Please Don’t Worry About World War III

Neither Russia nor the United States has a reason to escalate in the war in Syria.

An American EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft prepares to launch from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, June 9, 2017
An American EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft prepares to launch from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, June 9, 2017 (USN/Matt Matlage)

It’s been a while.

As balances become clearer, life is better sorted and all that jazz, I find myself pulled, like the United States in the Middle East, back to the fray.

As it happens, I’ve found I can — and in some ways, must — do an update there and again on Geopolitics Made Super. The point of this blog remains the same — to take something in the headlines, something that is oft-Googled, and break it down to the basic geopolitical building blocks what creates behavior. If you want the hardcore angle, please do see my work over at Stratfor — who does not, by the way, represent or endorse what I write here. This remains a personal blog, in which I hope that those who stumble upon it are given the basics necessary to understand the world just beyond the headlines. The rest of you nerds who come by, I hope you have a good time.

So what have I been up to? Well, being part of the concerted push this week against the notion that we are going to fight World War III has been a big part of it.

We’re not. Not over Syria. I mean, it’s possible. But so is a meteor. So is the Second Coming. And since you probably don’t spend much time worrying about those, you shouldn’t worry about World War III either. But let’s delve into why.

World War III in Syria: Fair to worry if you never think about it

Honestly, it’s not totally crazy to see the signs in the headlines and ask yourself if you ought to be bothered with a bunker. The United States is preparing to bomb Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and, barring some last-minute, breathtaking diplomatic breakthrough, this is a certainty. And Russia is saying that it won’t take this lying down.

The thought process is straightforward: America, France or the United Kingdom accidentally bombs a Russian site. The Russians, either to stop the attack or to respond to it, shoot down the jet, or fire back at the ship, where the attack came from. This creates a tit-for-tat situation that sees the two great fleets, now assembling in the Eastern Mediterranean, fight an all-out conventional battle, which then probably escalates to a nuclear exchange.

The end.

There are two underlying assumptions of the World War III scenario. The first is that the two major actors of it — the United States and Russia — cannot control themselves from wading into it. The second is that one or both of the actors actually want it.

Both are fallacies. Here’s why.

You’re hearing that escalation could spiral out of control for good reason

The first good reason is that it could. It’s remote, but it could, and the more the media, the generals and the presidents talk about it, the less likely it becomes, because it makes admirals and generals and pilots and sailors all the more careful not to make mistakes. That helps impose discipline on forces, and it’s a reason why a lot of commanders on both sides are probably giving pep talks that involve the worry of World War III rather than its very remote nature.

The second reason is because Russia, and especially its state-run media, is trying to raise the stakes and impose a greater political and diplomatic cost on the United States and its allies for launching an attack. The more dangerous and crazy the attack looks, the less likely it is to be very big or very long. The Russians know they cannot conventionally do anything to stop the attack, so instead they’re playing public-relations chicken to try to slow it or shrink it.

They probably could save themselves the effort; the United States is not interested, especially with this White House, in fighting a big war in Syria that means overthrowing Assad. Syria has Iraq 2.0 written all over it, from both a political and strategic standpoint, and so the imperative to go to Damascus is really rather low.

Moreover, to have a world war, it takes at least one to tango

Let’s go back to August 1914 and August 1939, the last times we had world wars.

In August 1914, we must remember that the major powers wanted war, partially because they didn’t fully understand what they were getting into and partially because they believed they could assuage their geopolitical fears by fighting one. That World War I became a horror show of largely stalemated war really only became clear by the end of 1914 and by then it was too late to pull back from the total war that had begun without someone making painful concessions.

We’re not there today. We know exactly what will happen in World War III — mostly likely atomic destruction. Moreover, Russia is using Syria as a prestige project, a component of a wider global strategy. Syria is not nearly as important to Russia as Ukraine is. If America were about to bomb Donestk, you could freak out a bit more. But Russia can stand aside and let Assad be bombed a bit; it prefers not to, but it can live with it. It would be a very different situation in Donestk.

That takes us to World War II, in which most people knew another world war would be a disaster and knew how the alliances were shaking up. That didn’t change the fact that both Hitler and Stalin saw war as an effective way to get what they wanted geopolitically. While the Allies took pains to avoid war, even giving up Austria and Czechoslovakia, Germany and Stalin were gearing up to attack along the Eastern Front while Hitler was mad that the Allies had given him Czechoslovakia without a fight.

This time around, nobody gains from a direct fight, not least because it would probably go nuclear. Like I said before, Syria is a prestige project for Russia, not a strategic goal in and of itself. The naval base is all well and good, but there’s no reason to presume that Russia would have lost that base had the Assad regime been overthrown; the Russians could have even joined in on the revolution, were they playing intense realpolitik, to secure it with the next government.

What Russia was also after — probably more so than the base — was the perception that they are a reliable and powerful ally that can either replace the United States or supplement it. It was partially a giant defense contractor sales pitch, showing that Russia would sell guns regardless of moral qualms (and that those guns would work).

It was also partially a big alliance pitch, saying that Russia was coming back onto the stage able to go to the mat for its friends — trying to restore the stain of its humiliation after it watched its ally in Serbia get bombed by NATO in 1999, which was compounded when it couldn’t stop America from attacking Saddam Hussein, another friend, in 2003.

Those are well and valuable, but world-endingly so? Hardly. Russia’s reputation as a great ally will take a dent after this round of strikes, but not fatally so as long as Assad remains in power. Moreover, even if Assad wobbles, even falls, Moscow can argue that he brought it on himself by using chemical weapons.

As for Russia’s reputation as an arms dealer? Well, the formidable S-400 is unlikely to be used very much against the coalition. Russia will be able to claim, reasonably, that Assad had gone too far and didn’t deserve the protection of its defense system. That will keep the S-400’s reputation from being tarnished by either failing to hit targets or being destroyed itself in retaliation.

The S-400 might also be used to hit unmanned drones and missiles. That’s something the US could deal with and ignore, allowing Russia to showcase its new tech and remain a decent Middle Eastern arms dealer.

But unleashing it on American and French jets? That’s much less likely — not only could the S-400 miss, but it could be destroyed in the process. It’s much better to just keep it under wraps, protecting Russian bases, but not Assadist ones. If anything, the strikes could give the Russians a bit of leverage over the increasingly unruly Bashar, who has shown a disinclination to accept anything but total military victory. Russia wants out of Syria whenever it can and so a diplomatic track suits it just fine.

As long as Bashar was able to gas and bomb to his heart’s content, it was hard to get him in Russia’s diplomatic line. But if the coalition does destroy his chemical weapons, and moreover Russia stands aside and pretty much just lets them, it’ll deprive him of a troublesome tool he’s been overusing while showcasing that Russia might just let the next round of bombs hit the presidential palace should Assad provoke the Americans again at Russia’s expense.

All of this is to say there will be consequences, but they will be manageable, not apocalyptic. There is no incentive for a world war. There is no appetite for one. And you’ll be here come the next day. The question is, what next for Syria? That endgame must come, but what it will be, and who will dominate it, looks ever more in question.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, April 13, 2018.