Saturday 14 April 2018

Limited US action suggests conflict unlikely to escalate

Analysis: overall aim, apart from sending a message to Assad, was to keep as far away as possible from Russian and Iranian positions

The US-led operation against Syria, which included the contribution of four RAF Tornados, was a relatively limited one, a short, sharp attack against targets alleged to be linked to chemical weapons.

It is intended as a one-off, with no further strikes planned unless Syrian president Bashar al-Assad conducts chemical attacks in the future.

There had been speculation in advance of the attack that there was a risk it could lead to world war three. It was far from that.

But it was much heavier than the strike the US conducted last year unilaterally against a Syrian air base. On that occasion, 20 Syrian planes were destroyed, estimated at 20% of the Syrian air force. The US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in that attack: no planes were used, to minimise the risk of American losses.

This weekend the attack involved twice as much weaponry, using planes as well as missiles. That is not a major escalation. Targets were restricted to air bases, research facilities and storage space alleged to have been used in the preparation of chemical attacks.

The main overall aim, apart from sending a message to Assad to desist from chemical weapons attacks, was to keep as far away as possible from Russian and Iranian positions, to avoid widening the conflict by directly drawing in Russia or Iran.

In spite of Russian rhetoric during the week of potential retaliation in the event of the attack, in reality Russia is far short of the military strength it enjoyed as the Soviet Union, with Moscow as anxious as Washington to avoid conflict. In almost every area other than nuclear weapons, Russia is heavily outnumbered in terms of defence spending and equipment compared with the US.

US President Trump arrives to announce military strikes on Syria while delivering a statement from the White House in Washington. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters
The US spends about $550bn annually on defence compared to Russia’s $70bn. To take just one indicator, Russia has one ageing aircraft carrier while the US has 20.

If Russia was to seek to retaliate, it would be through some form of hybrid warfare, a deniable action such as a cyber attack rather than open conflict.

To help avoid conflict, the US warned the Russians in advance that the attack was coming and the air corridors that would be used but not the targets.

The US aim in Syria, as Donald Trump indicated before the Douma attack, is to leave Syria as soon as the US judges Islamic State to have been totally defeated. The attack does not change that. It was not used to attempt regime change. Assad’s presidential palace, exposed on a high hill above Damascus, was left off the target list.

Assad could well be relatively happy with the outcome and the impact on him may be less than the US raid last year.

The US, British and French appear to have escaped unscathed. There was a risk from the relatively sophisticated air defence system that Russia has equipped Syria with. An Israeli plane crashed in February, which the Syrians claimed they had downed. The planes in this latest raid did come under attack from surface to air missiles but all missed their targets.

Another potential risk was that hitting any chemical weapons could result in spreading the poison. But British chemical weapons experts said the risk was minimal and that any chemical weapons would be blown up rather than dispersed.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who led the UK and Nato chemical weapons response teams, said:“The best way to destroy chemical weapons is to blow them up.”

Another chemical weapons expert, Richard Guthrie, said it depended on the form the material was in and how it is stored. At one extreme, he said, referring to an unpublished study he did on the impact of an attack on a chemical plant in the Balkans, there could have been a substantial loss of life. “At the other extreme, a small stockpile of materials for chemical weapons held in binary form probably wouldn’t cause a huge hazard if bombed,” Guthrie said.

The other risk was of hitting Russian or Iranian military personnel or a miscalculation that led to high civilian casualties Although the US and UK military insist missiles are more precise and intelligence better, mistakes happen. In the 1991 Iraq war the al-Amiriyah bomb shelter in Baghdad was hit killing more than 400 civilians and there was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

To try to avoid Russian or Iranian or civilian casualties, the US, British and French planners opted for targets they believed were far enough away to avoid such an outcome.

The speculation that the world was on the brink of global conflict is likely to prove unfounded. In the end, the raid was only a minor escalation of the one conducted last year.

(Source: Guardian)

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