The US coalition against ISIL has already started to unravel. Less than one month into the military campaign, the key regional player in any anti-ISIL endeavor, Turkey, has placed serious conditions on its involvement. Ankara is demanding a no-fly zone over all of northern Syria in conjunction with a humanitarian corridor connecting Turkey with a massive liberated area free of all pro-Assad forces. From a strictly Syrian political and military perspective, this makes complete sense. However, President Obama does not see the wisdom of the Turkish demands. In fact, the American president and his NATO ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are miles apart in their respective views as to the priorities of the US-led war on ISIL.
If Turkey is to provide the coalition’s “boots on the ground,” it must have a foolproof understanding from Washington that the enemy will be not only ISIL, but the Assad regime as well. This places the Obama administration in the same fix that originally stymied American action back when Assad was clearly losing to the Free Syrian Army in 2012. To say yes to Erdogan now, Obama must say no to Putin. He passed on that deal two years ago. But now the stakes are clearly much higher. Obama has entered the war in Syria, and whether he likes it or not, the die has been cast. Either he confronts the Russians on their support for Assad or he risks open fissures within his fragile Middle East coalition.
Welcome to the hardball world of regional Near East politics and war. Even though Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been at odds over the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic democracy in the Middle East, on the issue of Iranian hegemony within the Levant, both countries are on the same page. Iran and its Syrian Alawi puppet dictatorial state must go. But that avoids the question of Russian involvement in the Syrian quagmire. In order for Assad to be defeated, the US must either face up to Putin or find a way to cooperate with him. If Obama chooses to confront the Russian leader by escalation (agreeing to Turkey’s demands), Putin will certainly not stand down. His most likely course of action would be to dispatch Russian anti-air batteries (S-300’s) in order to degrade the US no-fly zone over Syria. This risks a direct US-Russian confrontation over Syrian air space.
But on the other hand, Obama must have a working regional coalition in order to defeat ISIL. If ISIL continues to advance in both Syria and Iraq, as it does today, America’s generals will say to Obama that what is needed in the absence of local “boots on the ground” are “US boots.” Is it any wonder that this is the president’s darkest hour? Obama is in a kind of Middle East near checkmate. He knows that the American people will never allow for another all-out US invasion into the Iraq-Syria regional war. But he also doesn’t want to confront the Russians on a second front in the sky over Syria (the troubles within the Ukraine and Europe are already bad enough for US-Russian relations).
Meanwhile, hanging over the future of what to do about Assad, the Russians, and Washington’s fragile anti-ISIL coalition is the vital question of the future of the Iranian nuclear program. As much as Obama has attempted to disconnect the regional balance of power from the nuclear negotiations, now the two issues have become so entangled as to have formed into a Gordian knot. With Obama’s reluctance to take on Assad while separately attempting to defeat a strong Sunni rival in ISIL, the antennae of the entire Sunni world have risen to a zenith. Not only is Israel watching the endgame of these negotiations with a total fixation, but all the Sunni states of the region are equally as fixated. The outcome of the Iran nuclear negotiations could not only alter the regional balance of power, but might also expand the regional war to include Israel, Iran, Turkey and even Saudi Arabia.
Any appearance of a “bad deal” leading to a normalization of US-Iran relations could become catastrophic for the region. There are many strong voices in Washington calling for Obama to cave in to Iran’s demands on the size and scope of its nuclear enrichment. This would be a huge mistake, and it could lead to further regional escalation with diplomatic consequences that have hitherto never been imagined possible. Obama must realize that Israel and the Sunni states have to live with the consequences of US actions, and that any perceived tilt by Washington toward Tehran could be met by equal tilts within the region and with relations outside the region. These same dire consequences could also lead to nuclear proliferation. It is supremely ironic that an idealistic senator from Illinois, who came to the White House with great hopes for nuclear disarmament, could become the cause of a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous region on the planet, the Middle East. But a “bad deal” or even another continuation of the present Joint Plan Of Action (JPOA) could lead precisely in the opposite direction of where the young American president wanted to go.
President Obama has to move quickly. ISIL will not wait a year or two for the Free Syrian Army to be supplied and trained. The Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria, like President Erdogan of Turkey, want clear proof from the American administration that there is indeed a political endgame for Syria and Iraq that will be inclusive and democratic. The nuclear negotiations with Iran must not either create a “bad deal” or be allowed to deadlock. Although Syria is the logical place to start a cooperative enterprise, the future of the entire region must involve the united efforts of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Russian cooperation is vital. Everything must be on the table. The military future of Europe and a new US-Russia understanding, the UN Geneva process for Syria and the prospect of an internationally recognized new Syrian transitional government, and finally, the convening of an international conference on the future of war and hegemony in the Middle East (both conventional and nuclear). The vital security of all states in the region must be enhanced by this conference, or nothing can be accomplished. The goal of the UN Security Council must be peace with security for all. This goal must overcome the present paradigm of shifting balance of power through quixotic alliances of national interest. The new international order might encompass elements of the old order, but its basic axiom must be peace through mutual understanding.
President Obama must begin to think out of the box. He has only one move. He must come up with a regional peace plan for both Europe and the Middle East. And he must convince the Russians, Israelis, Sunni Arab states, Turkey and Iran that he is serious, realistic, and visionary all at the same time. Now that the US president has chosen war, he can either escalate, retreat, or find a way out. Escalation and retreat lead nowhere but toward danger. Remember, Mr. President: Your darkest hour can lead in one of two directions — toward war, or toward the dawn of a totally new age. Talk about a legacy decision.