Originally published on March 23, 2016, revised on March 24, 2016.
The crises in Ukraine and Syria have undermined the geopolitical balance that has kept us safe for generations
It’s perhaps an outdated cliche that voters do not care about foreign policy. Thanks to the horrific news in Brussels, terrorism in Paris, the chaos in Syria and Libya, and the refugee crisis, foreign policy is front page news, and since it’s election season in the US, plenty of politicians are trying to set their own agenda when it comes to events unfolding overseas.
But there is a single glaring misconception, a deep problem that underlines the entire public conversation about foreign policy:
Foreign policy is always defined by the public by its high-profile failures which make up a tiny part of global events. Like our collective immune system that fights off countless threats without ever being recognized, but only makes headlines when it has failed, the world’s attention is focused on some of the greatest tragedies but ignores some of our greatest successes of foreign affairs. When foreign policy is working well, it is often completely invisible to most of the public.
And, ironically, public attention has largely ignored what might be the greatest threat to world stability in generations.
The misunderstood reality is that a very complex system of alliances, diplomacy, trade and military balance have combined to form the skeleton of global security that has kept us relatively safe since the end of World War II. High-profile and unpopular wars like Vietnam or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and terrorist attacks like 9/11 or what has taken place in Paris and Brussels, can come to define an entire era of foreign affairs, when in reality these awful and traumatic events that have taken place in the last 71 years pale in comparison to the near-constant warfare of the 19th and 20th centuries that cost far more than one-hundred million lives. Since World War II there has been almost no war in Europe, a continent that had been riddled with war for millennia. No new super power has come to rise anywhere in the world by rolling tanks and soldiers across its neighbors borders. Stability — not perfect safety, and not consequence free — has replaced pre-war chaos. During that time life expectancy has grown, poverty has been greatly reduced world wide, and quality of life for the majority of people on earth has improved. In 2016, despite hunger problems in many countries, there is not a single country in the world that is suffering from a declared famine. Experts argue, time and time again with plenty of statistics to back them up, that despite the wars in Syria and Yemen, the threat of ISIS and Boko Haram, and turmoil in parts of several continents, the world is simply still getting better (each word a different link).
And then there is the nuclear war, a potentially apocalyptic scenario, literally the war to end all wars that, while a very real possibility at many times over the last seven decades, has so far been avoided.
But there is an even larger and more serious problem that has been growing for several years, one which is being largely ignored by the press and the Western public. The very system which has maintained balance and security over the last seven decades is weaker now than it has been at any point since the Second World War, opening up the possibility of greater turmoil, bigger wars, more terrorism, and more economic uncertainty. While the optimists are right that by and large the world is still getting better, they miss the most important point — that post-war progress has never been more vulnerable than it is now, and this problem seems to get worse every day.
The growing threat to worldwide stability
Few regions in the world are more dangerous today than the Middle East, though the exact nature of the problems there are actually very poorly understood by the general public. Perhaps there is no greater example of this than when President Obama, during his recent State of the Union address, said that “the Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” This statement is just wrong. Over the last several thousand years the Middle East has been orders of magnitude more peaceful than nearly any part of the world including Europe and East Asia. Not a single one of the world’s top 20 most deadly wars has occurred in the Middle East (though certainly battles in both World Wars were fought there, particularly World War I). That relative stability has only been disrupted in the last century, and until the 2003 invasion of Iraq it could have easily been argued that the region had largely settled down since the conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s. Some of these wars have been more traditional power struggles. Some, like the wars against Israel, started soon after World War II and continue in some form to this day. But increasingly, the scale of these conflicts, the number of governments involved, and their potential to permanently change the balance of power in the region has been on the decline since before the end of the Cold War.
The largest and most ominous conflict in the Middle East today, however, is in Syria and Iraq where sectarian violence has exploded. Is there historical precedent for violence between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East? Sure, but there is far more (and far more recent) precedent for violence between England and France, or England and the United States for that matter, yet if sectarian violence exploded along these Western fault lines there would not be a single expert who would make the argument that Obama was making, an argument that is arguably steeped in a brand of xenophobia that is so entrenched in our society that it is hardly detectable. To make matters worse, I’d wager that very few Americans would hear that line and disagree with the president. In fact, it’s one of the lines that I have heard repeated countless times by family and friends who are not even aware how false it is.
The belief in this falsehood makes it nearly impossible to see the dangerous new reality — that most of the conflicts in the Middle East are actually new, getting worse, and could trigger a larger crisis. This belief also abdicates some sort of responsibility, and it ignores external influences on these conflicts such as the legacy of Western and Soviet imperialism, the consequences of both World Wars, and a global economic system which has relied on the Suez canal for transportation of manufactured goods and fossil fuels for energy. All of these factors have become political footballs by various parties who wish to impose their will on or, more recently, wash their hands of events in the Middle East. Like it or not, what happens in this region affects the entire world, and world leaders ignore this at their own peril.
2015 was the year that the threat of sectarian regional warfare become reality. Just this week a ceasefire has been preliminarily agreed to in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has announced that it plans to curtail its brutal bombing campaign there. Time will tell whether the fighting stops, but for almost exactly a year Saudi Arabia has been bombing Iranian-backed proxies, the Houthis, in Yemen while Iran was simultaneously engaged in open combat against Saudi-backed rebel groups in Syria. As the African proverb goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. While obviously “the grass” here could mean the innocent civilians in both places, it could just as easily mean the original conflicts themselves. The conflicts in Syria and Yemen did not start out as regional power struggles, nor were they destined to devolve into sectarianism. The very real bread and butter (and water) concerns of the citizens of both Yemen and Syria have been trampled by what has unfolded since.
Such is the state of the Middle East that some the region is increasingly divided along a Shia/Sunni axis. One has to wonder, then, if two simultaneous proxies wars are being fought in the region, could new fronts in this power struggle emerge? And how unlikely is open warfare? Should the crisis — driven by drought, political instability, economic woes, and imperial ambitions — get any worse, could there be a regional war in the crossroads of the planet?
Increasingly, a war-weary Western public and the politicians who prefer to be led by public opinion instead of leading it are disinterested in the crisis in the Middle East. Even the threat of a wider regional conflict does not seem to impact those who hold this opinion. In fact, if anything, such a threat seems to confirm to Western isolationists that the Middle East should be avoided at all costs. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg called “The Obama Doctrine,” President Obama himself expressed a cynicism toward the Middle East. Forget the terrorism, the regional power struggles… he’d rather be focused on areas of opportunity and optimism in other places in the world like Southeast Asia — or Cuba — than with the problems in the Middle East that defined his predecessor.
There are several glaring problems with this attitude. The most obvious is that ignoring the Middle East won’t make terrorism or regional conflict go away (if they did, the crisis in Syria would not have gotten this bad). There is plenty of analysis available arguing that by ignoring the crisis in Syria, the result is the rise of ISIS and the driving of millions of refugees from their homeland.
Bu the real danger, the one that is the most overlooked, is that a regional conflict in the Middle East could threaten the very system of alliances that has ensured regional stability in the modern era, and this vulnerability is already being exploited by those who are eager to use .
Russia Has Exploited A Critical Vulnerability In NATO
The importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — NATO — should not be overlooked. It may seem funny to contemporary readers, but the fact that NATO has guaranteed that no war has been fought between the great Western powers for the last 70 years will be a monumental change in global politics that will surely resonate with historians. NATO has also ensured that Western and Central Europe has been secured against outside imperial powers. Arguably its most important accomplishment, however, is that you are reading this — with the exception of a three-day period at the end of World War II, no nuclear weapon has been used in anger.
Since its creation, NATO has been stable, reliable, and as a result it has also remained untested. Outside forces, namely the Soviet Union, were confident in the consequences of attempting to attack any NATO member. Remember the optimistic assessment that the world is getting better? That improvement, which has largely happened outside of NATO’s direct control, can in part be traced back to the fact that large-scale multinational warfare has been avoided. Human beings have been free to focus on other, far more constructive activities, like curing cancer, fighting malaria, building schools and hospitals instead of bomb shelters and trenches.
NATO is not alone in providing this stability. The Soviet Union provided its own kind of stability, and in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, several former members of the Soviet bloc sought their own protections against the kind of warfare and power struggle that plagued pre-World War II Europe. The-two-and-a-half decades that have followed have been defined by economic progress and international cooperation — not by war — and this period of relative peace has been realized in most regions of the world, but particularly in Europe where there was not a single notable war between sovereign European powers.
Until Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula and then invaded eastern Ukraine.
No, Ukraine is not a NATO member, but Russia’s aggression has not stopped at the border of NATO territory. Russian jets and submarines have harassed or even penetrated NATO territory with alarming and historic frequency since the crisis began in Ukraine in February 2014. In September of 2014 Russian agents crossed into Estonian territory, NATO territory, and kidnapped Eston Kohver, an officer in the Estonian Internal Security Service who was investigating cross-border smuggling and organized crime. Kohver was accused of spying, though he was working on the Estonian side of the border, and he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was later returned to Estonia in a prisoner swap for a man who was an actual Russian spy. Alexander Litvinenko, a naturalized citizen of the UK, was assassinated in London, poisoned by polonium that could only have come from a single nuclear power plant in Russia, and a British inquiry has found that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself “probably approved” the order to kill him. NATO is indeed being tested by Russia, and there are no signs that Russia has been particularly deterred.
In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, mentioned earlier, Obama summed up his opinion of Ukraine succinctly: “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” This is, of course, obvious. But it is also problematic since Obama has clearly broadcast to Russia that NATO will not intervene in any fashion to protect countries that are outside of its alliance. What is stopping Russia, then, from rolling tanks further into Ukraine, or deeper into Georgia? What is stopping Putin from seizing control of Moldova — a country that is a member of a large number of international treaties, as Ukraine is and was, but is not a NATO member? Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under guarantee that it would be protected by Russia. What message does this send other non-NATO countries who might have nuclear weapons or is considering developing them? And since statements from this president infer that only NATO countries are protected by NATO, is that signaling to other countries, not just Russia, that now is the time to test their own imperial ambitions?
In fact, Obama’s statements which define his doctrine has been rebuked by two former US ambassadors to Ukraine, ambassadors who were appointed by two different American presidents from two different political parties, Steven Pifer (ambassador to Ukraine 1998-2000) and John Herbst (ambassador to Ukraine 2003-2006). The ambassadors write:
There are critical reasons for Washington to support Ukraine. The Kremlin is pursuing a revisionist policy designed to undermine the post–Cold War order established in Europe. Vladimir Putin claims a right and duty to intervene to protect ethnic Russians and speakers wherever they live and regardless of their citizenship. He used that as a justification to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. 25 percent of the populations of two NATO member states—Estonia and Latvia—are ethnic Russians. Recent Russian provocations in the Baltic states include kidnapping an Estonian counterintelligence official on the final day of the last NATO summit. Making Putin pay a heavy price for his aggression in Ukraine makes it less likely that he will commit further provocations in the Baltic states. Such provocations could lead to miscalculations and the war that President Obama wants to avoid.
Moreover, in 1994, the leaders of the United States, Britain and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which they committed to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine and pledged not to use force against those countries. That memorandum was key to Kyiv’s decision to give up nearly two thousand strategic nuclear warheads and the associated strategic missiles and bombers. This was a major victory for U.S. policy, and for nonproliferation. Moscow’s violation of this agreement is a strong disincentive for future nations to give up weapons of mass destruction. The Obama administration rarely mentions the Budapest Memorandum, but that memorandum answers the “why should we care?” question that Obama implied in his interview with Goldberg.
Valid points, but there are more problems with Obama’s positions on global security. Of course nobody wants to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, certainly not nuclear war, but would we defend its nearby NATO neighbors?
An assessment by the Rand think tank suggests that if Russia were to involve the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) there are not enough NATO troops to stop it from reaching the capitals of those countries. NATO would lose the war within 36 hours. This follows NATO’s own internal assessments in 2014 and 2015 that a much greater NATO presence is required in the Baltics and in Poland, and the defense spending of NATO allies besides the US needs to be increased. Putin, for his part, appears to believe this as well, if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is to be believed. This threat has not gone away, either. As a reader points out, last month Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski urged his NATO colleagues to build up a military presence in Eastern Europe since Russia has violated a key treaty — the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security — which was designed to avoid the militarization of the border between NATO and Russia. Waszczykowski argued that the treaty discriminates against the easternmost NATO allies that are most in danger, something which Russia is already exploiting.
Imagine this scenario: Russia, claiming it is protecting ethnic Russians, or perhaps its own security interests, invades part or all of any of the four countries mentioned here. Without enough troops, armor, or airplanes to stop the invasion, Russia could conquer this territory with ease. Having then lost a significant amount of ground to the Russian military, NATO would then be forced to make a difficult choice — on one hand it could honor its NATO obligations and engage in all out war, which could spark a nuclear war, in order to regain lightly populated, distant, and strategically unimportant territory in Eastern Europe. On the other it could do nothing, effectively signalling that the NATO alliance is meaningless and imperial powers are free to invade wherever they want. In this scenario, the thing that has helped secure geopolitical stability for two generations will become an albatross around our necks, and the words “why would we go to war for Ukraine” will ring through the history books as a tremendous folly.
In short, even if they are true, perhaps obviously so, no commander-in-chief should ever rule out the use of armed force. Ironically, taking military options off the table, as demonstrated above, makes everyone — including our adversaries — less secure, since having force may mean that you’ll never have to use it.
To make things scarier, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and Putin has suggested that he would be willing to use tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey or elsewhere to defend Russian interests. Once, the launching, arming, or even maneuvering of nuclear weapons would be so provocative that it was avoided by all sides. But if Russia used its nuclear arsenal, in limited number, against Ukraine, or Georgia, or Poland, who is confident that the West would respond? The very notion of nuclear deterrence, for the first time since the creation of the first nuclear bombs, is called into question by the current geopolitical reality. And since so many respected analysts and Western politicians questioned whether Putin would even annex Crimea, can we really be so confident that Russian aggression will not spread?
Some might suggest that NATO has not been tested in these scenarios. President Obama himself might make the argument that Russia was attacking Ukraine, but under this same logic one might argue that the reason we have not seen similar Russian intervention in Estonia, for instance, is because a non-NATO country has stood up to Putin when NATO has not,
But there is another NATO ally which has been directly and indirectly impacted by the actions of the Russian military and its allies.
The current state of Turkey is an even more serious undermining of the NATO alliance.
Turkey, The Achilles Heel of the NATO alliance
In the early days of the protest movement in Syria, most of Syria’s neighbors were hesitant to take sides. Since nearly every Middle Eastern nation had to contend with its own “Arab Spring” protests to greater and lesser degrees, none of them were eager to either publicly support a protest movement for fear of encouraging the phenomenon, nor were they interested in championing the crackdown against a protest movement for fear of further angering their own populace. Of course, there has always been some tension between Syria’s Assad regime — run by a minority Alawi sect (a sect of Shia Islam) — and its Sunni neighbors who have resented Syria’s alliance with both Hezbollah and Iran.
The bottom line for most countries in the Middle East, including Israel, is that they value stability more than anything. Previous to 2011, each country in the region had learned to deal with regional tensions and power struggles, which is one reason why so many countries in that region fear, for example, an Iranian nuclear weapon — it would inject uncertainty and instability in a region that, while far from harmonious, has learned to avoid chaos.
But by late 2011 a crisis was brewing in Syria as Assad’s crackdown against domestic dissent turned from a police operation to a military one. By the end of the year, more and more of Assad’s soldiers were refusing to kill civilians and were defecting, the refugee crisis was beginning, and Syria’s neighbors began to panic. The Arab League scrambled to negotiate ceasefires with the Syrian regime — ceasefires which were immediately broken. Assad’s defectors began to capture entire cities. By early 2012 civil society was breaking down, lawlessness (though not yet terrorism) was beginning to settle in to some areas of the country, and Syria’s neighbors were warning their Western allies that the crisis could destabilize the region, and it should have been clear to everyone that Russia was playing a major role in fostering the instability and bloodshed.
In June 2012, one of Syria’s neighbors was signalling that they had had enough. After a series of heated statements and border incidents, on June 22 the Syrian regime shot down a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet on the Syrian border. Following this event, Turkey invoked Article 4 of the NATO treaty — signalling that it was under threat and requesting an emergency meeting of all NATO members. Though Article 4 is less potent than the more-famous Article 5, which requires all NATO allies to come to the aid of any other member that is under attack, Turkey was sending a strong message — what was happening in Syria was a national security threat, and one that required the fullest attention of its NATO allies.
Article 4 is rarely invoked. In fact, between NATO’s formation in 1949 and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Article 4 has never been invoked once. But as perhaps the best symbol of the times we live in, since 2003 the article has been invoked five times — four times by Turkey. Turkey invoked Article 4 in 2003 to ensure that it was protected from Saddam Hussein as the US mission in Iraq was underway. In 2012, Turkey invoked the article twice, and it again invoked Article 4 in 2015 as concerns about ISIS were mounting.
All of this is alarming for long-time NATO watchers. If Turkey, a NATO member, feels so under attack, but its pleas are being ignored, or worse, Turkey may even feel betrayed, then what message is that sending the rest of NATO? More importantly, what message is it sending Assad, or Russia, or China, or Iran, that a NATO ally can say it is under attack but the rest of the alliance does not take this threat seriously?
By conducting these hybrid wars in both Syria and Ukraine — the combination of traditional force with support for external proxies and propaganda campaigns — has allowed Russia to simultaneously use hard power to spread its influence and pose indirect or veiled threats to NATO while avoiding the more traditional invasions of the 20th century. This has allowed Putin to exploit the West’s reluctance to get involved in “yet another war in the Middle East” or a conflict involving non-NATO members.
Turkey’s tenuous position within NATO
All of this indicates that Turkey is in perhaps the most precarious strategic position of all NATO allies, as the nation that stands between the Middle East and Europe, but also a nation with close proximity — but no shared physical border — with both NATO and countries which have historically been NATO’s adversaries — Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah’s Lebanon. Thus, it is a NATO country that is both closer to danger and further away from aid.
But the distance between Turkey and the rest of NATO is not just about geography. The administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used force to put down domestic dissent, filtered the internet, engaged in highly-sectarian politics in its power struggles with the Kurds, and has a questionable and complicated relationship with ISIS, a group that has conducted attacks against the state in Turkey while simultaneously receiving some support from across the Turkish border.
At the same time, Turkey’s geographical position is the very reason why it is an important ally. During the Cold War, Turkey was a vanguard against the Soviet Union, defending then as it does not the Bosphorus Straits — the thin separation between Europe and the Near East which feeds the Black Sea into the Aegean and Mediterranean. Turkey has also been in a unique position for intelligence-gathering purposes, and its territory can and has served as a land base for NATO in perhaps the world’s most volatile region. And certainly the Turkey that joined NATO in 1952 was secular, pro-Western, and less sectarian than it is today, but it remains in the alliance none the less.
But with nearly every passing day, Turkey’s position within the alliance becomes even less tenable. On March 13, a suicide bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara killed 37 people and wounded scores more. Turkey blamed the attacks of the Kurdish PKK and conducted a series of airstrikes in retaliation. One March 22 an offshoot of the PKK took credit for the attack in “the heart” of Turkey.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States, and terrorist attacks against Turkey launched by PKK groups is not a new phenomenon. What is new, though, is that the United States is openly supporting a PKK offshoot, the YPG, in Syria. A NATO ally is allied with a group that is conducting suicide bombings against a NATO capital.
The YPG is also a de facto ally of the Assad regime. Earlier this year, at the same time that the US was helping the YPG launch attacks against ISIS in northeastern Syria, in northwestern Syria the Russian bombing campaign and a coalition of ground troops composed of fighters and equipment from Iran, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and Russian artillery and tanks were pounding anti-Assad rebel groups — groups that are backed by the US, Turkey, and various Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia. While pro-Western rebels were losing ground, YPG forces were launching their own offensives to take advantage of the weakened rebel groups. At one point, American-manufactured anti-tank missiles and equipment were being used by both anti-Assad rebels and the YPG who were fighting each other. As Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio wrote in late February, “America Is In A Proxy War With Itself In Syria.”
The confusion is playing out on the battlefield — with the U.S. effectively engaged in a proxy war with itself. “It’s very strange, and I cannot understand it,” said Ahmed Othman, the commander of the U.S.-backed rebel battalion Furqa al-Sultan Murad, who said he had come under attack from U.S.-backed Kurdish militants in Aleppo this week.
Furqa al-Sultan Murad receives weapons from the U.S. and its allies as part of a covert program, overseen by the CIA, that aids rebel groups struggling to overthrow the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, according to rebel officials and analysts tracking the conflict.
The Kurdish militants, on the other hand, receive weapons and support from the Pentagon as part of U.S. efforts to fight ISIS. Known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, they are the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s strategy against the extremists in Syria and coordinate regularly with U.S. airstrikes.
Yet as Assad and his Russian allies have routed rebels around Aleppo in recent weeks — rolling back Islamist factions and moderate U.S. allies alike, as aid groups warn of a humanitarian catastrophe — the YPG has seized the opportunity to take ground from these groups, too.
As Giglio wrote on February 20, before the PKK attack on Ankara, this alliance has put significant strain on Turkey’s relationship with the United States as the Obama administration has failed to denote the YPG as a terrorist organization:
The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, the insurgent force warring with the Turkish government in the country’s restive southeast. Both Washington and Ankara list the PKK as a terror group. Yet to Turkey’s increasing anger, the U.S. has sought to differentiate between the PKK and the YPG, promoting the latter as a key partner. In late January, Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, paid a visit to the YPG in the Syrian town of Kobane, which U.S. airstrikes had helped the group defend from ISIS last year.
So not only is the US in a proxy war with itself in Syria, it’s also in a proxy war with its own NATO ally.
To make matters worse, Syrian experts have warned that the YPG rebels might be too weak to be a viable force in Syria without direct US support. On February 28, Syrian journalist and renowned ISIS expert Hassan Hassan warned that the US should choose its allies carefully in Syria:
The YPG’s victories against ISIL – in Kobani, Tal Abyad and southern Hasaka – were made possible largely because of intensive US firepower. According to military sources, the YPG lacks the capacity to defeat ISIL without close US air support. One source said that American air strikes account for “more than 90 per cent” of the ISIL defeats in those battles.
This is important if one contrasts the YPG with other forces in northern Syria that have defeated ISIL or repulsed its assaults for more than two years without any air support. Those forces would typically be fighting on two fronts at the same time. Rebel forces in Idlib, for instance, have kept the province free from ISIL despite repeated attempts to infiltrate it since 2014 – including at the peak of ISIL’s strength and morale after it defeated the Iraqi army in Mosul.
If the YPG could not alone defend Tal Abyad – which it seized eight months ago from a group that now operates tens of kilometers away from the city – that bodes ill for the current effort to uproot the organisation in Syria.
How long can the US air force serve as the brawn for the supposedly most formidable anti-ISIL force? With growing tensions between the YPG and the rebels on one hand, and the YPG and Turkey on the other, the US should rethink its approach to its overreliance on the YPG to combat ISIL, while continuing to support it in other ways.
In other words, the Obama Administration’s strategy in Syria might be shredding the NATO alliance, it might be doing so to support a group that could crumble without direct US military support at the expense of the support of more viable fighting groups, and at the expense of other non-NATO regional alliances.
Turkey has clearly become more problematic over recent years as the Erdogan administration is unquestionably and increasingly autocratic and repressive, a process which started years ago. But one has to look at the immense pressures under which the Turkish government operates, many of them related to the crisis in Syria, and wonder if Erdogan’s worst behaviors could have been curtailed if the US strategy in Syria was more effective, and more respectful of the NATO alliance. Like it or not, Turkey is under attack — by ISIS, by the PKK, by the refugees fleeing the Assad and Russian bombing campaigns across the border, and on occasion by Russian planes which have strayed across the border and by the Assad regime which has conducted attacks against the Turkish military.
The unseen threat to global security
If the situation in Ukraine undermined the credibility of NATO deterrence, the situation in Syria could break the alliance’s back. In any scenario, this would have far-reaching implications for global security. But in this situation it is a would-be superpower that is exploiting the vulnerabilities of the NATO alliance in order to tip the geopolitical balance. NATO was designed to ensure that the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries could never again be waged, that imperial powers could not threaten global stability, and that nuclear weapons were never used in anger. Russia does not need a healthy economy or a military on par with NATO’s in order to undermine global stability. Furthermore, the fractures within long-standing alliances and the faltering of NATO have helped make conflicts both within NATO’s sphere of influence and beyond even more likely.
As a result, the world might be a better place today than it was yesterday, but it is not a safer one.