nother year, another chemical attack in Syria. The internet is yet again flared up with speculation as to whether Bashar Al-Assad could be so cold-blooded and evil to gas civilians in his own country, in a war that he is – after a long struggle – finally winning. Meanwhile, Western politicians condemn the attack as inhumane and barbaric, launching punitive airstrikes on Syrian Army targets in response.
The reality is, however, that none of what you see should be taken at face value – because this international standoff is about a lot more than Syrian civil war.
In fact, it likely isn’t about it at all.
Nobody Really Cares About Assad
In reality, whenever Assad’s name appears in the news it most often means that the greater powers are at odds yet again. Syrian dictator is merely a proxy figure – used both by the West and the Ruso-Iranian alliance. He is a convenient tool for both sides, allowing them avoid any displays of direct confrontation.
To explain it simply, whenever he’s accused of doing something egregious enough to capture global headlines it’s really just Russia testing the limits of Western resolve in the Middle Eastern matters. And whenever he gets chastised it’s just another Western response to Kremlin.
Nobody really cares about Assad personally (apart from Turkey, perhaps). To Russians he’s a useful puppet allowing them to retain and expand presence in the Middle East. They had been quite apprehensive about helping him directly in the past, until Barack Obama was called on his red line bluff by a massive sarin attack in Ghouta in 2013 (coincidentally the same suburb of Damascus being caught in the spotlight today). The US failed to act and Russia swept in as a guarantor of destruction of Syrian chemical stockpiles. Since then Kremlin knew it could expand its activities on the ground and in the air above Syria, without American interference.
The West doesn’t care much about Assad either. For nearly 50 years he and his family have treated Syria as their private dominion – although never abandoning greater regional ambitions, as exhibited by their 30 year long occupation of Lebanon or participation in wars against Israel. And yet, both the US and Europe have been quite content with the rule of his father and his own.
The West Doesn’t Really Want to Hurt Assad
For the same reasons, I found the flurry of hysterical cries about the looming World War 3 really rather entertaining, since there’s nothing that happened since 2011 that would substantiate any claims that the West would want to seriously cripple or abolish Assad’s regime.
The punitive bombings, which happened in the aftermath of chemical attacks, were coordinated with Russia and, ultimately, targeted a limited number of facilities, with no threat to civilians and relatively little damage to Syrian Army’s military capabilities.
So not only are we not close to a World War – we’re quite far from any war that would involve direct confrontation with the Syrian Army and its allies.
Don’t be fooled by West’s supposed good intentions either – somehow when Assad’s military devastated entire cities, towns and villages, when it jailed and tortured political dissidents, the West hardly bat an eyelash. Diplomatic protests and military attacks are not about any sort of a humanitarian relief to the tormented nation.
So what are they about?
In case of distant lands shrouded in fog of war, jumping too quickly to conclusions as to who really benefited from the crime might not only be misleading – it may play exactly into the intentions of the perpetrator.
Questions and explanations have flooded the media – “Why would Assad use chemical weapons in a war that he’s winning already? Surely, it must have been a false flag provocation by the rebels, then! And an attempt to drag America into the war.”
These accusations may seem pretty reasonable when the incident is examined in isolation – but nothing in the domain of geopolitical rivalry should ever distract you from the global view.
Civil war in Syria has transformed over time from a regional sectarian conflict into one of the fronts of a geopolitical tussle between the West and Russia. To understand the context and possible motives for a chemical attack you have to keep in mind all other battles happening in parallel, elsewhere.
From Salisbury to Syria
To see this broader view we have to move back to early March and a bench in a small British town of Salisbury, Wiltshire county, UK, where Sergei Skripal, a former double Russian/British agent, and his daughter were found critically poisoned by a highly lethal nerve agent in an apparent sophisticated assassination attempt. Accusations against Russia were formed quite quickly and a diplomatic backlash, coupled with expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats followed in subsequent weeks.
What passed with little notice at the time is a statement made by the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov – on March 13. Just after Theresa May blamed Russia for the attempted assassination, he announced Russian intelligence collected evidence of a planned false flag chemical attack to be carried out by rebels fighting against the ongoing Syrian Army offensive in East Ghouta.
As relations between Russia and the West deteriorated further, Trump’s administration imposed new sanctions on Russian companies and oligarchs, leading to a collapse on Moscow’s stock exchange, erasing tens of billions of dollars in stock valuation and sending the rouble plummeting.
That happened on April 6. A day later the Damascus’ suburb of Douma was the scene of a chemical attack.
Was Gerasimov’s announcement genuine on-the-ground intelligence? Or was it merely a deflection, used to distract attention from the diplomatic fallout of the Skripal’s case, which was later turned into an actual attack in a convenient moment, when Kremlin felt the brunt of the new round of sanctions?
What’s In It For Russia?
Obviously, it’s the first question that demands an answer – what could Russians stand to gain by having Assad carry out such an attack? Don’t they want Western powers to stay away from Syria? Wouldn’t it make more sense to conduct all operations silently, eliminating opposition to the regime and cementing its rule? Especially after Trump announced his will to withdraw from the country when ISIS is eliminated?
Paradoxically, Trump’s announcement is precisely what made Russian gambit worthwhile.
In their asymmetric, silent war against the West, Russians seek to create internal chaos through hybrid measures. That was the nature of their influence in the American elections, or the Brexit vote, or support for Le Pen’s National Front.
In their geopolitical game, their goal is to build up diplomatic leverage to use in current and future relations with Europe and America. They are simply collecting bargaining chips that allow them to remain relevant as a global power.
The West has proved unwilling to take meaningful action against Assad’s regime. It rejected the idea of sending tens of thousands of troops to fight a war against him in the early days of the civil war – let alone now, when he is supported by Russian and Iranian forces on the ground. So the risk of triggering any intervention was and is extremely small.
At the same time, it appears to be illogical for a regime that is winning the war to do something this outrageous. Unless the outrage was the main goal.
It’s very unlikely that Assad would have conducted such an attack on his own, without any coordination with Russia, which subsequently provided him with diplomatic and media cover – playing their usual game of endless denial (much like in eastern Ukraine, where, supposedly, no Russian troops are present).
In reality, he has been used as a puppet to grab global headlines and corner the US administration. And that worked brilliantly.
Allowing Trump to peacefully withdraw from Syria would only strengthen his position at home – since it would be seen as his great success. In addition, unlike Obama, he’s not hesitant when it comes to action and has top defense people to advise and conduct these responses – that makes him a more dangerous opponent.
Russia does not benefit from a strong White House – regardless of who is in it. It benefits from chaos and divisions. Coincidentally, that was the rationale behind their meddling on his behalf during the elections.
But Trump made a mistake and has become a slave of his promises – something easily used against politicians in a democracy.
By announcing his intentions the US president exposed himself to a challenge that he was going to get bruised by no matter what he did.
If he decided not to attack, he would be seen as weaker than even Obama was and Russia would get a free pass to do anything it wanted. If he decided to bomb Assad, he would alienate a large part of his and – consequently – Republican base, since many would see it (as they do now) as not only a contradiction to his promises of disengagement but as betrayal, convincing at least some people that he is really just a part of the “establishment” after all, another lap dog of the dreaded military-industrial complex. Paradoxically, bipartisan support only deepened that impression.
As we now know he stuck to his threats and ordered airstrikes – with considerable discontent sweeping across America (despite largely favorable media coverage) undermining his own position in the process. This certainly isn’t good news ahead of Congressional elections later this year, since a poor turnout of the Republican voters can lead to Democratic victory which would, as a result, paralyze Trump’s legislative initiatives (and, effectively, the entire country) until elections in 2020.
Even more harmful consequence is further fragmentation and polarization of the views among the voters. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson ranted suggesting that America has nothing to gain from engaging in Syria and went as far as to defend Assad’s regime as the lesser evil in these circumstances. Alt-right commentators see some “deep state” conspiracy in it, as if the provocation came from US intelligence agencies trying to weaken Trump, with some people going as far as dusting off old theories about American funding of ISIS and other jihadist groups (through which, they suggest, a false flag could have been staged to drag Trump back into Syrian war).
As ludicrous as these mental gymnastics may be, they are also very damaging as they grow in popularity. And this chaos plays ideally into Russian interests.
Rockets launched by US, British and French armed forces did little damage. They were really just a show of force and resolve. Syrian Army hasn’t felt any pain and neither have the Russians. But the lasting consequence of this brawl will be growing mistrust among Western voters towards their political class – and their desire for disengagement from foreign conflicts, what will both cripple current governments as well as play a greater part in future elections – adding to the isolationist sentiments of recent years.
That’s all Vladimir Putin could have wished for.