Ever since the US attacked a Syrian air base with Tomahawk cruise missiles, the western media has been full of speculation on how Russia will react. They should be thinking, and worrying, about China.
If anyone had not previously understood why China considers the South China Sea to be its ‘core security region’, they now have the answer: the impunity with which the US has been able to fire 59 missiles from ships sitting in international waters off the Syrian coast into an airforce base near Homs, more than 50 km inland, to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for allegedly using chemical weapons against rebels holed up in a small town called Khan Sheikhun, south of Idlib, in Syria.
This is not the first time that the US has launched a devastating attack on a defenceless country with complete impunity from far outside the 12-mile exclusion zone that is stipulated by the Law of the Sea. In February 2011, the US crippled Libya’s armed forces and destroyed their ability to put down an al Qaeda-led rebellion in Cyrenaica by firing 133 Tomahawk missiles at airfields, radar installations and weapons and munition depots in and around Tripoli in a single night.
Neither of these attacks had the faintest glimmer of a sanction from the UN. These were exercises in naked military dominance by a country drunk on its own power but without the faintest idea of how to use it wisely. They therefore made a sick joke of the UN Charter.
What must make Trump’s action even more alarming to Beijing is the casual insouciance with which it was taken, a quick visit to the ‘situation room’ at Mar Del Lago, virtually between soup and the first course, as he was entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida.
Not learning from history
Unlike Barack Obama and David Cameron, who gave ample warning of their decision to ‘punish’ Assad for allegedly launching a sarin gas attack on rebels in the Ghouta oasis, near Damascus, in August 2013, and left Syria with a way to avoid it, Trump did not wait for convincing proof that the killer gas at Khan Sheikhun was indeed sarin. He contemptuously dismissed the Russian hypothesis that it may have leaked from a rebel facility producing it at Khan Sheikhun, which was destroyed by the bombing.
Instead, his spokespersons, and virtually the entire western media, have dismissed those who have dared to raise doubts as “conspiracy theorists” and assumed, as they did in 2013, that if a poison gas killed the victims it had to be sarin, that since only the Syrian army had sarin and that Assad would have no qualms about using it because he was, in Thomas Friedman’s words, a “pro-Russian, Pro-Iranian, murderous dictator”.
What they have conveniently chosen to ignore is that Carla del Ponte, former spokesperson of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and who was in Damascus at the time of the 2013 gas attack as head of a UN mission tasked with investigating allegations of poison gas attacks, had expressly concluded in a televised interview to Swiss TV that the rebels, and not the Syrian armed forces, were responsible for that attack; that the CIA had informed Obama as early as May 2013 that the Jabhat al Nusra was building facilities to produce sarin gas with the help of the Turkish secret service; that the British CBW research laboratory at Porton Down had informed Cameron that the Syrian army could not possibly have produced the sarin gas that was used in Damascus and Khan al Assal outside Aleppo in April 2013 just two days before Britain and the US were to launch their air strikes in August; and that the rockets used to fire sarin-filled warheads into the Ghouta in August were later found not to have the range or trajectory to have been fired from government-held areas (as revealed by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, in three articles over two years).
It is inconceivable that Trump had not been briefed about the ambivalence (to say the least) of the evidence against Syria in the past. But he seems to have shown the same casual disregard for facts that made him the butt of all jokes during the presidential campaign last year, and has now thrown the American establishment into turmoil.
Trump and his advisers have also conveniently glossed over anything that does not support their hunt for an excuse to bomb Syria. Chief among these hurdles is the complete absence of motive. Syria had nothing to gain and absolutely everything to lose militarily from launching a chemical attack, and that too with a single rocket that could kill at most a handful of civilians, in a mopping up exercise within an area that it has already regained control of.
The ‘rebels’, on the other hand – among whom one must include not only the Jabhat al Nusra and its newly-found patron, the government of Israel, but also the murderous ISIS – had everything to gain from provoking a massive missile strike on Syrian air bases. In fact, what stares us in the face is the similarity of the provocation offered to the West now with the coordinated effort to drag the US into the war on Syria in 2013. On that occasion, Obama and Cameron drew back at the last moment, but the election of a new, know-nothing president desperate to establish his authority at the White House must have seemed an opportunity too good to miss.
Closer to war
The impact of Trump’s action has been to bring the entire world several steps closer to war. From Beijing’s point of view, once could have been happenstance, but twice has created pattern that it cannot afford to ignore. For Russia, the US become a law unto itself, that had already been demonstrated by the 1998 bombing of Iraq under Operation Desert Shield, the 1999 bombing of Serbia to ‘liberate’ Kosovo and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even further, Trump’s action shows that the US’s weapon of choice in the future for bringing the world to heel will be the navy. And right on the clock to confirm their worst fears, the US has sent an entire carrier-based strike force armed with hundreds of Toamahawk missiles towards North Korea.
In Beijing’s eyes, this has vindicated it’s decision to declare the entire South China Sea a core security region, seek to impose an identification protocol on all military planes and warships entering the region, and build a military runway on Fiery Cross reef. The 690-mile range of the Tomahawk ‘Block 3’ missiles that US warships are currently equipped with is considerably greater that the width of the South China Sea over much of the distance between the Straits of Malacca and the Sea of Japan.
The question everyone should be wrestling with now is how to stop the drift towards war that Trump has started. Russia has invested too much in Syria, and in opposing the US’s attempt to create a unipolar world, to back down now. It has already demonstrated this by closing down the so-called ‘deconfliction’ channel of communications with NATO, that was designed to prevent Russian and NATO aircrafts from running into, or firing missiles at, each other.
China, which has been feeling more and more threatened by the proliferation of military installations around its perimeter since Obama’s ‘tilt towards Asia’, has hinted that it will bring pressure to bear on North Korea to make it refrain from pointless and threatening nuclear and missile tests. But with 70% of its industry and population within the Tomahawk range of the US navy, it is bound to harden its stand on the exclusion of hostile warships from the South China Sea.
In this it will receive the full support of Russia. Facing what they increasingly perceive to be an unpredictable, rogue adversary, the two will draw closer together in a strategic and military alliance that will marry Russian technology to Chinese money and muscle. As this happens, the US’s perception of both threat and challenge will increase. The heightening tension that will result will not necessarily lead to war, but peace will become increasingly difficult to maintain. War, if it ever breaks out, will be an unintended consequence of misperception or a faulty assessment of the adversary’s intentions or capabilities. But that was how the First World War began.
India could have not only kept out of this confrontation, but used its considerable ‘soft’ power as a very large, rapidly growing and democratic country, but one without imperial ambitions, to moderate tensions and contain the growing struggle for hegemony. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ably backed by his national security advisor, has chosen to do the opposite – join the fray and plunge us into the centre of a conflict over the freedom to send warships into the South China Sea, from which we stand to gain nothing but risk losing everything.
Modi will shortly meet Trump. They will no doubt find that they have a great deal in common.