Putin is currently sending soldiers to Syria because boots on the ground worked quite well for him in Ukraine. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the US and Europe reacted with sanctions, diplomatic and economic, but no military force. NATO’s logic at the time was that Ukraine’s geographic proximity gave Russia prerogatives the rest of the world lacked. Better not poke the Russian bear over this one, they thought.
Eighteen months later, Russia is deploying boots to Syria, well outside her sphere of influence. The US reaction to this escalation, not surprisingly: prompt diplomatic retreat. As pre-condition for negotiating Syria’s civil war with Iran Secretary Kerry publicly agreed to leaving Bashar al-Assad in power. Russian soldiers have meanwhile been fighting east of Aleppo shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah, with the entire operation being managed out of Baghdad where the Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance is coordinating operations with local Iraqi Shiite militias.
“Saturday [September 26] was the 15th straight day Russian transport aircraft had flown in troops and equipment to the Hmeimim base in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast,” a military source told Agence France-Presse. “For the past two weeks and again today a Russian cargo plane has landed every morning at Hmeimim.” The source added “They all had fighter escorts.”
Simply put, Russian transport aircraft started flying exactly one day after US Senate Democrats filibustered the vote on the Iran Nuclear Deal. We can now see the strategic fallout of that diplomatic campaign, and it was immediate: Russia and Iran, both emboldened; military partnership between two sanctioned, expansionist petro-states being cemented before the eyes of the world; China docking an aircraft carrier and a guided missile cruiser in Tartus (a Syrian port city) to punctuate Russia’s and Iran’s expansionist moves; and the power of Shiite terror under Russian proxy consolidating region-wide.
Europe cannot stand aside while Russia guarantees Iranian hegemony in a crescent of Shiites from the edge of Afghanistan to Egypt’s border. Even less can Europe stand aside while Russia’s military takes charge of training and deploying Hezbollah’s fighters, the region’s most sophisticated and heavily armed terrorists.
Now is the moment for NATO to deploy boots on the ground to Ukraine. When Russia sent soldiers into Syria her sphere-of-influence-argument regarding Ukraine fell apart. As Russia justifies direct military intervention to prop up a beleaguered incumbent regime in Syria so too would a correspondingly proportionate direct NATO military intervention in Ukraine be justified to prop up that beleaguered incumbent regime. A NATO military presence in Ukraine would at this point merely be following Russia’s lead. Russia’s incursion into Syria is an opportunity for the West, an invitation for NATO to defend the Ukraine. This would be a particularly good time for NATO to act.
NATO’s current strategy is silent, alas, on the Ukraine while it has England and France intensifying air strikes against ISIL as the US negotiates a settlement for Assad to stay in power. This strategy is backwards. Ukraine should be NATO’s first move, not its last. ISIL thrives only because Assad is still in power. Remove Assad and ISIL’s local Sunni support evaporates rapidly. Europe’s putting boots into Ukraine affords them an agrressive negotiating position with the East Ukrainians and their Russian ‘advisors;’ Russia will then have to re-deploy to its own border; Assad will fall; at which point militant anti-Assad Sunnis, especially Saddam’s former military commanders as well as al-Qaeda and other terror groups interested in consolidating their own power, will no longer be willing to put up with ISIL’s depravity, paving the way for that proto-caliphate’s relatively un-dramatic defeat.
The Obama-Kerry style of diplomacy is manifestly not working. A series of head-spinning Western diplomatic concessions has enabled the axis of evil to consolidate power in territory adjacent to Europe both in the Ukraine and the Levant. The tsunami of Syrian refugees flooding Europe is just another instance of Obama’s style of diplomacy failing. The need to house refugees presses on Europe’s conscience but it distracts from addressing the source of the problem: Sunni Arabs in a rout under a kind of ethnic cleansing Putin, al-Assad and Khameini are perpetrating as part of a coordinated march to power.
The more important value at stake here is rarely mentioned but from the outset it should have been the key moral factor driving international policy in these civil wars: the will of the peoples. Ukraine belongs to Europe. Ukraine’s history is Europe’s history. The people of Ukraine want to re-join Europe as a way to stop their endemic government corruption, corruption learned under decades of Russian rule. The Syrian people want out from under the illegitimate poison-gas politics of al-Assad, Russia’s and Iran’s vassal.
It would be morally right for the people of Ukraine and Syria to escape from Russia’s renegade superpower machismo. The good news is it would also be geo-strategically propitious for Europe and the US to enable such an escape. It comes down to a matter of timing, tipping the pieces over in the proper sequence. NATO’s first move should be boots on the ground in Ukraine. Russia opened that door. NATO needs only to walk through.