The cause of the danger was the collapse in September of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement and the resulting stand-off this October between the US and Russia in Syria.
This culminated in high level discussions within the US government about possible attacks on Syrian army bases, followed by public threats from Russia to shoot down US aircraft if such attacks took place. As The Duran reported – but as the Western media has conspicuously failed to do – following these threats from Russia, the US backed down.
These events have been barely reported in the West. Instead what we have witnessed is a deafening cacophony of abuse of Russia for its actions in Syria, with the country baselessly accused of war crimes, and with things written and said about its political leadership which go far beyond what was written and said even during the height of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014.
At one level this abuse is an attempt to embarrass the Russians to call off the Syrian army’s offensive on the Jihadi held districts of eastern Aleppo.
However it undoubtedly also reflects the huge anger and sense of humiliation in Washington and in certain other Western capitals caused by the US climbdown earlier in the month.
The intensity of the media campaign against Russia is however creating something of a climate of fear, with most people unaware that the most dangerous moment of the crisis has in fact already passed.
Much of this fear is centred on the personality of Hillary Clinton, now widely expected to be the next US President.
Based on her record and her statements, she is widely supposed to be a hardline foreign policy hawk who has never seen a war she didn’t like or want to join, and who is widely expected to escalate dramatically the confrontation with Russia in Syria and elsewhere.
Many also point to Hillary Clinton’s known previous support for a no fly zone in Syria, and her comments on the campaign trail, which many see as suggesting that she plans one still.
Is all this however true? Is the greatest moment of confrontation between the US and Russia in Syria still to come? Will things really get far more dangerous if Hillary Clinton becomes President? Are we really looking at World War III?
In my opinion these fears are wrong. The great confrontation has already taken place, and it took place this October. A direct clash between the US and the Russian militaries in Syria was avoided, and there is now no possibility that it will happen.
What this means is that there is now no possibility of Hillary Clinton imposing a no fly zone on Syria or of her ordering an armed confrontation with the Russians there. Nor is there any chance of Barack Obama doing so in the few months left to him. Nor is there any chance of either Obama or Hillary supporting Boris Johnson’s hare-brained idea for a no bombing zone in Syria, or of either of Obama or Hillary Clinton ordering US attacks on Syrian military bases.
The reason none of these things will happen is because the US’s uniformed military opposes all of them. In the face of the US military’s opposition none of them can happen.
The reason the US military opposes these schemes is because they would all require the US military to take on the very extensive and very sophisticated air defence system the Russians have set up in Syria. The US military has made it absolutely clear that it is completely opposed to doing this.
In the days immediately following the US climbdown brave reports appeared in parts of the media which claimed the US military is confident of its ability to take on and defeat the Russian air defence system.
It did not however take long for a report to appear in The Washington Post – obviously sourced from the US military – which made it clear that this is not the case.
The Washington Post article, in addition to giving a comprehensive picture of the scale of the Russian air defence system in Syria, contains a frank admission that the US military is far from confident of its ability to defeat it
“While there is some disagreement among military experts as to the capability of the Russian systems, particularly the newly deployed S-300, “the reality is, we’re very concerned anytime those are emplaced,” a U.S. Defense official said. Neither its touted ability to counter U.S. stealth technology, or to target low-flying aircraft, has ever been tested by the United States. “It’s not like we’ve had any shoot at an F-35,” the official said of the next-generation U.S. fighter jet. “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300.””
Since this article appeared in The Washington Post information has trickled out showing just how formidable the Russian defence system in Syria actually is.
Whatever the precise purpose of the Russian military’s complaint about the alleged Belgian air raid on Hasajek, it does at least show that the Russians can now track US and NATO aircraft as they take off from their bases in Jordan, and almost certainly from Incirlik air base in Turkey as well.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has also admitted that the Russian air defence system is restricting the operations of the Israeli force, with the US based internet journal Al-Monitor reporting – based obviously on information provided by Israeli sources – that
“The S-300 and S-400 missile systems that Russia put in place cover all of Israel up to the southern Negev. Russian radar will immediately lock on Israeli jets taking off from any base, except for the Uvda air force base near the southern city of Eilat, and their flight patterns will be under constant surveillance. That is how the Russians keep an eye on the Israeli air force’s activities over “hotspots” along the borders between Syria and Lebanon. Should he want to, Putin can simply push a button and turn the lives of Israeli pilots and the commanders who sent them on offensive strikes in Syria into a living hell.”
(bold italics added)
Meanwhile we know US intelligence is advising the US government that the Russians not only have the capability to shoot down US aircraft, but are not bluffing when they say they will do so. No less a person than Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking to the Council of Foreign Relations on Tuesday 25th October 2016, has said as much
“I wouldn’t put it past them (NB: the Russians – AM) to shoot down an American aircraft if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground. The system they have there is very advanced, very capable and I don’t think they’d do it – deploy it – if they didn’t have some intention to use it.”
The Washington Post article confirms that the US military was always reluctant to impose a no fly zone over Syria because of Syria’s sophisticated air defences.
In the face of the vastly more sophisticated air defence system the Russians have created in Syria the option of declaring a no fly zone over Syria or of undertaking any of the other US military options that have been talked about in Syria for all practical purposes no longer exists.
In saying this I realise some people continue to imagine terrifying scenarios of the US swamping the Russian air defence system in Syria by launching hundreds of aircraft and missiles against it whilst daring Russia to escalate. In the real world of political and military decision making, it beggars belief the US military would be prepared to do this in view of the heavy casualties and the possibility of uncontrolled escalation it would risk. There is simply no chance of the US military willingly engaging in a military confrontation with the Russians in Syria and risking World War III in order to rescue a gang of Al-Qaeda led Jihadi terrorists in Aleppo and to fulfil some people’s fantasies of regime change there.
None of this is going to change if Hillary Clinton is elected President in November.
Whilst Hillary Clinton could in theory try to order the US military to take military action and risk confrontation with the Russians in Syria against its wishes, in practical political terms doing this is all but impossible since it would leave her catastrophically exposed in the very likely event that something went badly wrong. In addition Hillary Clinton would almost certainly face a massive groundswell of opposition from Congress and the nation, which would surely dwarf the one that caused Obama to back off his proposed missile strikes against Syria in 2013, if she tried to do such a completely reckless thing. Hillary Clinton, whatever her faults, is far too experienced a politician to take on these well-nigh unbelievable risks.
It is not as if Hillary Clinton does not know the huge risks of ordering military action in Syria. Here is what she said about them back in 2013, when she discussed the prospects of imposing a no fly zone in Syria during a private speech to Goldman Sachs
“They (NB: the Syrians – AM) are getting more sophisticated thanks to Russian imports. To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk—you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians. So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.
In Libya we didn’t have that problem. It’s a huge place. The air defenses were not that sophisticated and there wasn’t very—in fact, there were very few civilian casualties. That wouldn’t be the case. And then you add on to it a lot of the air defenses are not only in civilian population centers but near some of their chemical stockpiles. You do not want a missile hitting a chemical stockpile.”
Note that Hillary Clinton said all these things back in 2013, long before the Russians deployed their own vastly more sophisticated air defence system in Syria. If she had doubts about the wisdom of military action in Syria in 2013, then she will have far greater doubts about it now
If a President as belligerent and confrontational as George W. Bush was unable to order the US military to attack Iran against its wishes – as he undoubtedly wanted – then there is no possibility Hillary Clinton – who despite her reputation is neither stupid nor a fanatic – can order the US military against its wishes to attack the Russian military in Syria now.
What then of Hillary Clinton’s supposed campaign statements about wanting a no fly zone in Syria?
When these are read carefully it becomes clear that Hillary Clinton plans no such thing. Here is what she had to say on the subject during her third debate with Donald Trump
“First of all, I think a no-fly zone could save lives and could hasten the end of the conflict. I’m well aware of the really legitimate concerns you have expressed from both the president and the general. This would not be done just on the first day. This would take a lot of negotiation, and it would also take making it clear to the Russians and the Syrians that our purpose here was to provide safe Zones on the ground.”
(bold italics added)
In other words what Hillary Clinton is really supporting is not a no fly zone across the whole of Syria, but a “safe zone” within Syria the terms of which would be negotiated with the Syrians and the Russians.
That is of course exactly what the Turks – with US support – are already busy setting up in north east Syria through their Operation Euphrates Shield.
In fact the more carefully Hillary Clinton’s comments are analysed the clearer it becomes that her policies if elected would be essentially the same as those of the current Obama administration.
In her private 2013 comments to Goldman Sachs she made it clear that her preferred way of working in Syria was not through direct confrontation with the Syrians but covertly – in other words by arming and aiding the famously elusive “moderate rebels” in Syria in exactly the way the US under Obama has been doing
“And there is still an argument that goes on inside the administration and inside our friends at NATO and the Europeans. How do intervene—my view was you intervene as covertly as is possible for Americans to intervene. We used to be much better at this than we are now.”
(bold italics added)
However in her final third debate with Donald Trump she let slip that she is no more keen for Jihadis to get hold of sophisticated weapons (including by implication anti aircraft weapons) than Obama is, even if she tried to hide the fact by making a bizarre point about terrorists being prevented from buying guns across the counter in the US
“That’s why I want to have an intelligence surge that protect us here at home while we have to go after them from the air, on the ground, online. Why we have to make sure here at home we don’t let terrorists buy weapons. If you’re too dangerous to fly, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun.”
This is consistent with what Hillary Clinton said in 2013 to the Jewish United Fund Advance & Major Gifts Dinner, where she admitted that the large scale presence of militant Jihadi groups sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria has made distinguishing between “moderate rebels” and Jihadi militants – and preventing weapons supplied to “moderate rebels” from falling into the hands of Jihadi militants – all but impossible
“Some of us thought, perhaps, we could, with a more robust, covert action trying to vet, identify, train and arm cadres of rebels that would at least have the firepower to be able to protect themselves against both Assad and the Al-Qaeda-related jihadist groups that have, unfortunately, been attracted to Syria. That’s been complicated by the fact that the Saudis and others are shipping large amounts of weapons—and pretty indiscriminately—not at all targeted toward the people that we think would be the more moderate, least likely, to cause problems in the future, but this is another one of those very tough analytical problems.”
Overall it is impossible to see any real difference between the policies Hillary Clinton advocates and those Barack Obama is already following in Syria.
Like Barack Obama Hillary Clinton does not intend to impose a no fly zone. Like Barack Obama Hillary Clinton is wary of supplying sophisticated weapons to the “moderate rebels” in case they might fall into the hands of Jihadi militants. Hillary Clinton does want to set up a “safe zone” in Syria, which she believes (almost certainly wrongly) will give her “leverage” over the Russians in future negotiations about Syria’s future. However she realises this has to be negotiated with the Russians, and besides it is what Erdogan and Obama are already busy trying to set up in north east Syria through Operation Euphrates Shield, so far with only very partial success.
Even Hillary Clinton’s immediately declared objectives are the same as Obama’s. Like Obama her priority is not regime change in Damascus or the capture of Aleppo; it is the capture first of Mosul and then of Raqqah
“The goal here is to take back Mosul. It’s going to be a hard fight. I’ve got no illusions about that. And then continue to press into Syria to begin to take back and move on Raqqah, which is the ISIS headquarters.”
It is no coincidence that shortly after these comments the Obama administration openly discussed plans to capture Raqqah.
The similarity of positions on Syria between Obama and Hillary Clinton in fact reveals an important truth about a future Hillary Clinton administration: it would not be a new administration at all, but rather it would be an extension of the present one.
This is not surprising. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama worked closely together when Hillary Clinton was Obama’s Secretary of State. Obama obviously wants her to win the election and is pulling out all the stops to help her. it is a certainty she is being consulted about administration policy and has a role in making it, and that issues like the capture of Mosul and Raqqah are discussed with her.
Just as Obama is less of a dove than he sometimes likes to pretend, so Hillary Clinton is less of a hawk than she sometimes wants people to think. It is often overlooked that Obama and Hillary Clinton are both lawyers. Both are skilled at using language to give a sometimes misleading impression of what they are about.
There is no doubt about the huge anger and of the sense of humiliation in Washington at the climbdown Russia forced on the US this October.
There is also no doubt that there are lots of people in the US foreign policy establishment who yearn for a President who will “put Putin in his place” and who will take a more confrontational line with Russia on Syria and elsewhere. These people unfortunately have achieved a lock-grip on the US and Western media, and this enables them to a great degree to shape the public discussion with the result that they have a disproportionate influence on policy.
Unfortunately Hillary Clinton has chosen to fight her election campaign by pandering to these people. The result is that she gives the impression of intending a more confrontational policy in Syria than a careful analysis of her words shows she really does. Thus she has fostered the impression that she is looking to impose a no fly zone on Syria when a careful analysis of her words shows she intends no such thing.
This is going to create many problems for Hillary Clinton if she does win the election. However that does not change the fact, which Hillary Clinton certainly knows, that following the events of this October a direct military confrontation between the US and the Russians in Syria because of the opposition of the US military quite simply cannot happen. The US is not going to declare a no fly zone over Syria, or ride to the rescue of the Jihadis in Aleppo, or take any other military steps there beyond those it has already taken, whether Hillary Clinton is elected US President in November or not.
What we are unfortunately likely to see is a case of more of the same, even though that is a same which has already repeatedly failed. Thus we can expect more attempts to identify and train “moderate” Jihadis and to supply them with more weapons – this time inside the Turkish controlled “safe zone” that is being created for them – and perhaps more efforts to redirect the more radical Jihadis from Iraq to Syria to cause more trouble for the Russians and for the Syrian government.
In my opinion these policies – which are simply continuations of the policies the US has been following in Syria ever since the war started there more than four years ago – are unsustainable, and are bound eventually to fail. With the populous areas of western Syria and the main cities all likely to fall soon under the secure control of the internationally recognised Syrian government, these policies cannot achieve regime change in Syria. If the US persists with them the US far more than Russia risks becomes bogged down in Syria in a war it cannot win. As a matter of fact there are tell-tale signs this is already happening, with the US plan to advance on Raqqah already causing problems with the US’s Turkish ally.
Putting all that aside, the sound and fury of the current anti-Russian campaign should not mislead us. It is not a reason for fear. It is a product of weakness and failure, not of confidence and strength. Its exceptionally high volume and its ferocious tone are the product of the US’s feelings of humiliation and failure in Syria following the events of this October. It is after all natural for someone who feels defeated to over-compensate by being over-assertive, and that is what we are witnessing now.
Certainly the anti-Russian campaign is not a sign the US is about to go to war with Russia, whether in Syria or anywhere else. On the contrary it is a reflection of the fact war cannot happen precisely because the US in the form of the Russian air defence system in Syria is now faced with an adversary it is not confident it can defeat at any remotely acceptable cost.
Irrespective of whether Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency in November, that is the reality. The moment of greatest danger in the Syrian crisis has passed.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.