By Matt Ward
While the United States and the rest of the world are distracted by the ongoing machinations of an approaching U.S. election, Russia and America are edging ever closer to a direct military confrontation in Syria. With the brutal offensive in Eastern Aleppo as the backdrop, the potential for confrontation between these two old enemies is no longer a fantasy.
In the corridors of Moscow and the Pentagon there is a growing sense that just such a military showdown between the two Cold War super powers is an inevitability at this point.
The ramifications of such a confrontation, obviously, are huge. Up until now the United States and Russia have been actively opposing each other in Syria only through proxy groups, but that is now changing. Aleppo, the raging crux of dispute between Russia and the United States, is proving to be a tinder box that neither side can ignore.
The road to this showdown began on September 17th, when American A-10 aircraft attacked and destroyed a Syrian army position, killing scores of Syrian soldiers. The U.S. attack on the Syrian position, at Jebel Tudar in the Deir ez-Zour region of eastern Syria is now widely seen by all parties as being intentional, despite initial U.S. claims that it was accidental.
Immediately after this attack, President Barack Obama ordered a review of the decision making process so as to ascertain exactly from whom and where the order to initiate the strike had come. This action alone reveals that somewhere high up in the decision making structure there was a break down in the chain of command.
Somebody in the Pentagon or the CIA ordered this strike without direct presidential authorization or command oversight.
What is now widely accepted by all governments in the Middle East is that this strike was intentional, and was likely ordered to usurp the recently signed U.S.-Russian military cooperation deal. This deal, highly contentious and unpopular amongst both the upper echelons of the U.S. military and the CIA, is widely seen as a sell out to Russia.
The terms of the deal would allow for significant intelligence sharing between Russia and America, thereby revealing key, and up to this point secret intelligence gathering methods and assets to an enemy state, Russia. This, it is believed, would jeopardize the ongoing and future national security of the United States.
Thus somebody ordered the strike to scupper the deal.
Russian retribution for the U.S. attack was swift. Two days later, on September 19th, the Russian air force annihilated a UN aid convoy on their way to deliver aid to besieged Aleppo. Many aid workers and civilians were either killed or critically injured in this attack. Russia, of course, denied all responsibility.
Parallel to this attack, Russia, with renewed vigor and aggression, then launched an all-out attack on Aleppo with the aim of bringing the rebellion there finally to its knees. In the process war crimes have certainly been committed. The Russian bombing of Aleppo is without mercy and makes no distinction between rebel targets and innocent civilians. The Russians are crushing Aleppo to the ground.
Barbarity reigns in southern Syria. John Kerry, so incensed by the indiscriminate nature of the bombings, has threatened to cut all bilateral U.S. – Russian ties unless the bombing stops immediately and a humanitarian corridor is opened up.
This request has fallen on deaf ears because Russia are not listening to America anymore.
The reasons why Putin has stopped listening to America are many and complicated, but fundamentally they boil down to two things; influence and prestige. Vladimir Putin seeks legitimacy for Russia as a great power once again. Putin also seeks to reestablish Russia as a great power with a truly global reach that could realistically challenge the U.S. dominated world order. Russian actions should be seen in this light.
Maintaining the rule of Bashir al-Assad in Syria is intrinsic to Russian aims for the region and it would now seem that Russia have finally made the decision that it is more important to their long term strategic interests to crush the last vestiges of rebellion against Assad’s rule in the larger cities, such as Aleppo, than it is to talk or listen to the United States.
Russia will now settle for nothing less than a decisive victory in Syria, even if that means carpet bombing densely populated cities or obliterating hospitals in order to achieve it. All else is secondary to bringing this rebellion to its knees.
This is a test for the United States and presents Barack Obama with a very difficult decision; effectively he can do only one of two things. He can acquiesce and let Russia and the Syrian air force bomb Aleppo and other cities back into the Stone Age (which would thereby give Syria to the Russian-Syria-Iranian axis) or he can oppose them.
Obama and John Kerry have already been attempting, “to raise the costs for Assad and Moscow,” at the United Nations. It has had no effect.
Now other “non-diplomatic” options are being considered. These might take the form of more weapons deliveries to the moderate rebels with long-range artillery, which would then potentially be used against Syrian or Russian targets, or even direct U.S. strikes with cruise missiles against the regime’s air assets and airfields.
Any such actions, by definition would involve a direct face off with Russia and would come with considerable risk. Russia would likely try to intercept and shoot down any such U.S. missile strikes using its sophisticated and world leading S-300 or S-400 rocket interception platforms.
From here it becomes entirely unpredictable; it is highly likely a rapid military escalation would take place. Putin himself seems to actively want a confrontation with America; he is seeking just such a show down. Such a standoff would be highly beneficial for Putin because it would legitimize him and establish his country once again as a leading member of the international community of nations and give him, at the very least, direct parity with America.
However, there is more at stake here than merely Syria. The outcome of this showdown will determine the future of the not just the Middle East region, but will also provide an indicator for potential future Russian territorial expansion or invasions, in places like Ukraine.
If Russia can decisively push United States influence out from the Middle East through a direct confrontation such as this, then in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, the last check and balance on his wider Russian territorial ambitions will have finally been removed. There will simply be no one to oppose him.
Perhaps it will be then that he will turn his attention to the “land of Israel.”
“And it shall come to pass at the same time when Gog shall come against the land of Israel, saith the Lord God, that my fury shall come up in my face” (Ezekiel 38:18).