Oooooh Betty, I think I’m in a bit of a pickle, what are our options on Syria?
The suspected chemical attacks on Saturday on Douma, the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria have stirred up a hornet’s nest of rhetoric flying between Trump and Putin with the UK and France caught in the crossfire not just internationally but domestically.
The first thing we have to realise is that this suspected chlorine attack is only the latest weapon used against the civilian population in Eastern Ghouta. In February, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched an assault on the Eastern Ghouta that has reportedly left more than 1,700 civilians dead. Those deaths were through bombs, artillery and gunfire; there is one fact that is very clear; civilians are being targeted and dying in this conflict. The targeting of civilians by whatever means is illegal under international law. The use of chemical weapons just breaks a different law but has the same effect – dead civilians.
The second fact about these deaths, un-guided bombs from aircraft and artillery are area weapons, they are not precise, they are designed to rip apart anything in their blast and shrapnel zone and cannot distinguish between civilian and fighter. That is why coalition forces attacking so-called ISIS targets use precision-guided munitions, accurate enough to hit a very precise target and care is taken to ensure the safety of any nearby civilians.
The bigger question the people of the world have to ask themselves is in a globally focused world is it right to do nothing when you know atrocities are happening, and by doing nothing does that make us as guilty as the perpetrator of these heinous acts?
If the decision is that you have to do something, then the questions are who and how? For international matters the organisation responsible for policing the world, the who, is the United Nations and in particular the United Nations Security Council. The 5 permanent members of the Security Council are expected and should show leadership when it comes to policing global conflicts. Of the 5, China has maintained a stance of not getting involved in wider issues outside an immediate interest to China.
That leaves the USA, Russia, the UK and France who all pulled together to stabilise the Balkans. Historically and primarily because of NATO cooperation the US, UK, and France have worked closest together, and Russia has been on the outside. That changed to a degree is the run-up to NATO intervention into Bosnia when a formal Russian delegation was set up in NATO headquarters just outside Brussels, to facilitate greater military and political cooperation.
So, coming back to Syria how have we got to where we are and what can be done? We have to recognise the Russians have a real strategic interest in Syria. The Russian Naval facility on the northern edge of the Syrian seaport of Tartus is a vital strategic facility and Russia has had other long-standing strategic interests in Syria given its location in the region, bordering on NATO’s southern flank, within a short distance of the British bases in Cyprus, able to monitor Iran and Israel and more. Putin needs Syria.
In addition to Putin needing Syria, we have seen him regenerating the old cold war strength of the Soviet Union at least in the minds of the Russians. That is why he has reconstructed his naval capability, why his strategic air capability is now flying, and he parades new complex fighting machines. It is why he fired cruise type missiles under the glare of the global press against ISIS targets from his submarines and warships and deployed an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean to fly air sorties. He wanted to show the world the same pictures the Americans had done in the Iraq war, he wanted to show Russia was back.
Emboldened by his political successes at home built on nationalistic fervour and fear when his economy is collapsing and in any normal democratic country he would be politically held to account, we have seen him go on the offensive. He sees the political cracks in institutions around the world and he influences them as any old spy would do by sticking his knife into them and wiggling it. That knife just happens to be propaganda, fake news, data manipulation, information operations, what the Russians call маскировка (maskirovka) – masking. Banging his military drum is part of that process as is his abject failure to sanction the UN Security Council resolution to let independent teams from the OPCW investigate the Douma incident.
Putin is sticking 2 fingers up at the world and has used the attack on the Skripal’s in Salisbury with the deadly novichok nerve agent and is using Assad’s willingness to terrorise and kill his own people as his latest tactics to do this.
The USA, UK, and France are now carefully looking at not just the reports that have come out of Douma but the wider intelligence they will have relating to the situation in Syria. All 3 countries have had extensive intelligence assets continuously watching, listening and analysing what is going on, so any action taken will not just be on the say so of the White Helmets in Eastern Ghouta or the activists from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) who record alleged violations on international law in Syria, or any other group.
The USA, UK, and France should be looking at the objectives of any retaliation into Syria, asking what collateral damage could be done politically with the Russians and what the risk of escalation is and then asking if any proposed action is worth those risks? They will be balancing the dangers associated with striking militarily with the dangers of doing nothing. However, it is certain that any action will fall well short of an attempt at regime change or anything that could escalate into a wider conflict with Russia.
At the same time, no matter what President Trump does on Twitter, behind closed doors measured diplomatic actions will be taking place to de-conflict any potential actions with Russia. Whilst the public rhetoric of a Twitter-addicted Trump and a маскировка (maskirovka) enabled Putin play out, good old-fashioned diplomacy will set and ensure clear boundaries.
Militarily the use of conventional aircraft to bomb Assad’s bases is virtually impossible. Many of them are protected by sophisticated and very capable Russian air defence systems. Military tactics dictate that these would have to be destroyed before attacks on the bases took place and as they are manned by Russian personnel, that would be an immediate escalation.
Therefore, a military response will rely on attacks by cruise missiles and it takes time to get these into firing positions. The USA will not want to be the only country attacking. That time will be well spent with diplomatic de-confliction activity and gathering more intelligence to increase the understanding of what happened in Douma.
In addition, a military assessment of how many missiles will be needed to penetrate the potential Russian Air Defence network and cause a sufficient show will be happening. It would hand President Putin a real propaganda coup if he managed to shoot significant numbers of them down.
Douma is merely the straw that has broken the back of the camel of world opinion. Do we act or do we not, what is morally right for not just the people of Syria but the people in the next conflict zone?
Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE