The existential nature of conflict in the Middle East has been visibly on display in Syria for the last two weeks. Assad’s helicopters have been bombarding Aleppo’s civilians with the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs. Hundreds of men, women and children have been killed. The worst incidents have been at markets, where the death toll has been horrendous. Meanwhile in Moscow, Assad’s chief UN ally and major weapons provider, Vladimir Putin prepares to greet the world at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Up to now, I’ve been sympathetic to the UN. I thought that the solution for Syria must encompass the complete cooperation and coordination of the Security Council. All along, I believed that this was the only way forward.
On a number of occasions, I’ve urged both the US and Russia to convene a president to president summit in order to clear the agenda for a grand compromise on Syria. But instead, the old Cold War continued unabated. It’s as if a zero-sum psychology totally pervaded the relationship. One must now ask, what is the utility of the UN institution–if after one hundred and thirty thousand dead and millions more missing or displaced–the two superpowers remain deadlocked?
In Washington, the Obama administration dithers as Syria burns. Without a discernible policy other than a near incomprehensible Geneva 2, this lack of American leadership has created a massive void. Who is best to fill a void in the Middle East? Well, of course, al Qaeda and its cohorts are a sure bet. Anyone who has witnessed US policy in Iraq and the Middle East over the last ten or eleven years can attest to the irresolution of its execution and the failure of its direction. So as the choices now narrow in Syria between the “axis of evil” or the “masterminds of 9-11”, some in official Washington are now saying–“maybe we can live with Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.”
Unfortunately for President Obama many in the region simply can’t agree with such a conclusion. An ascendant Iran is an anathema to a vast majority in the Levant. The Sunni Arabs and Saudi Arabia certainly fall into that category. So does Turkey. While Israel mostly frets about the Iranian nuclear issue, its desire to maintain a monopoly on nuclear weapons drives it toward war with Iran and a showdown with Hezbollah.
This time around the Shiite missile aggression in Lebanon will be defeated thoroughly. Unless, of course, Iran holds its trigger finger in anticipation of the negative effect this might cause to the balance of power in Syria. The military outcome with Iran is anybody’s guess.
However in Syria one thing remains clear: It’s getting harder and harder to envision the purpose of Geneva 2. According to the communique after Geneva 1, a mutually agreed upon transitional authority was supposed to be established with complete executive powers. Now, Russia is saying that is not the case. For them, Assad need not step down for Geneva 2 to work. Meanwhile, because of Aleppo, it is unclear if even the Syrian National Council (the only opposition organization even willing to talk) will, in fact, show up. And who can blame them? Assad’s assault on the civilian population in the so-called “liberated areas” makes negotiations next to impossible.
So what does all this say for US and Russian policy? The US appears guilty of inaction in a situation where international law demands protection of the civilian population under existential siege. While Russia, on the other hand, aids and abets this same outlaw regime doing the killing. Both nations and the entire UN Security Council have forsaken their duty to establish an international order worthy of global leadership. It is not surprising that some analysts are calling this new situation a G-Zero world. For the first time since the end of WWII, the US and/or Russia have failed to provide a modicum of structure to international relations which the world had come to expect.
Truly the international order (or lack of it) is at a crossroad. Certainly it is the height of hypocrisy to be celebrating global cooperation at Sochi, while Aleppo is reduced to rubble. Personally, I am a great fan of Olympic ice hockey. Some of the greatest moments in the whole history of sports have happened at this venue. But this year the games will be lost to me because of the tragedy; that is Syria. President Putin has always claimed that international law and order was his highest foreign policy priority. I have agreed with him and long advocated that the military division of Europe was unsustainable. I opposed the expansion of NATO eastward and have yearned for a new all-European security arrangement. I have written that the US should remain a naval power and an off-shore balancer. I have urged the US to withdraw its ground troops from the European continent (seventy years is too long and the American people agree). The US and Russia need not be antagonistic and Syria (as well as Europe) are the places for this to happen.
But without a US-Russia breakthrough in relations, the void in Syria will only widen. This is in no one’s interest. The war in Syria is already spreading to Iraq. With elections scheduled for the new year, the al Maliki regime faces further sectarian and ethnic deterioration. Without a G-2 understanding, the road ahead could become very dangerous.
Already a vast network of Sunni Islamic extremists have taken over Eastern Syria, Western Iraq and Northwest Saudi Arabia. The Kurds have established embryotic states in Northern Iraq and Syria. AQ controls a patchwork of Syrian territory including ar-Raqqah and Eastern Homs. Foreign jihadists (from the entire Sunni world including Russia, Western Europe and the US) are flooding into the region. An expeditionary Shiite force from Iran and Iraq is already on the ground in Syria. Planeloads of men and materiel fly daily from Tehran to Damascus. Iraq allows Iran free access across its airspace. Wealthy private Sunni donations supply arms and money to the most extreme elements. Meanwhile the likelihood that either side can achieve a military victory any time soon appears remote. Unless another regional power enters the fray, the war is likely to add more refugees and casualties without end.
Lebanon and Jordan could further destabilize. For that matter, Saudi Arabia and Iran are not exempt from ethnic and sectarian chaos, as well.
So how will the US-Russia breakthrough occur? The answer could lie with a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Naturally, Israel feels uncomfortable with the idea. After four major wars and, at least, another four minor ones and a region in seemingly permanent hostility toward anything Jewish; Israel embraces its nukes as a kind of security blanket. Given its lack of conventional strategic depth and the absence of regional and international guarantees, Israel’s vulnerability pushed it toward extremes. The 1973 War proved the utility of a regional monopoly for nuclear weapons. But the monopoly can’t last, not without a permanent state of war throughout the region. This is not in Israel’s interest. But a peaceful region is in Israel’s interest.
A Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone falls under the concept of the region first and then the Palestinian issue. Unlike the Obama administration who claim the opposite, I believe its in the US, Russian, Israeli and Arab interest (everyone’s interest including Iran) to attempt a regional peace and security structure now. The two-state solution cannot and won’t be achieved because of disagreements over the future of the Jordan River Valley. Twenty years has proved this West Bank solution hopelessly flawed. Meanwhile, the Iranian desire for nuclear capability and the Syrian regional war threatens catastrophe for everyone. On the regional and nuclear issue something must be done immediately.
Here’s the idea in a nonsequential first draft. First, a UN Security Council guaranty for the territorial integrity of all current states of the region (based on UN Resolution 242). Second, a pledge of anti-hegemony and non-aggression by all states in the region. Third, diplomatic recognition between all states of the region. Fourth, a zero-enrichment, non-plutonium, nuclear-weapons-free zone. Fourth, the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the area of the Persian Gulf. Fifth, the complete discontinuation of all weapons and fighters into Syria by all parties to the conflict. Sixth, the call for an immediate ceasefire in Syria. Seventh, the implementation of the Geneva 1 communique. Finally, the decommissioning of all extra-territorial militias and non-state actors throughout the Middle East.
2014 will be the one hundred year anniversary of WWI. It could mark a new beginning to the great hope that was once the League of Nations, now the United Nations. On the other hand, 2014 could mark the start of the G-Zero world. The future of Aleppo and the future of the Middle East will ride with the decisions that are made in the short months ahead. Russia and the US must work together, as partners.
For my Christian friends Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! The blog will continue from Florida in early January.