After President Trump’s Friday night announcement that U.S., French and British military forces have launched missile strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities in response to that nation’s recent deadly attack on its own citizens with poison gas, the world wonders: Will the American action spark a war between the U.S. and Russia?
CIA Director Mike Pompeo pointed out Thursday that the U.S. has already killed a large number of Russians in Syria. “A handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match,” Pompeo said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to become secretary of state. “A couple hundred Russians were killed.”
Pompeo’s comments are apparently the first public on-the-record confirmation by an American official that Russians died in a U.S. air strike in February on pro-Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zour province. Members of the Russian military and Russian civilians are in Syria propping up the regime of dictator Bashar Assad.
Though there are plenty of questions regarding what comes next in Syria, there are few answers. The questions include:
· Will the U.S. bombing campaign against Syria continue? For how long?
· What does President Trump hope to accomplish with the attack he ordered?
· Will Russia shoot down – or at least attempt to shoot down – U.S. cruise missiles if there are new U.S. attacks into Syria?
· How would the U.S. respond if our missiles are downed by Russia?
· What would happen if U.S. missiles accidently killed any additional Russian civilians and members of the Russian military in Syria supporting the Assad regime?
· Will Russian President Vladimir Putin order a counterattack against U.S. ships or aircraft conducting strikes against Syria?
· Will U.S. and Russian ground forces in Syria go into battle against each other?
· What happens if members of the U.S. military are killed in a Russian attack?
Hopefully, none of these things will happen. It would make sense for U.S. forces to give Russia a heads-up on possible targets and what we might be attacking to avoid killing more Russians. Our forces would lose the element of surprise in an attack, but they’d lessen the chances of starting a U.S.-Russia war that in the worst-case scenario could turn into World War III.
There is also the possibility that Russia will not respond at all to the U.S. attack on Syria, knowing that – at least in the Middle East – Russian forces would be soundly defeated by U.S. forces in any long-term conflict, while losing their position in Syria and in the region more broadly.
But the game of geopolitics is not for the faint of heart. And who says Putin would fight fair?
What if Russia decided to respond to more Russian deaths in Syria with aggression in a different part of the world, like in the Baltics?
While it seems unlikely, this is certainly possible. And in fact, this is what happened in a “wargame” – a simulated military conflict – that I was involved in as part of my duties working at a Washington think tank.
The results of the simulation, sadly, were tragic: a fictional nuclear war was unleashed.
While I support President Trump’s action in Syria, I pray that the real civilian and military leaders of our nation and of Russia would be more careful and avoid going nuclear.
Roughly two years ago, a group of national security experts gathered just outside of our nation’s capital for the massive wargame. In the simulation, Russia had decided to respond to growing tensions with the West by invading the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
This could only mean one thing: a war between NATO and Russia was now in the offing.
In our simulation, Russian forces swept into all three Baltic states quickly. Thankfully, the military in the three nations used smart, tactical thinking and held back the Russian onslaught long enough to allow some sort of coordinated response by NATO.
With sweat literally dripping from my brow, I had a front row seat to what was quickly becoming the largest European war since World War II – and was grateful that this was just an exercise we were using as a learning experience and not a real war where people were being killed and wounded.
Once our simulated war began, things went wild and I learned a very valuable lesson: war never goes the way you think it will.
As battles raged back and forth between U.S. and NATO forces on one side and Russian forces on the other – advancing here, retreating there, and suffering terrible casualties – I was glad this was all just imaginary.
Finally, Moscow made clear that if NATO forces pressed any deeper into territory controlled by Russia and kept up cruise missile attacks, Russia would respond with low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.
NATO forces ignored the warning, and through several days of fighting, continued to inflict heavy losses on Russian forces in the Baltics. Allied forces were also moving slowly across the Atlantic and from basses across Europe to meet the Russian challenge. Soon, the Russian military would be outmanned, outgunned and defeated.
While hostilities seemed to be heating up, NATO proposed a way out for Russia. We offered a return to the previous boundaries before the conflict, a full exchange of prisoners, as well as a conference of warring parties to work through ways to avoid such a conflict in the future.
Sadly, Moscow never replied to the offer. In the minds of the Russian wargame players, their country was starting to lose. Russian TV, at least for the purposes of our wargame, was showing countless soldiers in body bags.
Our fictional President Vladimir Putin was feeling the heat. He felt he needed to take a stand, to show the West he and Russia would not be defeated – no matter what the cost.
And then, the unthinkable happened in our make-believe war. Russia decided to go nuclear. In our simulation, Moscow launched the very first atomic attack since 1945. Using just one tactical nuclear weapon, Russia wiped out a large section of Poland’s forces in our fantasy war, killing thousands of fictional soldiers.
What happened next would have likely been a tragedy, but we will never know. The wargame was preset to only go for seven days, to give all combatants a very compressed sense of time and a true feeling of the fog of war.
Our fictional war was over. But had it gone on, NATO would have likely authorized its own use of nuclear weapons, and with it, the possible death of millions of people in Europe, and around the world.
Thankfully all of this was an exercise, but it clearly shows the dangers of what we are facing in Syria.
Wars never stay in the nicely constructed spaces we like to keep them in. As we have already seen, millions of people have fled Syria to Europe, already impacting the continent in a migration crisis not seen since the last world war.
Therefore, all sides of this conflict, no matter their loyalties, must work to end the Syrian Civil War once and for all. If not, a much greater crisis could be in the offing.