10 April 2017, Damascus, Syria – Express – In the aftermath of the US cruise missile strike against the Syrian government’s Al Shayrat airfield, a statement from the ‘joint command centre’ (comprising Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah) tasked with defending the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, bluntly warned that “[f]rom now on we will respond with force to any breach of red lines and America knows our ability to respond well”.
However, what remains unclear from the joint command centre is why they allowed the strike in the first place?
In 2015, Russia deployed defensive assets to its critical installations in Latakia province and Port Tartus. It was understood that these assets, the hypersonic S400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) and the effective S300 SAM systems would act as an umbrella over Syrian government installations and facilities. Both missile systems have anti-aircraft AND anti-missile capabilities. They should have been able to detect and track incoming Tomahawks and launch on warning, eliminating most if not all incoming 59 cruise missiles.
For Assad, the uncomfortable questions are:
- Was he hung out to dry by his Russian allies, giving Trump a free kick? If so, how dependable will the joint command centre be in helping preserve his regime and specifically his hold on power in Damascus?
- Did the Russians conduct a false-flag operation by giving IS or other jihadist forces in the rebel camp access to sarin-like gas canisters and letting Assad’s forces take the fall in order to sucker punch the US into a protracted conflict in Syria? If Assad was out of the loop on this decision, could he be convinced that the joint command centre is serious about anything other than using remaining Syrian government forces as convenient pawns in a game that has less to do with them (Syrian forces) and more with Russia and Iran’s ambitions to reshape the Middle East.
For Russia and Iran, the uncomfortable questions are:
- If the anti-aircraft/anti-ballistic missile network over Syria was unable to detect and track the incoming flight of American Tomahawks, this would have grave implications for Russia’s own air defence systems by revealing a key vulnerability to the United States. Countries like Iran that already have the S300 and are looking to purchase the S400 will wonder about these systems effectiveness, especially against potential Israeli air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
- Either way, talk of retaliation by the joint command centre will be tempered by the fact that Russian assets and personnel were not targeted in the American attack. However, the US will have to ensure that further action in Syria does not unduly endanger the lives of some 400 US military trainers working among elements of the Syrian rebels.
11 April 2017, London, United Kingdom – BBC News – The G7 Summit in Tuscany, Italy, was the stage on which British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tried to position himself as the premier Western European ‘hawk’ on Russia. Coming at a time when some European states are waning in their support for existing sanctions against Russia, imposed on the country after its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Johnson saw advantage in aligning the UK with a more ‘hard-line’ attitude against Russia by certain members of Trump’s cabinet.
However, it will take more than grandstanding by Johnson to get other European countries to bandwagon with him against Moscow. In a testimony to the disunited nature of the EU, national capitals each have their own foreign and strategic policies to worry about and see the Russian capture of Crimea as something that cannot be reversed short of war.
As no European country, individually or collectively (through NATO), is able or willing to confront Russia by force, the current sanctions regime is crippling the EU’s ability to trade with Russia which is bad for business. Many European countries see their capability to trade with Russia as more important than sustaining an indefinite confrontation from which they gain virtually nothing, neither security nor profitability.
12 April 2017, Canberra, Australia – The Age – An Op-Ed by Australian strategic analyst Prof. Clive Williams MG, made clear that alarmist assessments of North Korea’s military capabilities should be put into perspective.
Prof Williams argues that North Korea is years away from acquiring the capacity to couple a nuclear warhead to an ICBM with the reach necessary to strike the continental United States. He makes the compelling case that alarmist and misleading talk in the media heightens the chances for miscalculation since it raises the prospect of sparking the very sort of conflagration the world is trying to avoid.
13 April 2017, Washington D.C., United States – CNN – It was claimed that the US has uncovered definitive proof that the Syrians were indeed behind the recent Khan Sheikhun chemical attack (4 April), which elicited the 7 April US cruise missile strike.
Of course there is no way of being able to independently corroborate this evidence, so in reality the origins of the chemical weapon attack remain shrouded in obscurity.
What is clear is that the Trump administration, having made public this ‘discovery’, conveniently gave a clear justification for its cruise missile strike on Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield.
This is a problem.
Without being able to independently verify the nature of what group on the ground in Syria is committing what action, it is easy to set up the Assad regime to take the fall for any attack, chemical or otherwise, launched by a technically competent rebel militia.
We have to remember that the Assad regime is not the only organisation suspected of having used chemical weapons during the Syrian Civil War, a fact borne out by none other than the United Nations. Furthermore, there are clear reasons why the Syrian rebels would want to implicate Assad in the use of chemical weapons, because it would raise the possibility of Western-led regime change and foreign military intervention on their side.
And if there is any doubt of this, let us not forget that many of the more militarily competent militia personnel in Syria were former Syrian military personnel. They would have a level of expertise to use chemical munitions, whether captured from Assad’s stocks prior to the 2013 US-Russian chemical weapons disarmament of the Assad regime, or by jerry-rigging less sophisticated assaults.