AS if on schedule, US missiles backed by British and French forces attacked Syria yesterday, one year and a week after similar Cruise missiles hit targets in Syria.
During the week, the prospect of a US attack on Syrian facilities was issued with the full authority of a presidential tweet. Yesterday two Syrian sites near Damascus and another near Homs were hit.
The official cause of the joint assault is the alleged Syrian gassing of civilians. Dozens of people were reported killed and hundreds injured from the alleged use of chlorine in Douma city on April 7.
As in previous gas attacks, the state and rebel groups have been accused. Even before the US Defence Department had verified who the perpetrators were, the Trump White House had blamed the Syrian government.
Defence Secretary James Mattis could not yet say if the Syrian government was involved. Two separate US government sources told Israeli media that neither the type of gas nor the perpetrators had yet been identified. Damascus denies any role in the alleged use of nerve gas.
On Friday Russia said it was a staged false flag operation and it had evidence that Britain’s foreign intelligence service was involved.
All of this is happening amid deteriorating US-Russia relations, drawing in Britain in the process.
Britain blames Russia for the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter resident in Britain. Both survived, and Russia denied the allegations.
In parallel with rising anti-Russia rhetoric is the US Establishment campaign to “get Trump” for alleged Russian ties. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues apace, while reports indicate a majority of Republican voters now reject it.
In this climate of rising tensions between the United States and Russia, the Trump administration tried to moderate any fallout from Moscow by giving early warning of incoming missiles as it did last year.
The prospect of tensions boiling over into open conflict has now soared to near-crisis levels. At the same time, Putin has pledged not to play down Russian casualties in a US attack as he did last year. To do so would hurt his macho image and damage his reputation abroad and, more critically, at home.
A “robust” response is promised, or threatened, by all sides to any perceived provocation. Sensitivities are now so raw that almost anything can be deemed provocative.
Anti-Russia sentiment has simmered in the United States for years and has now spilled across the Atlantic to Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet has now caught the “act tough” bug.
US officials seem to believe that a “limited” conflict with Syrian or even Russian forces in Syria is possible.
However, precisely because major reputations, egos and posturing are at stake, no party may want to be handicapped in facing off against the other by limiting its scope of actions.
After the advance warning, Russia moved military personnel and assets from likely targets before yesterday’s missile barrage. Upgraded Syrian air defences electronically diverted dozens of the 110 Tomahawk missiles away from their intended targets.
Syrian forces had also moved assets from those targets days earlier, as indications suggest the US-led attack is a symbolic gesture like last year’s. It comes just after Trump’s recent signal that he wanted to pull out of the Syrian morass.
There are of course those who want US forces to remain, these being certain countries in the region as well as some senior staff in the Trump administration.
Among these is newly minted National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton, the neo-conservative ultra-hawk and a leading advocate of George W Bush’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bolton has been in office for all of one working week now.
Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert resigned the day after he took over as NSA, with more resignations reportedly on the way as Bolton builds his own team in the White House.
He has openly talked about bombing not just Syria but also Iran and North Korea. Even after Pyongyang agreed to denuclearisation talks with the United States last month, Bolton advocated bombing after what he called 25 years of fruitless talks.
The question is whether the United States can fight and win two or more wars at the same time. Even if attacks begin months apart, each is likely to drag on, escalate and widen.
The 1990s US “win-hold-win” doctrine was to win one war while holding off the other for a later win, but it was abandoned after reality dawned. Bombing a country to “solve” an issue may seem unreal, but that has been Bolton’s signature mantra.
Trump has already expressed his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal (2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) signed by all five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the EU.
Bolton now offers his solution by bombing Iran. However, Iran is considerably more powerful than Iraq, so any attack on it will be messier, more intractable and far more costly.
The invasion of Iraq itself was no “cakewalk” as its early proponents had argued. To attack other countries now, where each is more formidable than Iraq, is certifiably surreal.
The common factor in these aggressive tendencies is the United States itself. If its approach is sustained, the one country that stands to lose most in blood and treasure is itself.
Conversely, if Bolton and his team seek to moderate their hawkish image, they can be more selective in their targets and more varied in their postures.
Since preparations for the Trump-Kim talks are already underway, with Trump excited about it, they may let it proceed and claim any possible success from it. That can make any military action they take elsewhere seem somewhat less unpalatable. Meanwhile the slot for US Secretary of State remains empty after Rex Tillerson left last month, with John Sullivan filling in temporarily before Mike Pompeo is confirmed and sworn in.
This vacuum allows Bolton more latitude to act as he pleases. Pompeo himself is reputedly a hawk opposed to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has given Pompeo until May 12 to “fix” the deal, virtually an impossible task given its complexity and range of stakeholders. The alternative is something far more drastic.
All this adds up to a weak State Department precisely when US diplomacy needs to be strong.
Scrapping the Iran deal weakens the Western alliance that stands by it, among other losses. Weakened US diplomacy also makes Washington less able to fathom, let alone deal with, the growing alliance that groups Russia with Iran and Turkey.
Despite some differences over Syria, they have come together over a region the United States is losing diplomatic sight of. A trilateral summit on Syria was held in Ankara on April 4, following another in Sochi last November.
Turkey, Nato’s easternmost member, has confirmed its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system despite concerns in Nato. Qatar has joined the fledgling alliance and wants the same surface-to-air missile system.
As the sense of US unilateralism grows more acute, the solidarity of the alliance is strengthened. If adversaries backing opposite sides can now form an alliance outside US influence, where else might they not do so? And these are still early days for today’s meddlesome, hardline Trump administration.
Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
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