Can a NATO-Russia Transition Save Syria?

One fact overlooked by nearly everyone is that the post-WWII Cold War never really ended with the demise of the Soviet Union. If it had really ended, NATO should have gone out of business. But of course it didn’t. Instead, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanded eastward toward Russia’s borders. This salient fact has created a deep fissure in global politics, and both Europe and the Middle East suffer because of it. The major cases in point are Syria and the Ukraine. Not only has Syria been a proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and remains so), but it is also a source of deep contention between Moscow and Washington. Unlike the Bush White House’s Iraq war, the US administration of Barack Obama refuses to become involved directly in either conflict. This has created a vacuum in Europe, but an even bigger one in the Middle East.

In the Middle East, that vacuum is now being filled by ISIS or Islamic State. As ISIS expands, the interests of all parties concerned have been put in jeopardy. Saudi Arabia is threatened not only by Iranian imperialism, but also by the prospect of an entrenched ISIS situated on its border and penetrating its domestic society. In Syria, the reduction of Assad’s authority to small territorial pockets has also left both Iran and Russia with bad bets and in need of reevaluating the situation. Iran’s case could become dire. If Assad were to be defeated (without a political settlement) and Hezbollah as well, that would place all Arab Shiites in a precarious position. Iraq would totally dissolve as a political entity, and over time this could spell a vast Sunni jihadist state stretching from Lebanon-Syria into Baghdad, and then on to Afghanistan. This would certainly put Jordan in the ISIS crosshairs, and would undoubtedly affect Israel and the US. All of Muslim Russia and China would also be impacted.

But even though it’s in everyone’s interest to stop ISIS, doing so will require an end to great power confrontation in Europe and a return to the reset button between the US and Russia. For in the final analysis, only a political solution for Syria that is consistent with complete neutrality, a roll-back of Iranian influence throughout the Arab world, and a vast Iraqi buffer zone between the Saudis and Iran will suffice to end the strife in the Levant. Only US-Russian-Chinese cooperation could manage such a task. But unfortunately the NATO-Russian conflict in Europe stands in the way of such potential cooperation. So why not a transition into a new security system in Europe?

First, this would require a period of vast confidence-building. However, confidence-building without a blueprint for the future has often led to a situational dead-end. The Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is a prime example. Second, there simply isn’t a blueprint for a future Europe without NATO and inclusive of Russia. No one is even thinking along these lines. But as long as great power confrontation continues along Russia’s borders, the threat of ISIS will continue to metastasize in the Middle East. This is a certainty that everyone in the global community must face.

As things stand now, Obama’s true foreign policy legacy will be written in conjunction with the expansion of either ISIS or Iran. Because without vast Russian help, a winnable US war against Sunni extremism can only strengthen Iran and Assad. This could potentially mean the end of the US strategic relationship with Israel and the Sunni states, and their likely dramatic shift in policy toward Russia and China. Iran as a help-mate against ISIS is not a good bet for the US. And it’s against everything that Washington has promised the Saudis it would do in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal. Israel will also be watching American policy toward Tehran very closely. The removal of Hezbollah’s vast missile infrastructure in Lebanon is an Israeli priority. A pro-Iranian US policy to defeat ISIS can only lead to greater chaos throughout the region. It would probably mean direct Israeli involvement in Lebanon against Hezbollah. And such a confrontation would create in Iran a serious dilemma as to how to respond in order to save Assad and the Shiites. It could also cause an Iranian breakout toward an atomic weapon. This would quickly be accompanied by a nuclear proliferation throughout the region. In other words, it would place the so-called Obama foreign policy legacy in complete tatters.

So why not greater Russian-American cooperation? And how would that work? What is needed is a blueprint for Europe’s future inclusive of Russia and without NATO. This, of course, will need to be a long-range goal. But without such a blueprint, the tensions in Europe will continue to spill out into the Middle East. Therefore, I propose the EMU, the European Military Union. Instead of a European economic union in order to create unity, which has now fallen on hard times, the defensive military integration of NATO and Russian forces could become a more logical replacement. Such a military entity would be supra-national and stretch from the Irish Sea to the Ural Mts. This of course would be accompanied by a complete US withdrawal from Europe. The EMU would be in charge of the defense of all of Europe, including European Russia. Russian forces outside of Europe could be stationed in Asia, but any movement of such forces westward into Europe and outside the EMU command would be strictly prohibited. The US would not be a part of the EMU, but could come to the aid of it, in the case of a major breach of its command structure and rules. This European defensive structure could be in place within the next ten to fifteen years.

In the meantime, a NATO-Russian transition could be organized to save Syria based on the principles of the Geneva One criteria (June 30, 2012) and the complete dismantlement of the Iranian-Hezbollah missile system in Lebanon. This NATO-Russian transition could also firm up the Minsk Agreement (2015) in conjunction with the prospect of an eventual EMU structure for Europe. In the final analysis, it will take the cooperation of many nations and the advent of many tens of thousands of blue helmets in Syria (UN peace-keeping troops with real firepower) to institute such a political and military agenda. But it is necessary, and it very much needs to be done. If ISIS in Syria attempts to find safe haven in Iraq, UN troops could be authorized to pursue them. The future of both Iraq and Syria as single entities operating under pluralistic constitutions within a type of federated system was the goal of Geneva One, and it is also the goal of the Iraqi constitution.

The Obama Iran nuclear deal is hardly a panacea, and I have written about its many shortcomings before. Without a follow-up agreement leading to a structure of peace within the region of the Middle East, the likelihood of nuclear proliferation remains great. This prospect becomes even more acute without a great power solution to Syria and the spillover effects that Syria has created. In fact, the idea of a Zone of Peace leading to a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East is, of course, dependent on a solution for Syria and the end of ISIS. A blueprint for Europe could become a catalyst for that process. Whether the US administration understands it or not, the age of the sole American guarantee for security throughout the world is now officially over.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).