The political division in Washington has become so acute that Russian and American security officials cannot even sit down and discuss mutual issues of anti-terrorism without howls of derision from the Congressional opposition within the Democratic Party. But US-Russian understandings on questions of security within the Middle East have now become paramount in the regional rush to fill the vacuum created by the demise of the ISIS Caliphate. This has become especially true in Syria. Without a mutual long-term strategy, Russian and American tactical precedence could escalate as local powers all vie for supremacy and advantage.
Donald J. Trump came to office with the great hope of establishing a far-reaching detente with the Russian leadership. This goal has been under attack since day one of his administration. There is a huge faction within the Washington political and media elite that wants to maintain Moscow as an enemy of the West. What this elite does not seem to understand is that Russia has always been an independent power and will not knuckle under to US-German-French-UK dominance in Europe. The great destabilization of European (and thereby global) order has been the NATO expansion eastward toward the Russian border.
Russian penetration into the Levant has been successful because at the core of the disorder in Europe and the Middle East lies a large US-Allied contradiction — i.e. NATO expansion has its military and political limitations. Its scope has been neither permanent nor all-encompassing. The US and its European partners have been extremely reluctant (during the Obama years) to engage either in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or with potential European allies in Georgia and the Ukraine. Obama believed in a traditional uni-polar power projection foreign policy. However, Obama and his Democratic Party did not believe in projecting very much power.
The great contradiction of US foreign policy has been its inability to muster the means to accomplish its ends. This contradiction has led to a huge vacuum in the Middle East. The American people simply did not want to spend blood and treasure on an open-ended, nation-building project in Syria or Iraq. Obama won his elections on promises to pull out of Iraq. This early Iraq retreat caused a vast resurgence of sectarian strife in both Iraq and Syria, leading to the re-emergence of ISIS.
Then Obama was forced to start an anti-terrorist campaign to defeat ISIS without any attempt at challenging Assad or Iran and its myriad of proxy militias anywhere in the Levant. But ISIS was not just a product of America’s means and ends contradiction. It also had deep roots with both the Syrian regime (who refused for tactical purposes not to engage against them) and with NATO member Turkey, who allowed ISIS (and many other militant Islamist groups) access to its border. In other words, if you still want to be a uni-polar power (the US) — but if it becomes politically untenable to send your own troops — you will need others to fight for you. Turkey was vehemently anti-Assad. Ankara used the Muslim Brotherhood and myriad other such factions in an attempt to overthrow the Damascus regime. But Russia saw the danger of these Turkish-allied groups (including many affiliated with al-Qaeda terrorism). In 2015 Russia entered the Syrian civil war determined that these Islamist militants would not overthrow the pro-Iranian government in Damascus. Obama failed to act as Moscow filled the vacuum in Syria.
But as ISIS grew, Obama knew he had to act for the sake of his legacy. He simply couldn’t leave half of Iraq and Syria in the possession of a vast terrorist network. Russia had no qualms about a Washington-Moscow understanding on an air campaign against ISIS. Also the Kremlin easily gave Obama the green-light on a PKK-Kurdish affiliate, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), to partner on the ground offensive against ISIS. President Putin of Russia knew that such a pro-Kurdish move by the US could dramatically alienate Turkey from NATO. Moscow understood that Obama’s embrace of the Kurdish forces could very positively relate back to the Russian desire for a weakening of NATO expansion in Europe.
Enter Trump. He correctly called the the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) the worst deal ever. And he argues — along with the entire Republican Party — that Iran has used its financial proceeds from the lifting of the nuclear sanctions to expand its presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But like Obama, Trump is politically confined by an electorate who correctly perceives Syria as a uni-polar quagmire. The new president has also been entangled with a Washington establishment which refuses to cooperate with Russia to solve the problem of global disorder. But without a vast American-Russian entente in Europe and the Middle East, the Syrian predicament between Turk and Kurd will either weaken NATO or cause Russian-US friction in Syria to dangerously escalate.
Israel and the Sunni Arab states need a US-Russia entente in order to roll back Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and potentially Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. Turkey, on the other hand, is more existentially concerned about a rising Kurdistan within its own territory than it is about a rising Iran in the Arab world bordering Israel. Turkey could quit NATO (if it had to) if a US partnership with the Kurdish forces came to be perceived as an internal threat. However, it is unrealistic to think that Kurdish ground forces alone can become the ordering force for a uni-polar American push against Tehran, Damascus, Moscow and potentially Ankara. Meanwhile Turkey, under the Muslim Brotherhood, has become far too unreliable to be an ordering force in the Middle East.
Syria is a quagmire. Syria is a continuing stalemate. Syria is a serious political and diplomatic predicament in a global disorder. Syria remains dangerous not only to the Middle East but to Europe as well. This global disorder proceeds along a NATO line from Norway through the Baltic states into the Ukraine and the Black Sea, directly into the Eastern Mediterranean and now into the heart of the Levant. Israel has a strategic relationship with the US, but its prime minister has met with the Russian president seven times in the last two and a half years. Sooner rather than later — and very much like Turkey’s incursion against Kurdish forces in Syria — Israel will also have to act against its own existential threat from Iranian forces and missile production in Syria. Moscow now knows that Israel will defend its red lines in Syria. Netanyahu told Putin (just two days ago) that if Israel needs to act against the Iranian buildup in Syria, it will act. Hence, Syria could become an even worse tinderbox.
Trump and Putin need to be engaged in a project of global order. The uni-polar moment in history has now passed. Washington must not be reactionary. Along with Russia and the US — China, India and the nations of the EU must develop a partnership toward an entirely new architecture of international relations. I call this new structure, Interlocking Zones of Peace. It is time for new and revolutionary American thinking on foreign affairs. The political and intellectual leadership in Washington have become mired in a dying uni-polar paradigm. The Syrian situation could easily careen out of control. President Trump has been correct from the beginning. “Better relations with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing.”