Images of a possible Third World War are often invoked by people warning about confrontations between powers like Russia and the US. Usually, we are just being too dramatic by bringing up such images.
Most of the time, people are exaggerating. But since the UK committed aircraft to combat in a location already swarming with other states’ armed forces with conflicting political goals, I believe the possible outbreak of a new world war is closer than any journalist or politician has been willing to admit. We may be closer to such a global conflict now than at any other period since the outbreak of the Second World War. There appears to be no precedent for rival powers’s aircraft sharing the skies and sending commandos into the same war zones, in Cold War history. Back in the Cold War, both sides had the discipline to accept each other’s presence and not get directly involved with combat troops if the “other side” was there already.
Call Russia “isolated” all you want, but the world is clearly divided into two different entrenched and powerful alliances at this time. One is a group of powers allied to the US and the other a group more friendly to Russia and China. The US-led alliance isn’t just NATO but also the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC and its armed forces). The Russian-Chinese bloc includes the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which together has more soldiers than any other military alliance in the world, and also the “resistance axis” of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah with the possible addition of the Yemeni Houthis. Both sides are highly confident that they will be victorious over each other in the end, although they do not entertain the idea of a nuclear war, which they dismiss as madness or refuse to think about at all. Both acknowledge that mutual salvos of nuclear missiles would be madness and no-one would gain. Unfortunately, that fact alone is no assurance that it won’t happen anyway. The previous two world wars were not started intentionally, but by two alliances declaring confusing “red lines”, which ultimately look like cover for saying the other side “started it” if anything does happen.
What the warring parties are doing in Syria today looks like drawing “red lines” far too close to opposing nuclear powers. It would be easy for Russia or America to begin attacking one another today in Syria, and there are abundant excuses for each of them to say the other side “started it”. Maybe the Americans will be blamed for a Russian plane going down, or maybe the Russians will be blamed for US special forces being bombed and killed.
Sending US, British and German troops on the ground in Syria may be the most dangerous development of all, and looks like sending lambs who will be a pretext for attacking Russian planes. If these men are hit by Russian air strikes, maybe by accident, more Russian planes will be shot down and Russia will shoot Western planes down in turn, possibly even bombing airfields within NATO territory in Turkey. The ensuing competition of two sides confidently assuring their people that “they started it”, and “we will finish it” guarantees escalation, without any sense of self guilt or self reflection at all their own hostile acts to start the conflict.
The reality is not that Germany started the two previous world wars even if was the primary aggressor, but that both sides were ignorant of each other’s power and scope. Neither side demonstrated their “red lines” properly, making it hard to tell the difference between a bluff and a real threat. In 1939, Germany was convinced that Britain would not declare war on it, because Britain had already failed on at least two other “red lines” and backed down from using force against Germany. Why should Germany have expected the third red line to be real? In 1914, Germany had not even been aware of the alliance Britain had made with Russia and France, nor was Britain aware of Germany’s secret alliances with the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary.
In the Cold War, the two sides acknowledged the danger of unclear “red lines” and unclear alliances, so they blatantly carved Europe up into two clearly defined alliances led by generals in Washington and Moscow, which became NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Today, we don’t have this bipolarity, and the multi-polarity apparent in Syria’s many red lines and alliances is perfect cover to start the Third World War.
At no point will the Western and Eastern forces decide to suddenly fire a salvo of nuclear weapons at one another, as was always feared. However, it may come to that. If both sides decimate their forces in Syria in order to gain control of the country – a pattern Turkey is absolutely committed to in the country – the weapons used will get heavier and heavier and the body count will build up. If Russia and the West both deploy air forces and then ground forces to counter each other, they will find and kill each other whether this was the goal of the respective governments or not.
As the West enters Syria and tries to confront Russian troops directly on a “limited” scale, Russia will – in line with its disbelief in “limited” warfare against NATO – expand its bombing campaign to some outer NATO allies such as Turkey to protect itself, on the basis that the alliance would rather sacrifice Turkey than sacrifice itself to protect Turkey. Since NATO would unravel if it couldn’t protect a member state, NATO would try to fire missiles back at Russia. That would trigger several salvos between NATO and Russia against each other, eventually hitting cities and including nuclear weapons. As both sides devastate each other on a “limited” scale and cities are reduced to rubble, the temptation will grow to expand the attack to target one another’s capital city with a nuclear weapon, based on the assumption that the outcome of “limited” warfare would eventually look exactly the same anyway. At the end of World War Two, Europe looked like it had been nuked. Today, Syria looks like it has been nuked. Take a look at the drone footage embedded below.
If West and East attack each other on a “limited” basis as they are going to do in Syria, and are involved in a battle of wills sufficient to turn entire countries into rubble, they might as well begin bombing one another’s cities today because the eventual result would look the same anyway. So, if the two sides are unable to put aside their hatred and distrust, the only solution is transparency. They ought to end idle threats, speak clearly about their goals, name their allies rather than having dark “moderate” proxies they refuse to identify in Syria, and declare more formal military alliances and bodies rather than having such elusive webs of forces in Syria that they may or may not be willing to go to war to protect.