There have been claims on both sides that the Syrian crisis marks the most serious confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. I never believed this for a moment.
The crisis over Cuba happened because the administration of John F Kennedy discovered that Russia was deploying intermediate range thermonuclear missiles in Cuba.
This was partly to deter more US attempts to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro such as the defeated Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. And partly to reduce the huge US advantage in long-range nuclear missiles.
The stakes in this confrontation over an island 330 miles from Miami, which till the 1958 revolution was a semi-colony of the US, were very high. We now know that the Russians had stuffed Cuba full of tactical nuclear weapons.
So if the Pentagon had had its way and invaded Cuba, the island—and probably the planet—would soon have turned radioactive.
Fortunately Kennedy overruled his generals and cut a deal with the Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev. The missiles were withdrawn in exchange for the US scrapping its own missiles based close to Russia in Turkey and promising not to invade Cuba.
Syria, by comparison, has become a symbol of the US refusal, after Iraq, to play a frontline military role in the Middle East. Barack Obama refused to intervene in Syria and preferred to fight jihadis with drone assassinations. For him China was the real threat. The rise of Isis forced him very reluctantly to send limited numbers of troops to Iraq and Syria, and to keep them in Afghanistan.
Donald Trump hasn’t really reversed this policy. A couple of weeks ago he said that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria “very soon”.
According to the Washington Post, “like Obama before him, Trump has clearly decided that the United States has few interests in Syria and little ability to stop the long civil war”. But he’s still dangerous, for two reasons.
The first is his impulsiveness. A good example of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that Obama painstakingly constructed to isolate China. One of Trump’s first acts was to withdraw. Now he’s reviewing this decision. Trump’s tweets over Syria talked up confrontation with Russia despite his efforts to improve relations with Vladimir Putin.
Secondly, Trump is much closer than Obama was to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Saudi monarchy. Both are eager to embroil the US in a war with their main rival, the Islamic Republican regime in Iran.
Russia is an irritant to the US, not a global competitor the way the Soviet Union was. But a substantial section of the Western establishment is talking up Putin’s efforts to probe the West’s weaknesses into a “New Cold War”.
Along with Putin, it is the main sponsor of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But here there is an important difference with Cuba. Whereas the Pentagon was dominated by hawks then, this time defence secretary general James Mattis was eager to contain the crisis.
So the missile attacks were targeted at Assad’s chemical warfare facilities, and care was taken to avoid hitting the extensive Russian forces based in Syria. The presence of all these foreign militaries on Syrian soil—Iranian, Turkish, Israeli as well—is a sign of Washington’s relative lack of interest. But it creates a serious risk of the Syrian struggle precipitating a more general war.
And then there is the rhetoric. Russia is an irritant to the US, not a global competitor the way the Soviet Union was. But a substantial section of the Western establishment is talking up Putin’s efforts to probe the West’s weaknesses into a “New Cold War”.
A particularly stupid example was offered by the British ambassador to the United Nations, Karen Pierce. She said last week that Marx “must be turning in his grave to see what the country that was founded on many of his precepts is doing in the name of supporting Syria”.
Apparently this pillar of the Foreign Office doesn’t know that the Russian state existed for centuries before the 1917 Revolution and that Putin models himself on the Orthodox Christian authoritarianism of the Tsars, not Marx or Lenin.
But this type of Cold War hysteria is now widespread. If Trump tries to play up to it for his own reasons, things could start to get really nasty.