Is the war in Syria the start of World War Three?

By Tohid Ismail

Before attempting to work out the gravity of this conflict, it is important – and increasingly becoming difficult – to establish the different powers involved. The first, of course, is the Syrian government under Assad. In direct opposition to it are the countless factions that make up the Syrian rebels – ranging from terrorist organisations such as ISIS, to those backed by the West (often cited is the ‘Free Syrian Army’ – although the composition of this force is open to speculation). The USA, the UK and NATO powers hold bases around the Middle East from the wars they have fought in the region over the past century. They started with a minimal role in the conflict, slowly escalating when warnings given to the Syrian government were ignored, and now taking the form of air-attacks and funding for ‘moderate’ rebels.

Initially this seemed a predictable Western intervention that would eventually result in the disposal of Assad in a way similar to Gaddafi. Except it’s utterly different, and far more dangerous. The Kremlin, perhaps in classic Soviet fashion – with a crippling economy and suffering from economic sanctions – stamped its foot. And it is this that means Assad, suited and as aesthetically unpleasant as ever, is still able to roam the confines of the Syrian presidential palace. Complicating the situation further is the financial aid and more direct means supplied by Iran and Lebanon in support of Assad, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the anti-Assad forces.

All these states being involved begs the question of what on earth they are fighting for. The answer is changing with every day the war continues. It started as an effort to dispose of a dictator as part of the Arab Spring and has now progressed to a Cold-War-esque power struggle between East and West. However, to simply mark this as a new ‘Cold War’ would be naïve and a gross simplification. Indeed, this is no Vietnam, where the US was funding and fighting for one side, and the Russians for another. Rather there are no clear sides. As Boris Johnson’s failed effort to increase sanctions against Russia at the G7 meeting last week showed, the West is far from united. Trump’s entrance into the White House and Britain’s exit from Brussels has stirred up a cocktail of tension within NATO and the western bloc. Russia too is unsure of who its allies really are – having been relatively ambivalent about its support for Iran, or even Assad. However, now they have committed – and this has been key in what has regressed into a game of ‘my interest versus yours.’

So with no clear sides, there shall be no clear answers. Rather, what we shall continue to witness is the superpowers of Russia and America, and the various periphery powers, make some noise when they feel they are being outplayed. In Trump’s airstrike, we saw not a reckless miscreant sitting in the Oval Office anxious to use his toys, but an action that took much thought and calculation. The US felt Russia and Assad were forgetting its presence on the Syrian stage. It was a warning not to use chemical weapons, but also symbolic of its continued global influence. Trump’s Tomahawk missiles were fired at a Syrian airbase not to achieve a specific goal but to send a signal that the US will not be bullied by Putin and Russia – and will flex its muscles without fear.

The question persists: is this the start of World War Three? The straight answer to this question is, at present, no. Well not if, by World War Three, one means a nuclear holocaust in which all are mutually assured of destruction. But if this means a large scale conventional war, starting in Syria and spreading through different parts of the Middle-East (as it very much already has) and calling all the world’s powers into action, then that is the way it has been heading of late. In this process, however, it is not us that will be hurt; it is not us that will have to see our loved ones crushed physically and emotionally; it is not us that will have to cross oceans to find a place of safety; and it is not us that will be born into a war and see nothing else in our lifetimes. For this may be a game of power to the politicians sitting in their oak-wood offices around the world, who can go back to their families at the end of a working day. But to others, the decisions they – or even we, in democratic countries – make, are the difference between life and death. Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin, Assad, King Salman or Erdogan require only the use of their tongue to launch a strike over the phone. But in this textbook power-play, children are seeing their parents perish before them, mothers are crying whilst they search for their offspring in bombed hospitals, in a war in which nobody can see an end, and many struggle to even find a beginning.   

Photograph: Eusebius@Commons via Flickr

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