with it’s primary ally, that being Russia. Syrian forces have enjoyed remarkable success in recent months, in large part because of a protracted Russian air campaign that appears to have turned the tide on rebel advances. To rashly invite the wrath of Russia’s long-term adversary, the US, would complicate matters to such a degree that Russian/Syrian relations would strain beyond measure.
We should also never underestimate Moscow. I’m not talking in a sad, paranoid cold-warrior sense, one where the perpetually evil Russian is seen as an existential and very consistent threat to all the west holds dear, whatever that apparently means. President Putin has expended considerable political capital in Syria, orchestrating a successful policy of de-escalation between Damascus and Washington. To think that he’d permit Assad to simply slip from grasp and commit himself to an independent (and frankly moronic) course of action seems quite implausible.
Indeed, nobody is forgetting 2013 in a hurry. After a protected period of sabre rattling on the part of the US and UK, Prime Minister David Cameron enjoyed a stunning defeat in the House of Commons as MPs rejected calls for military action. Bereft of support from a long-term ally, President Obama likewise scaled down his typically sanctimonious, finger-wagging rhetoric, seemingly content to allow a Russian mediation that resulted in a very visible exodus of Syrian chemical weapons.
Whether Damascus truly gave up all such armaments is unknown. All the same, it was a profound feat of diplomacy on Moscow’s part, one that has no doubt prevented yet another blundering western assault and the further fragmentation of the region.
For Assad to essentially down twelve pints of Special Brew and forget all that, in the process scrawling an order to randomly drop gas on children for the pure sake of it is thus downright eccentric. The man is well aware that not so long ago commentators were predicting his imminent defeat, as an assortment of opposition factions (at points backed by prime US/UK ally, Saudi Arabia) were closing in for the kill.
Russia’s apparent turning of the tide no doubt came as a considerable relief, allowing the Syrian Arab Army to regain lost ground and stabilise multiple fronts. Russian support also gave Assad’s government some much needing legitimacy, allowing it to pose as a counterpoint to both US hegemony and ISIS-style blood letting. All in all, it was a diplomatic and military win for both Moscow and Damascus.
To seriously think Assad would just throw all that away on a whim doesn’t deserve the label of political analysis. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that we are witnessing arguably the most sizeable expenditure of Russian military assets in a foreign nation since the 1980s. Russia is making a serious foreign policy gamble; flexing muscles that have long remained dormant after the humiliation of the 1990s and the painful reality of a mono-polar world under American dominion.
All parties to the conflict will be well aware of this. Assad most emphatically. To thus invite the rampaging behemoth of US imperialism to his door would be beyond stupid, not just in terms of his alliance with Moscow, but his own survival. Putin will only go so far for Assad. That has always been clear. There is more to this situation than meets the eye.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.