Russia and the US are teetering on the verge of a full-scale proxy war in Syria that could have devastating implications for international peace and security.
Yesterday morning the US, France and Britain fired 110 missiles at three or four chemical producing sites and command centres after US President Donald Trump ordered air attacks in Syria "on targets associated with chemical weapons capabilities."
Syria's air defences downed 71 of the missiles.
The attacks come in response to allegations of a chemical weapons attack on April 7 on civilians in Douma, Eastern Ghouta.
A day following the attack, Trump said that Russian President Vladimir Putin bore responsibility for the atrocity because of his support for the Syrian government. On Wednesday Trump tweeted: “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.”
That prompted the Russian Defence Ministry to respond saying, “Russia’s army and fleet have stepped up activity in the Black Sea, Mediterranean, and Caspian Seas.
Kalibr strikes may be launched on US facilities and bases in the Middle East if the Pentagon attacks Russian bases in Tartus and Hmeymin.”
Moscow’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia has said he “cannot exclude” the possibility of a war between Russia and the US.
What makes this escalation particularly dangerous is that a number of opinion pieces emerging in Russian newspapers are taking the view that sinking US ships or using Kalibrs on US forces in the Middle East is now inevitable.
Ever since the Skripal incident there is a growing perception among Russians that talking to the British government is now a futile exercise.
What offers a glimpse of hope is that as of Friday Russia and the US seemed to be back peddling on the all-out war talk.
Trump had been vacillating on missile strikes and Moscow said that it may not carry out threats to retaliate against a US strike.
While the two sides may end up genuinely pulling back from the brink, the tensions between Russia and the west have reached such a boiling point that there are significant rumblings within Russia that following Putin’s inauguration on May 7, he will compose a cabinet referred to as a “stavka” or war Cabinet.
The idea being to put hawks in key positions so that Russia would be able to fight a war on all fronts.
On the other side there is the problem of Trump’s perpetual unpredictability. While he has seemed interested in maintaining good relations with Putin, having called to congratulate him on his presidential re-election and invited him to Washington, there will be other factors at play.
For one, he may want to appease the neo-conservatives as well as the Saudis and Israelis, and look tough by taking pre-emptive measures. There may also be a desire to act on his rhetoric and follow through on promises of delivering smart new missiles.
Perhaps even more concerning is the pressure coming from the hawks in his own security apparatus that want to see Iran weakened by dealing a fatal blow to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When Assad spoke to the media this week alongside Ali Akbar Velayati, the top Advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it was like waving a red flag to a bull. Maximum pressure is likely being put on Trump to escalate American military intervention in Syria to weaken Assad’s position, and in the process Iran’s key ally.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamemei has called yesterday's attack on Syria by the US, France and the UK a crime, while Russia has warned of consequences.
In evaluating the overall likelihood of a major conflagration, one has to consider whose interests will be served, and the sad reality is that this time there are more perceived advantages in the minds of the protagonists.
For many in Russia, peacetime has meant economic stagnation, and some take the view that a new era of military confrontation will spur the economy and unite the country even further. It is also clear that there are powerful elements in the security establishments of both Britain and the US that seek a military showdown with Russia as evidenced in the rush to blame Russia for the Skripal poisoning with little, if any, proof.
The greatest losers in this great game of Russian roulette will again be the Syrian people, who will suffer yet more devastation, trauma and violation of their rights. Their suffering is seemingly endless as the great powers prepare to take the conflict in Syria to a whole new level.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.