April 10, 2018 – Fort Russ –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
The situation in the Middle East and the world as a whole is a matter of skyrocketing concern. The risks of conflict were escalated a little over a month ago when UK Prime Minister Theresa May launched the “Skripal affair” and threatened Russia with cyberwar. Then the tune of chemical weapons supposedly used against Syrian “rebels” in Eastern Ghouta was sung more than a few times with the same notes of unsubstantiated arguments as a pretext to blame those who are working against the West’s interests. In Syria, the US and Britain are acting as the outright direct lawyers of jihadists, while the Syrian Army, supported by the Russian Air Force and volunteers from Iran, has virtually liberated Eastern Ghouta from jihadists.
The “international coalition”, i.e., the US and its allies, are gradually losing their foothold in Syria. In parallel, a guerrilla movement against the US’ occupation forces has been launched. On this matter, I managed to get in touch with friend of friends from the so-called Wagner Private Military Company. I do not personally know these people, but I have heard a lot about them, and managed to get a few short answers to a number of my questions through mediators. These insider sources confirmed to me the following:
1. The Americans have indeed been suffering significant losses over the past few weeks as a result of operations by local guerillas.
2. The Syrian Army’s combat efficiency has significantly improved over the past two years, especially with the aid of Russian military advisors and instructors. The Syrian Arab Army has almost destroyed the last pockets of jihadist resistance in Eastern Ghouta, and has no reason to have used any chemical weapons against an already broken enemy.
3. The ongoing close-range urban combat in Eastern Ghouta makes the use of chemical weapons extremely dangerous for advancing government troops themselves. To be more precise, the use of such weapons would be impossible without killing increasingly victorious Syrian soldiers.
I’ll add here that the very notion that chemical and bacteriological weapons were used at a time when all of Western mainstream media has been intently trained on the jihadists in Eastern Ghouta is suspiciously expedient, just as was the case with the “coincidence” that Russia was alleged to have poisoned a traitor in one of the most hostile Western countries two weeks before the Russian presidential elections.
In a recent article, I wrote about the similarities between the West’s approaches and strategies in the “Skripal affair” and in the invasion of Iraq. In both cases, unsubstantiated accusations of the use of weapons of mass destruction were used as pretexts for pivotal actions. In 2003, the US and the UK destroyed the sovereign Iraqi state under the pretext that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD’s. Later, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that intelligence had misled him, but the Western world has not apologized to the people of Iraq nor completely withdrawn from Iraqi territory.
The same tried and tested cliches are now being recycled in Syria. The only fundamental difference is that the legitimate government of Syria has invited to its defense Russian air forces, Iranian volunteers, and Shiite militias from Lebanon and Afghanistan. Thus, the conflict in Syria will not be a repeat of the Iraq scenario. Strategically, the US and its allies are losing the war in Syria. Hence the new round of clumsy provocations, which Russia warned the UN and world community about weeks and even months ago.
Russian media are now gripped by a disturbing atmosphere. There are more than enough militaristic calls to strike back at the Americans if they attack Syria, especially if they hit Russia servicemen. Nevertheless, the majority of Russian Middle East specialists agree that Trump is bluffing. In their opinions, he is hardly likely to cross the red line of no return, because he realizes the inevitability of a Russian military response.
I am not a Middle East specialist, but I did manage to consult my long-time colleague who is an expert on the region, particularly on Iran, and who works in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On condition of anonymity, he said that he shares my concerns of the situation potentially spinning out of control, and affirmed that the contradictions between the great powers in Syria are so acute that a random spark is enough to ignite an explosion. Such a spark might be a random collision between Russian and American aircraft. But it is more likely that any direct clash would be the result of instigation by a third party interested in a conflict between the United States and Russia. First and foremost, this would be Israel. It could be guessed that this “third force” would strike an American destroyer or aircraft, after which the blame would automatically fall on Russia. In this situation, the time between the incident and decision-making could be absolutely minimal, which could yield irreversible consequences.
Nonetheless, my contact believes that, despite Trump’s military rhetoric, the possibility of a clash between the US and Russia in Syria is minimal. First of all, according to my contact, Washington is more interested in stirring eternal tension in Syria, having constantly available pretexts for accusing Russia and other opponents of various “crimes”, and thereby justifying American military presence in the country.
This, however, still leaves open the possibility of an eventual clash with the most powerful military opponent of the US in the world – Russia.
We do not fully know what the outcome of Trump’s promise that he is ready to strike Syria within 24-48 hours will be. Will this turn out to be a bluff like many of Trump’s other promises? One would like to hope so.
But even if such are only words, when thrown to the wind, they by no means bring peace to the region. If war is postponed now, it might just become increasingly likely later.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.