The question of whether the most likely Western trio of Syria interventionists – Britain, America and France — should indeed intervene, comes down to a very simple question. Would the West fight a world war with Russia to save Syria?
Make no mistake, Vladimir Putin is a very, very dangerous man. Frequently characterised wrongly as someone trying to resurrect the Soviet Union, the crucial period in Putin's life was not his time as a KGB agent, but as mayor of St Petersburg in the nineties. It was there that he learnt the fine art of extortion and making money from public office. Taking these lessons into the Kremlin, he has engaged in industrial-scale asset stripping of Russia and is estimated to be the richest man in Europe, if not one of the richest in the world. In the boom times, few Russians cared or noticed. Following the euro crisis in 2008, and now the dip in oil prices, Putin is tapping into the never-ending vein of Russians' patriotism, as living costs start to rise. He has started wars in Ukraine as a distraction from his massive thefts, albeit he was, admittedly, responding to reckless Western meddling in a country that falls on the fault-line of European Russophobia and Russophilia. He has also positioned "radical Islam", as he calls it, as the great threat to Mother Russia. With that justification, he has dived into Syria, drawing on public memories of Chechen terrorist attacks early in his then premiership of the country.
What was already a desperate humanitarian situation is now not so much a powder keg, but a reservoir of nitro-glycerine. On the one side, you have the Saudi and Qatari intelligence services, working with American, British and some French Special Forces and intelligence operatives. They are backing everyone from Salafist Islamists to Kurdish freedom fighters. If the truth is known, half the time they are probably not sure who they are backing. On the other side, meanwhile, you have Iran and Russia, backing Bashar Al-Assad. Of all the countries you would want on the other side of a proxy war from the perennially belligerent United States, it would be Iran and Russia. Syria, it seems, is already as close to a world war as you can get without it actually being declared.
On Friday, Syrian warplanes were chased away by American jets as they buzzed US Special Forces on the ground in Hasakah, north-eastern Syria. This was not an isolated incident, but what made it so disturbing was that a backchannel line of communication to Damascus, which the Pentagon had set up via the Kremlin, was not used to warn off the Syrians. It looks as if the Russians deliberately did not respond; I presume "deliberately" because it seems unlikely that the Russian army radio operator was on a tea break when the warning came in. What this suggests is that Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, are blasé about the situation in Syria turning from a civil war overlaid with a wider proxy perspective, into the starting point for a conflict that could consume much of the northern hemisphere.
While few Western European politicians are yet taking the threat of Vladimir Putin seriously — allowing instead the continent's Muslims to be positioned as the threat within — in Eastern Europe the political classes are terrified of what the Kremlin might do next. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have small, relatively poorly-equipped armed forces, and look on nervously as Ukraine is engulfed by war. While Brussels, Washington and Amsterdam all played crucial roles in provoking Putin into invading Ukraine, the moment that he did so they very cowardly abandoned Kiev to its fate. Warsaw and its allies in Eastern Europe fear that the same would happen if they were to be invaded.
Some NATO commanders, at least, are wise to the threat, and have been asking for more resources. British and American troops were recently deployed to Europe's eastern borders, but not enough to contain an increasingly well-armed Russian enemy. If Russian planes were to tangle with the US air force over Syrian territory, Putin would be able to play the ultimate patriotism card and take on the Western powers directly in Europe. There is every chance that he would. He wants sanctions lifted, largely because they are having a direct and negative impact on his and his friends' well-lined pockets, and the corruption for which he got a taste in St Petersburg has now become even more lucrative sitting in the Kremlin. This is not a gig he would give up lightly, and he has proven himself perfectly happy to wage wars abroad in order to distract the Russian public from his criminal ways.
While Western powers have largely re-shaped their militaries with typical short-sightedness to fight extremist Islamist terrorist organisations using small Special Forces units and drones, Russia has been re-arming more conventionally, to fight a serious country-to-country war. This is happening at a rate not seen in decades. Military planners in the West are terrified, but the politicians aren't listening. Instead, in Westminster, for example, they are consumed by the more exotic threat of groups like Daesh. Indeed, a thriving cottage industry has developed to analyse (I use that word generously) what is a relatively minor threat to Europe — Middle Eastern terrorism; people who take the threat of a Russian invasion of Europe seriously are few and far between.
However, to understand why the Syria situation is so dangerous, you have to understand that Putin has, and always will have, his eye on Eastern Europe. A clash between Russian and American warplanes feels nearly inevitable. Putin would respond in kind, and if he is feeling particularly bold, or is unpopular domestically at the time, he would simply start another war in Europe; a second front as it were. That would be a "world war" as defined by narcissistic Western historians, who use the term to describe wars between the major powers.
Would we fight a world war to save Syria? Ask any hawk pushing for the West to take action in Syria what they make of this possibility and they would mumble something like, "Well, you see, Putin would step down if we stepped up." I'd bet a good deal of money that he wouldn't. His name is Vladimir Putin, and he's a very dangerous man indeed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.