Obama’s Russian-Turkish Quagmire

When Russian forces entered Syria, President Obama was unimpressed. Russian military power would become bogged down in a quagmire, he predicted. Now, almost five months later, it is Obama whose confidence appears to be waning. Slowly but surely, the Russian bombing campaign has tilted the battlefield more in a positive direction for Moscow and their Iranian and Syrian allies. For once, Obama has been forced to act, or risk alienating a vital NATO ally, Turkey, with ramifications for the total US global alliance system.

Turkey has two major geopolitical redlines, Russian encirclement and a radical Kurdish mini-state on its southern border. With Moscow’s incursion into the Syrian civil war, Ankara’s two redlines have now been crossed. Turkey has no choice but to act in order to deter the implementation of a pro-PKK mini- zone from developing on its border.

Russia has been pushing the idea of such a mini-zone as a complement to its Alawi-Assad advancement within the Lattakia Governorate. Russia perceives almost the entirety of the forces which oppose Assad as terrorist. This includes many groups with solid CIA backing, as well as Turkmen Syrians opposed to the Assad dictatorship. Since September, the vast majority of Russian bombs have not been directed at the Islamic State, but instead at the more nationalist forces directly in the fight against Assad.

Turkey (like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Israel) has increasingly been sent an array of mixed messages with regard to American strategy in Syria and the broader Middle East. But the direct Russian involvement first in the Ukraine and now Syria has raised red flags in Ankara. With the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimea, Russian naval presence in the Black Sea has no inhibiting factor other than direct Turkish (or NATO) action. The same can be said for Kurdish-Russian military cooperation on Turkey’s southern border. Unless Turkey acts, a permanent radical Kurdish enclave will be established to its south. Remember: Russia already has a military position in place in Armenia, on Turkey’s eastern border. Is it any wonder that Turkey is feeling encircled?

History and geopolitics have finally caught up with Obama’s political naivety. For the last seven years, Obama has attempted to fit the world into his peculiar assumptions. His major assumption has been that Russia was a second-rate power willing to live with NATO expansion eastward without a push-back. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Moscow, like Turkey, has its redlines, and the Russian push-back in the Ukraine and Syria has had broader consequences involving many other countries’ redlines. For Moscow, the Ukraine and Syria are linked with a perception of weakness with regard to American unipolar hegemony in Europe. The Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria (as well as de facto Turkish encirclement) have all become active power projections against Russia’s own sense of US encirclement.

In the Middle East, Israel (for one) needed to spell out to Moscow exactly how Russia’s Syrian incursion would impact Jerusalem’s vital interests. Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow in September in order to make Israel’s redlines crystal clear. Still, a Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance against the Sunni Arabs can only work to lift Iran into a position of regional hegemony. This would be at the expense of Israel as well. Unless, of course, the Kremlin promised Israel that Russia’s participation within Syria would eventually allow Assad and the Alawites more freedom from Tehran’s grip, and that Jerusalem need not worry. But such a pledge could hardly alleviate Israel’s worries.

This leads us to Obama’s second weird assumption: that Iran’s behavior within the Middle East can be moderated through economic cooperation and nuclear negotiation. This assumption has alienated all of America’s allies within the region. But even so, it has now become the majority opinion within Obama’s Democratic Party, including a vast proportion of American Jews. This assumption is not only false in the near and middle term, its nuclear component is very dangerous in the long term. Because the Iran nuclear deal was so favorably inclined toward Iran becoming a threshold nuclear power within a decade, the regional consequences for the outcome of the Syrian civil war have now vastly intensified in importance.

It seems to me that an Iranian-Assad-Russian alliance is not in anyone’s interest other than Tehran, Assad and maybe the militant Kurds. This alliance prospect is certainly working to draw Turkey into the Syrian fight in a much more direct way. This could mean a direct military confrontation between Russia and a NATO member. This reinforces the error of Obama’s assumption number one: that the status quo in Europe is sustainable. Well, Mr. President, the status quo in Europe is not sustainable, and it is about to spill over into the Middle East.

Recent events on the Syrian-Turkish border prove both Obama’s assumptions wrong. Russian media reports that Turkey is amassing troops and materiel on its southern border. Apparently President Erdogan of Turkey has decided to defend his major redlines against a possible Russian-PKK enclave. Erdogan has already shot down one Russian Air Force fighter plane; it wouldn’t be out of the question for Turkish troops to be equipped with shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles (manpads). What would be the consequences of more Russian planes going down?

But the US has its redlines too, and the protection of the vital interests of a NATO ally is of utmost importance. Obama has probably given Turkey the green light to make certain that the Russian-Iranian tilt in Syria doesn’t become a cakewalk. But such an action is not without great risk. An American president who is not willing to defend a NATO ally and its vital redlines not only risks the alliance itself, but also must be willing to flirt with the possibility of WWIII. Therefore, someone is going to have to back down, or…..?

Recently the Atlantic Council held a conference on Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. The major speaker at the conference (from my point of view) was the ex-Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy. Mr. Fahmy admitted that no single party has the capacity (either militarily or politically) to end the war in Syria without either risking a dangerous escalation or alienating key domestic political constituencies. The only way forward in Syria, he concluded, is a series of “grand bargains” involving Syria, the region as a whole, and the interests of all the powerful international players (Russia, China, US and NATO).

This “grand bargain” approach is what this blog has been about for nearly two-and-a-half years. It essentially involves the three components of my international prize-winning essay, entitled “Peace 2010”, published by the Christian Science Monitor and MIT Press in 1985. These include: a European security system inclusive of Russia, a workable Middle East regional balance of power formula, and a peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. My updated version envisions a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone within a larger regional zone of peace.

The essential point that both Mr. Fahmy and I are espousing is that nothing is possible in Syria until all the issues within the various geopolitical entanglements reach a crucial understanding. The Russians have called for a new Yalta Conference to discuss the future of Europe. This idea is a necessity (although the future of the Crimea must also be an agenda item), given the extremely dangerous path that has been outlined above. Superpower escalation, anywhere from the Baltics southward, could very easily result from a Russian-Turkish quagmire over the endgame in northern Syria.

A similar danger exists over the Iranian role along Israel’s Golan frontier with Syria. Israel simply cannot tolerate a long-term Iranian Revolutionary Guard presence within a timeframe close to an Iranian nuclear breakout potential. Within a decade, such Iranian nuclear potential could be a matter of weeks, or perhaps even days. Hezbollah and its hundred-thousand missiles will not be tolerated as Iran expands both conventionally and as a potential nuclear power. Something has to give, in the near future.

Either Russia controls Iran, or Iran will dictate the terms of Syria’s future. However, before any Syrian compromise is even possible, there must be an understanding between Russia and NATO as to the future of Europe. In this sense, Syria has now become a proxy war in a larger post-WWII struggle against hegemony in Europe. In other words, Israel’s redlines have now become entangled with Russia’s and NATO’s.

Obama’s Russian-Turkish quagmire is the product of a much larger geopolitical dynamic. The fact is that the US and its allies did not win the Cold War, because the Cold War never really ended. The only thing that ended was the Soviet Union. The tensions in Europe are still extremely strong, because the military division on the continent has never been made whole. President Putin has found in Syria a potential soft spot in NATO’s political armor. At least that’s what the Russian president is gambling on. But for the first time in his own presidency, Barack Obama appears to be about to call Putin’s bluff. Or perhaps the Turkish president has decided to move without Obama’s endorsement. It doesn’t matter because one way or another, something has to give. In the same way, what is now true for Turkey in the north of Syria will eventually be true for Israel in the south of Syria.

Foreign Minister Fahmy is right-on in his analysis. Nothing in Syria will be solved until the region of the Middle East is solved, and the Middle East cannot be solved until a new European security structure also achieves a thorough understanding. It is high time for some truly out-of-the-box thinking with regard to Europe and the Middle East.

In the Middle East, a non-nuclear, non-aggression security structure needs to be born. In Europe, the continent must end its centuries-old dilemma of an inadequate balance of power. Instead, an all-European confederate security force must be established, while the individual nation-state defense paradigm becomes superseded by a supra-national security model. What is needed in both regions is a complete and total disregard for the current “realist” conception of a “beggar-thy-neighbor” anarchistic security model. If this is not accomplished, the increasing use of military leverage — without one side backing down — can only lead to a 21st-century repeat of the Cuban missile crisis. Is this the legacy with which President Obama wants to leave office? After all, the president received the Nobel Peace Price for his opposition to nuclear weapons.

A nuclear showdown over the future of NATO will be very difficult to end peacefully. So too would be a crisis between Israel and an Iranian-controlled Syria. Does Russia plan to stay in Syria for an indefinite period of time in order to control Iran’s behavior? Has the Kremlin even thought this far ahead? Because the longer Russia stays without coming to terms with Turkey, Israel, and the US, the greater the risks of serious escalation.

It is time for an old-fashioned superpower summit. The world might NOT stand still until a new US president is sworn in. The time to act is now, and the person to act is Barack H. Obama. That is, unless the “peace president” is at ease with a Russian-Turkish quagmire, and the ultimate test of NATO legitimacy — i.e., a showdown with Russia. Even so, such a scenario would still require the beginning outlines of a series of “grand bargains”. Unless, of course, the crisis gets out of hand. Who said the US won the Cold War?

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).