There could be a massive and dangerous escalation in violence, including direct conflict between two nuclear armed powers.
Following numerous half-hearted attempts by Washington and Moscow to cooperate in Syria — none of which amounted to anything — the suspension of cooperation between the two sides could have dire consequences.
The last few days have put a firm end to the notion that the two countries can work together successfully to end, or even suspend the violence. The reason is simple: it does not matter how many hours John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov spend hammering out cease-fire deals when both sides remain committed to two diametrically opposed outcomes for the war-torn country.
While tensions were always high, the past few days have marked a major intensification in terms of both rhetoric and action. First, the United States suspended bilateral cooperation with Russia citing heavy bombing and civilian casualties in Aleppo and Russia’s failure to “live up to its own commitments.” Russia responded by accusing Washington of making a “deal with the devil” and said the U.S. side was willing to forge alliances with “hardened terrorists” in pursuit of regime change. Moscow also warned of “tectonic shifts” in the Middle East if Washington launches any more direct aggression against the Syrian army.
The idea that a sustained reduction in violence could be reached while such fundamental differences remain was a delusion. The reality is, Moscow remains committed to backing its Syrian ally Bashar Assad in his army’s fight against opposition rebels and jihadist terror groups. Washington, on the other hand, remains committed to supporting some of those very groups in their efforts to overthrow him.
The hope was that the United States and Russia could put their differences of opinion on the Syrian leadership aside to focus their attention and their bombs on the Islamic State group and other terror groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, who have “rebranded” themselves as Jabhat Fatal al-Sham. That plan would have required Washington to separate the “moderate” groups it supports from those al-Qaida affiliated militants which they had long ago “intermingled” with.
No surprise, that never happened.
Instead, Washington used the week of the cease-fire to “mistakenly” bomb a Syrian army base throwing the entire truce into immediate disarray. In supporting some anti-Assad groups and (publicly, at least) opposing others, Washington’s muddled policy has prolonged the war.
A different ballgame
The United States has rarely faced substantial opposition as it goes about its Middle East regime-change tour. While it faced significant global opposition to the Iraq war, for example, it was nothing that could not be handled by a bit of flag waving and patriotic reportage on Fox News. Likewise in Libya, Western media also acted as cheerleaders for the U.S.-led bombing campaign which caused a massive destabilization of that country.
In Syria, Washington faces a tougher opponent.
Russia has the power to constrain Washington by waving in its face the prospect of real consequences. This time, regime change won’t be a matter of “we came, we saw, he died” as Hillary Clinton so eloquently put it after Colonel Moammar Gadhafi was sodomized with a bayonet by rebel fighters. Despite itching for a no-fly zone in Syria, for example, there has at least been the occasional acknowledgement from within the Obama administration that such a step could lead directly to a shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia.
The question now is what the alternative is. Since neither side is likely to turn around and announce massive policy reversals, one of two things will happen: There will be a massive and dangerous escalation in violence, including direct conflict between two nuclear-armed powers — or things will continue to tick along much the way they have been with no end in sight.
Worryingly, as the Obama administration is thought to be weighing its options, it looks like Moscow is preparing for the worst. Reports indicate Russia has deployed advanced anti-missile systems to Syria for the first time — a clear indication, if confirmed, that there is no intention in Moscow to abandon Assad. At the same time, Russia has suspended a 2000 agreement to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium — enough material for thousands of nuclear weapons. The decision was announced by President Vladimir Putin as an “urgent measure” in response to “unfriendly actions” by the United States.
All options come with risks. Whether the United States decides to provide more direct military support to rebel groups inside Syria, risks attempting a no-fly zone, or attacks Syrian forces, the potential for direct conflict with Russia grows.
Upside down reporting
Meanwhile, the majority of Western media coverage of these developments provides little indication as to the level of danger and potential for greater conflict. Most Americans, it’s probably fair to say, are unlikely to support getting embroiled in direct military confrontation with Russia over a place called Aleppo. But watching American networks describe the latest events in Syria, you’d have almost no idea how close a real conflict could be. Some mainstream commentators are still cheerleading American military escalation and insisting that Moscow’s recent moves are merely bluffs.
The war is spun as yet another tale of good, humanitarian-minded Americans vs. barbaric and evil Russians. Fox News host Bret Baier, with a straight face, explained the failure of the cease-fire deal as something that had happened because, simply, Barack Obama was “unable to convince Moscow to stop bombing civilians.” Such skewed rhetoric and blatant disinformation, whether intentional or not, prepares the public for greater conflict without actually explaining the nuts and bolts of how we’re going to get there.
If Hillary Clinton reaches the oval office in January 2017 and takes the advice of the most extreme hawks in Washington (many of whom have strongly endorsed her), the media will have laid a firm groundwork from which she could launch further military aggression, largely unhindered by international law or concerns over public opinion. What happens between now and then is anyone’s guess, but the latest decision to cut off bilateral contact — even as fruitless as it has been — suggests that the United States may already be willing to risk wider confrontation with Russia over a country which is not vital to its own strategic interests or its national security.
This is simply madness.