I could go either way, but a political accommodation still seems the more likely outcome of the superpower standoff
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Russian President Vladimir Putin was right to liken the current situation in Syria to the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq.
‘This reminds me very much of the events of 2003, when US representatives in the Security Council showed alleged chemical weapons discovered in Iraq,’ he said on Tuesday in reference to Friday’s American cruise missile strike on Syria’s Shueirat airbase. ‘A military campaign in Iraq ensued, which ended with the destruction of the country, an increased terrorist threat and the emergence of [Islamic State] on the international scene – no more, no less,’ he explained. ‘The exact same thing is happening now, and their partners are nodding approvingly…. We have seen this all before.”
Putin went on to reveal that he knew of plans for the US military to launch another raid on the southern outskirts of Damascus, after staging another chemical incident there which would be blamed on the authorities and used as a pretext to attack.
The Russian president gave little away about his country’s planned response. But when the head of the Duma’s defence committee, Yuri Shvitkin, was asked ifRussian forces would respond directly to a further attack that might target Syria’s air defence system, he replied that this would be unnecessary as Syria’s air defence forces were themselves up to the job.
These statements imply not only that the threat of further American raids on Syrian airports and military targets remains very real, but that the Syrian army now has the capability to counter them without relying on its Russian allies – albeit with their collaboration and, most certainly, their approval.
Apparently confirming this, a Pentagon official was quoted as saying that the Syrian regime had strengthened its air defences in the western parts of the country under its control and set up effective radar facilities that enable it to closely monitor aerial activity.
US President Donald Trump is unlikely to order warplanes into action over Syria after Russia’s suspension of its air safety agreement with the US in protest at Friday’s attack. This means that cruise missiles are also likely to be the weapon of choice in any further strike. But preparations are clearly well underway for countering this, and Shvitkin’s remarks may mean that the Syrians have been supplied with S-300 or S-400 air defence batteries which can be used against either missiles or warplanes.
It was from Shueirat, ironically, that Syrian forces last month for the first time fired missiles against intruding Israeli warplanes, chasing them back across the border and exploding over the Galilee. The blast could be heard in the Jordan valley and occupied Jerusalem, causing panic among Israeli settlers and military planners alike. The Syrians are bound to have obtained a Russian green light for such an unprecedented action.
Shvitkin’s remark that the Syrian army has the capacity to respond on its own to any further attacks looks like another green light – this time against any renewed American aggression.
Experience teaches us that military escalation often results in political understandings which lead to deals that in turn cause a reduction in tensions – and also that every row over chemical weapons has ben followed by a Russian-American deal. While US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was holding talks in Moscow this week, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was packing his bags before travelling to Moscow as head of a delegation including Syria’s UN ambassador Faisal Miqdad and presidential advisor Bouthaini Shaaban. They are expected on Friday, at the same time as an Iranian delegation led by Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif.
It looks as though some serious decisions will be taken jointly by the Russians, Iranians and Syrians: either in favour of a political deal which restores calm, or a military deal that leads to escalation and confrontation.
It could go either way. But a political deal remains the more likely outcome, as happened after the crisis over Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Syrian delegation that will be in Moscow this week is the same team that negotiated the earlier deal which defused a looming Russian-American military confrontation, and got both superpowers to turn their aircraft carriers and fleets back to the ports from which they set sail for Syrian shores.