Flames of war

Published: April 8, 2017

There is little doubt that the first direct US military strike on a Syria airbase — in response to a suspected chemical attack — has unleashed a fury of mixed emotions through the tinderbox that otherwise goes by the name of the Middle East. But even beyond this volatile region feelings of robust support and fierce condemnation are running high. It seems as if the attack has driven a permanent wedge between those who oppose and support the air strike. In the corner that stands resolutely against the strike is Russia, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The Kremlin minced no words, saying the strikes were an ‘aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international norms.’ In the larger dimension the US action has torpedoed whatever possibility there was of Moscow and Washington improving their relations under a friendlier Trump administration. The first casualty of that will be the agreement reached earlier between the two countries on avoiding clashes in Syrian airspace. Already Moscow has begun to bolster Syrian air defences. Russia has vowed to introduce a number of defensive measures in the near future — indicating perhaps it was caught flat-footed. America was certainly not expected to do this.

The recriminations go farther afield as well. Another Assad backer, Tehran, cast doubt on the use of the chemical strike as a pretext. But the US action was seen as a resolute response to the barbaric chemical attacks allegedly carried out by Damascus. In making that connection EU President Donald Tusk has found a way to get into the good books of the Trump administration. Britain, France and Germany have applauded the move too. But the troubling question is what will the Americans do next. Caution not impetuous action is needed. Far from being a game changer, the latest strike has complicated the equation further. From here on the conflict can get only more protracted and possibly bloodier.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2017.

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