Steven Horowitz
Steven Horowitz

Russia and the US — On a Collision Course?

Within 24 hours, the Trump administration dramatically changed its mind on Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. After first declaring that Assad need not be replaced as the leader of the rump Syrian regime, Assad once again shocked the world by his use of Sarin gas against his own civilian population. Immediately the new American president was placed in the similar position as his predecessor. It was only three-and-a-half years ago that US President Obama faced the prospect of greater involvement in the Syrian War, and instead, he chose to negotiate with Russia over the supplies of poison gas in Syria.

There can be no negotiations now over the hidden gas stores that Assad maintains. That option is forever closed due to the lack of proper verification methodology. Besides, Assad needs his weapons of mass destruction in order to terrify his opponents into submission. He will not only hide these weapons, but given the exhaustion of his army, he will also use them to his military advantage. So the Syrian strongman decided to test Trump to see if and how the “America First” president would respond. To Assad’s great surprise, Trump was appalled. The new president threw down a series of red lines. And within a very short span of time, Trump attacked the Syrian airbase from which the gas originated, using 59 Cruise missiles.

Without spelling out any further plan of action, Trump has promised a dramatic change in US policy on Syria. Now there is no turning back. Trump has placed himself far beyond the position taken by Obama back in 2013. And unlike Obama, Trump will have to deliver on removing Assad from power, because anything short of such a policy would now be perceived as insignificant and therefore signaling a long-term acceptance of Assad. In other words, in order to assure America’s Sunni allies and Israel that the Trump administration is not a close repeat of the Obama administration, Trump must act on Assad, and act dynamically. A pinpoint attack will not do. Trump has accused Assad of crossing a series of American lines, and there is no way Assad could continue to lead under such American demands.

Call it blind luck, but Trump has finally stumbled on the truth about an American Middle East policy that makes sense. Yes, Assad must go! If the US wants to defeat ISIS, there is absolutely no other choice. The same is true with regard to Iran and Hezbollah. Without the Sunni Arabs secure within their own region (The Levant) radical Sunni Islam will never moderate. Instead organizations like ISIS will simply reformulate. However, Syria and Iraq are no longer isolated problems situated within a region controlled by American power alone (1990-2015). Now, and not unlike the Cold War, the Middle East is a contested arena. Syria has found powerful allies in Iran, Russia and even possibly China. The question of supreme importance for Middle East peace becomes: What to do about Russia and Vladimir Putin in Syria?

There is only one reason that Russia is in Syria and willing to defend the Kremlin’s position alongside the murderous Assad regime — the US-NATO expansion eastward into the Eastern European border areas with Russia. If any American should think differently, they only need to remember how it is that the US finally entered WWI, exactly 100¬†years ago.

Back then, the US was forced to decide whether to throw its military weight into a European quagmire that was slowly tilting toward a possible German victory. A secret memorandum was intercepted by British intelligence (and passed on to the Americans) which urged Mexico to declare war against the US with German assurance of naval protection and thousands of tons of military hardware. Along with German U-boat attacks on US maritime shipping, President Wilson decided that a German expansion into Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean would be a direct threat to US national security. So, in order to forever foreclose this potential German option, the US decided to act in accordance with its European allies in an attempt to roll back any potential European hegemony (German victory in WWI) that could be used as a base for Atlantic naval expansion into the Americas.

American strategy has been to prevent the domination of the Euro-Asian landmass by any one power. However, they have done this in the aftermath of two world wars by leading an alliance of smaller and middle powers. Now this alliance has taken on the role of a uni-polar hegemony. Without American protection these smaller and middle powers (now including Germany and Japan) would be left defenseless from either a nuclear Russia or a nuclear China. Such a situation would logically justify a vast nuclear proliferation in order to establish some kind of balance of power. After two world wars, Germany and Japan have chosen the US uni-polar alliance system as a way around this nuclear dilemma and conventional defeat as well.

But the global hegemony of the US-led alliance system has now forced Russia and China (not to mention Iran and North Korea) to react. When the Obama administration announced its “pivot” away from its allies in the Middle East, Russia and Iran responded in Syria with tremendous support for Assad. Russia did this as leverage against further encroachment by NATO into Russia’s border areas. Like America during WWI, Russia’s strategic interest is not to have a powerful alliance of a foreign power (NATO) on its border.

In order for President Trump to re-establish American credibility in the Middle East, he must now establish American credibility with Russia. Anything short of such a strategy could risk a serious confrontation with Putin’s Kremlin. The Russians have stated emphatically that unilateral American military action will have negative consequences. But a Trump “military only” policy against Assad will prove a grave danger to all America’s allies — the Europeans, the Sunni Arab states and Israel. Trump must produce a strategy, a long-term strategy with a solid political win-win end-game that Russia can accept.

Only a Grand Bargain on the future of both the Middle East and Europe will suffice. Of course, the new American president could back down on a political strategy for Syria, leaving Assad and especially his ally, Iran, to continue with its designs of Middle East hegemony. Or Trump could pursue a muscular approach with other military attacks, but without a political endgame in sight. These two diametrically opposite courses of action would lead in vastly different directions. The first course would lead to an avoidance of a potential dangerous escalation with Russia. The second could lead to a slippery slope of a serious confrontation, triggering a showdown of nuclear powers. But after eight years of Obama’s lack of strength, and in the absence of a new and coherent Middle East and European foreign policy, Trump would be ill advised to move in either direction. But the American president must move in some direction, especially now after military action against Assad, but preferably within the context of a coherent foreign policy.

For the last four years, I have written about Grand Bargains in both Europe and the Middle East. I have attempted to portray two regions completely absent of hegemony and in a structure of stability through an emphasis on permanent peace. Now, however, the so-called “American Century” built on the false premise of “peace through strength” (uni-polar power) is once again failing. It was exactly one hundred years ago that the US entered WWI to prevent German uni-polar power. It was a little over 75 years ago that the US entered WWII for exactly the same reason. Twenty-five years ago, the Cold War ended and then NATO began its expansion eastward. Now, once again, it appears as if the world’s superpowers (now in possession of nuclear weapons) are nearing another collision.

When will the nations of the world finally learn that hegemony and spheres of interest are an open invitation to counter aggression? From the perspective of history, hegemony and empire have proven to lead to systemic failure.

Unlike the American establishment — which is hell-bent to confront Russia for its role in Syria and the Ukraine — President Trump had the correct inclination to pursue Russia and President Putin as a potential ally in the global war against Islamic radicalism and extremism. Now, Syria demands just such a policy. However, in order for Trump and Putin to accomplish a political endgame for Syria and the Levant in general, both men are going to need a completely new European foreign policy.

If Trump follows the counsel of the anti-Russian US establishment, the world could very easily slip into another global war. The stakes are very high. And this is especially true for all the nations of Europe. Trump is going to need help. The three countries best positioned to run interference for President Trump are Germany, England and France. With an emphasis on a Grand Bargain of semi-demilitarization and elements of defensive integration, these countries would have the most to gain. However, on their present course as junior members of a uni-polar hegemony alliance system (NATO), they certainly have the most to lose.

The world doesn’t have to be on a collision course. It could dramatically change direction, if it chose to. In this regard, Europe and an alternate future for NATO and European security hold the key to Russian cooperation for a serious political endgame in Syria. Chancellor Merkel of Germany and a bevy of her new counterparts must become true leaders in this vital European and Middle Eastern endeavor.

I want to wish everyone a Happy Passover. My blog will return after the holiday.

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).