There was a time, in 2013, when Obama declared his red lines, and before Russia and Iran intervened, when western intervention could well have sent the then tottering Assad on his way. But an opportunistic British Labour leader, Ed Miliband, reneged on his promised support and the British Parliament gave Obama the excuse he was looking for not to intervene.
Instead of western planes commanding the skies over Syria, grounding Assad’s air force, Russian planes took to the air with the results which we now see. Had the pusillanimous Obama followed through, there would have been no need for western boots on the ground, apart from special forces. The land war against ISIS and Assad’s forces would have been wrapped up by the Kurds, massively assisted by a hugely encouraged opposition under the protection of western planes.
But that was then and this is now.
It looks as if now we’ll have to get used to the blood-soaked Assad winning this long war.
Where did it all go wrong, apart from that duplicitous Ed Miliband volte face? It first went wrong with that messianic, Saviour of the World former boss of Miliband, Tony Blair, and his sycophantic support for the American president, George W. Bush. That ill thought out intervention, with no exit strategy in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, began the unravelling of that powder keg of an area which can be likened in Europe to the Balkans for the complexities of the issues involved.
Now we see the three principal western allies punishing Assad for reintroducing chemical weapons against the opposition. So much for Russia promising to keep these internationally banned weapons out of the Syrian conflict.
The attack from the West will not tilt the strategic balance away from Assad, but it does have the potential to drag it further into the Syrian quagmire. That is not to say that retribution should not be taking place. For the West not to act – especially after the Trump tweets – would have held it up to ridicule and made it appear toothless. Putin would have loved every minute of it.
The reality of the situation is that is Putin who is toothless. He heads up an economy the size of Italy’s (half the size of California’s) and his military assets are Lilliputian compared to NATO’s. He may be a thug masquerading as a statesman, but he knows that a united West – and that’s exactly what he’s achieved – can wreak havoc with his fragile economy if it is provoked enough. He will, I believe, avoid putting it to the test. Moreover, if he were to allow things to get really nasty he would have to whistle goodbye to that cherished dream of his to host the world cup. That in itself would be a crushing humiliation. So many opportunities for self-aggrandisement are handed to whoever hosts that, second only to the Olympics extravaganza.
As for talk of military clashes involving Russian fatalities leading to a third world war, that is arrant nonsense. Anyone suggesting such a development reveals their lack of geopolitical understanding. Russia, and Iran in particular, need to start worrying about where their adventurism might very well soon lead them; and it isn’t just a question of a serious confrontation with the West, militarily as well as economically. A worried Israel, which has already launched one air strike into Syria, is close to being added to the volatile mix.
Netanyahu, perhaps the most hawkish prime minister that Israel has ever had, will find the prospect of Iran establishing itself militarily on its border an unbearable one. That country has sworn to wipe his state off the map. Only a short time ago two countries, Syria and Iraq, and a thousand miles of territory, separated the two hate-filled adversaries. Now the Iranians are at the foot of the Golan Heights and are eyeball to eyeball with the Israelis. It is one short step from there to a full-scale military clash. Israel itself, if that were to happen, could provide the decisive push which would finish Assad off and in the process send all the Iranians in Syria packing.
Putin has a very great deal on his plate right now. His economy is a mess and getting worse. His Syrian ally promised it would destroy all its chemical stocks and it did not, poking him in the eye by using the weapons again. Then there is the incredible backlash following Putin himself resorting to a similar illegal substance against one of his own enemies. He never for one moment imagined the odium that would rain down on him as a result and the massive worldwide support that would rally to what he saw as an isolated Brexit Britain.
All in all, it is a situation that must be giving him sleepless nights. Trump poured scorn on Obama for his weakness and, as a macho opposite, felt obliged to demonstrate his own virility. The missiles are coming, he said. With a carrier task force on its way to the Syrian coast, not to make good on that hasty tweet would have been a humiliation too far. For Trump and his image, it had to happen. So much for the love-in that he imagined he could achieve with the former KGB operative.
In my view, Trump’s willingness to confront Moscow must surely now dispose of that much talked about compromising bedroom material alleged to have been acquired when he paid a visit that once grim, but now glitzy gangster-run capital.