How Trump’s (justified) attack on Syria could make life very hard for all of us

The U.S. military launched multiple missiles from two U.S. Navy destroyers on Thursday at a Syrian air base after chemical attack.

On Thursday night, the U.S. bombed Syria, in a limited strike against the airbase from which this week’s devastating sarin gas attack on civilians was reportedly launched. Western intervention has always been a possibility during Syria’s civil war, which began with the violent crushing of originally peaceful protests in 2011.

The entrance of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the conflict seemed to deny the U.S. and its allies the opportunity to jump into the conflict; this week’s atrocity put it back on the table. The U.S. attack on Syria was therefore both a sudden development and a long time coming.

READ MORE: U.S. missile strike on Syria: Here’s what we know so far

The fighting appears to have stopped for now. Two U.S. destroyers have wrecked an airbase using Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Syrians are bemoaning U.S. aggression and the Russians have said they’ll send more air defences to Syria. All of this is predictable and expected. There’s little reason to believe that the U.S. intends any further action, and even less to expect a widespread intervention to topple Assad and end the war.

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But that’s assuming all goes to plan. It may not.

WATCH: Donald Trump briefed Justin Trudeau before launching missile strikes on Syria

Click to play video: 'Donald Trump briefed Justin Trudeau before launching missile strikes on Syria'
Donald Trump briefed Justin Trudeau before launching missile strikes on Syria

I’m not a particularly alarmist person by nature, but I do see value in assessing every situation to determine the worst-case scenario and how that can risk can be mitigated. Whenever two nuclear-armed countries are in conflict or near to it, of course, the worst-case scenario is very bad indeed. But let’s take as a given that the U.S. and Russia are not going to nuke each other over Syria, and trust in the proven deterrence of mutually assured destruction to save us. With that being said, are there possibilities for terrible-but-not-quite-worst-case scenarios?

The answer, sadly, is yes.

Let’s talk some of these scenarios, in progressively worsening order. The most likely scenario beyond a return to the status quo is probably that Syria, with Russian backing and moral support but limited direct involvement, decides to signal defiance by stepping up its war against the rebels that control much of the country (and the civilians caught between the warring factions).

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READ MORE: Did Donald Trump break the law by striking Syria without congressional approval?

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That could theoretically involve using more chemical weapons, though that’s probably unlikely – the Assad regime and the Russians are both denying that they used chemical weapons at all, saying this week’s disaster was a result of rebel-held weapons being accidentally released after a conventional air strike.

It would be hard to stick to that line if they suddenly start lobbing gas shells and bombs all over the place. But they can certainly step up their conventional air campaign and ground offensives against rebel-held areas, as a way of demonstrating to Trump (and to the Syrian population itself) that Washington has not humbled or cowed the Assad regime.

This doesn’t pose any particular risks to us in the West, but will make an already bleak life for millions of Syrians even worse and potentially drive even more to flee the country as refugees.

READ MORE: Syria chemical weapon attack shows Bashar al-Assad free to act with impunity

This would probably not be bad enough to compel a broader Western intervention, as it seems the only real reason the U.S. acted this time was to send a message about the costs of using chemical weapons. But it would still be a humanitarian tragedy, even if it avoided becoming an even worse geopolitical fiasco where NATO finds itself in a confrontation with Russia.

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After that, a plausible worse-case scenario is exactly that kind of confrontation occurring, but one brought about by accident.

There is an awful lot of military hardware on the move in the region. The U.S. and some allies (including some Canadian non-combat aircraft) continue to operate in and around Syrian airspace, conducting missions against the Islamic State. The Russian Air Force is also active in Syria, assisting the Assad regime in its war with the various and disparate forces arrayed against it, some of whom are as hostile to us as they are to Assad.

In the aftermath of the U.S. strike, the Russians will likely try to reassure their ally by sending more planes, ships and troops, and by keeping those already there busier. That ramps up the risk of an accidental escalation – the so-called “bumping” of forces.

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This is especially true because, in protest of the U.S. strike, the Russians have cut the hotline that had been established between Russian and allied military commanders in the region, which existed exactly to avoid such accidents. One can understand Moscow’s desire to send a message while worrying that they’ve chosen a lousy time to make it even harder for local commanders to talk to each other and prevent a navigational error or stressed-out pilot from kicking off a skirmish (or worse) that neither side wants.

The good news, to the extent there is any, is that such an incident would likely be brief and contained to the region. But with all the troops, planes and ships in the area, on alert and armed to the teeth, even a brief exchange of fire could do a lot of damage.

READ MORE: Canada fully supports Donald Trump’s Syria missile strike as ‘limited and focused action’

The next step up the escalation ladder is probably the worst-case scenario that we’re actually at real risk of seeing. It would see Russia, perhaps in concert with Iran, deciding to retaliate, but in a careful, controlled way. The Russians have no more interest in kicking off a world war than Washington does, and indeed probably have less. Despite Moscow’s belligerence and chest-thumping, NATO still has it badly outgunned (at least in global terms – you wouldn’t want to live in the Baltic states the day Russia and NATO went to war, even if that war stayed conventional). But that doesn’t mean that Russia can’t find all sorts of ways to make life hard for the U.S., in hopes of deterring any future U.S. meddling in Syrian affairs.

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But that doesn’t mean that Russia can’t find all sorts of ways to make life hard for the U.S., in hopes of deterring any future U.S. meddling in Syrian affairs.

Consider, for instance, a Russian response that doesn’t ramp up tensions in Syria, where all sides would probably benefit from a cooling off. Instead, though, Russia could dramatically ramp up the pressure on NATO’s eastern flank. It wouldn’t need to invade or attack our Baltic state allies there to make their lives and by extension ours, much less pleasant.

Iran, with Russia’s blessing and sanction, could dramatically step up its activities in the Persian Gulf, disrupting the vital flow of oil out of that region. Either Iran or Russia could ramp up support to the various terror proxies that vex the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East – Hezbollah being a prime example. And there’s always the cyber option: banks and public utilities could begin to experience weird glitches and outages all across the West. None might ever be linked back to Moscow officially, but the people who need to know would have no doubt where the problems originated from.
Personally, I find the first option most likely, the second somewhat likely, and the third a remote possibility. I think it’s in everyone’s best interests to not take an already unstable geopolitical situation and deliberately make it much worse, at least outside of Syria itself, and hope the leaders in Washington and Moscow share that view.

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But the Middle East is a complicated place. Accidents have a way of happening there. One can support Thursday’s bombing of Syria, as I do, while still recognizing the danger it poses to global peace. All we can really do now is continue to pressure our leaders to take our national and collective defence seriously and hope for the best.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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