French President Emmanuel Macron has said he would order airstrikes against Syria if the rumors that its government has used chemical weapons (CW) against civilians are confirmed. Never backed up with any solid evidence, such reports crop up from time to time in the Western media. In some cases the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has claimed that the traces actually led to the rebels, not the Syrian government. More of the CW stories have been published recently. Why now? A bit of background information can offer some clues.
The situation in Syria has been greatly aggravated. France is not the only actor threatening an incursion. Israel has just attacked some sites in Syria, as well as what it called “Iranian forces in Syria” and said that it would not hesitate to do so again. It hit an Iranian drone and lost an F-16 fighter. A direct confrontation between Israel and Iran is highly likely. Israel has beefed up its defenses at the Syrian border.
The Trump administration, which has taken a hard line on Iran, strongly supports Israel. It says the US will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria so close to Israel’s border. A conflict between Israel and Iran will jeopardize US forces all over the Middle East. Iran’s mobile missiles have a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), which puts every American base in the region within their reach, including the ones in Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. A strike range like that is enough to make the US outposts in Syria and Afghanistan vulnerable as well. Israel is also within the missiles’ reach. Iran’s ballistic missiles are not covered by the 2015 “nuclear deal,” but nonetheless the US has slapped sanctions against Tehran because of its missile program.
Tensions have been cranked up during a time when Russia and its partners in Syria - Turkey and Iran - are making major diplomatic advances. The Syrian National Congress, held in Sochi on Jan. 30, brought together more than 1,500 Syrians to kick-start the national dialog. This new forum has every chance of becoming a platform to unite all those who are taking part in the negotiations in Geneva and Astana. The UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura gave due credit to the event.
On Feb. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with King Abdullah II of Jordan. The two leaders discussed a number of issues in private. The prospects for a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis topped the agenda. In an interview with the Russian government-owned daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Jordanian king called President Putin his brother.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Moscow on Feb. 12. It was a landmark visit reflecting a major shift from the US to Russia as the chief mediator between Palestine and Israel. The Palestinian leader ousted America from this role after President Trump’s Dec. 6, 2017 announcement of US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That decision significantly undermined US credibility in the Middle East. Impressed with Russia’s diplomatic efforts to overhaul the Syrian peace process, Mahmoud Abbas asked Moscow to organize an international peace conference to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
If Moscow accepts the offered role and manages to make some progress, its influence in the region will skyrocket, dwarfing that of the United States, which has already seen its stature diminished after its failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. Unlike Moscow, Washington can offer no alternative to the work being done in Astana and Sochi. Its contribution to the stymied Geneva talks is has been modest at best. The humiliation of the US over its Jerusalem policy at the United Nations General Assembly put a spotlight on Washington’s waning clout.
The illegal presence of the US in Syria has become more complicated and fraught with many dangers. The need to fight the Islamic State* became a flimsy pretext after the jihadist group’s defeat. Now the alleged threat coming from Iran is being used to justify US military operations in a faraway country. America is sparing no effort to try to bring back the days when it was the only dominant power in the Middle East. One way to do that is to lead the anti-Iran coalition. The best place to confront Iran and start rolling back its influence is in Syria. France is ready to join Washington in a pinch. Inflaming the Israeli-Iranian standoff serves that purpose, but the main obstacle there is the peace process Russia is spearheading. And the harder Russia works, the more artificially created situations spring up to thwart the achievement of that noble goal.
* Terrorist organization, banned in Russia by court order.