John Rees on the immediate conclusions we can draw from the US led airstrike on Syria
1Trump wanted an immediate and much more widespread bombing of Syria. Secretary of State James ‘mad dog’ Mattis had to ‘walk Trump back’ to a more limited attack, according to the BBC. But we should be clear that this will not always be possible. Nor will the US foreign policy establishment always want the more limited option. Indeed, even now, more extensive bombing may still happen as the divisions within the White House continue.
2UK foreign policy is made in the USA. UK citizens learnt first that its government was engaged in a new bombing of Syria from Donald Trump, not from the elected prime minister of the country.
3Theresa May is so weak that she couldn’t risk a vote in parliament. The UK government urged a quick strike this weekend rather than have to face Parliament when it returned on Monday. The calculation may well have been that the inherent stupidity of the mission and the scale of domestic opposition would have maximized a Tory rebellion and minimized a Labour rebellion. So much for the ‘higher moral purpose’.
4The US’s power in Syria is next to zero. This raid will not change the fact that Assad and his Russian allies have won the war. It was, as even hawkish BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner admitted, ‘the Russians who defeated ISIS’. Actually the Kurds also played a key role, but you can only expect so much truth from the BBC. This is not some great Russian victory, but merely the restoration of the status quo ante. Syria was always a Russian ally during the whole period following the Second World War and especially under the current dictator’s father’s equally despotic regime. The US thought it could use the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to get regime change on the cheap and without committing its own troops (impossible after the Iraq catastrophe). The Russians were always going to defend their only ally in the region, just as the US would have defended Saudi Arabia if the Russians had backed a rebellion there. The US’s gamble on the FSA failed. So the Russians are now entrenched in a destroyed country.
5On this occasion Russia provided intelligence and maps to help avoid US, UK and French bombs hitting their personnel. Given the current destabilisation of relations with Russia we cannot assume that this level of international co-ordination will continue among the great powers.
6The next crisis will be over Iran. This is less the last shot of the Syrian war and more the first shot of a conflict with Iran. Iran’s influence has grown across the region as a result of the failure of the US operation in Iraq. It provides much of the firepower of the Iraqi government, has a stake in Yemen (hence the Saudi war on Yemen), and is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliance with Hezbollah. One thing that Israel, Saudi, and its Gulf allies and the US are agreed on is that this must stop. Saudi diplomacy with Israel - the latter having been prevented by both US Presidents Bush and Obama from an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear plants - is furthering this joint interest. Recent Saudi diplomatic contact with Russia has been to send the message that they don’t care if Russia stays in Syria as long as the Russians turn a blind eye to attacks on Iran. The Russians probably will. Trump’s appointment of Iran-hater and all round fanatic John Bolton to the NSA, and the imminent tearing up of the Iran nuclear deal, will be the signal that this is the next cold war that could turn hot.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.