No sane person wants a nuclear war. But in a world loaded with nuclear weapons, a nuclear war might happen anyway. One place where a nuclear war might start is Syria. A military confrontation between Russia and the United States, the countries with the biggest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, is quite possible in Syria. Such a confrontation could escalate into a nuclear war if either side believed nuclear weapons were necessary to avoid a humiliating defeat.
Although the United States is clearly the world’s foremost military power — U.S. military expenses exceed those of the next nine countries combined — Russian stakes in Syria are greater than those of the United States. Syria is much closer to Russia than to the USA. Syria is Russia’s only reliable ally in the Arab world. Russia’s alliance with Syria gives it access to the Mediterranean. Russia supports the Assad government partly to control insurgencies and terrorist attacks within its own country. Moreover, the Russian people strongly endorse Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. These political realities mean that Russia will not back down in a military confrontation with the United States regarding Syria.
The U.S. concerns in Syria are more peripheral (and also contradictory). In Syria and elsewhere, the United States needs to maintain the credibility of its armed forces. Israel and Saudi Arabia, both U.S. allies, want the United States to remain in Syria. Israel desires a weak Syria which cannot challenge its annexation of the Golan Heights or support Palestinian resistance. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia fear the emergence of a Shiite block including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The United States, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, wants to overthrow the Assad government, but this government remains the indispensable force combatting jihadist terrorism in Syria.
The latest inducement to U.S. military action against the Assad government is the recent chemical weapons attack on the city of Douma. Washington immediately blamed this attack on Assad and his Russian ally, but there is reason to doubt this narrative. A chemical weapons attack appears entirely contrary to the interests of the Assad regime. They are winning the war in Syria, and Trump was considering withdrawing U.S. military forces. On the other hand, a chemical weapons attack would be welcomed by the people who want the United States to remain in Syria. Incidentally, the Syrian Red Crescent found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.
American armed forces should leave Syria immediately. They cannot accomplish anything useful in that country. Their presence increases the danger of military confrontation with Russia. Bashar al-Assad is indeed a brutal dictator, but dictatorship in Arab countries is a consequence of social structure combined with imperialist intervention. The institution of dictatorship is not eliminated when foreign forces remove a dictator. Unfortunately, the most feasible ending of the horrendous war in Syria is continuation of the Assad regime. In this imperfect world, stable dictatorship is far preferable to continual warfare that pulverizes society. And it is infinitely preferable to nuclear war
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.