Bad news sells. So, expect most reports and commentary about last week’s banner news out of Syria and Florida to highlight the worrisome stuff, not the cheery.
This article fills a bit of the gap between the two, and not just for journalistic balance. Bad news can make whole nations do things that give one another more reason to get fearful and fidgety. And that can cause even worse news, like war.
Take President Duterte’s announcement last Thursday that he ordered troops to occupy “about nine or 10” uninhabited islands in maritime areas controlled by the Philippines. That prompted fears of a rush among rival claimants to take over and fortify reefs and shoals, possibly triggering conflict.
Thankfully, the Armed Forces of the Philippines clarified that the President’s order was to beef up facilities on islands already occupied by the AFP. No race for uninhabited outcrops, we hope and, more important, no escalation in force deployment— exactly the preemptive action that may bring on the very troubles we wish to preempt.
Is there a good way forward for Syria?
Duterte mouthing off about taking over empty islands is one thing, but “the Donald” sending American planes and ships to put 59 warheads into Syria’s Shayrat air base accused of gassing the rebel Khan Shekhoun town, is quite another.
The US attack last Friday, with threats of more bombings, stirred fears of military responses from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers in Tehran and Moscow, risking battles between their forces and Washington’s.
The day after the American attack, bombs again hit Khan Shekhoun; it was not immediately clear which forces mounted the attack. Russia said it would strengthen Syrian air defenses, and sent a missile frigate sailing to Syria’s Tartus logistics base on the Mediterranean.
What good can come out of this? Russia and Iran will not back down in their support for Assad, pretty much the only major head of state in the Middle East under their sway. President Donald J. Trump may repeat his Friday bombing, especially with Syrian forces seemingly undeterred.
So, what was already an alarming array of rival forces in Syria even before last week’s attacks, looks set to escalate, making everyone even more fearful and fidgetty.
Big question: Will there be Gulf War 3, pitting America against Russia? Not so fast.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has more on his mind than just propping up Assad and building up a Middle East sphere of influence. His ultimate aim is global power, and warming ties with Trump may be Russia’s best bet for a spot at the top.
If they can make a deal for Middle East peace under American and Russian power, that’s far better than a war sure to set back Russia’s rise.
The way forward may be a Syrian truce with areas of control for Assad and the rebels, except Islamic State, which should be eradicated.
No way for such a deal? Before last week, Trump didn’t care to flex muscle abroad. If there’s a lesson from last week, it’s this: Nothing’s off the table, not even pipe dreams.
‘Outstanding’ relations after Florida
AS Syria’s explosions make pessimists sound prescient, it’s a less dour tune amid the clinking of wineglasses at Trump’s summit with China’s Xi Jinping at the billionaire’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last Thursday and Friday.
After recent tensions over North Korean nukes and missiles, plus long-standing frictions over trade and Beijing’s maritime assertiveness, few seasoned journalists and analysts would swallow Trump’s post-summit line: “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China…lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”
The former TV reality host spoke of an “outstanding” relationship developed with Xi. The Chinese leader concurred: “We have engaged in deeper understanding, and have built a trust—a preliminary working relationship and friendship.”
China reportedly pledged to invest in the US to create 700,000 jobs, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised Trump. Xi urged the US to participate in China’s massive One Belt, One Road infrastructure plan for Asia, and lauded military exchanges between the two powers.
What about North Korea? Over the weekend, a US official told Reuters that a naval strike group was sailing to waters near Korea, giving credence to Trump’s warning that if Beijing did not cooperate to rein in Pyongyang, the Americans would go it alone.
That could mean a US attack on North Korean weapons installations, possibly igniting full-scale war on the peninsula—a disaster for China. Like Putin with Assad, Xi has to ponder how far he would back North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Here’s betting he’d slap him down rather than risk war with America.
Maybe it’s all wishful thinking. But some of that may just be needed, so we don’t succumb completely to negative outcomes.