As I write this, it’s coming up on midnight, and nothing’s happened yet, and I wonder – when I get up tomorrow, will the United States be in the midst of starting something it’s not prepared to finish? Or will we still be waiting? Death from above, or needles and pins?
It’s a real-life Game of Thrones over there in Syria. Everybody has a dog in the fight. They’re all there. Turkey, Israel, Iran, several Western powers, the poor beleaguered Kurds, Hezbollah coming in from Lebanon, the last remnants of ISIS and its doomed caliphate, rebels of various stripe in the final throes of losing their civil war against Assad, and standing only feet apart, almost within sword’s length, almost with swords drawn, Russia and America.
In the sky, for months going on years now, the rival combat jets have gone about their bloody business, crossing paths and growling at each other, as each prosecutes its own particular targets. The Turks attack the Kurds. NATO and America slash away at ISIS, and protect the rebels we Westerners prefer. Russian and Syrian fighters blow the hell out of civilians at every place that rebels still hold sway. Sometimes, inevitably, it comes to blows. The Turks shot down a Russian strike aircraft a while back. Later, a strike fighter from the US Navy downed a Syrian attack jet that was getting too close to the American forces that operate in theatre. Last month, Russian troops operating as part of a shadowy mercenary army, reminiscent of the Blackwater contractors that used to roam around Iraq and Afghanistan, decided to launch an attack on anti-Assad forces and their US advisors, and the Americans brought down withering aerial and artillery bombardment that killed them by the hundred. Russia and America didn’t have a battle, not officially; but they did.
All the while, we haven’t paid much attention, not really. The shit storm back in the States has been sucking up all the oxygen. Mueller and Manafort, Flynn and Sessions, Stone and Donald Jr., Pruitt and Bolton and some hapless kid named Popadopoulos, with a Russian in every woodpile, and Stormy Daniels spanking Donald with a rolled up magazine, it’s mesmerizing. Or the looming crisis in Korea – ballistic missiles arcing over Japan, demonstrating the reach to hit New York, not the kind of thing you can ignore. Or the metronomic recurrence of each mass killing. We can barely focus, we’re whipsawed, even on what passes for a slow news day on the domestic scene.
But the pot keeps boiling in Asia Minor, looking more every day like the Balkans circa 1914, and now Assad is back to using chemical weapons, so yeah, OK, now we’re paying attention. Trump, incoherent, ranting, close to panic as the noose tightens and the Feds kick in the doors at his lawyer’s office, has to decide what to do, and he may decide tonight. The F-15s might be on the way from Qatar, the F-18s might be catapulting off the deck as I type, or maybe they’ll hold off until the B-2s can join the fray from their distant base at Whiteman in Missouri, but something is up. Something’s going to happen. Right now, the Russians and the Syrians will be on a hair trigger. Right now, somebody talking for Trump might be on the phone with somebody talking for Putin, maybe working it out so that only the Syrians take it in the groin, but maybe the Russians aren’t liking the idea. Right now, Donald is on less of an even keel than normal, if such can be imagined, with every reason to change the topic and get the cameras to point away from the three-ring circus in Washington, and right now, the Generals and Bolton may be telling him that it just won’t do to execute another weak-assed strike like last time, when 60 odd cruise missiles didn’t even stop flight operations at the target airstrip for more than a few hours. Right now, powerful Russian radars will be sweeping the airspace around the many powerful Russian surface to air missile sites that haven’t launched anything so far, not even when the Israelis have screamed in to put a beating on their ally, and high above, stealthy American Raptors may be circling, undetected. So far, so good. Nobody’s crossed any lines in the sand, not yet. We’ve been trying to keep it all nice and civil, each player with one hand on the butt of his pistol, but right now, that may all be about to change.
All for nothing. Assad will win this war, and Putin will dance his ugly victory dance, and it won’t matter how many smoking holes the Americans make in the interim, or at least it won’t amount to anything if we manage to play this out without sparking anything much larger. We can make things worse, much worse, but it’s too late to make them better.
This strange limbo. Was this the way it seemed in the days right after Gavrilo Princip took his shot at Archduke Ferdinand? Surely that was different. Surely it will be all right. Nothing to do but wait for what tomorrow brings.