By Horus Alas
Late that night, it was reported President Trump ordered the launch of 59 tomahawk missiles to strike Syria’s al-Sharyat airfield. This was the same airfield from which Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack that killed scores of civilians earlier this week.
Explaining the rationale for the strike, President Trump said, “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many.”
Trump claimed the strike was carried out in the “vital national security interest,” and urged “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
The response from Russia, longtime sponsor of the Assad regime, came swiftly.
Moscow announced it would suspend an agreement to share information with Washington about aerial operations being carried out by pro-Assad Russian forces and U.S.coalition-led aircraft targeting the Islamic State.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, stated, “President Putin considers the American strikes against Syria an aggression against a sovereign government in violations of the norms of international law, and under a far-fetched pretext,” and also claimed the American strike dealt a blow to U.S.-Russia relations.
The Kremlin now claims the chances of an unintended altercation between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria are “significantly increased.”
I doubt we need much expounding as to what an outbreak of hostilities between Russia and the United States could entail.
In the 46 years between the end of the Second World War and the Fall of the Soviet Union, the world simmered in a series of proxy wars and a protracted contest for global hegemony between these two powers. During that time, both nations amassed nuclear arsenals in preparation for an all-out nuclear conflict.
The U.S. has a stockpile of 6,800 nuclear warheads to Russia’s 7,000, according to January 2017 estimates.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, scientists estimated it would only take between 10 and 100 “Super bombs”—what we now refer to as “Hydrogen bombs”—with a payload between 10 and 100 megatons to put the entire human race in danger.
With nearly 14,000 warheads between the U.S. and Russia alone, the world’s nuclear arsenals pose a more than ample threat to human life on Earth as we know it.
We’ve had close calls before. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. came dangerously close to nuclear confrontation over Soviet-supplied missiles that had made their way to Cuba. The same took place in 1983, when NATO forces participated in a training exercise called Able Archer 83 that was so realistic Moscow leadership considered an invasion into Warsaw Pact territory imminent, and readied their arsenal accordingly.
In the best of all possible worlds, recent events in Syria are not a threshold which we will cross and enter into World War III. The strike against al-Sharyat airfield will not be our Rubicon. Somehow, Moscow and Washington will come to a diplomatic understanding and outright cataclysm will be avoided.
But Donald Trump is our president, and he lacks any sort of governing principle when it comes to foreign policy. He thinks the kleptocratic ethos of the Trump Organization can translate directly into an efficient running of the most powerful country in the world, and he couldn’t be more out of his depth than a business major in an epistemology class.
Vladimir Putin, from what we know, is a genuine strongman. He cultivates an image of himself as a muscular, vigorous leader, and state propaganda diffuses photos of him partaking in activities like judo, horseback riding (shirtless), racecar driving, etc.
Speaking of Putin’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections, K.G.B. expert Yevgenia Albats remarked to The New Yorker, “‘He wanted to make it as public as possible. He wanted his presence to be known,’ and to ‘show that, no matter what, we can enter your house and do what we want.’”
The current leaders of both nations are loath to demonstrate any kind of weakness. They would sooner resort to outright deceit and coercion than swallow their pride and own up to a mistake. The unfolding scenario in Syria may give them an opportunity to do just that.
When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, his troops were equipped with swords, shields and javelins. When Trump and Putin cross their own Rubicon, they will be equipped with enough weaponry to extinguish human civilization on Earth as we know it.
The die is cast. We don’t yet know what number we’ve rolled.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of DonkeyHotey’s Flickr account.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.