Syrian strikes: World War III unlikely, unless Assad removed - expert

Russia's unlikely to start an armed conflict with the West over Syria unless the Assad regime's grip on power comes under threat, according to one expert.

Tensions in the Middle East are high following the strikes on suspected chemical weapons targets in Syria. The US, UK and France bypassed the United Nations to carry out the attacks, which the New Zealand Government "accepts", but doesn't necessarily support.

While international relations expert Al Gillespie of Waikato University told Newshub at the weekend it was "incredibly lucky" Russia didn't immediately hit back as promised, Max Hess of political risk and intelligence firm AKE International thinks President Vladimir Putin wouldn't risk it over what he calls a "minor escalation".

"There's certainly a likelihood that the war in Syria will escalate," he told RadioLIVE's Morning Talk with Mark Sainsbury on Monday.

"As to a wider [conflict], no, I don't think we're directly there. But we might see other proxy conflicts."

There are a number of reasons experts have given for Russia's continued alliance with Syria despite the Assad regime's suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians. Syria allied with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War; Russia has a naval base in Tartus, on Syria's west coast, giving it access to the Mediterranean; there are fears if the largely secular regime falls, it would be replaced with a radical Islamic theocracy; and Mr Putin wants to make Russia a world power like the Soviet Union was.

"I don't think Putin would see the potential minor escalation from the West in Syria as a temporal threat to the Assad regime," said Mr Hess.

"The strike in Syria is an escalatory measure, but I don't think we're about to see a Western push for Assad to be removed from office. Those calls are down actually in recent months."

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in California march in protest against the US-led strikes.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in California march in protest against the US-led strikes. Photo credit: Reuters

The regime is winning the war against the rebels, perhaps through its use of chemical weapons. The strikes at the weekend weren't intended to topple the regime - in fact, the US says the death toll was zero, as intended.

Mr Hess says there is little doubt the illegal weapons are being used by the regime, rather than the attacks being staged by Western powers to justify the strikes, as Russia has suggested.

"Those same voices making those accusations have made that same accusation many times before and consistently been discredited. It's essentially the accusation that cried wolf... The Russians have repeatedly lied about such actions."

So if Russia won't hit back with its own supposedly "invincible" missiles, and it's too economically weak to push its own sanctions against the West, what can it do? Mr Hess expects an "asymmetrical" response along the lines of a cyber attack, more election meddling or the spreading of fake news.

"It will be forthcoming, but it's too early to say what it will be."

Those words echo Prof Gillespie, who told Newshub Mr Putin's "revenge" will come "served cold".

"You won't see it coming, but it will happen."

Bashar Al-Assad, Syrian President.
Bashar Al-Assad, Syrian President. Photo credit: Reuters

Mr Hess says Russia is no longer playing by the "rules that existed in the immediate post-Cold War era".

"They will have to find a way to remain as strong as they are while heavily isolated, and that's a dangerous proposition."

It's estimated the Syrian Civil War has claimed nearly 500,000 lives in the seven years it's been raging.