The Syrian Tunnel

There are three branch lines running into the Syrian tunnel. The first is the bifurcated local sectarian line. It consists on one side of the so-called Assad government (Assad has become a warlord not a president), his Alawi and Shia followers and a terrified community of Christians. On the other side is the opposition. It is also divided. Sunni Islamic extremists have taken to fighting more moderate Islamists and secular-orientated liberals.

The second branch line is the regional line of the Middle East. Here also there are many participants, each vying for leverage and power. Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah line up with warlord Assad. While Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Sunni Lebanon back the opposition. Turkey had nearly entered the tunnel but now seeks a diplomatic solution. The Sunni community in western Iraq has entered the fray under the banner of al-Qaeda. Israel sits poised outside the tunnel watching Syria and Hezbollah to see if any advanced missiles are likely cargo. Israel also watches the Iranian train very closely to see if its old-fashioned steam locomotive transforms to nuclear power.

The third branch line is the global line, which runs from Washington D.C. to Paris to Moscow to Beijing and back to Washington. This line surrounds the tunnel and has many entry points along the route. The UN Security Council is where these big trains meet. Here they huff and puff, usually only to disagree and steam off angrily. Moscow had taken a special interest in the warlord Assad. No one knows exactly why. The warlord ruins Russia’s reputation. But Assad does allow them to anchor their Mediterranean fleet right up against the tunnel. Here, the Syrian warlord unloads all kinds of nice Darth Vader goodies to restock his tunnel depot at Damascus. Lately, however, Moscow has been seen on the Nile and in Alexandria. These are much nicer ports of call than the rotting, ravaged Syrian tunnel of hatred.

Washington used to have many friends in the region. But the crazed Sunni extremists blew up the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. Now, after ten years of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths, the Americans are exhausted, broke and searching for a way to pivot out of the region without causing too much disruption. Iran under its new “moderate leadership” appears to be the US ticket on its new journey to the Pacific. But the Syrian tunnel draws the Americans back into the Middle East. As much as he tries, President Obama can’t seem to find his way out. Even with an Iranian nuclear deal, there doesn’t appear to be any light at the end of the Syrian tunnel. On the contrary, the darkness pervades because an American-Iranian détente is a selfish solo superpower move. It is not in the interests of most of the other powers, either global or regional.

Europe is a case in point. The continent is in a near depression. The EU, which was established to tether the Germans to a Western European construction, has become to a certain degree politically dysfunctional. German economic surpluses have unbalanced the economic community to such an extant that anti-EU political parties have arisen. But the EU is as important to non-Russian Europe as NATO itself. In fact the two are complimentary institutions. France is the country most affected by the European situation. Without an economic solution, the continent’s political-military future becomes murkier and murkier.

Russia has been isolated in Europe since the demise of the Soviet Union. Because of this, the US wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan have been quite useful to Moscow. They have allowed the Russians to push back against both EU and NATO expansion. With the Americans bogged down in the Middle East, there was room for Russia to maneuver in its near abroad. But now the situation has dramatically changed. While Europe remains divided between NATO and Russia, it is also divided economically at the center between Germany and the rest. However, in the absence of solid economic growth for all, these European divisions could easily become a political nightmare. As the EU falters, NATO needs to be revamped or bypassed.

A new inclusive military structure for Europe is needed. France and Russia are the likely leaders. But an explosive and/or hegemonic Middle East on Europe’s very doorstep is a serious impediment to progress. The old question of the balance of power between the Sunni Arabs and Iran now has new linkages to European unity. An American-Iranian détente could work to alter the balance of power in favor of Iran. This is certainly not in Israeli, Saudi or Jordanian interests. But it would not be in French or Russian interests either. Meanwhile, a radical US pivot to Asia and a buildup of forces in the Pacific is certainly not in Chinese interests. Where is the light at the end of the Syrian tunnel? And could all these trains collide without serious cooperation?

The focal point for cooperation rests with the P5+1. At the core of the Iranian nuclear program (no pun intended) lies the Middle East’s balance of power. The sanctions against Iran have worked with impressive efficiency. The Rouhani election was a clarion call by the Iranian people that the sanctions needed to be lifted, and they needed to be lifted as soon as possible. But an Iranian nuclear deal without a regional component, especially the future of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon (including the military future of Hezbollah), is a recipe for disaster. The fundamental point is: A nuclear deal cannot be allowed to alter the regional balance of power. Similarly, no diplomatic deal will cause the same result in the other direction. Iran will certainly continue forward with its nuclear program, risking war. However without a deal, the sanction regime will be strengthened. The longer the sanctions continue, the greater the risk that the regional balance of power will go against the Islamic Republic. Political unrest is certainly a possibility. War is the most likely outcome. In this context, it behooves France, Russia and China to seek a P5+1 deal which is comprehensive.

Israel cannot just say no to an Iranian nuclear program. The Netanyahu government must become proactive. A comprehensive diplomatic deal is in Israel’s paramount interest. The direction in which the Arab-Iranian balance of power tilts will affect the Jewish State with equal consequence. Failed states are in no one’s interest, with the exception of the global terrorist networks. Israel cannot remain a station of prosperity in a broken yard of dilapidated railcars.

Hegemony has become the root political disease in the world today. Cooperation is its antidote. But the Syrian tunnel has become a confused maze of powerful locomotives, each in search of its own way out. So far, none of the trains has seen the light of day. The same is true for Europe and the Pacific region. The problems of the 20th century have reemerged. The UN must live up to its original mandate. In the Syrian tunnel, the Security Council has fallen asleep. It has not directed the switchmen. Each train steams forward not unlike Europe one hundred years ago. The P5+1 and the Security Council are important station masters. They must provide greater vision. For nations, like trains, seek organized routes. Only time will tell whether each train will emerge safely on its own track. As yet not one has seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

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).