Syria, a nuclear powder keg?

Illustration AFP US NAVY

Alors que les flottes américaines et russes se font face dans le bassin Levantin, au large de la Syrie, le président des Etats-Unis d’Amérique Barack Obama est en plein débat avec le Congrès pour savoir si oui ou non il faut entrer en guerre contre le régime de Bachar Al Assad. Une situation périlleuse, selon le Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, dans laquelle deux puissances nucléaires se fixent dans le blanc des yeux, la corde de l’arc bien tendue, prête à tirer, dans l’attente d’une décision politique. Il suffirait d’une erreur d’interprétation sur les radars des navires pour déclencher, potentiellement, une nouvelle guerre mondiale.

Unreported by the mainstream press, on Monday, September 2, in response to Israel’s unannounced test of its anti-missile system that entailed launching target missiles into the eastern Mediterranean, hours later Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, the second highest ranking Defense Ministry official, warned that Israel’s missile launches could have triggered a war–even a world war.

Antonov emphasized the volatility of the Syrian crisis, noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been notified immediately of the missile launches, and that the General Staff Central Command Post went on « high alert. »  Alarmingly, he likened the situation to an unexpected rocket launch by Norway in 1995 that nearly caused a nuclear war. On January 25, 1995, due to a clerical error, the launch notice for a Norwegian research rocket was not passed to the Russian General Staff.  They mistook the rocket for a U.S. submarine missile making a surprise electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack to paralyze Russian retaliatory capabilities. Only then President Boris Yeltsin’s refusal to « push the button » prevented nuclear armageddon.

Contrary to the mainstream media, the Syrian crisis is not “on hold” because of Obama’s   “buck passing” to Congress.  Right now, “the buck” is passed to the naval forces facing each other off the coast of Syria belonging to the U.S. and Russian nuclear superpowers. The possibility of an accident or miscalculation escalating into a shooting war—even a nuclear war—is significant. Since May, to support its ally Syrian Dictator Bashar Al Assad, Russia has stationed off Syria and in the port of Tartus a fleet it continues to reinforce, including guided missile cruisers. As recently as June there were 16 warships in Syria, the largest deployment to the Mediterranean of Russia naval power since the end of the Cold War.         

Neither Washington or Moscow wants a superpower war. But Presidents Obama and Putin have put their fleets in the Syrian battle space, in harms way. On both sides the Admirals, Captains, Ensigns and Seamen—and above them the U.S. Joint Chiefs and the Russian General Staff—have no alternative but to watch each other like hawks. A single mistake, an erroneous radar reading or satellite false warning, could have catastrophic consequences. Perilous though this situation is, it appears to be understood by nobody—not by the President, the Congress, or the media who seem to think the Syrian crisis is in intermission until the President and Congress decide to act. War could explode upon the President and the Congress unexpectedly, while they are deliberating, unintended by either the U.S. or Russia, sparked by a human or technological false warning.

The war could be nuclear

Unlike the U.S. Navy, the Russian Navy is still armed with tactical nuclear weapons.  Russian military doctrine explicitly calls for “deescalating” a local or regional conflict with the United States by making a tactical or strategic nuclear first strike, Russia’s version of “shock and awe”. Other hostile actors abound in the Syrian crisis who would love to see America and Russia at war, and especially in a nuclear war. The apocalyptic hopes and dreams of Iran’s Mullahs, of Al Qaeda in Syria, and of Hezbollah would be realized if the great infidels of West and East destroy each other. All the bad guys in Syria have some capability to provoke a war between the U.S. and Russia. All have cyber warfare capabilities that could be used to try spoofing radars and other national technical means into false warning. Iran and Syria have ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles, and small navies that could be used to try starting a shooting war between the U.S. and Russia.

99 years ago this August just past, in 1914 the great powers of Europe stumbled into World War I, in large part because the technology of military and national wartime mobilization became too complex for political leaders to control. Once mobilization began, it could not be stopped, leading inevitably to the First World War. Nuclear superpowers America and Russia depend upon a network of technologies for warning, command and control, and execution, far more complex and potentially more fallible than the technologies of 1914.  In 1914, the decisions of war or peace were made under the pressure of a clock calibrated in weeks or days.  Today that clock is calibrated for decisions that must be made in minutes or seconds.

It might be a good idea, while the President and the Congress debate what to do in Syria, to withdraw to safety the U.S. fleet from the Syrian killing zone.

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry.

Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a Congressional Advisory Board, served on the EMP Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, the CIA, and is author of War Scare: America and Russia on the Nuclear Brink.

Photo en Une : La frégate française Jean de Vienne et le destroyer américain USS Barry dans la mer Ionienne, le 26 février 2013 © AFP / US NAVY.

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