Bracing for Escalation

Is Trump planning an imminent attack Syria?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s statements over the past few days, combined with Russia’s escalating warnings against any US attempt to exploit allegations that the Syrian army is using chemical weapons in the Eastern Ghouta, leave the strong impression that a serious military development in the Syrian crisis is imminent, and could be just days or weeks away.

On Wednesday, Asad vowed to confront what he termed ‘Western scenarios to target Syria,’ and insisted that ‘the war on terrorism will not stop as long as there is a single terrorist defiling Syrian soil.’ Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern and anger at mounting US threats to launch military strikes against Syria militarily. He warned his country would take ‘appropriate measures’ if the US attacked Syrian government targets as these would threaten the lives of Russian military advisers based in Damascus and at Syrian defence ministry sites.

Lavrov’s words, issued in an official statement, imply that the Americans are planning attacks on the Syrian capital, targeting the ministry of defence and other military location such as the headquarters of the Syrian army where Russian military advisors are posted. This is the first time Moscow has referred to such targets by name since the crisis began seven years ago, and the first time it has simultaneously issued such warning messages.

Over the past two weeks, the Russians have been sounding the alarm, based on what they say is firm intelligence, that armed factions could stage a provocation involving the use of chemical weapons which would then be blamed on Syrian regime so as to justify an American attack. Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov lent credence to this theory by announcing that a chemical weapons factory was discovered in the town of Aftaris in the Eastern Ghouta after it was recaptured from rebel forces recently.

It would be nothing new for the US to attack Syria in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian army. In April 2017, 59 cruise missiles were launched at Shuayrat airbase ostensibly to avenge the victims of the mysterious chemical incident in the town of Khan Shaykhun. This time, however, the suggestion is that the target may be the Syrian capital itself, which has hitherto been spared such strikes thanks to understandings reached between Moscow and Washington.

The Russians fear the Americans are now set to scrap all red lines and launch serious air strikes – not merely for show, as was the case in Shuayrat – which could result in Russian advisors being killed. This would make Russian retaliation inevitable.

In his annual address two weeks ago, President Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia would not only retaliate to any nuclear attack against it, but also to any such attack that targets its allies. This was a clear cautionary message to the US, accompanied by a reminder that Russia has developed sophisticated new missiles which are difficult to monitor and intercept.

Putin was evidently referring primarily Syria and North Korea, and serving notice that Russia has assumed the responsibility of protecting them against American aggression as a strategy.

US President Donald Trump may nevertheless go ahead and commit such an act of folly. His recklessness is notorious, and his decision to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with the extreme right-wing racist Mike Pompeo is ominous. It supports the view that he is surrounding himself with a ‘war cabinet’ of top aides prepared to back him in scrapping the nuclear agreement with Iran and beating the war-drums against it and Syria.

In unprecedented remarks earlier this week, the UN’s special advisor for Syria, Jan Egeland, predicted that Syria would see ‘tremendous battles’ as the war there enters its eighth year. Someone in his position would not have said this casually or without knowledge of US intentions in this regard.

Russia’s emphasis on taking ‘necessary measures’ in response to any American act of aggression indicates that its retaliation may not be confined to intercepting US missiles or downing attacking warplanes, but could extend to bombing US forces in north-eastern Syria – especially if Russian advisors are killed by US military action.

The war in Syria is returning more forcefully to centre-stage it enters its eighth year. The gains made by the Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance at the expense of the US and its allies in peril, because President Trump is beating the war drums, refuses to accept defeat, and is reconsidering his country’s strategy in this regard.

We have no crystal ball and cannot foretell the future. But on the available evidence, and reading between the lines, grave developments can be anticipated on the Syrian front. The battle of wills and arm-twisting between Putin and Trump and their respective partners has well and truly begun.