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No risk of World War III…not yet

Published: 
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Alas, Babylon is a post-apocalyptic novel written by Pat Frank in 1959 about the aftermath of a nuclear war. It starts when an American fighter jet accidentally attacks a Soviet military base in Latakia, Syria. This plot, while plausible at the time of writing, was probably considered to be one of the least-likely triggers for World War III. But fast-forward sixty years later and the events taking place in today’s Syria begs the question of whether it could indeed become a flashpoint that results in a conflict of global proportions.

The Syrian Civil War is now entering its eighth year. Since its beginnings in March 2011, the fighting between rebel factions and government forces has resulted in over half a million dead and almost ten million refugees. Through the use of brutal tactics and support from powerful allies, the Assad regime has managed to hold on to power.

But the situation is far from stable. Many cities are in ruins. Parts of the country still remain under opposition control. And interference by foreign powers is now a normal occurrence. It’s a safe bet that the war is far from over. But the frightening part is that no one can say for certain what shape the next phase will take.

Following the recent chemical attack on the city of Douma, President Trump vowed to take military action to punish the regime. He even called out Russia for their continued backing of “Animal Assad”. In response, a spokesperson from the Russian foreign ministry warned that any incoming missiles would be shot down. President Trump, again resorting to provocative language, tweeted that Russia should “get ready” because they—the missiles—are coming, “…nice and new and smart.”

While this posturing was going on, both Britain and France signalled a willingness to join the Americans in whatever action they chose to take. And that’s exactly what happened on Friday night when allied aircraft and smart weapons struck multiple targets across Syria. At the time of writing the Russians have not retaliated, and there’s little reason to think that they will.

This back-and-forth was the first time since the Cold War ended that the US and Russia have been overtly antagonistic towards each other. Nevertheless, it would be premature to assume that both sides are on a path destined for war.

President Trump may have simply gotten ahead of himself, thinking that his bombastic rhetoric, which seemed to work with North Korea, would work here as well. But in doing so, he painted himself into a corner.

After criticising his predecessor’s failure to act on the infamous “red line” threat, Trump found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He either had to fulfil his promise and hope the Russians weren’t in the mood for a confrontation, or back down, which would have not only eroded America’s reputation but embolden Assad to launch more chemical attacks in the future.

What did occur, however, was a third option—the targeting of Syrian military assets while avoiding the Russians; a “compromise” that was similar to last year’s attack on the Shayrat airbase. And that’s probably the end of it…because if the Russians were going to strike back they would have done so already, not that diplomatic farce of protesting before the Security Council.

This “tiptoeing around each other” allows both of them to save face. The Americans showed some backbone by following-through and the Russians were able to hold back using the excuse that they weren’t attacked directly.

Tragic as it may be, the Syrian Civil War is an internal matter. This is an important distinction because the US is once again imposing its will on a sovereign nation. The last time they did that was 15 years ago with the invasion of Iraq, the consequences of which are still being felt throughout the region. With that lesson in mind, neither they nor the Russians are going to risk starting World War III…not over the suffering of the Syrian people. They were dying before, what makes now any different?

Ryan Hadeed

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