Why Syria is not the Cuban missile crisis of 2018 | News | DW | 13.04.2018
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Why Syria is not the Cuban missile crisis of 2018

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the world as close as it has ever been to a global nuclear war. Is the Syrian dispute between the US and Russia in any way comparable to the most dangerous episode of the Cold War?

11/10/62-Off coast of Cuba:
The U.S.S. Vesole stears alongside the Soviet freighter Polznuov, for inspection of her cargo. On the deck are large ablong missile-like objects, two of which are partially uncovered. (picture-alliance/Everett Collection/CPL Archives)

A US naval ship inspects a Soviet freighter as part of the US blockade of Cuba in 1962

US President Donald Trump told Russia this week to "get ready" for an incoming missile strike in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Even before launching strikes on Syria on Friday, Trump followed up the threat by describing the relationship between Russia and the United States as "worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War."

US-Russian dispute. The Cold War. Missiles.

It didn't take long for some observers to invoke the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — the most dangerous episode of the Cold War — to describe the US-Russian standoff over an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Read more: Russia and Iran rebuke US for missile threat against Syria amid standoff over attack

'Brink of nuclear conflict' in 1962

"[The Syria dispute] is the first direct threat [of conflict] between the two nuclear powers, the US and Russia, since the Cuban missile crisis," Elmar Brok, a former chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, told German daily newspaper Bild.

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Ex-chief advisor to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Igor Yurgens, struck a similar note, telling the AFP news agency: "We're in a situation which reminds me of the Caribbean crisis of the 1960s when [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev and [US President John F.] Kennedy were on the brink of nuclear conflict."

Read more: Donald Trump to consult allies as US considers Syria response

The crisis both men were referring to occurred in October 1962 when the US discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba, a Caribbean island nation close the southern state of Florida. The confrontation, which saw Washington order hundreds of its nuclear-armed bombers to prepare to strike the Soviet mainland, ended when the Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles in return for the US withdrawing its nuclear missiles from Turkey, a US ally on the Soviet Union's southern border.

Read more: US Republicans will back President Donald Trump's strike on Syria

Don't sweat it in 2018

But according to experts, the current dispute over Syria is very different from the Cold War crisis that brought the world to the brink of a full-scale nuclear war.

US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

US President John F. Kennedy (left) and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (right) were in power during the missile crisis

"There was a lot more at stake back then," said Ivan Tomofeyev of the Russian Council for Foreign Relations in Moscow. Unlike the situation in Syria, "the US saw the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba as an existential threat … and there was a clear ideological confrontation," Tomofeyev said, referring to the US strategy of containing the Soviet Union to prevent the spread of communism.

Read more: 'America will not engage in a huge military entanglement'

Both sides were also willing to risk a war in 1962 to force the other to stand down, according to history professor Bernd Greiner from the University of Hamburg. Soviet forces shot down a US spy plane, and the pilot was killed, while the US started preparations to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. "Syria, in contrast, is a crisis, but not a dispute that will bring both sides to the brink of a world war," he said.

Possibility of escalation

US targeting plans were another key difference between 1962 and 2018, said Steven Pifer, a nuclear weapons expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. The US of 1962 had plans to target Soviet forces on Cuba that would have killed hundreds of Soviet soldiers. The US of 2018, in contrast, said it tried to avoid any Russian forces during strikes against Syrian government targets.

Read more: Scientist group moves 'Doomsday Clock' to two minutes to midnight

But even if the US strike against Syria were to accidentally kill Russians on the ground, Pifer said, Moscow would not retaliate with nuclear weapons: "My guess is that the Russian military has a pretty good appreciation of what that would lead to."

While the use of nuclear weapons was unlikely, Tomofeyev said a US missile strike against Syria could spark a direct military conflict with Moscow if Russian forces are hit: "Russian deaths could escalate [the situation] to the point where [Russia] attacks US aircraft or navy vessels."

"The biggest risk is false interpretations of [the other side's] intentions."

Roman Goncharenko contributed to this report.

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