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. The escalation began following allegations by the white helmets (a volunteer organisation that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria) that on April 7, chemical weapons were used to attack civilians in Douma, Eastern Ghouta.
A day following the attack, US President Donald 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-peddalling on the war talk with Trump, saying that the US may fire missiles and it may not, and Moscow saying it may not carry out threats to retaliate against a US strike.
While the two sides may end up pulling back from the brink, the tension between Russia and the West has 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 adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it was like waving a red flag to a bull. It is likely that maximum pressure is being put on Trump to fire on Syrian forces to weaken Assad’s position and in the process Iran’s key ally.
This time, the Europeans will be less reticent to enter the fray given their newfound unity against Russia as a common enemy.
French President Emanuel Macron has already signalled a willingness to join the US in striking Syria, and similarly British Prime Minister Theresa May has already been discussing backing military action.
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 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 new level.
* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor
The Sunday Independent