When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, I had this vision that it appeared in a region like a small but potent fire just as various Balkan conflicts 100 years earlier appeared to and – until World War One – failed to take hold. The Syrian Civil War has not yet become the terrifying fire of geopolitical hell that the one which engulfed the Balkans and ultimately all of Europe, but it does not need to. In the 100 years since, the combination of vastly greater military firepower, vested interests and proxies in the region makes the current fledgling fire a far more dangerous beast.
The knee jerk reaction of Mr Trump in ordering yesterday’s missile strikes is alarming on one hand, but not surprising on the other. Mr Trump has shown little or no regard for the rule of law or legal processes. I have heard reliably that he bypassed Congress and the Senate to allow these strikes to happen. The reactionism is worse when one considers that by waiting another 24-48 hours, he would have given other parties an opportunity to show their side of the story. Instead by striking so rapidly before the full facts were known and analysed, Mr Trump implies by his actions that he had made a conscious decision to strike anyway.
So, why is this so alarming?
The Middle East has always been a volatile place on the best of days. With the so called “War on Terrorism”, the proxy wars of Russia and the United States being played out vis-a-vis their client allies (U.S. has Israel, Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia, Iraq; Russia has Iran, Syria and Hezbollah). Since the War on Terrorism began the danger of a super power confrontation directly involving the United States and Russia has grown exponentially.
We have two very dangerous power brokers in United States President Donald Trump and his counterpart in Russia, President Vladimir Putin. The two now find themselves in a a game of poker that is rather high stakes and no one is quite sure how it will turn out.
One exists in his job because of a heavily rigged electoral system, has steadily ramped up military spending across the board in the last decade and has a vast surveillance network to find and deal with dissenters before they become a problem. He is a master at strategy, having effectively divided Ukraine by exacerbating local tensions to justify a Russian intervention in Ukraine; deliberately building up forces in Syria to see how far he can get with pushing the United States.
The other has no experience of political systems whatsoever, but hoodwinked a super power into making him President in an election he legitimately won. He plans to “Make America Great Again” by projecting hard power; investing in industries that other nations are shying away from. His instincts are not that of the calculating strategist who is his opposite number in Moscow; but rather that of a reactionary gambler seeing how far he can go before his house of cards and dices comes crashing down.
And how does this relate to the fledgling? Mr Trump and Mr Putin are playing around with Syria almost like playing with petrol near the fire: one wrong move by other could see it take off.