New Tripartite Aggression in Syria Brings Mixed Results

17 april 2018

Vitaly Naumkin, Ph.D. in History, is a Professor and Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also head of the Department of Regional Problems at Moscow State University, President of the Center for Strategic and Political Research, and Editor-in-Chief of the Vostok-ORIENS magazine published by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: By the strikes against Syria, the US and their allies achieved demonstrative effect only partially. It was achieved, because like in the previous illegal bombings of sovereign states (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they exhibited their military power, unprecedented arrogance and readiness to completely ignore the international law.

By the strikes against Syria, the US and their allies achieved demonstrative effect only partially. It was achieved, because like in the previous illegal bombings of sovereign states (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they exhibited their military power, unprecedented arrogance and readiness to completely ignore the international law. It was partial, because the Syrian Air Defense Forces shot down most of the missiles. For Russia, that means a victory. Russian-made weapons have coped very well with the task, writes Vitaly Naumkin, Academic Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, in his comments for valdaiclub.com.

  Today, there is nothing surprising in the fact that Russia perceives any actions of the West against Damascus as a means of struggling with Moscow, which became in recent years one of the key actors in the Middle East.

After the first strikes on Syria were launched, Teresa May mentioned prevention of the use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom territory in the context of the alleged goal of the coalition’s military action. This showed that the British participant of the “new tripartite aggression” links it to the campaign against Moscow, continuously and with stubborn absurdity accused by London of use of chemical weapons in Britain.

It seems odd to me that the British do not see a huge number of inconsistencies both in their narrative on the Skripals and on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian armed forces. It seems odd because the UK is more experienced than anyone else in the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East. It was a long time ago, of course. April 17 marks the 101st anniversary since the moment when the British army for the first time used chlorine against the Turkish troops in Palestine, during the so-called Second Battle of Gaza. However, this did not give them military success (which is a noteworthy lesson too). Although chemical weapons were only prohibited by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, this episode is well remembered in the Middle East. After the First World War, the British used chemical weapons during the intervention in the north of Russia, in August 1919, and against the Iraqi insurgents, in the 1920s. To be fair, we’ll note that, as we all know, they were not alone in this.

It is already said a lot about the current intervention of the allies, but it will take time to understand it in all the details. By strikes on Syria, US and their allies achieved the demonstrative effect only partially. It was achieved, because like in the previous illegal bombings of sovereign states (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they exhibited their military power, unprecedented arrogance and readiness to completely ignore the international law. It was partial because the Syrian Air Defense Force shot down most of the missiles (while being far from the most modern and perfect, produced in Russia/USSR more than three decades ago – according to the Russian Defense Ministry, 71 out of 103 cruise missiles). For the Americans the only benefit is that their military-industrial enterprises are to receive many new orders for the production of the Tomahawks. Most of the missiles were prudently launched from sea and air beyond the Syrian airspace.

For Russia, that means a victory. T Russian-made weapons have coped very well with the task. Possibly, based on agreements we can only divine, our military did not have to get involved in the hostilities and employ the state-of-the-art air defense systems S-300 and S-400. Miraculously, the airstrikes led to no casualties not only among the Russian military and civilian specialists, but also among Syrian soldiers. However, they did cause exaltation among the opposition fighters who hope to repeat the false flag operation involving chemical weapons, which would push Washington and its allies to launch a new military campaign.

At the same time, commanders of the armed groups were disappointed by the US president’s statement that this action was not aimed at “regime change”, being, moreover, a one-off, punitive and warning operation. If it is impossible to accuse Assad of the use of chemical weapons once again, they ask, does that mean that he may act more confidently, having showed his strength in East Ghouta? It is significant that Moscow can now return to the issue of supplying Syria with the S-300 systems, something it restrained from, taking into account concerns of some partners (Israel).

It should be noted that despite the acute rhetoric, all the conflicting parties have in the course of recent events displayed various degrees of restraint and responsibility to prevent escalation from happening. Even today, Russia, judging by the official statements, intends to act by diplomatic rather than military methods. In the Middle East, even the US allies are dissatisfied with Washington’s self-imposed actions: here they assess negatively any violations of sovereignty by the global actors, even if for tactical reasons, some neighbors of Syria and Iran would like to weaken them.

Nevertheless, the tripartite coalition has managed to achieve yet another goal set by its leaders: to drive a wedge between Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Turkish leadership has predictably supported the limited attacks on Syrian targets. However, strictly speaking, the differences in the position of the three countries regarding the Syrian problem were obviously impossible to hide even before that. And the very fact that the “guarantor-states” format of their cooperation, despite all these differences, not only persisted, but also continues to develop, could be explained by the cementing role of Moscow, which skillfully avoids dangerous corners with the help of the Astana process diplomacy and powerful dynamics of the bilateral relations.

On “the tripartite aggression”

On October 31, 1956 the United Kingdom, France and Israel launched a military operation against Egypt after its leader nationalized the Suez Canal. During the military campaign, called “the tripartite aggression”, the coalition members bombed Cairo, Alexandria and some cities in the canal zone. When “the new tripartite aggression” was launched on April 14, 2018 against another Arab country, the parallels are self-evident.

That campaign ended ingloriously for its perpetrators, by the way, but they say that the only lesson of the history is that we do not learn its lessons. Unlike the original tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956, this one was carried out by the United States, Britain and France. Israel, despite its well-known hostility to Damascus, did not participate in it. In addition, in 1956, the positions of the USSR and the US, strange as it may seem for the bipolar world era, were close to each other.

As soon as we started talking about history lessons, let us recall another Middle Eastern episode. In July 1958, in Iraq, the very center of the Baghdad Pact signed in 1955 (or CENTO, in which the leading role was played by the UK), an anti-monarchist revolution took place under the leadership of Abdul Karim Kasem. The West perceived it as the continuation of the 1956 triumph of Gamal Abdel Nasser and a strong blow to the positions of the West, since the Baghdad Pact, directed against the USSR, was going into non-existence.

The panic of Churchill who was predicting that the entire Middle East would soon be under Soviet control unless the West took any decisive actions, was not shared by Eisenhower. He was afraid of the “domino effect”, similar to what took place in Southeast Asia. The landing of 20,000 US marines in Lebanon to support president Kamil Shamun, loyal to the West, and the landing of 6,000 British paratroopers in Jordan to support king Hussein immediately after the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy, confirmed the seriousness of these fears. Now, two years after Suez, the US and the UK once again acted together and discussed their plans for a possible military intervention to Iraq.

However, unlike McMillan, Eisenhower did not show any determination to resort to military force: his 1957 doctrine did not suggest that the US would invariably use it to overthrow the communist or leftist regimes in practice. The Americans clearly preferred covert operations of special services to open military interventions. In addition, they did not want to lose the moral capital acquired in the Arab world after Suez. Their reputation began to deteriorate only at the end of the 1950s, when they, like the UK, occupied an evidently pro-Israel position. However, Secretary of State Dulles proclaimed the need to distance from European colonialism.

Moscow regarded Kasem, who hit the very center of the anti-Soviet bloc in the Middle East, having established good relations with local communists, as a potential new ally. The international crisis around Iraq in 1958 was much more serious that it is commonly believed. The USSR issued some harsh threatening warnings on the British-American intervention against Iraq. It was not easy for the Soviet leadership to make decisions: the idea that the Politburo discussions on foreign policy issues were marked by unanimity, emerged solely due to the secrecy of its materials.

Echoing the fears of the military back in 1957, Marshal Voroshilov stated at the sessions that he did not agree with the direction of the Soviet policy in the Middle East and that the threats to the West were depreciated by their frequency (meaning two statements of the government). He believed that the support of progressive regimes in the Middle East could have catastrophic consequences for the USSR, provoking a war with the US. Other members of the Politburo did not want war either, supposing that the best way to avoid it was to threaten the US constantly. Khrushchev supported that point of view. Mikoyan said that the US was considering intervention in Iraq and that it depended on whether the USSR stood up to defend it (the unfortunate Iraq became the object of a power action of the West for several times subsequently). Voroshilov also argued that the West had already decided to intervene, so there was no need to take risks and to be obliged to enter an open military clash with the US.

One could assume that the probability of collision between the great powers over Iraq was rather high then. It was the fear of possible military British-American intervention that was in the heart of Khrushchev’s appeal to the leaders of the six states at a conference in Geneva on July 22. It was decided to provide Iraq with military assistance, delivering the equipment with the help of Egypt. At the same time, the Soviet leadership reacted calmly, when American and British troops landed in Lebanon and Jordan.

There was no agreement between Western powers on the issue of recognizing Iraq. When the question of intervention was withdrawn, Britain considered it necessary to recognize Iraq for not pushing it into the open arms of the USSR, and the US did not want to rush in order not to cause resentment of Iranian and Turkish leadership. Nevertheless, the US went to recognize the new regime. However, the Soviet-Iraqi rapprochement was already in full swing, and under the influence of Moscow, Kasem had already agreed to cooperate with local communists.

For Khrushchev, the asymmetry of the Iraqi crisis was of great importance. While the recognition of Iraq by the West was regarded in the USSR as a political victory, the Soviet leader began to act on the international area much more decisively, which was especially evident during the Cuban missile crisis (where the common sense finally won). It was concluded that the West wanted to overthrow the Iraqi regime by force, but retreated under the USSR pressure, and so that kind of powerful pressure is the only language comprehensible for the Western rivals. Thus, Iraq played an important role in the Cold War. In a new Cold War, a similar role is played by Syria.

There is no end of the Syrian conflict in sight. But the unilateral use of military force cannot bring the day of its resolution any nearer.

The Valdai Discussion Club

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