The Syrian conflict could spark World War III.
Who says so? Donald Trump.
Yes, in 2016 as he battled Hillary Clinton for the presidency, Mr Trump said the Clinton plan for Syria would “lead to World War III”, pitting two nuclear powers — the US and Russia — directly against each other.
In an interview with Reuters, then Republican candidate Trump, said the focus should be more on Islamic State than Bashar al Assad’s Syria; indeed ousting Assad, he argued, was “secondary, to me, to ISIS”.
Fast forward and there are new warnings of a global conflict and it is President Trump himself who finds himself at the centre.
Could this spell World War III?
Now Middle East analyst Jonathan Schanzer, in an interview with ABC News program Matter of Fact, says the Syria conflict is beginning to look like World War III.
Writing in Politico, Mr Schanzer, who is the senior vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, urges President Trump to “stop prevaricating” and come down hard on Assad and his ally Vladimir Putin.
Mr Schanzer says Mr Putin is “sitting on a tinderbox”; his support for President Assad has put him in a weakened position carrying responsibility for a conflict that threatens to spiral further out of control, pitting Iran against Israel in what “could be the ugliest Middle East War off the 21st century”.
Iran and Israel have already clashed: in February this year Israel launched air strikes on a Syrian air base after Iran used the base to dispatch a drone into Israeli airspace.
This week that same base was struck again — Israel is believed to have launched the attack.
From Arab Spring to proxy war
What started with peaceful protests in 2011, then escalated into civil war and saw the rise of Islamic State, is now a proxy war for foreign countries with big power implications — potentially globally.
Syria analyst Christopher Phillips says the Syrian war grew out of “profound change in the Middle East”, in his recent book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East.
It was the height of the Arab spring — regional protest movements for democracy — and a time when “the perceived Pax Americana of US dominance over the region after the Cold War was coming undone”.
Mr Phillips says “the US no longer dominates the Middle East” and “the regional order is currently in flux”.
Mr Putin’s Russia has sought to fill the void, bolstering the Assad regime when it was believed to be close to collapse.
Iran has also seized on the crisis in Syria to strengthen its regional authority. Jonathan Schanzer says Iran views Syria as a “crucial territory to maintain a land bridge from their borders to the Mediterranean”. Syria is also critical to Iran “maintaining military supply routes to (its ally) Hezbollah in Lebanon”.
Caught in the middle of this power play are ordinary people.
Christopher Phillips calls Syria “the greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century”. Half a million people have been killed; two million wounded; five million have fled the country and millions more remain homeless inside the bloody border.
The US is condemning a suspected chemical attack on a rebel enclave at Douma. (AP: Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets)
What will Trump do next?
The latest humanitarian crisis — an alleged chemical attack denied by the Assad regime — is raising fears of another escalation.
Donald Trump says “everybody’s gonna pay a price”, threatening a military strike against Syria.
To add to the confusion his warning comes only days after he suggested the US may withdraw from Syria.
The future of the conflict, the region and potentially the world, rests on what President Trump decides.
A strike could pit America and Russia directly against each other in a conflict that has already proved unpredictable.
The man who warned that Hillary Clinton’s Syria policy could trigger World War III may now have to revisit his own words.
Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.