The Skeptics

How Just One Bomb Could Take America and Russia to the Brink of World War III

So how easy would it be to start World War III with Russia over Syria? Over at the Week, I have a new piece out today the explores just that. Partially based on various war games I have been a part of over the years, past interviews I have conducted with senior officials in the Pentagon and a touch of imagination, it took me all of ninety minutes to think of how millions of lives could potentially be lost if a U.S. bomb lands in the wrong place.

While you can read the whole thing here, this is how the scenario is laid out:

Presume for a moment that two weeks from now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launches another chemical weapons attack — this time killing 400 people outside of Damascus. Trump decides to raise the stakes, launching over 150 cruise missiles in a much wider effort to damage Assad's air force. But this time things go wrong. U.S. forces attempt to inform the Russian government of what is coming, but their efforts are made more difficult now that a deconfliction agreement was canceled by Moscow after the last strike. While Washington does inform the Russian ambassador in Washington four hours before the attack, the message does not filter down the chain of command fast enough — and tragedy ensues. One of the Tomahawk missiles strikes a Syrian air base from which Russian special forces — unknown to the Trump administration — were operating. Sputnik, RT, and Russian domestic media outlets display repeatedly horrific images of soldiers dead or badly wounded — lying in rubble and crying out in pain. Forty-six Russian soldiers lose their lives, with 24 badly wounded.

Putin responds:

He orders a massive snap exercise, over 200,000 troops, with army, navy, and nuclear forces going on high alert from Europe to Central Asia. At the same time, he begins to massively increase arm shipments to separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. In less than a week, Russian backed forces make a drive for Mariupol. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley makes an impassioned plea at the UN for lethal aid to Ukraine, with President Trump approving the sale of advanced anti-tank weapons to Kiev, raising the stakes.

But Putin does not stop there. He decides he needs to create problems for Washington in Asia — so he sells four more S-400 air defense batteries to China as well as offers, and is accepted by Beijing, a joint development project for a new F-35 like stealth fighter. Putin also fully backs China's position in the South China Sea — an ominous development to say the least, emboldening Beijing to only reinforce its fake islands with now permanent fighter and bomber aircraft.

And from here it gets worse:

President Trump orders a display of U.S. power and ally solidarity, sending advanced F-22 Raptors to patrol the Baltics, as Russia has increased by three times the number of air patrols in the area, many of which cross into NATO airspace. Over the next week, the world holds its collective breath as NATO and Russia warplanes test each other's metal over the skies of the Baltics — until a Russian warplane gets too close to a U.S. fighter and their wings collide, causing both planes to crash on the Lithuanian-Russian border. Both pilots lose their lives.

The world is horrified. And now across three potential fronts — in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Syria — Russia and America are eyeball to eyeball, with no one willing to backdown. Trump orders U.S. nuclear forces brought to Defcon 3. Putin orders a similar move.

More the reason why we should have stayed out of this mess:

Clearly all the bombs in the world won't put Syria back together again — but could spark a military showdown not seen in decades. All the more reason why Trump's original position — to stay out of a civil war that has claimed countless lives and displaced millions of people — was the correct one.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest.