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Why The Crisis in Ukraine Will Determine What Happens in Syria

Published: April 12, 2014 (Issue # 1805)


Twice in the last six months, Russia has managed to divert attention from what had previously been the central focus of international relations: the conflict in Syria. The first time was in September, when Russia averted a U.S. military strike against Syrian forces by proposing that Syrian President Bashar Assad instead eliminate all of his country's chemical weapons. That effectively shifted the world's attention from the country's ongoing and bloody civil war to the goal of "depriving Damascus of its chemical weapons arsenal." It also bought Assad time to gather strength, receive additional fighters and weapons from Hezbollah and launch a large-scale offensive against insurgents across the country. The second diversion occurred when Russia's actions in Ukraine altered the global security picture and pushed the Syrian conflict into the background.

Now, global players are most concerned about the unexpected appearance of a "European front" in Ukraine, where NATO and Russian interests come into conflict and their military forces stand at only a short remove from each other. That situation is of far greater importance for the world than what is happening in distant Syria.

Although these conflicts might appear unrelated at first glance, they have emerged as a result of several common factors. These include the desire of Russian leaders to counteract the Tahrir Square and Maidan-style uprisings that have toppled legitimately elected leaders and to assert a "new role for Russia that the West cannot ignore," their geopolitical interest in maintaining Russia's presence at its Black Sea port in Sevastopol and its Mediterranean Sea port in Tartus, Syria, and the desire to mobilize and consolidate President Vladimir Putin's electorate at home. Putin's foreign policy "success" in fending off a U.S. bombing of Syria might have won him a dozen or so popularity points with voters, but the annexation of Crimea unleashed a flood of patriotic fervor that, with the help of state-controlled media, boosted his ratings to record highs and effectively drowned out all voices of protest.

Two others factors connected with Russia's stance on Syria have also played an important role in its approach to Ukraine. First, Moscow positioned itself as a "peacekeeper" in Syria, helping the "legitimate regime fight Islamist terrorists" — a role for which Putin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Kremlin then expanded on that idea by claiming a desire to "save the Russian-speaking citizens of Crimea" — and possibly those in southern and eastern Ukraine as well — from the "pro-fascist forces that illegally seized power in Kiev." Of course, the means Moscow employed in Ukraine differed somewhat from those it used in Syria.

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