Moscow: For the past quarter century, at least, it has been impossible to imagine a hot war breaking out between the two erstwhile superpower rivals, Russia and the United States. Until now. The US-led air strikes against the Syrian government on Saturday – that came amidst soaring tension and heightened rhetoric over an alleged poison gas attack in Syria – have raised the prospects of a military clash that results in dead Russians, and dead Americans.
In a hard-hitting statement, Russian president Vladimir Putin condemned the US-led action as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state that is on the frontline in the fight against terrorism.” The attack, he said, “was committed without a mandate from the UN Security Council and in violation of the UN Charter and norms and principles of international law.”
Russia condemns in the strongest possible terms the attack against Syria, where Russian military personnel are assisting the legitimate government in its counterterrorism efforts.
Through its actions, the US makes the already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria even worse and brings suffering to civilians. In fact, the US panders to the terrorists who have been tormenting the Syrian people for seven years, leading to a wave of refugees fleeing this country and the region.
The current escalation around Syria is destructive for the entire system of international relations. History will set things right, and Washington already bears the heavy responsibility for the bloody outrage in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.
Russia will convene an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the aggressive actions by the US and its allies.
The alleged chlorine gas attack last weekend in Douma, the last rebel holdout in the Damascus-area territory of East Ghouta, triggered a familiar wave of condemnation from Western capitals, along with expressions of determination to do something to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. It’s not quite clear that Assad was responsible, or that the attack even happened, but the escalating confrontation between the West and Russia has become increasingly untethered from considerations of law, evidence or logic in recent weeks. In short, it is looking very much like a classic march to war.
“The reasons behind this looming collision between the US and its allies, and Russia with its allies, is comparatively insignificant,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “I mean, Syria is peripheral to US strategic interests. The gas incident is murky at best. And the Russian presence in Syria is not in the least threatening to US global interests.
“Yet we are seeing intense war propaganda, accompanied by unprecedented rhetoric, in a context where real dialogue between the sides has almost completely collapsed. I’m afraid it’s coming down to prestige. Neither Russia nor the US would be willing to back down, because they see their ‘credibility’ at stake,” he says.
The US, along with allies Britain and France, launched an airstrike against what they said were “research, storage and military targets” in Syria, ostensibly to cripple Assad’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.
The Russians, who have been heavily involved in the long-time Moscow client state since 2015, had warned through several official channels that if their personnel on the ground are endangered they will shoot down incoming missiles and “target their launch positions.” That can only refer to US warships in the Mediterranean, from which last year’s barrage of cruise missiles against Syria was fired.
Trump had responded to this threat in a tweet: “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!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Ironically, in the run up to Saturday’s missile and bomb attack, it was military hardliners in the Trump administration who were taking the lead in trying to calm things down.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis – whose nickname is actually “Mad Dog” – told a Congressional committee on Thursday that conclusive evidence of Syrian government involvement in the Douma attack was still lacking. He added that “we are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control — if you get my drift on that.”
Shortly after Mattis’s remarks, General Vladimir Shamanov, now a Duma deputy but once known as the “Butcher of Chechnya,” went on Russian TV to warn against extreme action and praised Trump for his apparent restraint. “Trump has shown prudence and we are not experiencing any anxiety at present,” he said. Saturday’s airstrikes proved his assessment wrong.
Russia did not intervene last week when Israel attacked alleged Iranian targets at Syria’s T-4 airbase near Homs, killing 14. But the attack did prompt Putin to call up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he enjoys good relations, to warn him not to take further measures to “destabilise” Syria. Netanyahu reportedly told Putin that Israel will not tolerate a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. That may well herald a great deal of future trouble.
“This is classic brinksmanship. Each side seems obliged to demonstrate strong will in order to deter the other,” said Lukyanov, on Friday, 24 hours before Stria was hit. “There is no appetite in Moscow for military collision with the US. But if the coming strike is big, and comprehensive, it will call into question everything that Russia has achieved in Syria since 2015. The political responsibility in this situation is huge, because there will be no coming back if war begins.”
For the US, which has gotten used to bombarding countries that lack the military capacity to hit back in kind, it’s a very dangerous moment. The Russians in Syria have advanced air defences capable of shooting down cruise missiles and attacking aircraft, and they may well possess in-country anti-ship missiles that could hit US warships in the eastern Mediterranean if matters escalate. For now, however, Mattis said the US was not planning any more attacks.
Even if contained in Syria, a US-Russia military clash threatens serious casualties on both sides, amid a violent end to what people still refer to as the post-Cold War global order.
It’s hard to know how much of this is driven by domestic US politics. Trump, who just recently tweeted that the US should withdraw from Syria now that ISIS is largely defeated there and leave the job of stabilising the country to others, has now taken a leaf from the paybook of his predecessors by unleashing a hail of cruise missiles on Assad’s military assets. Russian experts say they are totally baffled by Trump, and have no idea what to expect next. That may explain why the Kremlin is digging in its heels and vowing a military response if matters escalate.
“Trump is in such a situation at home that he desperately needs to distract attention from his many problems, and a victorious little war is the familiar way to go,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. “He is still regarded as an inadequate leader by many Americans, and maybe a Moscow stooge, so he must feel vulnerable if he doesn’t take resolute action.”
Hopes to avoid outright war in the next few days might depend on Vladimir Putin, he says.
“Unlike Trump, Putin is completely secure in his position. He’s just been re-elected with a huge margin of victory. He doesn’t need any of this. If Russians are killed, of course, there will be no choice but to respond. But until the last moment we may hope that Russia will be restrained in its actions, and will try very hard to keep things from going over the edge.”