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Has Syria brought us to the brink of World War Three?

While all states came out as winners after this month’s trilateral strike, the escalation highlights a dangerous level of global volatility

For the past week, people around the globe have been asking whether the recent escalation between the United States and Russia over Syria has put the world on the brink of World War Three. 

While some may call this an exaggeration, others maintain that it is a legitimate question, and the entire episode is a disturbing sign of the world becoming less safe and more volatile. 

In Russia, many experts and ordinary people seem to have reached a consensus that the potential military standoff between Moscow and Washington could destroy humankind as we know it. "Let's not go into WW3 over Syria," one Russian noted on social media, while another posted: "Assad is not worth going into WW3."

A 'no-win' situation

Even representatives of the Russian leadership, commenting on the recent escalation, have said that direct military engagement with the US could lead to grave consequences and a "no-win" situation. It is quite clear that both countries understand the risks, and this is why - despite hostile back-and-forth rhetoric - they remain committed to avoiding a direct confrontation.

There were several differences in this latest round of escalation as compared with the US strikes in April 2017. Last year, the US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria's Shayrat air base, in response to an alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. In this month's strike, 105 missiles were launched, and the US was joined by the UK and France. 

Even representatives of the Russian leadership, commenting on the recent escalation, have said that direct military engagement  with the US could lead to grave consequences 

In addition, Moscow and Damascus say many of the missiles were intercepted this time around; last year, there were no official statements from Russia or Syria. Another key difference is that Washington this time not only accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons, but blasted Moscow for its complicity, fuelling tensions.

Still, the bottom line of this month's trilateral missile strike on Syria is that everyone went away happy. The US delivered on its promise to attack, appeasing hawks at home and allies abroad. The UK and France, by joining the strike, showed unity among allies and allowed London and Paris to appear decisive to their domestic and European audiences.

The Syrian government survived the strike with minimum damages: zero casualties and minor infrastructural damages. According to Russia's defence ministry, Syrian air defence systems intercepted two-thirds of the missiles launched. As for Moscow, it was able to save face: Russian military equipment and personnel in Syria remained intact, meaning there was no need to retaliate.

The outcome demonstrates the ability of two major powers – the US and Russia – to effectively engage in discussion and compromise. Although the Pentagon denied that the Russians were informed in advance about coordinates for the strike, the French defence ministry acknowledged that “with our allies, we ensured that the Russians were warned ahead of time”. The fact that there were no civilian casualties supports the argument that Moscow was informed in advance. 

Ankara's shifting position?

Meanwhile, experts have interpreted Turkey's support for its NATO allies' military move on Syria as a departure from Ankara's partnership with Moscow, raising questions about the consistency of Ankara's Syria policy. French President Emmanuel Macron said the trilateral strikes on Syria "separated the Russians and the Turks on this issue … The Turks condemned the chemical strike and supported the operation that we conducted."

This handout satellite image taken on 14 April 2018 shows the compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, after it was struck in raids by the US, UK and France (Cnes 2018, Distribution Airbus DS/AFP)
It should be noted that Turkey has been quite inconsistent on its Syria policy for a long time, having changed its approach to the conflict and President Bashar al-Assad several times. However, in this case, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the escalation and the strike for his own purposes. 

On the one hand, by expressing support for his NATO allies' strike, Erdogan demonstrated that the door is still open for improving Turkey-US ties. On the other hand, Turkey didn't blame Russia for the alleged chemical attack in Douma as the US and UK did, which also indicated that Ankara wants to play it safe on both fronts. On top of that in a recent address to his party on 17 April, Erdogan formulated Turkey's policy on Syria quite precisely: "Turkey neither absolutely supports nor absolutely opposes anyone on the Syrian issue."

New lessons learnt

Despite having certain disagreements on Syria with Moscow, Erdogan understands that Turkey needs Russia in Syria to fulfill its goal of preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Bilateral ties between the two countries are too strong to be damaged by this incident. 

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Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has also dismissed Macron's remarks about a "separation" between Moscow and Ankara, stating that "Turkey's ties with Russia are too strong to be broken by France's president".

In sum, the latest escalation over Syria showed that the parties involved will continue to test each other's nerves while simultaneously seeking compromise. While aiming to advance their own interests in the Syrian conflict, those involved are contributing to a situation where unpredictability, along with the constant risk of further escalation, reigns supreme.

This is why those propagating a more aggressive and uncompromising approach toward the opponents on each side play against global security in the long-run.

On the bright side, the latest round of escalation demonstrated that both the US and Russia maintain effective communication channels that allow them to avoid misunderstanding and incidents that might lead to an uncontrolled escalation.

Hopefully, the latest round of escalation allowed all parties involved to learn new lessons which will help them to blow off steam successfully next time.

- Alexey Khlebnikov is a MENA expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He holds an MA in global public policy and Middle Eastern studies. He was a Muskie fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs (2012-2014) and a research fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS in 2013.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: A photo released on 14 April 2018 shows an explosion on the outskirts of Damascus after Western strikes (Handout/STR/SANA/AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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