National Column: U.S. and Russia come close to the brink in Syria

by Thomas Walkom

Civil wars are complicated and dangerous. As Canada was reminded this week in Syria, outsiders who choose to involve themselves may end up with more than they bargained for.

At the best of times, the Syrian civil war is a nightmare. This week, after a U.S. warplane downed a Syrian government jet over Syrian territory it became even more so.

Russia, which is allied to Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus and which has its own warplanes flying over Syria, was furious. It announced it would target (but not necessarily attack) any U.S. or allied aircraft west of the Euphrates.

Australia, which has six fighter jets in the region as part of the U.S.-led coalition, wisely suspended operations over Syria.

Canada, which has one refuelling plane and one spotter plane operating over Syria and Iraq, said only that it will “continually assess the risks,” according to a defence department spokesperson.

It’s probably fair to say that when the Syrian conflict began six years ago, few thought that it would result in a military faceoff between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.

Yet it has become exactly that. The U.S. has made it clear that its local allies in the war against the terror group Daesh are off limits to the Assad regime.

Russia has made it equally clear that it will back that regime against America.

At least three wars are being fought simultaneously in Syria.

The first is the civil war itself. In part, it is an attempt to depose dictator Assad. In part, it is a sectarian conflict between Sunni and non-Sunni Muslims.

The civil war has drawn in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and from time to time Israel.

The second is the war between Daesh, also known as ISIS, and just about everyone else.

Daesh drew America into the war and America drew in its allies, including Canada. That, in turn, drew in Russia, which was determined to protect its interests in the region.

Under the current Liberal government, Canada’s role in the air war against Daesh has declined but its participation in the Iraqi ground war has grown.

The third is the ongoing struggle of the Kurds to create their own state from portions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

In Syria, the Kurds have long had a complicated relationship with the regime. On the one hand, Damascus finds the Kurds useful in that they keep neighbouring Turkey off balance.

On the other, the regime is loath to see Syria partitioned along ethnic lines.

Since 2011, when the civil war began, the Kurds and the Assad regime have had a tacit alliance. The Kurdish militias agreed not to join the anti-Assad rebellion. In return, the regime turned a blind eye when the Kurds set up what was in effect a mini-state in Syria’s east.

The U.S. also formed an alliance with the Kurds because it found their militias the most effective in the war against Daesh.

As part of that alliance, the U.S. agreed to arm the Kurds with heavy weapons for the assault on Raqqa, Daesh’s main stronghold in Syria.

Why the Kurds and the Assad regime fell out is not entirely clear. Perhaps the Kurds wanted to distance themselves from a regime that their new American patrons found distasteful. Perhaps the Assad regime wanted to ensure that the separatist Kurds weren’t too successful.

In any case, regime forces reportedly attacked a village Sunday that was controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. A U.S. warplane scared those attackers off. A Syrian warplane then attacked Kurdish-led militias near another city. The American shot down that warplane.

The world has come close to the brink before in Syria. In 2015, NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border. But Moscow and Ankara soon found it convenient to patch over their differences.

Earlier this year, the U.S. bombed a Syrian government airfield it believed had been used for a chemical weapons attack. But since the Americans effectively warned the Syrians first, there was more theatre than reality in this confrontation.

Perhaps this week’s attack too will lead to nothing much. Perhaps, the Russians will treat the event with a wink and a nudge. Perhaps matters won’t escalate.

But there are an awful lot of players wandering around Syria armed to the teeth. As the world found out after the assassination of an Austrian nobleman in 1914, an isolated event in a far-off land can have global consequences.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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