The U.S.-French-British air strike on Syria, 14 April 2018
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
As we learned this morning, the tug-of-war between Secretary of Defense James Matthis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford on the one hand, and between them both and President Donald Trump and his ultra-hawkish Security Adviser John Bolton on the other hand ended with the decision to launch “precision strikes” late last night against targets in Damascus and near the city of Homs. Some 103 tomahawks and other cruise missiles were launched from US navy vessels and British warplanes. Seventy-one of these were said to be shot down by the air defense batteries of the Syrian Army. The more modern and effective Russian-manned S400 systems at their Tartus naval base and Khmeimim air base were not brought into play.
There was material damage to some Syrian military storage facilities and particularly to a research center, which the US-led coalition claimed was used for fabrication of chemical weapons. No deaths or injuries have been reported. The targets were all well clear of known positions of Russian and Iranian personnel in Syria. And while the Pentagon denied there had been prior coordination with Russia, it is rumored that the flight paths of the missiles were made known in advance to the Russians even if the targets were not disclosed.
Secretary Matthis reportedly said that the mission was considered a success and complete. However, the United States and its allies stand ready to take further action if there are new instances where the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against its civilian population.
In his address to the nation when launching the attack, President Trump used exactly the same unproven allegations and maudlin, propagandistic evocation of the horrors of chemical weapons that his ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had used earlier in the day when responding to the very specific charges of violating international law and reacting to a staged and possibly non-existent chemical attack which the Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzya had leveled against the United States.
The narrowly focused and seemingly ineffectual nature of the strikes is unlikely to satisfy anyone in the U.S. political classes. Even those who have been encouraging the President to stand tall in Syria and punish Damascus for the alleged but unproven use of chemical weapons like New York Senator Chuck Schumer (D) gave him only tepid support for the action taken last night, noting that there does not appear to be any overall administration strategy for Syria, any objectives for the end game. Meanwhile others have explained the timing of the attack as driven solely by the President’s urgent need to deflect public attention away from his personal political travails, all the more threatening following the seizure earlier in the week of the papers and possibly his taped conversations in the offices of his lawyer, Michael Cohen. Hence, the remarkable decision to call in the strikes to punish an unproven crime under investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which only yesterday arrived on the scene in Syria.
As for the Russians, notwithstanding the fact that their interests and military threats were clearly taken into account by the Americans when the final plans for the attack were drawn up, there could only be outrage. They were, after all, on the receiving end of what was a publicly administered slap in the face of President Vladimir Putin, who was named and supposedly shamed in Trump’s speech to the nation for providing support to the “animal” Bashar Assad. Putin had been calling upon the US and its allies to show restraint and to await the conclusion of the investigative mission in Syria.
As noted above, Moscow evidently decided that the given attack was not crossing its red lines and chose to leave defense of Syria to the Syrians themselves, without intervening militarily. However, Russian ambassador to Washington Antonov repeated after the attacks Moscow’s prior warning that there would be “grave consequences” for the United States and its allies to pay. These were not spelled out.
What comes next?
The Russian decision not to intervene surely had the intent to leave the US fully exposed as the aggressor and violator of international law. Since we are in what is generally acknowledged as a New Cold War, habits from the first Cold War are resurfacing. One of the most notable is a propaganda barrage from the injured party. In every sense, the roles are reversed today. Whereas in the distant past, it was Washington that complained to high heaven about the Soviet military intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, today it is Russia that will go on the propaganda offensive to sound off about US aggression.
But is that all we may expect?
I think not. Vladimir Putin has a well-earned reputation as a master strategist who takes his time with every move on the chess board. He also is well aware of the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. And he has frequently advocated “asymmetric” responses to Western moves against Russian interests.
The question of counter moves has been very much on the Russian mind in the past week ever since the United States Treasury introduced new and potentially very harsh economic sanctions on Russia with effect from 6 April. In fact, Russian legislators were busy preparing to introduce in the Duma on Monday a bill empowering the Russian president to issue counter-sanctions. These include an embargo on sale of critical components to the US aircraft industry which is 40% dependent on Russian sourced titanium for production of both military and civilian planes, cancellation of the bilateral cooperation in space whereby the Russians supply rocket engines used for US commercial and other satellite launches, and a total embargo on sales of US wines, spirits and tobacco in the Russian Federation.
Aside from the withdrawal of titanium sales, these and other enumerated measures pale in significance compared to the damage done by the US sanctions on the Rusal corporation, the world’s second largest producer and marketer of aluminum, which lost $12 billion in share value on the first day of sanctions. But that is to be expected, given that the United States is the world’s largest economy, measuring more than 10 times the Russian economy, and accordingly its ability to cause economic damage to Russia far exceeds the ability of Russia to inflict economic damage in return.
In fact, the only logical outcome of further escalations of US economic sanctions against Russia following the present intended line of snuffing out the Russian economy, would be for Russia to respond in the one area where it has something approaching full equality with the United States: its force of arms. That is to say, at a certain point in time purely economic warfare will become kinetic. This is a possibility which, it seems the US political leadership totally ignores.
Similarly, looking at the just inflicted US insult to Russia by its attack in Syria, it would be wise to consider that Russia may well choose to respond by hitting out at US interests in a very different location, where it enjoys logistical superiority and also where the counter-strike is unlikely to escalate to direct crossing of swords and possible nuclear war. And there are a number of places which come to mind, starting in particular in Ukraine where, if it so wished, and if it believed it was already paying the full price for “misbehavior” it could swoop in and remove the government in Kiev within a 3-day campaign, putting in place a caretaker government of its choosing. Not an occupation, which Russia neither wants nor can afford, but a Ukrainian administration that will secure the peace, end the hostility to Russia and prepare the way for new national elections. A similar scenario would also be possible in other problem areas at Russia’s borders which have been stirred up by the United States and its NATO allies.
This is not to say that Russia will do nothing in Syria to respond to the United States’ latest provocation. But it is not necessary to expect the counter-thrust precisely there.
Protests in the West
One may reasonably wonder whether there will there be any protest in the US, in Europe led by “progressive humanity” against the US aggression?
“Progressive humanity” is by definition leftist politically. There was always a distinctively leftist tinge to the antiwar protests in America and Europe going back to the 1960s anti-Vietnam war movement and to the 1980s protests at the introduction of cruise missiles in Europe to counter the Russian intermediate range SS20 missiles.
However, from the 1990s on, leftist political parties both in the United States and in Europe have suffered terrible losses of voter support. What charismatic leaders emerge to challenge the centrist, global hegemony politicians have been almost uniformly categorized as extreme Right or populists. Meanwhile, the peace movements have been nearly extinguished. Progressives are today notoriously anti-Russian and in step with the Neocons on what the legitimate world order should look like.
For these reasons, it is quite remarkable that the very first reactions to the US-led bombing in Syria have come from social media and internet portals that may be loosely categorized as left of center or Progressive. Dislike for Trump, for Bolton and for the whole crew of madmen who constitute the administration has finally outweighed all of the skepticism if not negativity towards Putin, “the authoritarian,” the Alpha male, the promoter of family and Orthodox Christian values. On-line petitions now being circulated, such as the one below from the moveon.org may even show some comprehension that the world is close to utter destruction due to the US-Russian confrontation.
And as another sign that the antiwar movement may actually be stirring and doing something going beyond virtual protests, the Massachusetts Peace Action chapter, heirs to the SANE franchise, the country’s largest anti-nuclear weapons organization from the middle of the first Cold War, has called upon its membership to rally today in Cambridge (home to Harvard University and MIT) to protest against the US strikes in Syria, and also calls upon Congress to reclaim War Powers.
These are admittedly small steps which still have no political weight. But they are encouraging sparks of light in the darkness.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg