On April 13, 2018, the United States attacked Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
This attack came as a surprise to no one (though its timing caught some off guard).
In the run up to the attack, several things happened. The United States sent ships to the region. Russia and Syria began to move assets out of the way of suspected target areas. And the pundits prepared the world for a nuclear holocaust.
Yes, according to a lot of the Talking Heads, Radio Heads, Internet Sages, and the Magic 8 Ball, planet Earth was going to fall into a fiery nightmare as the United States and Russia came to world-ending blows over…Syria.
Don’t let’s downplay this, though. Whenever there is a clash between nuclear powers, anything can go wrong. History has shown that the world has come perilously close to nuclear war over a lot less than things like Syria. A bad light once had nuclear forces ready to launch. Yes, a ten-cent light almost ended life on Earth. Think about that.
But Syria didn’t rise to that, thankfully. And, barring ten-cent lights, it really wasn’t going to.
Almost a week earlier, the DEFCON Warning System issued an announcement, raising the alert level to Blue (DEFCON 4): No imminent nuclear threat, but something was happening that warranted attention. The United States was making noise about an attack on Syria, and Russia was saying they had every intention of defending their ally. That would get anyone’s attention.
Interestingly, as the attack raged on, DEFCON kept the alert level at Blue. This was greatly controversial and met with numerous calls to raise it to Yellow or even Orange. While in hindsight keeping it at Blue may have been the right call, but was it at the time?
When examining a situation, it is important to not to develop tunnel vision. One can not look at just the attack absent the entire picture. What happened before the attack? Who are the actors in play? What will their response be?
That is where the question came in. Not “what was happening,” but rather “How is Russia going to respond?”
Working in favour of life remaining on Earth is the fact that the United States said pretty much what they were going to do. Russia (and Syria) had time to move important assets out of the way. The United States, for its part, specifically selected targets where Russians were known not to be. The targets were not government. U.S. assets were kept out of harms way. Even more so, Russia didn’t engage. They stayed back and let it happen.
All those factors worked to keep things from blowing up, literally. As angry as Russia was over the attack, what other choice did they have? Any response would have had to have been against a U.S. asset, which would have led to a spiralling escalation. Russia may have been mad, but they weren’t insane. And the United States seemed to have counted on that. As long as Russians weren’t targeted or hit, it was believed that Russia would stay out of it.
So The DEFCON Warning System kept the alert level at Blue.
Does this mean that it’s over? Hardly. Russia said they would respond. How is the question. To date, they’ve talked about sending more advanced weaponry to Syria, and there are reports that Russia has already released thousands of bots onto the internet. Propaganda-wise, both Russia and Syria are working to minimize the effectiveness of the attack. And analysts have said that the U.S. strike would likely be ineffective in its goal of stopping Syria and its chemical weapons. As long as Russia continues to back Syria, this analysis is likely correct.
So no, we didn’t come close to nuclear war on April 13, 2018. It made for good headlines though. And it made for a lot of good click-bait. That’s the problem with a lot of reporting these days. It isn’t about reporting what is happening. It’s about getting readers/viewers. And that in itself is dangerous. Truth isn’t reality anymore. Reality is what you perceive it to be. And if politicians perceive war, you’re more likely to get it.
Thomas Lonely Wolf is the Director of The DEFCON Warning System, a private enterprise which has monitored the threat of nuclear war since 1984.