The Drums of War

A superpower confrontation could be triggered by accident in Syria  

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Qatar’s plans to build a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean were a major cause of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Seven years on, Syria’s oil and gas reserves east of the Euphrates, and especially around Deir az-Zour, have the potential to trigger World War III.

Four military aircraft were downed over Syria in the course of one week: an Israel F-16 shot down by a Russian-made Syrian missile; a Russian jet hit by an American-made shoulder-fired MANPADS; an Iranian pilotless drone intercepted by Israeli missiles; and a Turkish helicopter brought down in the countryside of Afrin by US-backed Kurdish fighters.

Warplanes from at least six countries crowd Syria’s airspace, including those of the American and Russian superpowers, while numerous proxy wars rage on the ground below involving Arab, regional and international parties. This testifies to a cold war that is heating up by the day and could have all manner of unpredictable outcomes.

Last Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry admitted that five Russian citizens were killed in American air and missile strikes on pro-government fighters east of Deir az-Zour. They were identified as military contractors working with armed groups or militias aligned to the Syrian regime.

This was the first time Russians were killed in Syria as a direct result of US military action, rather than by American-backed armed groups. This could have serious consequences if the Russians decide to retaliate in some way. They tend to exercise self-control and avoid reacting in a hasty and direct manner. They were quick to refute reports that appeared in the US claiming the number of Russian casualties in Syria was far higher, with Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling journalists, in exasperated tones, that the figure was not 400, 200, 100 or even 10, but five.

But it is not the number that matters here. It is the precedent, its future implications, and its impact on the proxy war between the two superpowers on Syrian territory. This war is escalating and could lead to direct confrontations and clashes in the days to come as the result of some error made here or there — whether accidental or deliberate.

The US has made clear that it has no intention of withdrawing its 2,000 military personnel from Syria even after the expiry of the original pretext for deploying them, namely to fight the Islamic State (IS) group. Administration officials have repeatedly affirmed that these forces will remain indefinitely in order to counter Iranian influence in the country.

One theory circulating among Western analysts these days is that President Donald Trump and his military advisors want to stage a repeat of the Afghanistan scenario in Syria. The Kurds, and specifically the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), along with some of the hardline Islamist armed groups would become the ‘new mujahideen’, waging war against Russian forces as their Afghan counterparts did against Soviet forces in the 1980s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is not about to allow this to happen. He will not surrender the massive accomplishment he has made in Syria since his 2015 military intervention, achieved at great cost in blood and treasure. Moreover, Russia heads a powerful alliance of regional powers that includes Iran, potentially Turkey, and indirectly Hezbollah in Lebanon along with Syria and most of Iraq.  Also, the presence of Russian forces in Syria is legal as it is at the invitation of the host-state, unlike the US military presence which was established by infiltration and has no legal cover, as the Russians and Syrians both constantly point out.

Let us reverse the Afghan scenario that is being talked about these days. Maybe it is the US that has fallen into the trap this time, and is set pay a high and humiliating price for it in Syria and Iraq, where it retains more than 8,000 troops along with a bevy of military contractors. The US has become loathed in most countries of the region, other than by its new Kurdish and old Israeli allies, and now faces the prospective collapse even of its seven decades-old alliance with Turkey.
The sound of beating war-drums is getting louder in the region and overwhelming everything else – and we’re not talking here about plans for peace, which the Americans have comprehensively buried. The coming days and weeks could be replete with unexpected developments even more surprising that the downing of the Israeli F-16.