This morning’s news that the US launched missile strikes overnight against the Syrian military base that, they say, was the source of the chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians earlier this week costing countless innocent lives, looks sure to create a new, and possibly even more dangerous dynamic in what is already a dizzyingly complex situation.
Not that President Assad doesn’t deserve to be punished for this and the countless other despicable attacks he has instructed his forces to carry out, attacks launched with the full approval and support of his partners-in-crime, Russia and Iran.
Had action such as last night’s strikes against the Assad regime been taken four years ago after a previous chemical attack, as was promised but not delivered by former President Obama, it is possible (though not certain by any means) that Syria might not have descended into the living hell it is right now, so close to our northern border.
Russia, predictably, has fumed at the US strike, calling it “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.” But what will Russia do now Assad appears to be in the sights of the new American administration? And why is Russia really so heavily involved in Syria in the first place? It certainly isn’t because of love and admiration for President Assad.
Yes, Russia values the access to the Mediterranean that the Syrian naval base of Tartus and other installations provide, and, yes, President Putin, the smart tactician that he is, saw a big opportunity to hugely extend his sphere of influence in the region when the Obama administration turned on its heels after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, having also backed down on its “red line” chemical weapons pledge on Syria.
In late-2015, while reporting from the Ukraine on the first anniversary of a new national day to mark the country’s anger and defiance at Russia’s violent annexation of the east of the country, a land grab clearly illegal under international law, I asked a number of local experts what was Putin up to, and what he was doing, in tandem, in Syria?
They suggested that Putin, the former head of the KGB and a master of smoke and mirrors, had seen increased intervention in Syria as a bargaining chip to play later in order to get the international community to recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and other areas in eastern Ukraine. He would, they said, wait until there was an opportunity to trade his withdrawal from Syria for such a deal.
Putin had no loyalty at all to Assad, they said, but being seen to take the fight to ISIS when other world powers were dithering would play well for him at home. It was down the road though, when the international community would finally decide to take action to bring down the Assad regime, (regardless of the unknown regional consequences that might bring), that he would offer to remove his underpinning of the Syrian leader as a trade-off for recognition of his sovereignty of the territory he had occupied in Ukraine.
It would, of course, be a hugely controversial and bitter pill for the international community to swallow, and many might not be prepared (publicly) to countenance such a trade-off. But Putin, the Ukrainian experts I spoke to at that time believed, had gambled that world opinion would see a resolution of the catastrophic Syrian crisis as more critical than the Ukraine sovereignty issue and eventually come to some sort of understanding and agree to his terms.
Following last night’s major intervention in Syria by the US, we might find out sooner, rather than later, if Putin is indeed preparing to put such a plan into action.