No one in the Middle East will be studying Ukraine’s violent tragedy with more fascination – and deeper concern – than President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
He won’t care a fig about Obama’s critics – who are already chastising the US President for giving Vladimir Putin the green light to support the Ukrainian President by flunking his threat to bomb Damascus last year – nor will Assad care very much about the future political career of Viktor Yanukovych, whom he happens to know well.
He will instead be dwelling upon the remarkable similarities between Yanukovych’s besieged government and his own Syrian regime, which is still battling an armed struggle against insurgents. The parallels are by no means exact, as Assad’s enemies claim them to be when they suggest that he and Yanukovych are “blood brothers”. But they are close enough to persuade the Syrian President and his Talleyrand – the Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem – to study the degree of support Putin gives to his ally in Kiev.
Without Russian and Iranian support, Assad could scarcely have survived the past three years of war in Syria. Nor could Yanukovych, without Moscow’s “brotherly” friendship, have withstood opposition forces – and the EU’s flirtation with Ukraine – as long as he has. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been using almost the same words of irritation and anger towards the US over Ukraine as he did towards America when it was threatening to bomb Syria. If Ukraine constitutes Russia’s eastern defensive wall against Europe, Syria – fighting against Islamist rebels every bit as ruthless as Putin has faced in Chechnya – is part of Moscow’s southern flank.
There are other, more intriguing comparisons. The initial Syrian opposition to Assad – following revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt – was peaceful, although armed men did occasionally appear even in the early days of the revolt. Then military deserters formed an armed opposition that was swiftly taken over by radicals more interested in replacing Assad with a caliphate than the “free Syria” which the opposition originally demanded. So, too, in Kiev: Yanukovych’s opponents found themselves, after several weeks, uneasily linked to small, right-wing, neo-Nazi groups who had – in the eyes of their enemies – more in common with the Ukrainian fascists who helped the Germans in the Second World War than with the Soviet resistance to Nazi occupation.
Just as Assad’s first opponents were idolised by the West – and its media – as freedom fighters, so were the Ukrainian opposition regarded as anti-regime rather than anti-constitutional by the same powers and their newspapers. Once Syria’s unrest became weaponised on both sides, the West and its Arab allies sent military equipment to Assad’s enemies. There is no evidence that the West has done the same for Yanukovych’s opponents, some of whom are now also armed, but be sure it is only a matter of time before the Russians claim that they have.
There are differences, of course. Yanukovych was elected in a rather more convincing poll than Assad. Ukraine is not ethnically divided: Catholicism and Christian Orthodoxy outline the internal borders, although the Catholic/Croat-Serb/Orthodox civil war in ex-Yugoslavia does not suggest a happy outcome to Ukraine’s suffering. Syria’s war has created areas of conflict in which Sunnis are largely fighting Shia Alawites, Christians, Druze and others, along with middle-class Sunnis and Sunni army officers who support the government.
There have, of course, long been contacts between Syria and the Ukraine. Just before the revolution in Syria, Assad visited Kiev, signed a free trade agreement and heard Yanukovych praise his country as Ukraine’s “gateway to the Middle East”. There are closer ties: the large number of Syrian students who have been attending Ukrainian universities and the larger number of Ukrainian citizens born to Syrian and Soviet parents before the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. The older Syrian generals also know Kiev well from their early training in Soviet military schools.
But the real question for Syria is this: will Putin be able to support Yanukovych if US and EU pressure continues to build? Is the survival of Yanukovych worth a new Cold War? If it is, Assad is safe: the Russians will not abandon Syria since this would demonstrate how easily they might turn their backs on “Russian” Ukraine. But what if the US offered Putin carte blanche in the Ukraine in return for his abandonment of the Assad regime? Obama could once more make his fraudulent claim that it was American military threats – rather than Russian mediation – that forced Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to the UN. And insist that Assad must bow to the transitional government which the Americans and British and other EU nations have been trying to foist upon his regime at Geneva.
Assad, however, is a survivor. His Baath party was schooled in self-preservation by Putin’s predecessors. Assad may understand Yanukovych; yet he knows Putin better. Not for nothing do the Egyptians admiringly call the Russian leader “the fox”. That’s why Putin has sent his personal mediator to Kiev. Washing its hands of Damascus would do incalculable harm to Moscow’s standing in the “new” Middle East. The Syrians realise Russia is big enough to fight on two fronts. So Putin will probably just have to go on struggling for his allies – before Ukraine turns as bloody as Syria – in the hope that Obama will turn out to be as sanctimonious – and toothless – in Kiev, as he was over Damascus.