The political crisis in Ukraine is provoking diplomatic rows internationally, yet it is hardly capturing the attention of President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, who has plenty to be alarmed with at home. But should Assad worry about the fate of President Viktor F. Yanukovych of far-away Ukraine? Oddly enough, the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis could work either for or against Assad.
Underlying the current Cold War-flavored tensions in Ukraine are two antagonistic strategic and cultural visions: the pro-Russian and the pro-European. The protests erupted when Yanukovych backed away from a pledge to sign political and free-trade agreements with the EU. He would not have done it with without Russian sponsorship, translated, among other things, into a 15 billion dollar bailout last December, which Russia has in the meantime suspended over the uncertainty surrounding Yanukovych.
Anti-dissent legislation issued by the Ukrainian government in early January led to a renewed wave of massive protests. Neither the parliament’s vote to abolish that legislation nor the prime minister’s resignation did much to placate the political opposition’s intention to call for presidential elections. There is even increasing talk about the possibility of a civil war.
The angry rhetoric of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, characterizing the EU’s efforts to convince Ukraine to sign a free trade deal as “blackmail,” is indicative enough of how much Russia scorns the idea of a Western ally in power in a key country in its own backyard. Only last Thursday, an adviser to Putin on Ukraine accused the US of “unilaterally and crudely interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs.”
In the height of the Cold War, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Syria was a preferred Arab client state for the Soviet Union. Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, visited Moscow in 1971, soon after he seized power in a military coup, strengthening the economic and military ties between both states.
Under the leadership of President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union diversified diplomatic relations with other Middle Eastern states (including Israel), and most Russian aid to Syria was cut with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet some important elements of the relationship remained, including the Russian naval presence in the Syrian port of Tartus.
In January 2005, Bashar Al-Assad—then under Western pressure over Lebanon—met Putin in Moscow. Both leaders pledged to renew Cold War-era ties, and Russia wrote off 13.4 billion dollars of Syria’s debt: more than 70 percent of the overall Syrian debt to Russia.
Putin calls the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Although he is nostalgic for the Cold War era, he is well aware that the days when the Soviet Union could, or thought it could, challenge America’s interests in virtually all corners of the globe belong to the past. The Middle East, in Russia’s perspective, is no longer an arena of direct superpower competition. As Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Washington Post, “Russia is not involved in the geopolitics of the Middle East the way the Soviet Union was, so Syria’s not important as a foothold in geopolitical terms.”
Russian experts seem to agree that Russia today wants above all to remain relevant, preserve an image of global influence, and counterbalance American power—especially in the UN Security Council—without getting into armed conflicts over those goals. It seeks to uphold a world order in which liberal, pro-human rights and interventionist agendas do not supplant state sovereignty. Cynically, Russia makes exceptions when it decides it needs to meddle in its neighbors’ affairs.
Russia has specific interests in Syria. The Syrian government remains an important recipient of Russian arms and Russia continues to use Tartus’s naval resupply facility. There are also Russian concerns about the wave of jihadism in Syria, which brings back the ghosts of Chechnya and the fears that it might affect Russia’s war against radical Islamists in Dagestan. Yet none of these interests are vital enough for Russia to define Assad’s hold on power as a crucial foreign policy goal.
Iran, not Russia, is Assad’s key patron and supporter. However, it is evident that Russia’s position is not irrelevant to the outcome of the Syrian crisis. Russia accepted the 2012 Geneva Communiqué that calls for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria on the basis of mutual consent. It played a pivotal role in the agreement for the slow but ongoing removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. It has also sided with China in blocking most UN Security Council resolutions that could give the West a mandate to act more decisively against the Syrian government.
So what can the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis mean for Assad and Russia’s position on the Syrian crisis? There are at least two scenarios. The support from the EU and the US for the opposition in Ukraine will put Russian diplomacy on edge, and thus possibly make it more intransigent in its position on Syria. Serious tensions between the West and Russia will be inevitable if Yanukovych loses the battle with the opposition and is replaced by a pro-Western government. Assad would benefit.
If strong Russian backing helps Yanukovych fend off the opposition’s attempts to remove him and thus remains Ukraine’s strongman, or if he is simply replaced by another pro-Russian hardliner, that could work against Assad. More comfortable where it matters most, Russian diplomacy might then be more amenable to the idea of a transitional government in Syria without Assad, provided it receives guarantees about its basic interests in the Levant. The recent visit to Moscow by Ahmed Jarba, the leader of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition, can be interpreted as an indication of that.