This article was published in Arab News on April 16, 2018.
Syrian suffering prolonged by strikes
By carrying out a missile attack in cooperation with the UK and France on Saturday, US President Donald Trump took a course of action that is likely to end up prolonging the Syrian crisis, after dim hope had appeared on the horizon with the defeat of the last Syrian opposition faction in Douma. He did so after sending a tweeted message in a style that is new in diplomatic correspondence, saying: “Get ready Russia, because (missiles) 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!”
France and the UK readily volunteered to send missiles to Syria “to fight terrorism.” It is not clear whether they refer to Daesh terrorism or to the acts of terror committed by various anti-regime factions. Daesh has already been defeated on almost all fronts by the US-led coalition and the opposition factions were moribund or amassed in Idlib waiting for the day they will be eliminated.
The reason quoted by Trump for the military escalation is the chemical attack carried out in Douma. There is still an ongoing debate about the circumstances in which the attack took place — we will know more about the exact nature of the incident when a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issues its findings.
Even if it turns out that a chemical attack was carried out, could this be the real reason for the escalation that is being launched now? We have to look at the bigger picture to find a reasonable answer to this question.
Russia has not only come back to the Middle East, but has become the kingmaker in Syria as a result of the misconceived and maladroitly implemented US policy in the region. There is also Iran, which has established a strong political presence in Iraq. It has achieved this by betting on the Shiite majority of the Iraqi population.
Despite Trump’s threats aimed at Moscow, a direct attack on Russian targets by US forces seems a remote possibility because of the risks it entails.
Since the majority of Syria’s population is Sunni, Iran played a different card here — that of having been invited by the country’s legitimate government. Based on this justification, it is making a substantive contribution to the Syrian government’s fight against all sorts of opposition factions. This will give Iran an upper hand if the Syrian crisis is allowed to come to an end; it will also facilitate communications between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Another important occurrence in Syria is the emergence of the Kurds as a key player. The Kurds are attractive partners for the US, Russia, Israel and now France, while the same people are perceived by Turkey as a threat.
In view of this landscape, it would be naive to believe that the real reason for Trump’s initiative is the chemical attack carried out in Douma a few hours before an agreement was reached to evacuate the fighters of the last resisting faction, Jaysh Al-Islam, to Jarabulus. A more realistic explanation would be a US aspiration to grab a role while the region’s power balance is going through a major change.
How far is this escalation likely to go? We may discard outright the probability of a Third World War because it is far from being realistic, but the possibility of a spark that could turn into a new proxy war is a real possibility. If this happens, the super powers will have ample opportunity to test the efficacy of their new weapons and the biggest losers will again be the Syrian people.
Despite Trump’s threats aimed at Moscow, a direct attack on Russian targets by US forces seems a remote possibility because of the risks it entails. However, the stakes may become higher. On the one hand, in the absence of Daesh and other terrorist organizations, the US and its allies may refocus their efforts to remove Bashar Assad from his post. On the other hand, Assad will probably grab power more strongly now that he has got rid of opposition factions.
A more reasonable course of action in the fragile environment that prevails in Syria would be to wait for the outcome of the OPCW survey and take balanced action according to its conclusions without resorting to any sort of military action whatsoever. The Syrian people have suffered enough for the sake of other countries’ interests and, with this latest missile attack, they will probably have to suffer much more.