US Sanctions move on Russia might lead to a new ‘Cold War’ in Syria

Martin Jay
Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
US Sanctions move on Russia might lead to a new ‘Cold War’ in Syria
The problem for Donald Trump is both America and Russia realize his reckless manner limits him from making big things happen. Although a new Cold War confrontation between Russia and the US is unlikely, direct conflict in Syria can’t be ruled out.

The most chilling words any leader of any sovereign country can hear down the crackly long distance telephone line are “...you’re either with us or against us.” And yet, despite the Cold War being over for well over a quarter of a century, the recent move by the US Congress, which was finally backed by Trump, to support sanctions against Russia threatens to return the old world order. Political tensions in the US largely brought about by Republicans and Democrats – and both the lower and upper houses – who all, it would appear, want to topple Donald Trump, have reached this point of absurdity now, despite his attempts to derail it.

For many, the sanctions were perhaps inevitable, despite Putin giving Trump plenty of room to blunder when he first came into office. Trump did not revoke Obama’s decision in his last few days in office to expel 35 Russian diplomats.

Seven months later and now experts are lining up to point to Trump’s failure to adopt domestic legislation, and his general clowning around at world events as a key factor in Congress turning on him – and also Putin as well who realizes the US president is ineffective.

This, in part, explains the decision of Russia to react by kicking out hundreds of US diplomats and halted the use of the US embassy storage facilities in Moscow. Russia took the step after the US Senate on July 27 indicated that it does not trust Trump on Russia by not only passing a bill that imposes new sanctions on Moscow but also restricts his ability to ease them.

"(The Russians) have taken Trump's measure and while they are willing to exploit his goofy fixation on Putin and naive sense you can do deals with someone like Putin... they realize his clownish performance as president makes it really hard for him to deliver on any of the big things that Russia wants,"said Andrew Weiss, a former National Security Council Russia expert.

At home, Trump is also proving ineffective which has made him appear to be a leader with little authority, in the eyes of Moscow.

And while the tension grows many are talking of ‘war’ as an inevitability of the spiraling of relations. It’s as though the US Congress would rather risk war with Russia than lose the chance to destroy the US president; such is the dogged determination to unseat Trump.

Paul Craig Roberts agrees and argues that mainstream media is only too happy to assist the lunacy.

“The new sanctions bill forecloses the possibility of reducing the rising tensions between the two major nuclear powers,” he writes in a recent article.

“It also shows that whatever interest Congress has, if any, in reducing the threat of war and in avoiding a break with Europe over the sanctions, Congress has a much greater interest in continuing to collect campaign contributions from the powerful and rich military/security complex and in playing to the growing hatred of Russia that is encouraged by the US media”.

The author’s thrust – that “war is on the cards” – is only a realistic one if we consider "war" to be a broader definition, in particular with trade sanctions a possibility against the US from Russia and its many supporters. I don’t believe for one moment that actual war is likely as even Putin, according to some analysts, is still hoping for a compromise with the US.

But where the warmongers might see satisfaction is in Syria.

War games might pay dividends

Despite Trump’s concessions to Russia in recent weeks, in both the Syria ceasefire deal itself and halting all US aid to Syrian rebel fighters who attack Assad forces, it is in Syria here where his "clowning" is about to blow up in his face. With increased tensions with Russia, it might be inevitable that the beleaguered US president follows so many before him by dabbling in a foreign war to distract the voters back home away from the real issues. Even on the ground, recent advances by President Assad and his chief allies – Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran – mean that a standoff situation is beginning to emerge, many believing it to be in the east at al-Tanf. This region has become the base of US backed rebels in the south who were recently issued a firm warning by the US that they will lose their support if they attempt to fight Assad forces

Yes, Trump is, in fact, showing his true colors in Syria. Remarkably, he is following Obama’s rationale and, for the moment at least, moving away from regime change, which has resulted in a salvo of geopolitical experts claiming he is just biding his time before he looks at the longer term strategy of pushing Assad out. No Matter.

What we have seen in recent days in Syria though on the ground might create a basis of military confrontation for him to retrieve his mojo. While Al Nusra fighters – supported by the Israel, Turkey, and Qatar – are gaining in some areas of Syria like Aleppo and Idlib, they have taken heavy losses in other sectors. Nusra is losing its control in key parts of the west (bordering Lebanon) and the south, where they used to act as an effective buffer zone protecting the Golan Heights against advances from Assad’s allies.

Added to that Trump’s so-called ceasefire deal – which allowed Iran’s forces to regroup just a mere 20 kilometers from the Israeli border (which has infuriated Prime Minister Netanyahu, angry that he was not part of the deal) – and a new kind of east versus west dynamic begins to take form on the battlefield.

The south is now a potential flashpoint area between Israel and Iranian units. In the east too, the tension is reaching fever pitch at al-Tanf where Hezbollah has bolstered its fighters, after recent US attacks on both Assad's air force jets and Iranian drones.

Trump’s adversaries will no doubt harp that his craven policy stunts enabled Assad and his allies to gain considerable ground, by his recent decision to no longer back FSA fighters in Syria, who for years have been on the US payroll. Fake news high priestess CNN reported it as a “gift” to Russia and Assad. Perhaps it was international laws which spooked him. But more likely he saw what was on the cards with Congress slam dunking the sanctions draft on Russia, creating an entirely fresh crisis which could spark a new Cold War if allowed to escalate.

In Syria itself, the ground is prepared for a battle which Trump might think will save him from the abyss to which he is heading. Russia’s recent signing of a military airport deal in Syria makes its intentions pretty clear how far it will go if the US steps over a line in Syria. But equally, Israel will not hesitate in striking Hezbollah and Iranian forces if they get closer to the Golan Heights. Before, this awkward tension seemed to contain itself from becoming a ‘world war,’ but with the US sanctions dimension, it’s hard to imagine how long it can remain confined to ‘proxy’ war status.

The thing is we have all got used to Trump’s flip flopping so he wouldn’t care about one more.

But countries from all around the world will have to ask themselves where they stand as an inevitable trade war would follow, placing the East-West profiteers like Israel and Turkey in a hot spot. Whose trade sanctions would they comply with? Perhaps a war would eliminate the nail biting dilemma for them. And it would certainly ‘make America great again.' For at least a couple of weeks on Fox News, that is.

Martin Jay is based in Beirut and can be followed at @MartinRJay

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.