1 Oct 2015

Syria: why this is not the start of World War Three

So the Russians and Americans are now bombing Syria, and the Russians are bombing the very rebels the US gives military aid to, and that’s a proxy war, and it’s knife-edge, and it could cause a Third World War, and…and…and…

Whoah! Calm down.

Pour yourself a large mug of something warm and soothing. Deep breaths. Now have a look at this. Your five-point guide to what the Russians are doing and why Third World Wars and proxy wars are as fanciful in Syria as they were in Ukraine..

1. It’s about Ukraine, and you should feel better about the West. Amid all the constant white-noise of masterstrokes by Putin, in fact the Ukraine adventure has halted in the dust, then the coming mud, then the ice of Donbass.

Targeted western sanctions have worked rather well, though they are boring and make lousy TV. Russia is hovering in recessionary gloom.

Putin needs a tiger to kill or be filmed wrestling with a killer whale or.. something. Aha! Syria is the answer. He looks tough, looks to be standing up to Washington, and in dictatorial Russia the supine media will carry that message home – or else.

He also knows if you can bring Crimea back into Russia at gunpoint, a few bombers over the Syrian deserts are not going to lead to Armageddon.

2. The West cannot bleat on about Russian interference – not after Iraq, not after Afghanistan – and Russia thus far is mounting just an air campaign.

This of course is no more than the West is doing, except Russia has the invitation of Damascus while the West does not.

Like them or not, the Assad government remains the recognised government of Syria, however much they may butcher their own people.

Equally, the West is not in any position to complain if the Russian bombs kill civilians. Over 165,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the US-led coalition invaded in 2003. The Russian bombers have some ground to make up.

3. Russian interests were under threat. That is unarguable.

Tartus and Latakia on the coast give Russia warm-water ports in the Mediterranean and they are not about to relinquish them to the anti-Assad rebels of Jaish al Mujahhideen.

This strand of anti-Assad fighters are absolutely not Islamic State (IS) and are close enough to the northern Latakia countryside to hit the area with Grad missile batteries. The Alawite Assad heartland on this coastal belt is thus under threat as much as Russian ports and recently-beefed up airbases.

Damascus and Moscow’s interests coincide, and the bombers have been duly scrambled.

4. After one day of high-wire bombing it seems the Russians and Americans will finally get round a table to bring a little air-traffic control into the game.

Having the Russian Three-Star general pop round to the US Embassy in Baghdad to see the military attache and say, “by the way, we are bombing Syria in one hour so you may want to clear the skies” is no way to proceed.

That was what happened yesterday. Today things on this side ought to be somewhat less chaotic and off-the-cuff.

5. The Putin promise – he said yesterday it is air-only, no ground combat forces. It is in support of the Assad army.

It is limited in time and Russia has no interest in getting deeper into the conflict. Domestically that would be hard, with Afghanistan still etched into the Russian psyche.

It might also bring escalated sanctions and that – as we have seen – is the very thing Putin wants to avoid while acting tough and walking tall globally.

A limited air-campaign would seem to tick all his current boxes – though the dangers of mission-creep are ever present.

But…there is one big but. Russia has said it is about attacking IS as well.

So far they do not appear to have hit anything at all inside the bloody so-called IS caliphate. Damascus is not bothered by that, as IS remain useful in deflecting global animosity from them.

But time is not infinite in this. The Russians have to start hitting IS in some degree or they will be unprotected against the argument that they are there to prop up the butcher Assad and nothing more.

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