Executive Director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
Syria has become a powder keg that could spark a far more dangerous war.
Over the weekend, combined military forces from the United States, the United Kingdom and France launched coordinated strikes against the chemical weapons facilities of the Syrian government. The attacks were a response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on April 7 in the rebel-controlled town of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta, located on the outskirts of Damascus.
As far we know no civilians were killed. None of the Western allies lost any pilots during the mission, nor did the main backers of ruthless Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — Russia and Iran — lash back with a military response.
Does this mean the military operation was a success? The answer is unclear. While US President Donald Trump may have used the phrase “mission accomplished,” there is little evidence that these strikes will deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons in the future. It is worth recalling Trump ordered strikes this time last year as well. Certainly, the strikes alone do not constitute a concrete or comprehensive Syria strategy. Nor do they make up for what has been nothing less than a weak, belated and garbled response by the major Western powers to a deadly proxy war that has been raging for over seven years, resulting in millions of refugees and internally displaced persons and over half a million civilian casualties.
There is also the question of whether these military pinpricks are legal under international law. Despite all moral and strategic arguments to support the action taken by the US, the UK and France over the past few days, the action was not approved by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). All three countries have been frustrated by the UNSC’s other two members, Russia and China, who have collectively used their veto power to shield the Syrian government on more than a dozen occasions. Such a fact seemed to give Russia leverage in its response. “Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the U.N. Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,” warned a Kremlin statement.
Yet perhaps the most important question is this: are we witnessing a frightening new phase of the Syrian conflict, one that could lead to a far more dangerous war pitting the US and its allies, including Canada, against Russia and Iran?
When behemoths clash, the entire world is put in danger. While a great deal of attention has been focused on the recent missile attacks, the US has in fact been sliding toward direct confrontation with Russia in Syria for some time now. Just last week, Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director nominated to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, made public that US airstrikes had killed over 200 Russians in Syria last February. Assad appears to be winning the war because of Russian political support at the UNSC and military support on the ground.
We must not discount the other wild card factor, which is a growing and legitimate fear of armed conflict between Israel and Iran. Along with Russia, Iran has been a key ally to the Assad regime and deployed its own military forces to fight in Syria, spreading its influence further west in the Arab world, right onto the Mediterranean coast and directly alongside Israel’s border. “This is not mere speculation,” remarked New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently. “In the past few weeks — for the first time ever — Israel and Iran have begun quietly trading blows directly, not through proxies, in Syria.”
Over the past week Israel launched two air strikes against targets in Syria, as it sees Iranian influence as a direct existential threat to its security, as do many other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. On April 9, an Israeli strike on a Syrian air base resulted in seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members being killed. This was the same air base that Israel alleges Iran is using to deliver weapons and launch armed drones into Israeli air space.
The Syrian conflict has morphed into the most complex war of the 21st century and has become a slow-burning powder keg. Several countries with conflicting objectives are in direct confrontation with each other. With so many competing powers duking it out on the ground and in the skies over Syria, Western leaders must be prudent in contemplating next steps. Any miscalculation could lead to a wider conflict between the US and its allies and Russia and Iran.
Unless coordinated and strategic action among world leaders is taken soon, it risks spiraling into a far more dangerous war.