In a previous post, I wrote on how quickly the world can be plunged into war. World War I is an example of how, in a series of cascading events, miscalculations and bad luck, war can come suddenly. That war began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in the Balkans, then the intervention of number of competing alliances, culminating in a conflict that killed millions.
The Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, looks a lot like today’s Balkans. What began as protest by some teenage boys has turned into a full blown civil war in Syria that has already killed 300,000 people over four years and forced half the population to flee. This in turn has prompted a refugee crisis that has Europeans at a loss at what to do.
Now things have gotten worse, if that is possible to say. Two weeks ago, Russia began air strikes against rebel forces fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of the Russians. At the same time, American warplanes have been flying missions against Islamic State (IS; also known as ISIS or ISIL) forces. In the same region. With American and Russian planes sharing the same airspace, the possibility of an accident is there. Indeed, within the past few days, their aircraft have come in sight of one another.
On top of that, Russian aircraft have violated Turkish air space at least twice. Why this matters to the U.S. is because Turkey is a NATO ally we have pledged to defend. These incursions may have been accidental, but then again, may not be. To further complicate things, the Russians are coordinating with the Iranians, who have moved hundreds of ground troops to support al-Assad, who is Shia. The Shiites dominate the Syrian government and military, whereas the majority of Syrians are Sunnis, as are the rebels. This is similar pattern as exists in Iraq.
What Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full intentions are isn’t clear, but he is obviously afraid that his only ally in the Western Mediterranean was in danger of falling. The alliance goes back to the Cold War. As long as al-Assad remains in power, the Russians have access to Syrian ports on NATO’s southern flank.
Once again, the usual suspects howl at what they see as the Obama Administration’s lack of confrontation of Putin. We have to do “something about” about Putin. But the something(s) they propose are very vague in details, and unlikely to dislodge the Russians from Syria.
It is always easy for political outsiders to complain about what a president is or isn’t doing in Syria, but the fact is this: Once again the United States has no good options. As with Ukraine, there is no real solution to get rid of Russia, short of war; the American people don’t want that, nor will the Administration’s critics be honest and say as much.
The best that America can do is make clear that we stand with our NATO allies, but continue to negotiate with Russia to avoid another Balkans.