Syria and the Baltic: Another World War?

If you haven’t noticed, the world has gotten extremely dangerous in the last forty-eight hours. Russia buzzed an American naval destroyer in the Baltic Sea in response to the loss of aircraft in Syria. But President Obama doesn’t seem to be backing down.

Perhaps Obama has finally gotten the message, because his appearance at CIA headquarters (Wednesday) was very symbolic as to the potential future battlefield in Syria. The CIA has been urging Obama to up the ante on Russian encroachment in Syria and the greater Middle East for some time now. Naturally the CIA worries that the American president is essentially losing the region, due to his lack of any kind of coherent policy commitment other than his much-maligned Iran nuclear deal.

America’s Sunni Arab allies would be unwise not to send Obama their own messages, and that is precisely what they are doing. The King of Saudi Arabia was just in Cairo advancing President Sisi and his government billions of dollars. At the same time, Egypt and Russia have culminated an arms deal involving similar billions of dollars to be spent on advanced Russian fighter planes. Message sent. But it certainly is not the only message. While the region awaits Obama’s arrival within a week at the GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be in Moscow having his own sit-down with Vladimir Putin. Another message sent.

The CIA apparently perceives the huge risks involved in Obama’s reluctance to affect the outcome in Syria as a potential game-changer. They have definitely sent the president their own message. American newspapers have been rife with stories about the urging of the CIA to equip the Syrian opposition with man-portable air-defense systems (manpads) in order to alter the balance against Syrian and/or Russian airpower.

The CIA reasoning is clear: If the US doesn’t become a much stronger player in the Syrian civil war, the Sunni Arabs and even Turkey might begin to tilt toward Moscow. This appears to be sound advice. But it is also extremely dangerous, because the president is trapped between very nasty choices. On one hand, he risks either losing Syria to Assad, Iran and the Russians, or perhaps a dramatic Sunni Arab geopolitical shift away from the American orbit. On the other hand, Obama risks a serious escalation with Russia. What would be the Kremlin’s response if Syrian opposition forces start shooting their airmen out of the sky? In other words, the possibility exists that both presidents could be caught in an escalatory trap — damned if they do, and crucified if they don’t. This is how world wars begin! And in the nuclear age, such an escalation could become catastrophic!

President Obama has felt that, by engaging with Iran over their nuclear program, eventually their regional behavior could be altered for the better. So for the last seven years, the American president has advanced this policy to the detriment of all his allies within the region, and with the unrealistic hope that such an outcome could be possible. What Obama failed to understand is that the US couldn’t maintain its regional hegemonic position while failing to exert any real regional leverage. In the process, Obama created not only a temporary nuclear deal (that will have proliferation repercussions for years to come) but also a dangerous military vacuum within a region that has been absent a lasting balance of power since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.

At its lowest ebb (the 1980s and 1990s), Iran viewed its geopolitical position as an encirclement by Sunni Arab states and Pakistan within a unipolar US strategic backdrop. However, with the American invasion of Iraq (to topple Saddam in 2003), Iran’s position became only marginally less dire. The administration of George W. Bush made mistakes, but they didn’t leave Iraq with a vacuum to be filled by Tehran. On the contrary, by 2009 when Obama took office, Iraq had been greatly stabilized by the Bush administration. While Iraq’s Shiite community did hold the office of president, its geopolitical tilt was not towards Iran. With American troops on the ground in Iraq, the idea of a Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran to Damascus and on to Beirut was a political impossibility. But then, with the departure of George W. Bush, everything changed.

Enter Barack H. Obama. Obama was the so-called “peace president”. He ran on a platform of military disengagement from the Middle East, with an understanding that Iran’s nuclear program could be negotiated to the satisfaction of both Tehran and Washington. The very last thing that Obama wanted was any kind of further US political or military entanglements within the region. The new president was emphatically opposed to another major land war in the Middle East. This meant that force, as a tool of nuclear diplomacy with Iran, was completely taken off the table.

The Obama administration was also determined to withdraw from Iraq in order to fulfill his Democratic party campaign promise. The president was extremely reluctant to get involved in the close yet highly successful Iraqi election of 2010, and he was totally opposed to answering pleas from the Syrian non-violent (Martin Luther King style) reform demonstrators of 2011. These two non-actions worked in tandem. The Syrian revolt against the dictatorship of Assad had been inspired by events of the so-called Arab Spring.

But what inspired the Arab Spring? I submit that it was the successful election in Iraq in 2010. This particular election was a watershed for the Arab Middle East. It led directly to the events in Tunisia later that same year, and then on to Egypt, Libya and Syria. At first, Obama reacted cautiously but somewhat positively toward Egypt. Later, the American president acquiesced and used military power to maintain the democratic momentum and bring down Gaddafi.

However, with Syria, Obama abruptly stopped. Even though American soft power (the successful flip-side to Bush’s military invasion of Iraq to topple a dictator) was on display as millions of Arabs took to the public squares in Damascus and beyond, Obama shifted direction dramatically away from Arab democracy. The US president simply got cold feet. It wasn’t the Russians that stopped him, although they weren’t exactly happy. Obama’s original policy was to reset relations with Moscow, but the substance of this policy for Europe remained fuzzy at best. No, Obama must have stopped the Arab democracy project because he didn’t want anything to impinge on his nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Obama knew that, unlike Iraq (which was well on the road toward democracy), Syria would become very messy because Iran would never allow Assad to fall without some kind of dramatic action. Obama feared that tough action (in either Iran or Iraq) was not only political suicide for him domestically, but could also lead to an Iranian rush toward nuclear weapons. However, instead of coming up with a regional strategy to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions yet save the Arabs’ meaningful impulse toward constitutional democratic structures, Obama completely demurred. He failed to follow through in Iraq (leaving the country open to Iranian subterfuge), and he failed the brave and democratic yearning of the people of Syria. Eventually this inaction exposed the Syrian people to the worst atrocities in recent history.

Obama compartmentalized the Middle East. He left the Iran nuclear negotiations as the one and only centerpiece of his regional strategy. Everything else became secondary or non-existent. Iran saw the possibility of an opening to completely break out of its geopolitical perception of Sunni Arab-state encirclement. Tehran established much closer relations with an anti-democratic Shiite politician, al-Maliki in Iraq; within the same time frame, they continued to support Assad’s position in Syria. Eventually Iran positioned itself directly into the Syrian civil war. Later on, the perception in the region evolved into the belief that there was an Iranian crescent on the rise. This perception was created through the policy choices made in Washington by an administration which, by its lack of action, had indirectly tilted toward Iran.

Enter Russia. Moscow has seen its geopolitical position in Europe erode since the end of the Cold War in 1989. During the 1990s and early 2000s, they could do very little to stop the expansion of the NATO alliance system into the very heart of the old Warsaw Pact geography. With the US invasion of Afghanistan and a strong American presence in Central Asia, Moscow understood (not unlike Iran) that it too faced an American hegemonic encirclement. With the US, Japan and South Korea firmly entrenched within Russia’s Pacific theatre, Moscow awaited the nature of the new relationship that Washington offered through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous reset button. But by 2014, not only had Obama and Clinton’s reset with Russia lapsed into a haze of incoherence, but US-EU meddling in the Ukraine had triggered an entire different kind of Pavlovian response inside Kremlin walls.

With the Crimean annexation and the war within the Dombass region of eastern Ukraine, the post-Cold War US unipolar hegemony was seriously challenged by Moscow. Both Russia and China distanced themselves from Washington, as both countries established a more forceful posture with respect to America’s dominant role within the global geopolitical order. Because Obama failed to offer a strategy for the the Middle East other than his one-dimensional policy of Iranian nuclear compartmentalization, the region became a contest for local supremacy between Iran, Iraq and Syria on one side, and Saudi Arabia on the other. This left Turkey, Israel and Egypt confused by America’s policy, while also being distanced from one another and unable to provide for any semblance of a lasting regional balance. Russia saw the situation as an opportunity, and President Putin skillfully took advantage.

This takes us back to the last forty-eight hours. Russia has entered the vacuum that Obama created in the Middle East and awaits a strategic reward for its tactical shrewdness. But who will give Russia a strategic reward? Obama and the CIA now threaten to escalate in Syria in a kind of geopolitical desperation after discovering, to their astonishment, that they have been outmaneuvered. But such desperation is hardly a strategy to bring peace to Syria.

The entire American military and intelligence establishment must feel threatened by Putin’s tactical (and perhaps strategic) brilliance, for why else would Obama act in such a potentially escalatory manner? Manpads could alter the balance in Syria, and therefore risk putting the Iran nuclear deal in serious jeopardy.

Why would Obama do this now, other than complete desperation? He also knows that there is already a grave split between the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and President Rouhani over the economic aftermath of the nuclear deal. Iranian behavior is certainly not changing for the better; it has instead taken a turn for the worse. The Iranian dispute revolves around the consequences that trade deals might have on Iran’s revolutionary Islamic nature. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, seems to be on the side of the hardliners. This is bad news for Obama who, up until now, has been reluctant to sanction Iran with any severity over its guided-missile program.

Obama might be bluffing on an escalation in Syria. But that is hardly a strategy, let alone a decent tactic. Russia certainly won’t back down over words from this American “peace president”. But what would Putin do if more Russian or Syrian aircraft are shot down over Syria? Already over the last week a plane and a helicopter have been shot down. I can see no reason for the Russian buzzing of an American destroyer in the Baltic Sea other than as a warning that the Middle East and Eastern Europe are all part of the same global geopolitical struggle. Hit us in Syria, Mr. Putin seems to be saying, and we’ll hit you back somewhere else. That’s a very tough message indeed.

For the last three years, I have been warning that separating the Iran nuclear deal from a finely structured and internationally-sanctioned regional balance of power is a grave mistake. Has Obama ever read any of my hundreds of blogs? The irony of Obama’s hesitancy and lack of strategic vision has come full circle. Either there will be a super “Grand Bargain” involving Europe and the Middle East, or someone at the helm of either the Washington or Moscow establishment needs to back down. Tragically we’ve reached the desperate point of either capitulation or escalation. But genuine peace is the only true answer.

One hundred years after WWI, it’s as if the human race has learned next to nothing. Humanity is in desperate need of a global strategy for peace. Anything less could spell our doom. Both Europe and the Middle East require an equitable and just resolution. I would hate for the promise of the Arab Spring to turn into the nightmare of a global nuclear winter.

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).