The Syrian civil war is becoming more and more complex with each passing day. The fragmentation of the opposition, with its radical Islamic character, has frozen both the Russians and the Americans into a diplomatic stalemate. As the possibility of a Geneva Conference hovers in the background, neither Washington nor Moscow can envision an endgame with which they are both satisfied. The Russians view the radical Sunni opposition with trepidation. The pro-Moscow Bath Party with Assad in charge is their preference. The US has demanded that Assad must depart the scene. They would like to see a democratic secular opposition to emerge but have done little to make that happen. They also fear the prospect that Syria (or at least a good part of it) might become the radical new Afghanistan or Somalia. In other words, a failed state that could spread the war into both Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Israel seems to be caught between an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran victory or the prospect of a radical Sunni no-man’s-land stretching from Anbar Province in Iraq, all the way to the Israeli-Lebanese border. The destabilization of Jordan is Israel’s worst nightmare.
The Syrian military stalemate, in conjunction with the diplomatic impasse, has only worked to entrench both the radical jihadists and the Assad government. Unless this diplomatic logjam is broken, everyone’s worst fears could materialize. But Russian-American cooperation has not been a hallmark of the post Cold War era. On the contrary, NATO expansion into the nations of the former Warsaw Pact has exacerbated tensions between Washington and Moscow. Similarly, EU expansion eastward has isolated the Russians even further. The expansion continues to this very day as the Ukraine considers a favorable status with the EU countries. For Russia, the future of the Ukraine is tantamount to a red line.
Also there is the vexing question of missile defense. NATO defensive systems have been planed for eastern Europe. This has engendered great opposition from Moscow, as these systems are considered gravely destabilizing for nuclear deterrence. The Americans suggest that the purpose of the missiles is directed against potential future threats from Iran. The Russians consider this claim to be absurd. Although nuclear negotiations (START) with the intention of serious draw-downs have been high on the Obama agenda, no progress has been made because of these defensive missile systems. In fact, the famous re-set button presented by ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, has become a shallow gesture in the face of insubstantial diplomatic relations. Even the Syrian chemical deal stands out as a successful Russian attempt to block a unilateral American military operation. It is with this background that the future of Syria and the Geneva Conference hold such little hope in the Middle East or Europe.
Then, there is the German question. More precisely, how does Germany view the future of the divided continent of Europe? And what role will Angela Merkel play, if any, to ameliorate US-Russian relations? For without decent relations in Europe, the zero-sum game that is currently underway on Syria will most likely never lead to a breakthrough. US-Russian cooperation and teamwork are essential if a political solution, leading to a moderate democratic leadership in Damascus, is to be found.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has called this potential Syrian leadership “The Third Way”. These leaders would be neither pro-Iranian nor radical Islamist in nature. They would not look to overthrow their neighbors or seek revenge against any community within Syria. They would be neither pro-American nor pro-Russian. They would seek regional peace and prosperity through a non-hegemonic regional structure. Is this all a pipe dream? Many would say “yes”. But I agree with the PM. It appears to be a scenario in the interest of many nations, both in the Middle East and Europe. It is certainly in the interest of both Russia and the US.
After the recent election, the German political situation is still to be determined. A grand coalition between the two largest parties — Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their rivals, the Social Democrats — is being negotiated. The nature of the foreign policy of this “national unity government” will be a main issue. The Social Democrats want Germany to play a significant role in the determination of Europe’s future. They see Germany as a mediator between the US and Russia. They would prefer either to bring the Russians into the NATO tent, or to create a whole new structure for European security. Either way, they view the status quo as untenable.
Mrs. Merkel’s foreign policy can best be described as nebulous. It is both Western in orientation, while many times serves as a harness against Western expansion. However it avoids the difficult question of the German role in world affairs, even European affairs. On the question of Israel, Mrs. Merkel has declared: “For me, as German chancellor, Israel’s security is never negotiable. Protecting Israel is part of my country’s reason of state. I believe that an hour of truth has now arrived when we show that we must stand by our word”.
This is fine rhetoric, but it begs too many questions. How can Germany work to alleviate the long overdue process for a negotiated settlement to the NATO-Russian division of Europe? And isn’t this very division at the heart of the disagreement over Syria on the UN Security Council? What about the P5+1? Germany is the plus one. Could divisions over Europe and Syria spill over into the Iranian nuclear negotiations? What is the bottom line for Berlin on an appropriate nuclear deal with Iran? For that matter, does Mrs. Merkel have an opinion on PM Netanyahu’s Third Way for Syria? These crucial regional issues are probably more important to Israel’s security than the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “two-state solution” (the real issue with the Palestinian negotiations is the very future of the vital third state–Jordan). So how is it that Germany can have a position on these Palestinian negotiations before a viable regional structure for peace is firmly established? Finally, can Germany convince Russia that cooperation now, on the Security Council, over Syria, could lead to a dramatic alteration of the security dilemma in Europe?
The Iranian nuclear negotiations are reaching an endgame. But Iran’s role in the Syrian civil war is far from over. Never forget, an unsuccessful nuclear negotiation could mean an Israeli-Iranian-Hezbollah war. In fact, the Syrian situation could last for years, or with Israeli involvement it might be over for Assad in a matter of months. Either way, the future of the Middle East nation-state structure established in the aftermath of WWI is in jeopardy. Islamic radicalism (both Shia and Sunni) cannot solve the problems of the region. Sectarian division is a recipe for perpetual war and increased fragmentation. A broken region will only spread the instability in all directions– toward Europe, the Caucuses, North America, perhaps India and even into China. Even Iran risks destabilization in this environment. So too does Turkey.
The Obama administration has shown little ability to lead or to provide a vision on either Syria or European affairs. But the longer these issues drag on, the worse they become. The era of the post-Cold War zero-sum game must end. And it must end soon. The question is: Will Germany become the mediator or not? Chancellor Merkel’s “hour of truth” has arrived.