As each day passes the danger of the Syrian crisis triggering a broader, general war increases. Overnight we could find ourselves standing on the brink of a direct confrontation between Russian/Iranian forces and Israeli/American troops. This would not be a brush-fire conflict from which we could disengage at will. This would be conventional combat that might quickly spread well beyond Syria and transform into a worldwide exchange of fire.
Avoiding this possibility, which no one wants, will require clarity, forethought and decisive action. Continued piecemeal reactions to specific events cannot continue. Drift and indecision will ensure only one thing: that we are behind the curve. We cannot remain in the mode of responding to stimuli. We need to chart the course and shape the strategic situation.
The first step is to establish a clear goal which can only be the removal of Assad from power and the creation of a new government of reconciliation in Syria. Anything less can not hope to end the slaughter or bring this conflict to an end. Anything less means a continued black hole in the heart of the Middle East that destabilizes every nation around it. We must demand an intact Syria, representative of all its people and free of outside forces.
Then to turn that dream into a reality we need to proceed on two tracks.
The first track, which is a precondition for the second, is to change the strategic calculus for Iran and Russia and place both of these nations, which are responsible for keeping Assad's house of horrors in business, in the position of recognizing that the cost of continued meddling in Syria has just increased exponentially. This track will also include measures designed to interdict supplies currently being pumped into Assad's Syria from both Iran and Russia:
- Communicate clearly, consistently and repeatedly to the Russians that their actions mean a new Cold War and remind them that we won the first one. The only things that have changed significantly since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been in our favor. A new Cold War means Putin is now engaged worldwide in a contest with a nation whose economy dwarfs his almost ten-fold and that the new line of confrontation is not in the middle of Germany but 400 miles east on the Polish border with Belarus.
- Back up that communication with our actions within NATO and outside of the framework of that alliance. Make the Russians understand that there are consequences for their actions. If they want to interject themselves into the Syrian situation they should be prepared to face the music elsewhere. Reconsider every request the Ukrainians have ever made for military assistance and let the Russians know we are doing it.
- Take a hard look at sending US troops back to Europe. Expedite the entry of Finland into NATO.
- Attack the only real weapon the Russians have: energy. Sell American oil and natural gas to anyone who will take it and ship it abroad as fast as we can. Make Russian threats to turn off natural gas pipelines to European nations meaningless.
- Lean on the Turks. Let them know that it is time for them to make a clear choice between their historic ties to the United States and NATO and their seeming dalliance with their traditional enemies the Russians. Make the price of continued alliance with the United States the closure of the Bosphorus and Turkish airspace to all ships and flights carrying anything to Assad's Syria.
- Abandon our hapless policy of pretending that we can manage Iranian interference in Iraq. Stop playing games with Abadi and acting like he is doing enough. Iraqi Shia militia need to get out of Syria. Iraq needs to close its airspace and its territory to any flights or shipments from Iran to Syria. Strangle Assad.
- Resuscitate our relationships with friendly Sunni Arab nations and rejuvenate our military cooperation with them, letting the Iranians know that the price of their adventurism is the return of the containment policy we never should have abandoned.
- Give notice that we are withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, perhaps the greatest foreign policy disaster in our history. Rebuild the sanctions regime. Shut down the faux-airlines the Iranians use to move terror around the globe. Throttle the regime.
- Don't look away the next time there is a popular movement for regime change - pour fuel on the fire.
Once we have successfully shaped the strategic situation, it will be time for the second track, an international effort to bring the conflict to an end and replace the Assad regime:
- Take the Syrian matter to the United Nations with a demand for an immediate ceasefire, the installation of United Nations peacekeeping forces and selection of representatives from the warring factions to attend a peace conference. The objectives of that conference will be to establish a process by the which Assad will leave power, create a new constitution and, ultimately, hold elections in a new federal Syria.
- Bring in peacekeeping troops from other Middle Eastern nations, under United Nations mandate, to take the place of all foreign troops, Russian, Iranian and American, who will withdraw.
- Let the process work and be prepared to be patient.
Such an approach will not produce results overnight. In all likelihood if we start down this road today we will be fortunate to see Assad gone and a new Syrian government in place in less than several years. Ultimately, though, it will produce a more stable and predictable situation.
More immediately, what it will do is to make clear to the Russians, the Iranians and their henchmen that the cost of playing in Syria just increased dramatically. They will no longer be able to meddle in Syria in the interest of causing pain to the United States and Israel without paying a huge price elsewhere. For Putin it will be a very direct reminder, the only kind he understands, that he is the ruler of a "Bulgaria with nuclear weapons", a rump Russian state that barely survived its last confrontation with the world's most powerful nation. For Tehran it will be a clear signal that we have abandoned any pretense of coexistence and that we are ultimately committed to regime change.
The Russians and the Iranians may have found it somehow satisfying to play at confounding our foreign policy in the Middle East via their efforts on the ground in Syria. Let's find out how satisfying it seems to them when they begin to pay the price.