The Syrian crisis has placed all of Europe in strategic jeopardy. The titanic flood of refugees from the Arab Levant has not only divided the EU, but also rendered the political voices of nationalism and populism far more popular. In France, as well as Germany, the recent political tides could easily overcome an open door policy that has engendered a strong backlash against the established political class. After seventy years of “Europeanization”, the new geopolitical reality is that the EU faces both an economic and immigration crisis which could set the continent back to a situation not seen since the turmoil of the Nazi era.
At the same time, Russia continues to challenge the expansion of NATO toward its borders. President Putin complained bitterly about NATO in his recent speech at the UN. If the Cold War was truly over, what was the point of the inclusion of the Warsaw Pact countries into an alliance set up as a deterrent against a Soviet system which no longer existed? It made no sense to Putin. But in the 1990s and early twenty-first century, there was little Russia could do about NATO expansion. That has now changed dramatically. Russia could not tolerate an EU stalking horse in the Ukraine, a few hundred miles from Moscow. It moved quickly to defend its Black Sea fleet in the Crimea. The same had been true in Georgia and Romania, and more recently in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Now the future of the EU, NATO and Syria all appear to be linked. Russia’s military excursion into Syria can only lengthen a civil war with grave regional balance-of-power implications as well as the continued mass emigration of Syrian civilians toward Europe. The Sunni Arab states, as well as Israel, simply cannot allow for the continued expansion of an axis of power which includes Hezbollah, Shiite Iraq, Hamas, Assad in Syria, Iran and Russia. Saudi Arabia has already begun the shipment of more advanced anti-tank and “other” weaponry to opposition groups in Syria.
Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Moscow recently to set out clear and definable red lines to President Putin and his Kremlin colleagues. Russia and Assad cannot hope to win the Syrian war without many more ground troops. And as things stand now, the Russian air incursion means a more prolonged war of attrition. This can only bleed Putin’s own clients, the Alawite and Shiite forces, which are already stretched to the maximum of their potential. The Sunni world could hold out for a long war which would eventually cost billions of dollars, money that Russia doesn’t have.
But Russia could prop up Assad for just enough time to ensure a massive flow of refugees out of Syria and into Europe. This will work to weaken the European political class, as the nationalist backlash against the immigrant infusion gains increasing momentum. The very existence of the EU experiment as a multinational confederation will most certainly be put at risk the longer the Syrian civil war persists without a political solution. President Putin surely understands the implications of his actions. But it is a risky gamble that could involve a NATO response or a stalemate into a prolonged Syrian war — a war which Moscow could ill afford to bankroll. This would extend the risks further into the future and place the onus of the bill for the war on Tehran.
However, once Iran becomes Russia’s and Assad’s major banker, and this fact becomes public knowledge, the Iran nuclear deal risks unraveling, as a loud political clamor for new sanctions will certainly roil the US presidential election cycle. President Obama might find himself backed into a corner as Congress seeks the re-imposition of sanctions in order to stop Iranian and Russian hegemony throughout the region. The great fallacy of the Obama administration is the belief that the future of the Middle East could be separated from the Iran nuclear question. It can’t.
What is Putin’s bottom line? I believe it’s a much closer relationship with Germany and France to redress the NATO expansion eastward. Why else would he take such risks other than his own military isolation in Europe? Russia needs to be integrated into the European family of nations as part of an independent pole between the US and China. That way, it can protect itself from threats emanating from either the east or the west. The answer to a NATO unipolar world is not a new Cold War, but a strong Europe with good relations in both directions. In other words, a tri-polar or multipolar world (India and Japan included) living in peace. The primary goal of international politics should be international peace. Putin perceives Berlin and Washington as the NATO expansion aggressors, but he has given up on Washington as a vehicle to alleviate the problem.
However, such a new Russian relationship toward its neighbors would require an entirely new security structure for Europe. The idea of Russia as a junior partner in a US-controlled NATO would work to isolate China and would most likely create havoc in all of Asia — east, central and west. Russia needs to be on friendly terms with China. But this must not be as a bipolar competitor to a US hegemony encompassing a territorial expanse from Poland and the Ukraine in the west to Japan and the Philippines in the east. This might sound good at establishment think tanks in Washington, but it is totally unworkable and destabilizing. Only a new European security system will suffice to create a global environment conducive to peace.
The great US mistake at the end of the Cold War was the expansion of NATO eastward. With the current Russian push-back in the Ukraine and Syria, the world has become far more dangerous. West Germany and France entered into a “European relationship” at a time when Europe was divided east and west. With the reunification of Germany, the old security structure for the continent became imbalanced. Now that same imbalance has directly affected the Syrian war, and therefore the entire Middle East, from Egypt all the way to the Gulf. Such a global impasse is as dangerous as any moment in the last seventy years, including the Cuban missile crisis. Only a much closer consultation between Berlin and Moscow can establish the necessary framework toward a political understanding for both the future of Europe and the future of Syria.
In Europe, the new security architecture must integrate air and naval forces into a multinational “all-European” system. This European military must be structured in such a configuration as to be perceived by all as purely defensive in nature. Europe as an economic system could fail, but Europe as a military federation could exist without an all-inclusive economic EU. However, the new military force must be truly “all-European”. Russia, facing threats from the east, would be allowed to also possess a force east of the Ural Mountains, to be used as a trip wire for the main “all European” force (as well as the US and others) to come to its aid. That way, China would not feel threatened unless it chose to be the aggressor.
Within such a system, any pole which advocated war would be immediately isolated. Also in such a structure, nuclear disarmament could potentially flourish because conventional war would be considered nearly futile. Japan could stand together with other Asian countries (India, for example) as a new and separate pole. The goal of such a system is a permanent balance of power — in other words, world peace. History could be altered completely, as nations could begin to rely on an international structure to assure a permanent and flexible guarantee of support in case of victimization through naked aggression.
A Syrian political solution cannot be achieved without the total cooperation of Russia and the West to compromise on all the divisions which concern them. Any party in the Middle East seeking hegemony and the destruction of other nations must be stopped. Iran (through its rhetoric and its action) is just such a nation. The only way for Syria and the Middle East to avoid catastrophe is for Iran to be isolated, until such time as it seeks the peace and the recognition of all its neighbors (Israel included). Russia must be in Syria to protect all minority communities and also to protect each and every Syrian citizen in order to foster a genuine political solution for the country’s future. All Jihadists and extremists, both Sunni and Shiite, must be defeated.
Only the great powers working together in international cooperation will be strong enough to get the job done. All other roads lead to chaos (or even worse) throughout Europe and the Middle East. If the US administration doesn’t have the vision to lead, then it’s up to Berlin and Moscow to direct the world forward. For, as Woodrow Wilson once said, “There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision”.