Russian warplanes fly over a US destroyer along the Syrian coast. The US president canceled his trip to Lima for the Americas summit to give himself time to decide what to do in Damascus. Iranian leaders threaten reprisal against Israel after its raid on Tehran’s T4 base in Homs. The ingredients for an outbreak — or rather, a devastating escalation — of the global Syrian conflict are all there.
The next hours will define the contours: Will the White House intervene against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Would it be a “symbolic” attack, like the one a year ago at Shayrat air base (where 16 people died, including nine civilians) or something more, able to trigger a vis-à-vis confrontation with Russia.
This would be among the US’s first direct interventions. It has been “indirectly” on the ground since 2011 through the CIA and Pentagon programs of financing and arming opposition groups and creating anti-Assad militias from scratch.
The US destroyer Donald Cook on Tuesday approached the Syrian coast, at the latitude of Tartus, home of the main Russian base in the country. On board, say Pentagon sources, were 60 Tomahawk missiles (a year ago 59 were launched). Russian fighters flew over the Cook at low altitudes, a disturbing action that the Pentagon has denied.
This war of nerves could turn into something more, given the statements from Washington and Paris: US Ambassador Nikki Haley, the Trump hawk, reiterated in the Security Council America’s willingness to unilaterally launch an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in Ghouta.
Damascus, for its part, is giving its armed forces and military bases in the provinces of Sweida, Aleppo, Latakia and Deir Ezzor 72 hours notice and said it was ready to cooperate with the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) for an investigation that verifies whether gas was used in Ghouta’s eastern city of Douma. The area is being evacuated under an agreement with the Salafite group Jaysh al-Islam, signed on Sunday). The OPCW says it will send a team will go to Syria to carry out the investigations.
It’s a script similar to the one in 2013 when then-President Barack Obama was about to attack Syria and was halted by Russian diplomacy, which pledged to work with Damascus to dismantle the chemical arsenal. Today the situation is repeated, almost identically.
The changing balance of powers has defined itself in the Middle East: Moscow dictates the regional agenda and Assad takes land. Meanwhile, the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia axis has a bigger goal: the reduction of Iran to a second-rate power.
Haley’s words at the Glass Palace on Monday echoed those of Trump. Damascus is in the crosshairs of a strike against its sponsors. “We must not overlook Russia and Iran’s roles in enabling the Assad regime’s murderous destruction,” Haley said. “History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria. Either way, the United States will respond.”
Trump and Haley’s “conscience” is the alleged chemical attack on Douma (as if conventional weapons have not already killed, and in the absence of an actual investigation, as happened in Iraq in 2003).
Russia insists the inspections they conducted found no “traces of toxic agents or victims with symptoms of poisoning.” They said reports from the White Helmets about the chemical attack are “an attempt to derail the ceasefire.”
But it is clear to everyone that the problem is not the gas. Whether Assad has used it or not, the international community could have moved before 1,600 people in Ghouta died over the past nearly two months, killed by the government and by the opposition. Protecting civilians is not the goal. The US wants to limit Russian and Iranian influence in Syria by balkanizing it, pushing out the government to give way to internal feuds worse than the current ones.
In the front row, behind Trump, are Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May (carbon copies of Sarkozy and Blair leading up to Libya). On Tuesday, Her Majesty’s army discussed what it could contribute: submarines, Tornado GR4 jets or unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. Macron has threatened French raids against the “chemical capabilities” of Damascus.