EVER since last week’s reported chemical attack targeting the rebel-held town of Douma in Syria, there had been a very real chance that the Syrian conflict would draw external powers into a potentially explosive direct confrontation. US President Donald Trump — in his usual fashion — had been issuing dire threats to the Bashar al-Assad regime and its supporters via Twitter, while Russia, Mr Assad’s principal foreign backer, was responding in the same manner. Perhaps it was this risky game of brinkmanship that made the UN secretary general say that Syria had brought the Cold War back “with a vengeance”. Early on Saturday, the Western troika of the US, UK and France unleashed a barrage of missiles targeting what they claimed were chemical weapons facilities in Syria. Bashar al-Assad has slammed the attack while Vladimir Putin has termed it “an act of aggression”. While so far Russia has not retaliated like it said it would, perhaps because none of its personnel were targeted, the US-led move will certainly aggravate the situation in Syria, especially where external players are concerned — and such type of military adventurism always carries the risk of countermeasures by the other side.
It is clear that a chemical attack — regardless of who conducts it — targeting innocent people is reprehensible and those behind it should face justice. However, in the muddy waters of Syria, things are not always as they seem. While the US and Europe were quick to blame the Assad regime, Russia claimed the UK ‘faked’ the Douma attack. In such circumstances, the best solution would have been to allow the UN to oversee an investigation into the attacks and identify the perpetrator(s). But with world powers apparently in no mood to pursue the path of diplomacy, missiles have been left to do the talking. The West has set a negative precedent by taking military action without UN approval; if Russia were to respond, or if its personnel were to be hit, the situation could very quickly spiral out of control. It would not be wrong to say that Syria is currently a powder keg. While its people had been suffering for years in a grinding civil war that has drawn in regional players, there is now a very real threat that this forsaken land may become a direct battleground for world powers. In such tense times, the UN chief’s call for all states “to show restraint” must be heeded.
Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2018