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The Ukraine crisis: A Middle East perspective

Is there a link between Syria and Ukraine conflicts?

Last updated: 08 Mar 2014 12:26
Marwan Kabalan

Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer. He holds a PhD degree in International Relations. He is an Associate Political Analyst at the Doha Institute.
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As far as Syria is concerned, the Ukrainian crisis is unlikely to have direct impact on the policies and behaviour of the international powers involved in the Syrian conflict, argues Kabalan [AFP]

The possible impact of the Ukraine crisis on the Syrian conflict was a topic widely discussed recently among a number of Middle East analysts and scholars. The argument would usually start by making the point that the Ukrainian crisis, particularly the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine by Russia, may have already started a new Cold War between the West and Moscow.


How the Ukraine conflict affects Syria

Cold War politics would entail, the argument goes, that a war by proxy will ensue in different parts of the world between Russia and its Western rivals, and that will - most probably - lead to further Western involvement in the Syrian crisis. While the increasingly tense Russian-West relationship justifies making a link between the Syrian and Ukrainian crises, this argument, as it stands, contributes to making the picture even more confusing by laying several inaccurate claims.

First, a Cold War in the sense that existed between the two superpowers - the US and the USSR (1946 -1989) - is unlikely to be replayed mainly because there is no strategic parity to allow this to happen. The Soviet Union no longer exists; communism has become history; and Russia does not have the potential to retain its former superpower status.

Limits of Russian power

The best that Russia would - and could - do under Vladimir Putin is to try to re-establish itself as a regional power. After all, Russia's main export commodity is oil and gas, making it more or less a "rentier" state. The Ukraine crisis has - in fact - shown the limits of Russian power. Moscow, which lost Ukraine to the West, has been in fact trying to compensate its loss by taking control of part of it, that is the Crimean Peninsula.

Second, neither the US nor the EU is in a position to re-start a new Cold War against Russia. Both appear willing to let Putin get away with the Crimean Peninsula, provided that Russia does not take any further action against Ukraine. Europe, particularly Germany, is highly dependent on Russian gas, without which its vast industrial hub could be simply brought to a halt.

The more efforts the Europeans exert to break free from Moscow's energy blackmailing, the more the Russians will try to prevent that from happening, including increasing their support for al-Assad in Syria. In this case the Ukrainian crisis would just result in the reverse effect on Syria, i.e. hardening Moscow's position.

The Obama administration, notwithstanding the rhetoric, is even less interested in having a confrontation with Russia. Obama views Ukraine as a European problem, wherein the US does not have much at stake. According to his foreign policy doctrine, the US will not get directly involved abroad unless an intrinsic US interest is at great danger. Ukraine does not meet that condition.

In addition, Obama views China, not Russia, as the greatest challenge to US military and economic power. Hence, the focus is on the Pacific, not Europe. Obama might be upset by Putin's decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the details of the global US surveillance operations, or by not putting enough pressure on Bashar al-Assad to compromise, but that does not provide big enough reason for Obama to confront Russia.

The past five years have demonstrated that the US president does not have any ethical dimension for his foreign policy - Syria is one example - let alone the question of intervening to uphold the principle of non-aggression against a sovereign state.

The Middle East perspective

As far as Syria was concerned, the Ukrainian crisis is unlikely to have direct impact on the policies and behaviour of the international powers involved in the Syrian conflict. The reason for this simply being that the settings which have defined the positions of these powers in Syria have not fundamentally changed.

Inside Syria - What is the best way forward for Syria?

The US is still skeptical about the anti-Assad armed factions, and despite the rhetoric that followed the failure of the Geneva II talks, Obama remains reluctant to supply the Syrian opposition with more lethal aid, i.e. Man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS).

In fact, the US appears to be more concerned with the ideological outlook of sections of the armed Syrian opposition groups than with al-Assad regime's heinous crimes, or with rolling back Iran's regional influence or even challenging Moscow's new assertiveness.

As a matter of fact, the US and Russia have already identified common interests in Syria - combating Islamist groups, preserving state institutions, particularly the army and the security apparatuses, preventing the overthrow of the regime by force and keeping a secular elite in power in Damascus.

The differences between them appear to be more about the means rather than the ends. Having said that, one should question then how would the Russian move in the Crimean Peninsula make the US decide to take revenge in Syria - as the logic of the Cold War entails?

Even if we assumed that the US would overcome its fears - concerning the armed Syrian opposition groups and the ramifications the collapse of al-Assad regime would have on the security of Israel - and opt for a military solution to the Syrian conflict, the question going forward is; how that would affect Russia's position on Ukraine. From an economic, political and geo-strategic point of view, Syria is much less important for Russia than Ukraine, which Russia views as intrinsically linked to its own national security.

Other pressing questions are; how would further US involvement in Syria increase the pressure on Putin to back off in Ukraine? How would pressure on a less important issue lead to concession on a much more important one?

Indeed, the Ukraine crisis is likely to increase the pressure on the EU to secure gas from other sources including via Turkey. As Aron Lund, an expert on Syria, argues in his recent Carnegie Endowment piece "The Ukraine Conflict and Syria": "The long-term effects will be felt as far away as in Qatar and Iran, two major gas producers. And of course, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran are all intimately involved with the Syrian war".

This argument is plausible. This, however, would then make Moscow even more intransigent on Syria. Energy is Moscow's most effective leverage on Europe, and it would hence do whatever it takes in order to prevent any attempt to undermine its monopoly of energy supplies to the European continent.

Hence, the more efforts the Europeans exert to break free from Moscow's energy blackmailing, the more the Russians will try to prevent that from happening, including increasing their support for al-Assad in Syria. In this case the Ukrainian crisis would just result in the reverse effect on Syria, i.e. hardening Moscow's position.

This should make Lund's final conclusion that: "Leaders in Moscow, Brussels, Berlin, and Washington may well end up using their political leverage in Syria as a bargaining chip to gain concessions where they think it really matters - that is, in Ukraine", even less relevant in the context of the ongoing arm-twisting between Russia and the West.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer. He holds a PhD in International Relations. He was the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the Kalamoon University in Damascus, Syria, until November 2012. Dr Kabalan worked on International Political Theory at the University of Manchester, UK and at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Damascus University. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on Syria and the Middle East.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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