Rubicon: Trump administration crosses a Red Line in Syria

By Dr Leon Tressell

Last week the American military fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian Shayat airforce base.

President Trump ordered this in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack on the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhun. Without producing any evidence the Trump administration and its NATO allies are putting the blame for this chemical weapons attack squarely on the shoulders of the Assad government.

This is not the first time that the United States has directly attacked a military facility of the Assad government. Readers may recall the American air force attack that killed over 60 Syrian Arab Army soldiers at Deir Ezzor last September. On that occasion the US military claimed that this accidental error which just happened to coincide with an Isis attack upon Deir Ezzor airport.

The cruise missile attack represents something of a Rubicon moment where the American military enters a qualitatively new stage in its military intervention into the Syrian civil war. Since the attack the Trump administration has been aggressively asserting its right to carry out further strikes upon the Syrian Arab Army.

Two days ago, Trump held a joint press conference with Jens Stoltenberg NATO secretary general at the White House. The president affirmed his commitment to the American led military alliance claiming that NATO was ‘no longer obsolete’. Trump went yet further and stated that NATO had a role to play in fighting IS in Iraq while approving Montenegro’s membership of NATO in the teeth of Moscow’s objections. Meanwhile, Stoltenberg emphasised NATO’s role in deterring a ‘more assertive Russia’ by sending four new battle groups to Poland and the Baltics countries.

Rubicon Trump administration red line Syria

This all chimes with the American troop surge in Iraq and the growing number of American special forces fighting alongside the Kurdish led SDF in eastern Syria. It is quite clear that the movement of SDF forces towards the caliphate’s capital of Raqqa is all about the grabbing of territory before the expulsion of Isis forces from eastern Syria.

Any study of the rapidly changing battlefront in Syria shows that the Syrian Arab Army is moving as rapidly as it can into eastern Syria. This in competition with the SDF forces that have crossed onto the western bank of the Euphrates River in an attempt to cut off the caliphate’s capital from central Syria.

It seems unlikely that the leadership of the Kurdish led Canton’s of Rojava are prepared to give up any territory that they have taken from Isis forces in Northern Syria. No doubt this reflects the huge influx of military resources pouring into the SDF from the Pentagon and their perceived weakness of the Assad regime.

This together with Turkey’s declaration that it will not withdraw its military forces from the areas it has taken from Isis in northern Syria poses a real dilemma for the Moscow-Teheran-Damascus axis.

This axis is confronting the Sunni terrorist threat, both in Idlib province against Tahrir al-Sham (Al Qaeda), and in eastern Syria against Isis.

Despite the bellicose words coming out of some sections of the Russian government it has not responded to the cruise missile strike in any meaningful way. Moscow has continued the so-called hotline with the American air force to avoid any unintentional clashes over the Syrian airspace.

The defeat of Isis in Syria and Iraq over the next period will not bring peace to these war-torn countries. In both countries there is the near insoluble issue of Kurdish autonomy within each country. Both Damascus and Baghdad have stated that they have no intention of giving the Kurds any kind of meaningful autonomy within Syria and Iraq.

This situation is complicated yet further by the neo-Ottoman ambitions of Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan is playing the nationalist card at home and using the Kurdish insurgency in south-eastern Turkey as an excuse to grab territory in both northern Syria and northern Iraq.

Over the next period the so called peace talks in Astana will lumber on without reaching any meaningful conclusion. It is quite clear that Washington together with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and NATO have no desire to see a political settlement to the war in Syria. There is no way that Washington would allow the Assad regime to triumph in the Syrian conflict as it would be a major blow to its geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East. Rather, they seek the partition of Syria as a means of blocking the expanding influence of Moscow and Tehran in the region.

The muted response of Putin to the American cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base will no doubt give confidence to the neocons in the Trump administration. As Trump struggles to deal with the horrendous social and economic problems facing the United States, he may well decide to double down on the American gambit in Syria and authorise further missile strikes upon the Syrian Arab Army.

We should not be too surprised by further cruise missile strikes by the American military upon the infrastructure of Assad’s armed forces. This of course contains within it the seeds for a further escalation of the Syrian conflict and the danger of an open military confrontation between the United States and Russia.