Stumbling into Big War: Hands on the Trigger in Syria’s South

Stumbling into Big War: Hands on the Trigger in Syria’s South

The US, UK, and French military strikes against Syria on April 14 paved the way for Russia to supply President Bashar al-Assad with S-300 air-defense missile systems. Any moral hurdles that might have blocked that deal were destroyed in the attack. With a range of 200 kilometers (120 miles), this air-defense system can engage as many as six targets at once, with two missiles trained on each target to increase the kill probability. This weapon will greatly enhance the Syria’s government forces’ ability to repel strikes. Any attacker will have to think twice before violating Syrian air space.

The move might cause friction with Israel but it was not Russia who started this whole thing. Moscow has respected certain agreements in order to avoid any escalation. The purchase of the S-300 was suspended in 2013 after talks with EU leaders and Israel. On April 9, Israeli warplanes attacked the T4 air base in central Syria. A few days later, the US and its allies launched their strikes so as to give the impression that the Israeli raid was actually one phase of a joint operation. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the Israeli PM to discontinue the strikes in a phone conversation on April 11. On April 16 and17 Israel launched another attack. Now the S-300 might be on its way. You reap what you sow.

Israel’s April 9 strike resulted in the death of Iranian servicemen. Iran said it would retaliate. As a result, both parties now have their fingers on the trigger.

A group of over 12,000 militants known as the Southern Front, along with armored vehicles, have amassed in southern Syria, bracing for an assault on the government forces. If they do so, that will be a breach of the agreement governing the de-escalation zone. Their mission is to capture the city of Daraa, which would become the capital of a US-controlled quasi-state outside of the Syrian government’s control. The convoys providing arms and logistics are crossing the Jordanian-Syrian border under the guise of delivering “humanitarian aid.”

The attackers may use the “violation of the de-escalation zone agreement” by the Syrian government forces as a pretext for launching an assault. The militants may be plotting a chemical attack. Such a provocation would justify their actions and spur the involvement of the US and its allies.

The de-escalation agreement, brokered by Russia, the US, and Jordan, was reached in the summer of 2017. The region has been quiet since then. Now it is on the verge of a security breakdown. Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell claimed on April 18 during a congressional hearing that the US was ready for an armed clash with Russia in Syria. The American forces stationed at al-Tanf, a US-controlled base in the east, could be involved. They’ll need air cover to increase the possibility of an incident between Russian and US planes. The assistant secretary did not elaborate but the message is clear. And it was a US official, not a Russian one, who resorted to such hostile rhetoric. 

And what about Israel, which considers southern Syria to be an area of special concern? Why has its military decided to withdraw a squadron of fighters from a Red Flag multinational military exercise in Alaska, beginning on April 30? This is a time when Israel needs its aircraft close to home and ready for action.

It has been reported recently that the US has moved nuclear weapons onto Greece’s Araxos Air Base. Its military has also deployed drones to the Larissa airfield.

Diplomatic moves are underway to direct developments away from the peace process advanced by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. On April 4, the leaders of these countries agreed to draft new peace initiatives. Those plans include Russian mediation to encourage Iran and the Persian Gulf states to take a seat at the negotiation table. If Russia achieves that, it will be a real diplomatic setback for the United States.

Attempts are being made to provide venues other than Astana and Geneva where a settlement of the Syrian crisis could be hammered out. Austria is offering to host talks in a new format in Vienna. French President Macron also wants a role in the settlement process. Nobody can explain why is it so important to add a new venue for the talks, if all those talks, wherever the meetings are held, are based on UN Resolution 2254. No doubt the US will endorse any place or format that will diminish Russia’s clout.

If you put all these facts and bits of information together, it leads to the conclusion that Syria is teetering on the brink of conflict, which could spoil all the significant achievements that have been reached so far to silence the guns and make the terrorist groups fade into the background.

On April 20, the Russian president held a meeting with his defense minister and chief of general staff. Syria topped the agenda. On the same day, the Russian foreign minister stated that Vladimir Putin was ready to meet Donald Trump in the US. This is a clear demonstration of responsible behavior and a firm intention to avoid a worst-case scenario. The US has influence over Israel, whose covert or overt support of the rebels in southern Syria is an open secret. Washington can prevent this situation from backsliding into a dangerous confrontation. It can also deliberately fan tensions in pursuit of its political goals. Whatever happens will be its responsibility. Russia has done everything possible to avoid an armed conflict.