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Chinese, Russian, and NATO Warships Maneuver Off Syria

The Jinggangshan, a 689-foot-long warship, has just cleared the Suez Canal and is now patrolling the eastern Mediterranean. Unconfirmed reports place other Chinese vessels in the area. 

Beijing says its ships are heading to Syria’s coast merely to “observe” American and Russian vessels, but a less benign interpretation is that the Jinggangshan is there to augment the Russian fleet and intimidate the US Navy. This sleek-looking Chinese amphibious-landing vessel can carry a battalion of marines and was used earlier this year to stare down the smaller nations surrounding the South China Sea, an area Beijing is trying to close off to other countries.

Each day brings new reports of warships converging on the eastern Mediterranean. US ships are now backed up by French and Italian ones and face the Russian and Chinese navies.

Everyone assumes Russian President Vladimir Putin is just posturing, but his words are increasingly confrontational. He is now saying Russia will back Damascus if the US attacks. “Will we help Syria?” he asks. “We will.”

That help is taking on a military dimension. Along with all the current Russian deployments revealed in the last several days, there was an announcement that Moscow will be sending its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters in the next few months. When it arrives, Russia’s carrier will be the largest combatant in the eastern Mediterranean.

Most everyone assumes the Russians and Chinese will be content to watch the US Navy and other NATO forces pound their ally Syria into rubble. Yet there could be more to this. Increasingly nationalistic leaders in Moscow and Beijing must sense President Obama is indecisive, and that could tempt them to try to push him around. Autocrats often pounce when they perceive democracies to be weak. You can, for instance, almost draw a straight line between John F. Kennedy’s disastrous summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961 to the Soviet adventurism that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis in the following year.

Are we now hearing sound and fury signifying nothing? For many, it is inconceivable that the world’s major powers could get tangled up in conflict, but as Enoch Powell, the British politician, told us, “History is littered with wars which everybody knew would never happen.”

This time, unfortunately, has striking parallels to 1914. Then, like now, the structure of the international system was extremely complex and the situation on the ground especially confusing. There are, as then, too many variables for national leaders to manage well. For instance, it is not clear how nations will align themselves in the event something goes wrong. We could see, as happened 99 years ago, alliances come together unexpectedly and then clash. The Chinese and the Russians seem to be acting in concert on Syria and may end up forming a durable partnership.

The precondition for war is the marshalling of military assets, and that, unfortunately, is now happening in the waters off Syria.

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