We Are on The Brink of World War in Syria
Last weekend we heard the tragic news that there may well have been another chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta, Syria. The Washington Post reported that at least 40 people have been killed in an area of Ghouta currently under control by the terrorist group Jaysh-ul-Islam. The veracity of the reports is still controversial, with both sides making predictable claims. The US State Department had this to say:
“Reports from a number of contacts and medical personnel on the ground indicate a potentially high number of casualties, including among families hiding in shelters. These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community.
The United States continues to use all efforts available to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable. The regime’s history of using chemical weapons against its own people is not in dispute, and in fact nearly one year ago on April 4, 2017, Assad’s forces conducted a sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed approximately 100 Syrians.”
As we will see, these claims are very much in dispute, even from the US’ own Defence Secretary. Meanwhile, the Assad govt. has claimed the allegations are fabrications, commenting that the Syrian army,
“ … does not need to use any chemical materials as claimed by terrorists’ media affiliates.”
Soon after, a missile strike on an Assad airbase took place in the early hours of Monday. Mostly Iranians were killed, with Israel being blamed for the attack. Meanwhile, Russia and the US debate over the terms of an investigation into the attack. The US and its key allies are generally claiming that this was an Assad chemical weapons attack, with US claiming the need for military rebuke. Meanwhile, Russia and the Syrian Govt. are claiming that these reports are either fabricated, or committed by the rebel group in the area Jaysh-ul-Islam, who have admitted to a renegade commander using chemical weapons in the past. Russian and anti-US media are also pointing to reports by Russian generals in March warning of an impending false-flag chemical weapons against them for weeks (Reuters), to be used as a pretext for further western intervention against Assad. Trump’s rallying to European allies for further military strikes at least bear out the inference, if not the fact.
Who should we trust when facts are in short supply, subject to endless media manipulation on both sides? I contend that context is the only arbiter here, with motive being the key evidentiary piece of the puzzle. On that basis, I cannot see any reason why the Assad Govt. would use chemical weapons against its people, in the context of a war which they are demonstrably winning with conventional weapons, and with the threat of western intervention looming over their heads. Moreover, I believe there is every reason to suspect that the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their rebel allies on the ground are willing to stage false-flag attacks against the Syria/Russia coalition. I also believe that this has serious potential to lead to a hot war between the US and Russia, one which could have dire consequences for the region, and for humanity as a whole. Moreover, I believe that the continuing demonization of Russia by Western Media is inextricably linked to the Syrian situation, and their desire to topple the Assad govt.
None of this means that the Assad Govt. are ‘good people’, and that they and their Russian supporters have not murdered untold numbers of innocent civilians in their fight against the rebels. However, we should remember that guilt on one count does not necessitate guilt on every count. Were that the rule, the US and the UK would have no occasion to show their face.
The perspective that anti-Assad forces are willing to use chemical weapons to lure in western intervention is one that needs to be substantiated. That this will lead to a wider US-Russia conflict that could spiral into an all-out war between two nuclear superpowers even more so. But the evidence is there. It requires a historical perspective that does not look at events in isolation, but traces US-Russian relations in recent years, tracks a loose history of the Syrian conflict, and review the claims and counter-claims regarding chemical weapons. Though such an endeavour cannot be brief, being informed on these issues is essential for us to be informed citizens, especially when our elites have repeatedly taken us into wars in Iraq and Libya on false pretences.
Of course Syria is a different case to Iraq and Libya. In Syria, the opposition is not just another Middle Eastern leader — it is a nuclear superpower that is feeling increasingly cornered.
The Ukraine Crisis
Ten years ago, the Cold War was truly dead. In 2007, George W. Bush literally went fishing with Putin:
“When Putin arrived on July 1, 2007, Dad met his plane at the airport in New Hampshire and accompanied him on the helicopter ride to Walker’s Point. Then he took both of us for a speedboat ride. Although initially startled by the idea of a eighty-three-year-old former President driving the boat at top speed, Putin loved the ride. (His interpreter looked like he was about to fly out the back of the boat.) The next morning, we had a long conversation about missile defense, in which we found some common ground. We then went fishing. Fittingly, Putin was the only one who caught anything.”
In 2009, the US and Russia announced a ‘reset’ in relations. There were smiles all round. It was not to live long.
Since then, a flurry of world events have pitted Russia and the West squarely opposed to each other. Crimea was one such flash-point. Russia’s annexation of Eastern Ukraine outraged powers worldwide. It was perceived as a throwback to the imperialism of the Soviet Union, with Putin as the new Stalin. The revolution of course followed poor economic performance by Ukraine, who were then offered an association agreement with the EU. The incumbent Russia-friendly Prime Minister initially planned to accept it, before opting for a deal with Russia with fewer strings attached. Riots hit the streets, and the government was overthrown.
To Russia, the whole affair was nothing short of a far-right coup with explicit western support. Their perspective was difficult to ignore. In early February 2014, an embarrassing phone-call between the State Deparment’s Victoria Nulland and Ukraine’s Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt emerged. As demonstrated by the BBC’s transcript of the call, the US officials discussed explicitly how the US was arranging and manipulating who was coming into power in Ukraine. They were, yet again, installing a puppet government that was friendly to the US and hostile to Russia.
As far as we can tell, they got exactly what they wanted. At the time Vitaly Klitschko was the front-runner for the upcoming election. But Nulland had other thoughts:
Nulland: I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.
Soon after the leak, Klitschko resigned from the election race opting to stay as the Mayor of Kiev instead. Arseniy Yatsenyuk became the Prime Minister, exactly as Nulland wanted:
Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats [Yatsenyuk] is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside…
Pyatt: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. OK. Good…
To Russia, the US having such a direct hand in the affairs of Ukraine, with whom Russia shares deep ethnic, historical, and economic ties, was unacceptable. In a sense, as the local superpower, they reserved the right to meddle. But the meddling by the US was particularly egregious given that Ukraine’s southern peninsula, Crimea, is a crucial military base of Russia. Crimea borders the Black Sea, where the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet lives, with its headquarters in Crimea’s Sevastopol. As of 2014 had 15,000 military personnel stationed there. It would be the equivalent of Russia overthrowing the Mexican govt., installing a puppet government, and expecting the US to be fine with it. Naturally, the Kremlin wasn’t fine with it. Crimeans were already more friendly with Russia than their Northern neighbours. A referendum was held, the veracity of which was hotly disputed, with the result indicating that Crimeans wanted to secede to Russia. Russia, apparently, obliged. A lightning quick annexation took place, shocking NATO countries and the world as a whole. It looked like the Russian bear had awoken.
The Kremlin’s actions in Crimea were not without consequence. A harsh regime of sanctions from the US and the EU. These sanctions are credited with helping to push the Russian economy into a recession in 2015–2016, while the reciprocal sanctions have had a damaging effect on the economies of smaller Eastern European EU nations. But perhaps even more significant was the psychological effect of the whole affair. To Russia, it was a sign that their military investments were coming to fruition, and that their self-confidence was not matched by NATO. To western journalists, as usual anaesthetised to their countries’ own involvement in the Ukraine Crisis, this was a sign that Russia was reasserting itself militarily.
Putin’s fishing days had come to an end.
The Critical Importance of the Middle East
Another area of immense tension has been the Syrian Crisis. Before we explore the timeline of the conflict, it is essential to review why the world’s superpowers take such an active role in the wider area, and why it has been a hotbed of political intrigue and war for decades.
In sum, both the US and Russia know that whoever controls the Middle East, controls the world. The Arab countries are tied together by religion, and largely by language. Not only this, they sit upon the world’s largest supplies of oil and natural gas. Were these Muslim-majority countries to unite, they would be an unstoppable force in world politics. However, they are too riven by internal differences and political ignorance to do so. The extant superpowers are all to aware of this, and all too willing to exploit their differences. For most of the last century, the US has supported the Wahabi Saudi Arabian royal family against its own people with unending military cover and financial support.
For the US, the need for more acute action became more pressing during the early Cold War. They noted sympathy for Communism amongst Muslim-majority nations exasperated with their own poor economic progress, and dazzled by Soviet Russia’s development. The US felt that the only way to fight this inclination was to support the installation of extremist dictatorships in the Middle East. As Mirza Tahir Ahmad, 4th Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community put it, governments that cannot even tolerate other factions of Islam becoming ascendant would never cede political rule to Communists, a foreign philosophy with no Islamic support. Thus in Iran, the democratically elected secularist Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953, and the Shah installed. Saudi was kept Salafi. Saddam Hussein was supported. Syria faced a failed coup by the CIA, which soured relations for decades. The Russian Federation later capitalised on bungled US relationships by strengthening relations with Syria and Iran. As time went on, the enemy of US became the friend of Russia. In this way, both superpowers held a foot in the door of the Middle East, each knowing that this was the elixir of power on the world stage.
The Syrian Crisis
Syria was for many years a stable country, with purportedly democratic elections, good tourism, and relatively free minority religious and ethnic groups. However, the Syrian people lived in fear of their government, who were notorious for political paranoia, kidnapping and torturing citizens they deemed suspicious, and having a tight grip on all local and national affairs. In 2011, energised by the Arab Spring protests against the Assad Govt. spread. Predictably, there was a harsh backlash against these, and over months dissidents became organised and militarily adept.
These rebels were not without external help. From at least 2012, there is mainstream news coverage of CIA involvement in helping the rebel cause, helping to distribute weapons reported to be coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. From at least 2013, the CIA was arming and funding ‘moderate rebels’, with a (public) budget in the region of of $1 billion per year, meaning $1 in every $15 the CIA spent was on this cause. Other allied forces also poured money and resources into the offensive against Assad, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Western powers such as the UK and other European allies generally played a role in intelligence assistance, and air firepower.
The Assad Govt. itself was supported militarily and financially by Iran, Lebanon (with their Hezbollah force), and Russia. Russia’s support was largely diplomatic in the first few years of the conflict. However, the nuclear superpower took a more decisive role in the conflict in 2015, a year after the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) terrorist group had risen to prominence. Russia’s actions were met with surprise and trepidation in the West. Within two years, it was clear that their intervention was game-changing. ISIS now stands largely obliterated, and the rebels have lost the majority of their strongholds. The fraught civil war, with catastrophic numbers of civilian deaths from both sides, is coming to an end — with the Assad regime and their Russian allies looking like the victors.
Western powers and their Middle-Eastern allies have not taken this lying down. Reports have swirled for years of how a civil war waged within the upper echelons of the Obama Administration and the intelligence community. Obama and a few key allies sought to limit involvement in the Syrian uprising, while neo-conservative hawks like Hillary Clinton sought to rapidly escalate firepower against Assad. David Cameron in the UK sought parliament’s consent to initiate airstrikes in 2013, held back by a parliament haunted by the memories of Iraq and Libya.
Why such fervour to get rid of Assad? Is it, as western governments claim, simply a matter of humanitarianism? The willingness of the US and its western allies to be partners with brutal regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Israel suggests otherwise. Indeed, the actions of the West itself in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, confirm that only the most naive of observers would believe that humanitarianism dictates foreign policy. Humanitarianism is no concern. Maintaining and expanding geopolitical power is.
Perhaps the most insightful confession of why the west has focused so strongly on toppling Assad comes from a document drafted by Hillary Clinton circa 2012, and later leaked to Wikileaks. The document, entitled ‘NEW IRAN AND SYRIA 2.DOC’ spells out that toppling Assad is necessary to fulfil Israel’s desire of weakening the Iran-Syria-Lebanon axis, and procuring another ally in the Middle East for Washington.
“The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad…
Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war may seem unconnected, but they are. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked Iranian nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. What Israeli military leaders really worry about — but cannot talk about — is losing their nuclear monopoly. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only end that nuclear monopoly but could also prompt other adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear as well. The result would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today…
Back to Syria. It is the strategic relationship between Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel’s security — not through a direct attack, which in the thirty years of hostility between Iran and Israel has never occurred, but through its proxies in Lebanon, like Hezbollah, that are sustained, armed and trained by Iran via Syria. The end of the Assad regime would end this dangerous alliance…
Arming the Syrian rebels and using western air power to ground Syrian helicopters and airplanes is a low-cost high payoff approach. Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will see the United States as a friend, not an enemy. Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes. For Israel, the rationale for a bolt from the blue attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be eased. And a new Syrian regime might well be open to early action on the frozen peace talks with Israel. Hezbollah in Lebanon would be cut off from its Iranian sponsor since Syria would no longer be a transit point for Iranian training, assistance and missiles. All these strategic benefits and the prospect of saving thousands of civilians from murder at the hands of the Assad regime (10,000 have already been killed in this first year of civil war).”
Clinton’s plans were seen through eventually. In 2012, Obama signed a covert directive to arm and fund ‘moderate rebels’. When it became clear in 2015 that the plans were a dismal failure, they were cut back, before being killed off by Trump last year.
Clinton’s admission is troubling in many ways, especially given the current context of Assad winning the civil war. Two key questions linger:
- If the US, Israel, and their Middle Eastern allies have a key interest in seeing Assad go, what will be their response to Russian intervention that increasingly ensures Assad stays? Will they let their massive political and financial investment in strengthening the Syrian opposition go wasted?
- What pretexts would they be willing to engineer to step up more aggressive action against the Assad Regime and its Russian allies?
Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Crisis
The use of chemical weapons has been a chilling feature of the Syrian Civil War. In August 2013, Sarin gas was used indiscriminantly in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. The death toll was huge, in the many hundreds, with thousands affected by neurotoxicity. A report by the UN did not assign responsibility, but confirmed their widespread use. Western nations unequivocally attributed blame to the Assad government. However, in a critique of the White House account, celebrated journalist Seymour Hersh put forward evidence that the attack was perpetrated by the Al-Nusra front, an extremist, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group with probable access to Sarin via Turkey. His critique remains contentious.
What is uncontroversial is that chemical weapons use is seen as a ‘red line’ that makes military escalation all the more probable. After the Ghouta attack, Obama sanctioned strikes against the Syrian government. However, his response was constrained by a fateful slip-up from John Kelly, when he glibly agreed that if Assad handed over all his chemical weapons to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), more severe action would be forestalled. Russia jumped on the proposal, and an agreement was reached. A press release from October 2014 confirmed that the OPCW-UN mission had been completed, reading:
“The OPCW-UN Joint Mission on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons has completed its mandate and its operations drew to a close on 30 September 2014. From there on, the OPCW mission in Syria will continue to deal with the destruction of chemical weapon production facilities and clarification of certain aspects of the Syrian initial declaration.”
Critics of the Assad govt. claimed that Assad could still have some chemical weapons, as he could have under-declared his labs. No specific evidence supporting this was put forth. However, between 2014 and 2017, the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mission (JIM) claimed that the Syrian govt. was responsible for a multitude of smaller chlorine attacks. Chlorine of course is something that all governments have access to legitimately, as it has wide-ranging uses outside of weaponisation. For both ease of access and ease of deployment, it is often used as a chemical weapon when others are proscribed or unavailable.
Then, in April 2017, a chemical weapons attack involving Sarin was committed in the town of Khan Shaykhun, killing between 74–100 people, and maiming many more. The attack was perpetrated in the rebel-held area of Idlib. The OPCW-UN JIM report held the Syrian govt. responsible, though Moscow and Damascus vociferously denied the legitimacy of their analysis. Their contentions seemed to have been strengthened by a confusing statement from US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who reported in February 2018 that the US did not have evidence of the Syrian government using Sarin gas. This admission came almost a year after Trump ordered missile attacks as a result of the attack.
More recently, the Russian-Syrian alliance has come under fierce criticism for the loss of civilian life in the bombing of Eastern Ghouta. It has been reported that over 500 hundred civilians have died in the intense bombing, with many thousands of buildings decimated. The area is a current stronghold of forces opposing the Syrian govt., which claims that the neighbourhoods are being used to fire rockets into Damascus. Russian press have disputed the number of civilian casualties, have claimed that civilians are being used as ‘human shields’ by opposing forces, and that the rebels have stymied humanitarian pauses and stolen envoys of food and resources.
In this context, on March 12th, US’ Nikki Haley threatened military action against the Assad govt. should any chemical weapons be used in Eastern Ghouta.
The Russian-Syrian alliance again denied possession of any chemical weapons. On the 13th of March, Russia warned that they will strike US missile delivery vehicles if US missile strikes are ordered on Syrian govt. sites. On the 16th of March, Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia’s General Staff, also warned that Russia have intelligence of an upcoming chemical weapons attack being planned by anti-govt. forces, to be pinned on the Assad-Russian alliance.
More recently, the Salisbury attack of the Skripals has been pinned on the Russians. However, as I have written about at length elsewhere, the inference that this could ‘only have been the Russians’ is entirely without evidence. What evidence we have supports the contrary — that it probably wasn’t the Russians. Regardless of what really happened, the affair has strengthened the association between ‘Russia’ and ‘Chemical Weapons’ in the public perception. Diplomats have been expelled on both sides, meaning that all too significant channels of communication have gone. This is when mistakes can have unforeseen consequences.
Given all this, the Russia-Assad alliance have no obvious reason to use chemical weapons. They are already winning the civil war using conventional weapons. As the former British ambassador to Syria recently acknowledged, the only group that would benefit from the use of chemical weapons would be the rebel opposition groups. The use of chemical weapons could prove catastrophic for all involved.
Where We Stand Now
In light of the above, the terrible murder and maiming of innocent Syrian citizens may be of the utmost political significance. To understand why, we need to recap the key points of the above analysis.
- The US has invested many billions of dollars into overthrowing Assad with western-friendly forces. It wants to do this in deference to Israeli interests of weakening Iran, to increase its own clout in the Middle East and possibly facilitate the sale of allied natural resources through Syria.
- Russia has stymied this aim with bold and unexpected military action in support of Assad. The civil war is coming to a close with him as a victor.
- The primary justification for western military intervention in Syria has historically been the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad govt. This remains the ‘red line’, threatened with retaliation against Damascus by the US as recently as March 12th 2018.
- Russia reported on March 18th that terrorist groups in Eastern Ghouta were planning to stage a chemical weapons attack, and blame it on Assad. This would then be used as a pretext to bomb Damascus.
- Russia have warned that any US military strikes against Damascus will be met with retaliatory attacks against US missile delivery sites. Should this happen, this will bring Russia and the US in open war against each other.
We are left then in an incredibly precarious position. The US is looking to salvage its botched Syrian operation. Russia is feeling increasingly isolated and cornered by belligerent US and NATO forces. It will not continue to tolerate US aggression against established allies, and the pattern of events warned by both sides will lead US and Russia into open warfare in Syria. The cutting of diplomatic ties over the Salisbury attacks means that lines of communications are weakened, and psyches on both sides have become primed in hostility.
It is difficult to imagine that the US actually wants war with Russia. However, like any empire in its twilight, it has become bloated with past success. It seems to think that it has an automatic right to control the fate of other nations, a manifest destiny of world domination, and a belligerence towards any other powers that dare defy it. With an imbecile at its helm, anything is possible. Probably US hawks don’t believe that Russia will ever really step up against them. But they have misjudged the Russian character. The slow-burn demonisation of their country has hardened the mindset of its public and leadership. The Kremlin’s success in Crimea, and their defiant opposition in Syria have strengthened their self-confidence. Their nuclear weapons systems are progressively updated, and the growing alliance with China will bolster their willingness to look the US in the eye and see who blinks first.
If the US takes the fight to Russia, even unwittingly, Russia will not back down. It has every reason not to. Putin knows that if he capitulates now, he capitulates for a generation. Russia will lose their pride, a key ally in the Middle East, and will embolden the US to do whatever they please against Russia. This is a deciding moment in their history. If Putin doesn’t stand firm, Russia will lose everything. If they do stand firm, the US will draw the world into war.
But the US should be warned. When Bush invited Putin to go fishing, they did not enter as equals. One was the leader of the mightiest empire history had ever seen, the other as the inheritor of a broken nation. But when all was said and done, the lumbering neo-con came out empty-handed. The shrewd Russian emerged with prey in hand.