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Syria Strike And The Trump Effect

Syria Strikes

It’s been an amazing experience, watching the world’s reaction to Trump’s recent strike on the Al Shayrat airbase in Syria. Rarely before has there been an opportunity to observe so many different conspiracy theories being formed in real time, and remarkably rapid real time at that. According to the various left and right wing rags which currently seem to pass for news media, Trump has variously conducted this strike in collusion with Russia and Syria for reasons which aren’t immediately clear, in collusion with Raytheon in order to raise their share price, in collusion with his own press office in order to raise his approval ratings… and this is even before we get to the Alex Jones end of the spectrum.

What’s amazing about this is that quite a bit of this kind of idiocy is coming from the mainstream media. While it’s axiomatic that any media will always make a dog’s breakfast out of any military story, it’s rarely been done to this extent. While I understand that reality isn’t nearly as entertaining as the hysterical witterings of partisan screamsheets, I do feel it’s probably important on some level, so let’s break down both what’s happened and what’s likely to happen.

BACKGROUND OF THE STRIKE

Very few media outlets spent any time at all avoiding the incorrect assumption that this was the first major chemical strike of the Syrian civil war. As such, it became difficult to see that there was any real background to the strike, as it seems to serve the turn of ¬†sensationalist reporting to present this action as random and bizarre. A full transcript of Tillerson and McMaster explaining the rationale behind the action can be found here. Even if you don’t believe a word they say, it makes sense that even blatant lies coming from the White House are going to bear some relation to the truth, even if that relationship is purely inverse.

For those of you who can’t be bothered reading lots of stuff in order to answer questions, I’ll provide a quick summary here. Previous chemical attacks had gone unpunished by the Obama administration (despite Obama’s efforts to get congressional approval for a near identical strike). This appears to have emboldened Assad, who stepped up his campaign of terrorising civilians in rebel held areas in order to aid his campaign. Whether this was a miscalculation, or was business as usual, this provided the Trump administration with the necessary pretext to signal their marked difference in approach. The official narrative from Trump is that he was watching television, had an attack of the feels, and called for options from the Joint Chiefs. This is worryingly plausible, given what we know about Trump, but there are some important factors to consider before we all retire to our bunkers.

The strike itself was perfect and copybook arms-length intervention. Not only was an attempt made to pre-establish a legal justification (Trump’s statements heavily hinted at collective self defence being the element in question), the strike itself was strictly, fussily in line with principles of proportionality, limitation, and targeting. Many outlets rightly pointed out that this strike looked to have been prepared months or even years in advance. This makes sense – an action like this would have been on the books as an option since the beginning of the conflict, with only the GPS co-ordinates wanting for completion.

EXECUTION OF THE STRIKE

Going further on the legal theme, much hay has been made of the fact that Syrian and Russian troops were informed of the impending action. This has been used as ‘evidence’ of collusion with Russia, Syria, China, the inhabitants of Planet X, and so on. Which is, needless to say, pretty damn silly. Notification of the strike is in line not only with certain elements of the international law of armed conflict, it’s also in line with numerous precedents. Like German U-Boat command in WWI. And WWII. And British submarine command. And the USAF. And so on, and so forth. Sure, it could mean that the Trump administration are colluding with their lizard overlords to create a New World Order, but it’s probably more reasonable to link this behaviour to the past behaviour exhibited during countless military actions conducted by countless administrations the world over.

The purpose of the strike was clearly to target relevant materiel. Or at least, as much materiel as could be targeted with a mere 59000 pounds of high explosive. For anyone who actually understands these matters, this always looked like a slap on the wrist – a largely symbolic act. It’s rather in the same category as a fine – the infliction of expense via the destruction of some very costly equipment. Casualty and damage reporting after the fact would indicate that people died, but it’s important to remember that these figures come from the Syrian regime and other less than credible sources. Regardless of this, the fact remains that this is about as distant and as minor as it’s possible to get while still being able to claim direct action.

REACTION TO THE STRIKE

War with Russia isn’t really on the cards unless the US is hell bent on making it happen. This is owing to the simple fact that Russia is neither ready nor able to win even a dirty little local war with the USA. So Russia’s reaction to the strike has largely been to open a war of words. Let’s focus, then, on the element that isn’t purely verbal.

Russia has intimated that any future strike will be met with “force”. This statement, initially worrying, should provoke some examination to try and figure out exactly what they mean. A quick scan of Sputnik, RT, and other Russian propaganda disseminators, allows us to discern that what Russia is heavily telegraphing is their intention to use BUK and S500 air defence systems (already deployed for over a year) in defence of any Syrian air installations to come under similar attack. While this will make things a bit tense, it’s important to note that exactly this level of hostility was repeatedly operative in the recent Balkan conflict, with the net result of the world failing to burst untimely into WWIII.

As for the likelihood of deep US intervention in Syria, I’d say that’s anyone’s guess. Will Trump be persuaded that his only option moving forward will be to establish regional hegemony a la Dubya? Or will his base force him to maintain the arms-length policy he inherited from Obama? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, no matter how well they conspiracy.

LEGALITY OF THE STRIKE

Much has been said about whether or not the strike was legal, largely by partisan and entirely unqualified sources. There’s a good break down here, but I’ll once again summarise. The short answer to the question, “Was the strike legal?” is: yes and no. Or maybe, and probably not. The thing about international law is that it’s complicated and, like any law, it is by definition arguable. Is this aggression against a sovereign nation for no reason? How ‘legitimately sovereign’¬†is the Assad regime? Can the collective self defence argument be used? Who knows? This stuff needs testing in courts, most of which the US doesn’t recognise, so the point is largely moot (in the American sense of the word). What we do know, is that the US government is required to make its arguments to congress regarding the legality of the strikes some time within the next day or two, so it’s up to us to wait for that and either analyse those arguments ourselves, or wait for some media outlet to spin them into more entertaining hysteria.

Russia, Syria, Iran and World War III

From the air ... A video grab from footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry

It has been apparent for months that Russia was planning a serious move in Syria. Russia, bless them, rarely varies its tactics when it comes to making moves on the QT, possibly because most Russian leaders have always been far more worried what their own people think of them than the opinion of the rest of the world. So, the same tired old ‘subterfuges’ of aid shipments which were really arms and troop shipments, and materiel sales that were really incremental mobilisation have been taking place right under our noses. And most of us guessed what was happening, to our credit.

Judging by the news cycle, however, a whole lot of people seem to be very surprised and, in this state of shock, have begun to scream hysterically about World War III. The argument is that Russia is more or less openly striking targets other than ISIS, and that these targets include rebel groups that are being backed by the USA and a raft of other countries. So, if Russia is killing American allies, then what’s to stop the USA from declaring war on Russia? And also, Iran’s announced its intention of sending ground troops in to fight ISIS and every time anyone says ‘Iran’, heads the world over begin immediately to explode.

I, however, would recommend remaining calm. As I pointed out in a previous post, fears about the advent of WWIII are basically academic. To all and intents and purposes, that gig’s already on, so the worry is not when will it start, but when and to what extent will the West join in. At this stage, it is abundantly clear that aside from limited deployment of air and SF assets, most of the Western powers don’t want a bar of it – not now or any time in the future. The scale of crime against humanity being perpetrated here is more than enough to justify all kinds of force, but we’re simply not willing. In the case of our recent historical experience with warfare, the West has a case of “once horrifically mauled, forever shy”.

The Russia/Syria relationship is a close and long-lived one, and it is widely known that Syria provides the Russian navy’s holy grail – a warm water port – as well as access to lucrative energy markets. Everybody knows this, so it’s not as if anybody is surprised or confused as to why Russia is conducting airstrikes in support of the Syrian regime. And nobody who’s been paying any attention at all (and one would hope this group includes the US government) is in any way surprised. This makes the chance of some state actor reacting rashly from shock or anger a fairly remote one.

Russian airstrikes have followed a pattern that makes it blindingly obvious that they are not targeting ISIS [Institute for the Study of War]

Sure, the people being targeted are, in fact, largely made up of groups that have more or less official US backing, but to call them allies would be ludicrous. In the first place, they’re not countries and in the second, they’re clearly proxy fighters in the same way that the Mujahideen and the Peshmerga have been in the past. And one thing we know for certain about the USA is that they do not make a habit of going to war in defence of their proxies. For evidence, we just have to look at the spectacular non-reaction of the US when Turkey used its UNSC authorisation to begin systematically murdering Kurdish forces. You know, the Peshmerga who we all apparently loved and supported so much. Nobody goes to war in defence of their proxy fighters. If they did, what would be the point of having them in the first place?

And the ‘entry’ of Iran into the war in support of their Shi’ite style brothers in faith, the Alawite Assad regime, is not so much a worrying recent development as it is a worryingly late public recognition of something that’s been going on for a very long time. Iranian militia (and their army is almost entirely organised on a militia structure) and special forces have been on the ground for at least 6 months and probably a great deal longer. I wrote an article about it, predicting that greater rapprochement with Iran would very soon become necessary as a result. But that’s beside the point. The point is, Iran isn’t just arriving – they’re reinforcing. And their entry all that time ago was so far from being a flash factor that it was quietly encouraged by the major Western powers.

Russia Syria

Remember the Kurds?

What we’re looking at with the situation between Russia, Syria, Iran and the USA is a situation that is indistinguishable from most of the cold war. A region is imploding, richer, bigger powers line up on either side according to their national interests and provide varying degrees of support to players who are already on the ground. Sound familiar? That’s right. When thinking specifically about the involvement of Russia and the West in the Syrian conflict, probably the most accurate way to frame it is not as a new confrontation, but as a continuation of the cold war. The last two decades appear to have been half-time, and now that the oranges have been handed out and eaten, we’re unfortunately back to business as usual.