Last week’s missile attack on the Syrian Shayrat airbase, in response to the alleged chemical attack on Syrian civilians by government troops, marked a significant escalation in the war which has raged in the country since 2011 and is estimated to have cost up to 400,000 lives. President Trump, yielding to his hawkish advisors, has abandoned the non-interventionist rhetoric he campaigned on and shown that he is willing to back up threats with immediate military actions. What’s more, a mere week after having de-prioritised regime change as a key objective of the war, the US now officially views Assad stepping down as central to any resolution to the crisis.
The problem is, that is going to be very hard to achieve. Because President Bashir al-Assad is winning the war in Syria, and there is little actual chance of him relinquishing power of his own accord, regardless of how much political pressure the international community may put on him. This is of course not least because he is backed by Russia, so the pressure from the US and its allies has been directed more at Vladimir Putin. If Russia removes their patronage of Assad and his government in Damascus, it will deal a fatal blow to his hopes of staying in power. The UK therefore this week championed a proposal to target sanctions at senior Russian military leaders, but it failed to win the backing of the G7. It is doubtful whether sanctions would eventually persuade Russia to withdraw support for Assad in any case – sanctions imposed after the Ukraine crisis three years ago has had little actual effect on the ground – which leaves a military solution as the only realistic option. Put simply, short of a full-scale invasion of Syria, it is difficult to see a successful outcome for the US and its allies.
But long before we get to that stage, there is a risk that US-Russian relations will reach boiling point. Putin upped the stakes significantly when Russia issued a statement this week saying they would “respond with force” to any further military escalation, in other words, Russia is drawing their own red line in the sand, challenging the US in a stand-off which brings the two nations closer to actual military engagement than at any point since well before the fall of the Iron Curtain. With both sides seemingly committed to their positions, it won’t take much for the crisis to escalate further; the conflict in Syria is threatening to push the world to the brink of a war which could spread much beyond the sand of the Middle East.
The obvious question is, with civil war raging in countries from Yemen to South Sudan, and North Korea making genuine threats of nuclear attacks on both the US and Japan, what makes the world largest political powers so invested specifically in the Syrian conflict? Officially, the war was triggered by Assad’s response to the “Arab Spring” uprising in 2011; deemed so brutal that it necessitated international intervention. Allied forces, led by the US, started backing the rebel alliance which fought Assad and have been conducting air strikes in Syrian territory since 2014, though these have not been aimed at government forces but at Islamist jihadists, primarily ISIS. Last weeks Tomahawk missile strike was the US’s first actual attack on Syria’s military. Russia’s military involvement in the crisis came at the behest of Assad, and they started air strikes against rebel and jihadist groups in 2015.
So, officially, the US-led coalition is in Syria to help defuse the conflict and to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups. But that this is pretence is almost embarrassingly obvious, because the goal is fundamentally geo-political: with a Shia-dominated government installed (by the US) in Iraq, Iran’s – and consequently Russia’s – influence in the region was strengthened. Assad’s Syria – officially secular, but relying on the Shia Alawite minority to remain in power, and therefore a close ally of Iran – became an obvious target for the US and its allies: Sunnis make up almost 80% of the population, so a democratic Syria will elect a much more pro-western government. This is what the war is about: the Arab Spring was just a convenient opportunity to try to remove Assad and restore the balance which was disturbed when Saddam Hussein was ousted from power in Iraq. On the other side, Russia are equally committed to maintaining a friendly regime in Damascus, as Putin seeks to maintain his own influence on the word stage.
So, the stakes could not be higher. It is fortunately most likely that both sides will seek a way to de-escalate the conflict; neither of them wants to be drawn into a military confrontation. But with tensions running this high, a small mistake could have dramatic consequences. Hopefully humanity will not have to pay for the geo-political ambitions of our leaders.