Why US Striking Assad’s Syria Won’t Start World War III with Russia

Eastern Ghouta
Syrian regime forces heavily targeted opposition-held areas in Eastern Ghouta. Photo: AFP

On April 8, a chemical weapons attack was reported in Syria’s Douma. The city was one of the last remaining rebel territories in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. A relentless, multi-year siege by Syrian government forces aimed at the eventual evacuation of Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam or JaI) militants to rebel-held Jarablus in the northern part of the country was sporadically countered by JaI regiments lobbing mortar rockets into Damascus, killing civilians.

As has become customary, video footage of the children affected by the alleged chlorine attack spread online. First, pro-rebel media distributed the footage. Soon after, the international and American media joined in and a new flurry of sudden interest in the 7-year conflict spread to the White House, which only weeks ago expected to pull American troops out of Syria with the defeat of the Islamic State imminent.

The likelihood of President Donald J. Trump making good on that promise is now less likely as he ratchets up the rhetoric against the leader’s of Syria, Russia, and Iran, mostly through his Twitter account. Pro-Syrian government activists on the platform, as well as Russian and Iranian diplomats through more traditional forms of media, have responded in kind.

USS Harry S. Truman
The USS Harry S. Truman on alert in the Eastern Mediterranean as White House declares “all options on the table” in Syria. Photo: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass, US Navy

They warn Donald Trump, and by extension the United States and the American people, that if we act in Syria against the Assad regime, the consequences will be dire. World War III will be upon us all if the White House refuses to pull back from their dangerous and incendiary messaging and military options, or so the Russian axis that has emerged in Syria claims. What should we make of this? Is this escalation narrative in alignment with what we’ve witnessed over the past 7-years of Civil War or is this simply a great deal of loud bluster?

I am not going to argue for or against an American military invention. I especially will not do so based on whether chemical weapons were truly used by the Syrian government. We know chemical weapons have been deployed throughout the Syrian conflict by both sides, including at least 52 times by ISIS. We are not in a position to conclude at this point what happened in Douma, and there are more than enough people on the airwaves and social media making, before the facts can be determined, nonsensical arguments either against “animal Assad” or flat-out refusing to see this incident as anything more than a false flag operation by the American empire in alignment with terrorists to prolong the Syrian Civil War.

We need to look at Syria with strategic rationality and not emotionally, now more than ever. Instead, let’s examine the incidents where state actors have collided in Syria, and see if any of those accidents, miscalculations, or deliberate uses of force have resulted in the kind of global apocalypse that those opposed to American military intervention insist will result from such an action.

Most recently,¬†two Israeli F-15 jets assaulted a Syrian airbase in central Syria, killing multiple Iranian agents operating in the country. A deliberate use of force resulted in a loud protest from Russia, Syria, and Iran, with the axis seeking international condemnation for the strike. While Syria did use it’s air defense systems to defend the Iranians to the extent they could, there were no retaliatory measures taken against Israel. Russia has protested, but this isn’t the first time Russia has protested Israeli strikes in Syria. When an Israeli air raid came dangerously close to striking Russian troops in an attack that killed pro-Assad fighters last year, the Israeli ambassador to Moscow was summoned. When Israel attacks Syria, Russia has proven itself unwilling to take military action to deter it.

Last month, a skirmish broke out between U.S. soldiers and Russian mercenaries in northern Syria. The U.S. soldiers demolished their opponents and at least a “couple hundred” Russians were left dead, according to the incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This was Russia’s largest defeat since their intervention in 2015 and the deadliest encounter between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War, yet the Kremlin and Russian state media downplayed the altercation. Surely a defeat that may have included Russian Special Operation forces alongside private military contractors (PMCs) would provoke a retaliation? Some reported that the mercenaries went rogue as an explanation for why Russia may have remained quiet after the incident rather than confront the United States.

Another incident that many pro-government voices insisted would lead to an escalating regional war with a nuclear-armed enemy was the 2017 American cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, which recently celebrated its one year anniversary. Sixty Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched. There was no retaliation. The strikes admittedly did little structural damage to the base or hit any high-profile targets.

Let’s dig deeper, to Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane in 2015. The Su-24 attack aircraft was the first Russian aircraft to be a casualty of intervention in Syria. It was downed by a Turkish F-16 jet. To be sure, there were consequences for a regional power, Turkey, killing Russian pilots. Diplomatic relations were severely strained, markets were embargoed and trade reduced. The relationship became quite tense. What didn’t happen was a Russian nuclear missile being dropped on Ankara, Istanbul, or any place else. Russia did not risk escalating the confrontation militarily and instead sought other means to make Turkey pay for what was most likely an accidental military confrontation in a sky that had become too small for so many aircraft to be present.

In a turn-around, President Vladimir Putin met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a year later. The two sought to reduce their nations tensions. If Russia is so keen to exact a price against those who would militarily intervene in Syria against its interests, why the normalization? Turkey and Russia continue to be on opposing sides of the Syrian Civil War. As recently as January of this year, Russia blamed Turkey for using drones to attack Russia’s Hmeimim naval base in Tartus, the last Russian warm water port outside the old confines of the Soviet Union. Three months later, and Putin is shaking Erdogan’s hand alongside the president of Iran.

Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets for Syria’s Astana Peace Talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to discuss the war in Syria.

The Russian axis of Russia-Iran-Syria has proven that their bark is louder than their bite is deep. Does Russia have the capability to launch nuclear weapons that would end the world as we know it in a new World War? Yes, undoubtedly. However, Russia has up until this point shown they are unwilling to risk this level of retaliation within the space of the Syrian Civil War. Why should this time be different? We can take action against the Russian axis without it escalating to nuclear war, and rhetoric to the contrary has proven to be just that. Loud, blustering rhetoric. In fact, it now appears Russia is coordinating with the U.S. to avoid their assets from becoming collateral damage.

Russia continues to have a genuine interest in maintaining the rule of the Syrian Arab Republic. Much Russian blood and treasure have already been spilled to do just that, and unless American intervention proved to be a policy of regime change which would put the steady gains of the Syrian government in jeopardy, they will not risk an escalation as drastic as armed entanglement if the past is any indication.

After years of Russia appearing strong because of American dithering, they are now on the defensive. Europe is united in exacting, albeit belated, costs for Russian operations in the West, Ukraine, and the Middle East over the last few years. The sanctioning of Russian companies and oligarchs that has led to a drastic run on the Ruble and a tanking stock market. The expulsion of diplomats across Europe as a result of a chemical agent being used to kill Sergei Skripal in the U.K. And finally, an end to this shield Russia has put up for their allies. A shield that has removed consequences for Iranian terrorism and continued violations of the international laws prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.