Geopolitical pot could quickly reach a boiling point

An added danger in today’s explosive situation is the megalomaniacal leaders of the two countries concerned: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Unending war. A member of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) carries a weapon in the Syrian city of Raqa’s eastern al-Sinaa district, on June 21, during an offensive by US-backed fighters to retake the Islamic State (ISIS) group bastion. (AFP)

2017/06/25 Issue: 112 Page: 7

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

Syrian President Bashar Assad may well be accused of being a brutal, ruthless dictator who has caused more harm to Syria than any other national leader or foreign enemy. Assad has been accused of surpassing his father Hafez’s taste for violence and blood.

In his quest to remain on the throne, so to speak, he has lied to his people and to the international community. However, amid all the manipulation, juxtaposing for dominance and lies, there was one particular statement from Assad early in the civil war on which he has kept his word: Assad promised the international community that interference in the Syrian conflict would drag them into hell.

The civil war, for which Assad carries a good load of responsibil­ity, has claimed more lives and caused greater damage to Syria than all the wars with Israel com­bined. It has created an unprec­edented refugee crisis, affecting not only the immediate region but spreading around the Levant and into Europe. Now it is pitting the old Cold War enemies — Russia and the United States — against each other in what could amount to a dangerous confrontation between the two nuclear-armed countries.

Wars have been started for much less than what is at stake here. An added danger in today’s explosive situation is the mega­lomaniacal leaders of the two countries concerned: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

In Putin, Russia has a powerful president who has refurbished his military and has been testing its newly acquired armaments in a real combat setting in Syria. From 1950s-vintage AK-47 assault rifle to the antiquated T-54/T-55 and T-62 battle tanks, Moscow has replaced them with the more modern AK-12 assault rifles and the T-90 battle tank.

While the United States remains a formidable power to contend with, the country is in no way ready for a major conflict in the Middle East, especially a war that would not be limited to a single geographic theatre of operations and could spread worldwide.

A highly volatile geopolitical pot is simmering and the ingredients needed to reach the boiling point are being added day by day. It is insanity to have the Russians sup­port one side and the US support another side in the Syrian civil war and not expect the two forces to clash. The major difference in the danger level of a US-Russian confrontation today and in the days of the Cold War is due to both countries having troops on the ground and forces in the air, whereas in the past the United States and the Soviet Union of­fered support and armament to their Middle East clients.

The shooting down of a Syrian war plane by the United States contributed to wedging the two sides further apart and closer to a direct confrontation. While Washington and Moscow may be wise enough to realise that there would be no victor in a new world war, one that would make Russia’s Great Patriotic War appear tame by comparison, it would not be all that impossible for Assad, in his continued scorched earth policy, to push the Russians and the Americans into a disastrous and insane military misadventure.

This is not crying wolf. The dangers of a direct conflagration between nuclear-armed Rus­sia and nuclear-armed United States are all too possible. The precariousness of the situation is comparable to the one that prevailed in Europe on the eve of the first world war, when “the war to end all wars” was ignited with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by an anarchist in Sarajevo.

Today, the stakes are far higher. Syria, in its present state of gen­eral anarchy and sectarian divi­sions, is comparable to a Sarajevo with nuclear weapons attached to the archduke’s

undercarriage. If this conflict reaches this critical level it will not be the war to end all wars but more likely the war to end the world as we know it.

No one imagined in 1914 the disastrous effects and the con­sequences of that shot fired in Sarajevo. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself. Let us hope that saner minds prevail. It is time to put an end to this murderous conflict in Syria.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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