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Upon Reflection (12 April)

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12 April 2018

Syria ‘chemical attack’: US weighs up military response

12 April 2018, London, United Kingdom – BBC – The alleged chemical attack in the town of Douma (Syria) 7 April 2018 yet again demonstrates the hard and fast way that the various players in Syria are tilting their hand. Suffice to say, this conflict is no longer a straight-out ‘civil war’, nor is it an aerial/Special Force driven counter-terrorism campaign designed to flush out and destroy the last hold-outs of Islamic State.

Most importantly no one currently with forces deployed in Syria has clean hands or a moral imperative to stop the fighting.

There is much more at stake here.

Strategic balance of power thinking will determine the shape and characteristic of what Syria will become.

Bashar al-Assad is as much a victim as he is a perpetrator of much of the violence, dependent as he is on the ‘unholy troika’ of support from Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. It may well be only a matter of time before strategic pressure on all three of these foreign parties builds up, forcing them to withdraw their support for Assad.

If that should happen, Assad and his supporters will be hung out to dry – literally and metaphorically – and the Syrian people could be forced to accept rule by either Saudi-backed religious extremists, or a hard-line Turkish-backed secular dictatorship.

Furthermore, the violence we currently see being levelled at Syrian rebels by Damascus could pale into insignificance were a post-Assad government to prosecute a ‘war of revenge’ against the largely Alawite community who is the primary backer of Assad, many of whom are currently sheltering under a Russian umbrella from Tartus to the northern border of Latakia province.

Let us be under no illusion, this would be a true pogrom and ironically, one right on Israel’s doorstep.

In one very important way, Russia’s military presence in Tartus and Latakia prevents this outcome, however, it is unlikely that Moscow sees its ‘protection of Syria’s Alawites’ and its backing of Assad in any other way than pure strategic positioning. Should the heat become too intense for them in Syria, Russia will abandon it – this being especially true were other parts along the Russian periphery, or more economic sanctions threatened by the West. Russia can only maintain its international position as ‘disruptor’ if it remains essentially unchallenged or challenged in limited ways.

Writing this blog on the eve of what seems likely to witness a series of punitive Western (and possibly Israeli) aerial strikes against Assad’s military infrastructure in retaliation for last weekend’s chemical attack on Douma, we will need to watch Moscow’s reactions carefully.

Also Tehran’s.

Should Russian military advisors fail to shore-up Assad’s anti-aircraft batteries (a multilayered mix of consisting of BUK-M2E surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs); S-300 SAMs; Pantsir S-1s as well as outmoded anti-aircraft artillery guns) and allow US and allied cruise missiles and attacking warplanes free access to ‘take out’ Syrian Arab Air Force bases, thus effectively grounding much of the Syrian air force, Russia will be seen as an unreliable ally, not just by Bashar al-Assad, but by other would be regional Russian client-states. This may critically damage Assad’s ability to reclaim more rebel territory and ground his war down to a much slower pace. It might also put a dent in the sale of Russian military equipment to the Middle East, especially of Russian anti-ballistic missile/anti-aircraft systems.

Recent reports from the region suggest that the 11 Russian naval vessels based at Port Tartus have set sail into the Eastern Mediterranean, likely to preserve this limited Russian flotilla from being struck by errant Western missiles. Also, in the media are reports from various sources suggesting that Russian electronic warfare has played a key role in neutralising Western drone attacks throughout Syria. Whether this capability can and will be used to shield Assad’s forces from a general Western aerial attack is unknown and unknowable.

The other Assad supporters Iran and Hezbollah, (Hezbollah often working in close tandem with Iranian forces), will be watching the skies over their bases of operations in Syria as it is likely that the Israeli attack on the Syrian T-4 airbase (9 April 2018) outside of the city of Homs, was a signal of Israeli intent to potentially use a Western attack against Assad’s forces as a cover for Israeli strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria.

The Israeli government is eager to push back Iranian military influence from its borders and currently the Syrian civil war has provided Tehran ample scope to launch probing feints into Israeli airspace or to simply look threatening.

Iranian advisors and weapons supplies to Lebanese Hezbollah, according to Israeli authorities, needs to be wrecked to the point of destroying it outright. This can only be achieved should Trump do more than simply fire off a few limited salvos at Syrian regime targets. For the Israelis to do permanent damage to Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria, a Western air campaign over Syria would need to last a couple of weeks at the very least.

At the time of writing we perhaps have only hours to go before we find out what the next phase of Western and Israeli military operations over Syria will look like.

There is a lot at stake for all concerned.

Unfortunately for the Syrian people, there will only be victims no matter on whose side they are fighting or under whose protection they are living. But strategically, there are reputations to be made and lost by all foreign parties to this awful conflict and the ever-present likelihood of a great power war occurring from targeting errors, or deliberate provocations cannot be discounted.

Let us hope that some degree of rationality prevails and the contesting parties to the Syrian civil war will rein in the temptation to escalate their warfighting to uncontainable levels.

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