Limited strike makes escalation less likely in Syria

Domestic difficulties triggered the West’s missile attack on Syria. The Russians were forewarned, indicating that the attack was meant for the domestic political constituencies in the US, UK & France

Photo by Muhmmad Al-Najjar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo by Muhmmad Al-Najjar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ashis Ray

Donald Trump’s has been a steep and stormy descent in the opinion polls. Worse is likely to follow as the Federal Bureau of Investigation director, James Comey he unceremoniously sacked is about to release a book that could take the former real estate tycoon to the cleaners.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has fluctuated like a yo-yo since he entered office. His endeavour to bring public sector pensions in line with the private sector has faced opposition from the elderly and working classes. Therefore, his rating has tumbled.

In Britain, Theresa May’s Conservative party has been running a shambolic government, unable to cope with the challenge of Brexit and was considerably behind the opposition Labour party in polls.

But May’s popularity in Britain, especially the younger generation’s perception, when the alleged poisoning of a former British agent in Russia and his daughter by a deadly nerve agent dramatically altered its fortunes.

The ultra-left-wing leader of opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was predictably soft in his responses to Russia, as May and her cabinet colleagues went hammer and tongs blaming Kremlin for the incident. This has unsurprisingly swayed Britons, many of whom retain a Cold War mentality, back towards May.

In short, heads of government and their administrations in all three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in the western hemisphere, confronted by domestic difficulties, have given vent to war mongering in an attempt to shore up internal support and secure their political futures.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs left to itself is more often than not balanced and responsible in its world view. Its position on the recent suspected use of chemical weapons on 7 April in the ongoing civil war in Syria – which killed at least 40 people and injured nearly 500 in Douma, a town near its capital Damascus - was clearly and correctly articulated.

‘India is against the use of chemical weapons anywhere at any time by anybody under any circumstances,’ the official spokesman said on 12 April. But he added: ‘We hope that this issue is resolved in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention so as to reach (an) evidence-based conclusion.’

There have been two previous confirmed incidents of use of the nerve agent sarin in the Syrian conflict which came from government sources. The Hague-headquartered OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, was yet to start its probe into the latest accusations against the Bashar al Assad regime by western countries when the United States, France and Britain launched a missile attack on Syria in the early hours of 14 April.

Thereby, the trio pre-empted both an OPCW inspection as well as a legitimacy of an UNSC mandate and took the law in their own hands. They were between themselves – France more than the others – convinced Assad was responsible for the outrage.

Hours before the strike, US defence secretary, James Mattis, said he was ‘absolutely confident’ the Assad administration was guilty of what is rightly designated by the UN to be a war crime – use of chemical weapons. He claimed there was clear proof of use of chlorine, but he wasn’t certain about sarin.

Significantly, the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the countries involved were obliged to act within the guidelines of the charter of the international body. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the attack an ‘act of aggression’ and demanded an emergency session of the UNSC.

The Russian view is Britain staged the attack. General Igor Konashenkov, speaking for its defence ministry, said: ‘We have evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organising this provocation.’ Details of this charge, though, have not been made public.

The western powers blitzed three targets, including a scientific research centre in Damascus and a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs, with an estimated 100 missiles launched from warships in the Mediterranean Sea. But that’s where the operation ended.

Mattis described it as ‘a one-time shot’, thus underlining the limited nature of the raids. A year ago, after Syrian forces used poison gas in an attack against rebels, the US fired 57 missiles as retaliation. Interestingly, France revealed Moscow was fore-warned of the strike, which avoided harming any Russian facility in Syria.

Russia itself did not activate its defences or air and naval bases in Syria, but maintained the Syrian military shot down some of the incoming missiles. But the Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, threatened: ‘We warned that such action will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris.”

The tendency to self-appoint oneself as international policemen was dangerously escalated by US President George Bush. It subsided to a certain extent under his successor Barack Obama. But it has resurfaced, albeit in a fitful manner, under a loose cannon current American presidency.

While renewed flexing of muscles by Russia on the international stage under Vladimir Putin is less likely to take provocation lying down, the fact that the attack on Syria was more for the cameras than crippling in nature – and the fact that the Russians had been tipped and their assets were unaffected – could mean diplomacy rather than an East-West confrontation will be the next phase of the tussle. In effect, a fearful conflagration it would appear is not immediately in the offing.

Such an evolution will come as a comfort to mandarins in the MEA. Narendra Modi’s tilt towards Washington has annoyed Moscow, which has been India’s friend in need at crucial junctures in the past and is still New Delhi’s principal defence partner.

Indeed, where there’s a question mark as to whether a premature military response on the part of the West was justified – and where the measure is inconsistent with India’s historical stance of such moves requiring UNSC approval – for South Block to be soft towards the West would definitely further aggravate Russia.

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