This article was published in Ahval News on April 13, 2018.
Will Syria plunge into a new quagmire?
The debate on the April 7 chemical attack on the Syrian town of Douma has now entered a new phase with a tweet by the U.S. President Donald Trump threatening to launch a missile attack.
Douma itself is of little strategic significance, but the chemical attack has the potential of sparking a major conflagration. People are asking whether we are at the threshold of the Third World War.
It started with an alert by opposition activists in Douma saying that a chemical attack had taken place. Social media and TV channels were flooded with video footage showing women and children suffering the effects. Why men were apparently affected less remains a mystery.
The Syrian government rejected the claim and said that it does not make sense to use chemical weapon when Ghouta was entirely cleared of opposition fighters. Russia said a team of medical doctors paid a visit to the Douma Medical Centre and did not notice any sign of chemical attack in the patients. The U.S. establishment used prudent language saying, “if it turns out that chemical weapon is used, the U.S. will punish the perpetrators”.
In the UN Security Council, the United State and Russia blocked each other’s initiatives that could shed light on the disputed incident. Before the UN debate, U.S. Permanent Representative Nikki Haley said that even if the UN resolution were to be blocked by a Russian veto, the United States would punish the perpetrators of this attack. And now this process seems to be under way. The chemical attack is presented as the main reason for the escalation, but the bigger picture is slightly different.
The balance of power in the Middle East is undergoing a major shift. Russia capitalised on an opportunity to come back to the region where its military presence had diminished after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Iran is expanding relentlessly its hegemony all the way to the Mediterranean. The Syrian regime was able to survive despite the expectation that it would fall soon after the student demonstrations of 2011. The last bastion of the Salafi opposition to the Syrian government had fallen in eastern Ghouta. The Syrian regime is trying to re-establish its control in the areas controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.
The United States seems determined to attack Syria, not because of the Douma chemical attack, which is relatively a minor issue, but because of this bigger picture.
Trump was planning last week to withdraw the American soldiers from Syria, but this week he seems to be sowing the wind that he will reap later as a whirlwind.
As of the writing this article Trump’s intention to “send missiles” to Russian targets had not yet materialised but the risk is very real.
Independently from Trump’s ever changing designs, the military establishment in the United States must be aware of the changes in this bigger picture and several options must have been thoroughly assessed.
Whether Syrian regime forces used chemical weapons may continue to be debated, but the real motives of a possible U.S. attacks are there and various scenarios will probably be put into action according to the circumstances that arise.
Turkey will face a different dilemma in this process. Its conflict is still ongoing with the United States because of the latter’s support for the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey continues to voice its resolve to occupy the Syrian district of Manbij where Kurdish and U.S. forces cooperate, but this cannot be achieved easily if Russia does not open Syrian airspace to the Turkish air force.
The possibility of a direct confrontation may arise between two NATO allies, Turkey and the United States, if an agreement is not reached on how to handle Manbij. Turkey is a member of NATO, but cooperating closely with Russia and Iran within the framework of the Astana process.
The latest developments give the impression that Syria may plunge into a new quagmire while it was preparing for a major mobilisation to reconstruct the country and heal its wounds.