The Buzz

Could Syria Spark a Nuclear War Between Russia and America?

On April 6, 2017, the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I, American warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at regime targets in Syria. The base that absorbed the attack, Al Shayrat air base in Homs province, houses both Russian and Syrian troops, who are allies in Syria’s bloody civil war.

It was a flawless military operation, popular with American politicians, media and the public. And it is a serious problem.

Much like the geopolitical environment in Europe preceding World War I, Syria is home to a complex web of alliances and support structures. More than a century ago, the assassination of an archduke in Bosnia ignited a chain reaction that saw two blocks of alliances explode into a devastating global world war. The realities in Syria are even more complex and the stakes have never been higher.

Among the myriad of opposing factions in Syria, there are two goliaths. Russia, allied with the Assad regime and provider of troops, warplanes and sophisticated equipment to the pro-Syrian effort — and the United States, which has sided firmly with rebel and Kurdish factions committed to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s ouster. Between them, they possess 94 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

It is in this environment that U.S. president Donald Trump’s missile strikes have brought us one step closer to a scenario in which two nuclear superpowers could engage in direct combat operations against each other.

U.S. commandos have been carrying out missions in Syria since at least 2014, and over the past year, the United States has been steadily ratcheting up its involvement in the Syrian civil war.

In March 2017, the U.S. role in Syria changed significantly with the introduction of a force of 400 U.S. Marines and Army Rangers to combat ISIS inside the Syrian border. These are not special operations forces but “regular” conventional troop formations operating inside a foreign, non-aligned nation without invitation.

According to Dan Lamothe and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in The Washington Post,

The deployment marks a new escalation in the U.S. war in Syria, and puts more conventional U.S. troops in the battle. Several hundred Special Operations troops have advised local forces there for months, but the Pentagon has mostly shied away from using conventional forces in Syria. The new mission comes as the Trump administration weighs a plan to help Syrian rebels take back Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The plan also includes more Special Operations troops and attack helicopters.

Perhaps even more concerning though, neither deployment was officially announced by the Pentagon. According to The New York Times, “the Rangers’ presence became apparent [only after] they were seen driving around the northern Syrian town of Manbij in Stryker vehicles and armored Humvees,” while The Washington Post was the first to break news of the Marines deployment.

This fits with Trump’s promise to stay unpredictable and not alert the enemy to his plans. But it is also a serious blow to the civil transparency of our military operations.

Keeping news of U.S. troop deployments in Syria from the Russians might sound good to Trump’s chest-thumping style of military planning, but it is vital that the Russians have at least a somewhat clear picture of where U.S. forces are operating.

If they don’t, the prospect of U.S.-Russian violence becomes very real.

Without proper channels of communication in place, it is entirely possible that U.S. and Russian forces could find themselves in a firefight. With both sides rapidly increasing their presence and commitment to the Syrian conflict, the situation could quickly escalate beyond either party’s control.

This is already happening. Hours after the strike, Russia announced that it is withdrawing from a 2015 memorandum that has significantly decreased the risk of in-flight incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft operating in Syrian airspace. The Russian withdrawal comes as a direct result of the U.S. missile strikes on its ally, which Russia sees as a “grave violation of the memorandum.” The only reason that Russian troops weren’t killed in the attack on Al Shayrat is that the United States notified Russia in advance, using a hotline that was part of the now-defunct memorandum.