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Syria, Great Power Games, And Cost

It is unfortunately necessary to view situations like the one in Syria in terms of some sort of grand game. This is because, for those most accustomed to having and dealing in it, power is a kind of marketplace which, at the lower end of the purchasing power spectrum, needs must be bought with blood, force, and terror. Because of this, to speak coherently about great power movements, grand strategy, tactics, and geopolitics, it’s necessary to talk in terms of ‘phases’, ‘gambits’, ‘resources’, and ‘collateral’. I suppose it’s the greatest injustice of human history that greatness exists in inverse proportion to simple human morality.

I want to break down the most recent chain of events in Syria. Also, spoiler alert, I’m going to argue that nothing very much has or is likely to change (always allowing, though, for the randomness of The Trump Effect). But before I do this, I want you to look at this picture.

Photo: Erbin News/NurPhoto (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images) 

This is a photo of a row of dead children, killed in an alleged chemical attack. There are no obvious signs of chemical burns, but this isn’t necessarily conclusive. Children are lower to the ground, and when oxygen is evacuated by heavier than air gases, they tend to suffocate and drop before adults do. There’s also the fact that children are not as resilient, or as large as adults. This being the case, levels of exposure to toxic gases too low to cause burns can infiltrate their bloodstream via soft and mucosal tissue, which is burnt and blistered in the process, causing multiple organ failure, seizures, agonising pain, and other fatal but often externally invisible damage. I’d like to point out two things. Firstly, this photo is from Ghouta in 2013 – the conflict in Syria is such that I can reach back half a decade and find an image of mass child casualties. And secondly, during all the ensuing discussion about ‘the game’, it should definitely be remembered that the currency in this ‘game’ is pictured above.

One of the big questions about the Syrian conflict is whether it’s moving into either a terminal or normalising phase. Put simply, opinion seems to be split between analysts who think that we are moving into a sort of endgame, and those who believe that the tempo of conflict is settling into a permanently sustainable condition. It’s unsurprising that there’s such a wide range of opinions on this subject. There’s just too many variables. The situation on the ground, even with IS and major rebel groups steadily folding up their positions, is still mind-bendingly complex. And the more splinters and fragments get rolled up, the greater the consolidation of action from the great powers using Syria as a proxy ground, and therefore the greater the level of uncertainty. At the moment, Russia, the US and allies, Turkey (nominally but not demonstrably a US ally), Iran, and Israel all have visible assets in the field vying for national interest, national security, and national prestige. For this reason, it is no longer possible to understand the situation in terms of simple binarism. The combined interests and commitments of all the players have melded into a kind of hostility soup, lending the conflict a sort of independent agency all its own, and putting us all in a realm where the conflict itself could generate significant outcomes independent of deliberate actions of any of the players.

In this environment, then, it’s pretty easy to justify spectacular reaction to actual deliberate action on the part of the Syrian regime. It’s important to point out that it’s not certain that a chemical attack has been carried out, or that it was carried out by the Assad regime. What is certain, however, is that the Assads, both father and son, have used chemical warfare, helicopter gunships, and extra-judicial torture and murder to combat minor dissidence in the past. It is therefore reasonable to assume that they would be and have been willing to use all these means and more in the current conflict which, shorn of the protecting hand of Russia, would represent an existential threat to the Assad regime. It’s also certain that Russian media and state (often indistinguishable from each other) lie with the facility and brazenness of decades of practice. So despite the lack of conclusive evidence, I am going to proceed on the assumption that the Syrian government has gassed its own people. Again.

Given this, a certain chain of events is practically inevitable. ‘Red Line’ policy is the issue here, and Trump has made it very clear that he does not consider it notional or aspirational. A confirmed chemical attack will generate a military response, and has done in the past. Or rather, I should say that a confirmed chemical attack which garners sufficient public attention will do so. Quite a few reports of chemical attacks have gone unaddressed, largely because they haven’t been reported outside local media. In this context, there are quite a few unfortunate factors at play here. Firstly, it’s very difficult not to see a connection between Trump’s random and unbelievably stupid decision to announce his intention to pull out of Syria, and the subsequent attack. It’s actually worth considering that, in spite of all the rhetoric, it’s very possible that Assad can see real disadvantages to the withdrawal of US power from the region. This is counter-intuitive, sure, but the fact is that an entire theatre of the war is tied up and held down by US forces and their proxies and allies, and if the US were to pull out, the resultant chaos might overwhelm his already beleaguered grip on his territories, even with his Russian allies present. I’m pretty certain that Assad is now in the same position as everyone else – more or less locked into a standoff which needs must be drawn down gradually if it is not to entirely subsume one or more of the state actors involved.

Add to this the almost certainly Israeli strike the day after. Israel has conducted strikes against this airbase before, arguing that it is a training and supply base for Hezbollah militants (which is possible to probable). Unfortunately, Israel rarely acknowledges strikes in Syria, and currently has a host of problems of its own. There is the horrible possibility that Israel has been greenlighted as some kind of proxy for the US in this strike, but there are some levels of stupidity which I doubt even the Trump administration is capable of. Regardless, Trump will almost certainly receive a package of measured, proportionate responses from Mattis, and will then pick and play one. Just like last time. And then the whole dreary business will go on, forever and ever, amen.

Or perhaps it might not. Perhaps the erratic and chaotic nature of both the conflict and its major players will assert itself into a full blown war regardless of the frustrating, but arguably world-saving structure of the UNSC. Or perhaps an actually decisive response on the part of the West might finally emerge as a result of there being just one too many pictures of dead children laid out in rows in the street. I doubt it, though – the game is such that the safest option for us by far is to just keep playing.