The long-running US and Russian proxy war in Syria has been largely forgotten of late, but suddenly snapped back into international headlines with John Bolton's warning Assad and Russia this week that Washington will respond with "greater military force" should claims of a Syrian government chemical attack emerge in Idlib.
In response, Russia subsequently warned of a staged "chemical provocation" coming and it appears a war of words is yet again ratcheting up over Syria, which has the very real potential of turning into an actual war.
It fits a familiar pattern on Syria since Russian intervention at the invitation of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015: just when it appears the jihadists are on the brink of final defeat, and as stability is returning after seven years of grinding war, something happens to bring things right back to the brink of global crisis and escalation.
And now, a senior Russian lawmaker in the Federal Assembly (Duma) has called on his government to draw its own "red lines" while suggesting the use of tactical nuclear weapons against United States forces in Syria.
The Russian official news agency TASS reports Vladimir Gutenev's shocking words spoken on Friday. Gutenev is the first deputy head of the economic policy committee of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament.
Gutenev said, “I believe that now Russia has to draw its own ‘red lines.’ The time has come to ponder on variants of asymmetric response to the US, which are now being suggested by experts and are intended not only to offset their sanctions but also to do some retaliatory damage.”
Among such measures, the official named the deployment of tactical nukes, saying that Russia should "follow the US example and start deploying our tactical nuclear weapons in foreign countries."
While it's unclear what Gutenav meant by his citing "the US example", on a few occasions unverified accusations have emerged alleging the US and its allies like Israel have used small nuclear devices in places like Syria and Yemen, echoed also among pro-Russian sources.
The nuclear "red line" warning came in Gutenev's following statement, per state-run TASS:
“It’s no secret that serious pressure is being put on Russia, and it will only get worse. It is intended to deal a blow to defense cooperation, including defense exports. We see that the Americans now speak about the possibility of sanctions against the countries that purchase Russian weaponry… We should follow the advice of certain experts, who say that Russia should possibly suspend the implementation of treaties on non-proliferation of missile technologies, and also follow the US example and start deploying our tactical nuclear weapons in foreign countries. It is possible that Syria, where we have a well-protected airbase, may become one of those countries.”
He also mentioned focusing on cryptocurrencies to circumvent “US attempts to thwart deals on Russian weaponry and civilian goods,” saying Moscow should “consider the possibility of conducting transactions in cryptocurrencies that are linked to the value of gold.”
“And I’m sure that this will be a very interesting option for China, India, and other states as well,” he said. According to Gutenev, the whole package of these measures taken together could create serious momentum in Russia's favor when dealing with the United States and its allies.
Complete map of Syrian War after Russian intervention in 2015...
“In boxing, one cannot just dodge blows, but has to strike in response, too. Especially when all the rules have been violated and the referees — such as the WTO and other international institutions — prefer to stay silent,” Gutenev explained further.
And speaking of current US sanctions target Russia's defense industry, the senior Duma official said, “The import substitution program has produced very good results, alternative suppliers have been found.” Gutenev added: “However, we are concerned about the fact that the sanctions are still gaining momentum and have become somewhat imminent.”
Such rhetoric involving the the deployment of nukes in a theater in which US and Russian forces have already had a series of near misses in terms of direct military confrontation is extremely worrisome, and signals a return to a Cold War-style of escalating scare tactics and nuclear threats.
The Russian official's words were publicized just after Bloomberg confirmed late Friday that Bolton had personally told his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev that America is prepared to respond with "greater military force" than it has used against Damascus in the past, citing "information Assad may be planning a chemical attack in the northwestern province of Idlib".