World watches nervously as Russia bombs Syria

Russia has bombed anti-government targets in Syria, drawing condemnation from the Nato alliance of western countries. Is this the most dangerous crisis since the Second World War?

‘Extreme danger.’ ‘Irresponsible behaviour.’ ‘Cease and desist.’ ‘Immediately explain these violations.’

The language in Nato‘s statement yesterday pulled no punches. A Russian warplane entered Turkish airspace on Saturday, triggering a response from the 28-nation alliance of western nations. If the Russian jets had fired, Nato’s members — including the United States — would have been obliged to respond.

The situation highlighted tensions which have emerged since Russia’s air force began bombing targets in Syria last week. A conflict which began as a civil war in one Middle Eastern country now threatens to descend into a conflagration involving nuclear-armed powers.

The West is particularly angered by Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who since 2011 has killed more than 133,000 of his own people, including by using chemical weapons. The USA and UK have said that Assad must be removed in order to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict in his country. Regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE agree with them on this. But Russia has support from Iran and Iraq, both of whose populations are predominantly Shia — like Assad.

Russia and the West agree on one key priority: defeating the jihadist group Daesh (so-called ‘Islamic State’), which has captured swathes of Iraq and Syria since its rapid rise in 2014. But Russia admits it is not only Daesh it will target with its airstrikes, but also other Islamist groups. Syrian opposition groups and some Americans assert that Russian strikes are hitting anyone opposed to Assad — including rebels in the US backed Free Syrian Army.

Over 1,000 different armed groups are fighting against the government in Syria, and between 7,000 and 10,000 foreign fighters are involved. The war has already killed 230,000 people over the last four and a half years. Eleven million people have been displaced from their homes, including four million who have fled abroad.

War and peace

This is a major threat to world security, say some, and it’s as dangerous as anything we’ve seen since 1945. The US and Russia are now fighting in the same territory, with very different goals. And the incredibly complex conflict they’re getting dragged into looks set to rage for years to come. This cannot end well.

That’s alarmist, say others. The US and Russian governments are still talking to each other, and have broadly the same goal. It’s in both of their interests to cooperate. And we’ve been here before: in Korea, Cuba and Vietnam, Americans and Russians were on opposite sides, but didn’t let regional disputes escalate into global conflict. Rational voices will win out in this situation too.

You Decide

  1. Is there any chance of peace in Syria?
  2. Can Russia and the US coexist in Syria?

Activities

  1. Use the article to draw a diagram showing who is fighting against whom in Syria, and who is allied to whom.
  2. Research the causes of three major crises since the Second World War (eg Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962). Rate each, and the current one in Syria, out of 10, according to your view of the level of danger involved, and write a paragraph for each of them justifying your answers.

Some People Say...

“Going to war is always an irrational choice.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does anyone outside Syria care?
There is an enormous amount of suffering taking place in Syria and the impact is being felt globally. Refugees are fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe. At least 700 people from the UK are among those who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihadist groups such as Daesh. And western security services report that Daesh (IS) is plotting attacks from Syria, often coordinated online.
Should we try to make Syria more like us?
Some westerners want to see more liberal democracies in the Middle East, believing they are the best way to secure peace. But this does remain controversial. The US and UK attempted to build a democracy in Iraq in 2003 and, although they successfully overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, there have been years of bloodshed since.

Word Watch

Nato
Abbreviation for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. One of the founding principles of this alliance is collective defence — meaning if one country is attacked, every country is obliged to respond as if they have been attacked. This was agreed under article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949 and was invoked after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Chemical weapons
The UN has confirmed that Assad used sarin gas against his own people in 2013. It is believed that he may have used chemical weapons on other occasions, and there have also been reports of IS militants using mustard gas. These weapons can cause gruesome death, including by choking and attacking internal organs.
Shia
Shias make up a minority of the global Muslim population. Most of them live in Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and India. The majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni.
Islamist groups
These are groups who want to extend the rule of Islam over the people in their country (and often to spread it globally). Some, but not all, of them also believe in jihad — in the sense of fighting holy war.

Subjects

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