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The Ukrainian crisis - all roads lead through Damascus

February 22, 2022 at 3:26 pm

A photo shows Russian troops entering in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in Syria’s southern province of Daraa, Syria on September 01, 2021 [Yasser Alhatib / Anadolu Agency]

As the situation in Ukraine reaches high-noon, and a Russian invasion seems imminent, it is worth taking stock and reflecting how we got here. A Russian incursion into Ukraine cannot be separated from Putin’s actions in Syria over the last decade or so. The two States, whilst not geographically, politically or culturally close, share the same problematic threat: Russia. And, whilst Syria, under Assad, willingly gives up control to his Russian masters, Russia faces resistance from the Ukrainian government.

Putin has essentially been given the green light to act as he pleases in Syria in recent years. The success of this has, no doubt, set the tone for more aggressive posturing, including Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the imminent Ukrainian invasion. History teaches us that the appeasement of authoritarians never ends well. “Enough” is not a word they are familiar with, and there will always be a greater craving for more power, control and territory. Putin has grown in strength and impunity in recent years and his actions in interfering in the 2016 US elections and the Skripal poisoning in the UK, where little was eventually done, provided him with succour.

Ukraine is in a sorry state, but the tragedy is that this was avoidable. The appeasement of Putin was always a disaster waiting to happen. And whilst the Ukrainian government – unlike the Syrian opposition – is being given some military assistance when the invasion goes ahead, it will count for little. The talk of Western states is cheap; the Syrian people can attest to that.  Back in 2012, the “Friends of Syria” group was formed by states which would describe themselves as backers of the Syrian uprising but, ultimately, did nothing to materially help the Syrian people.  Ukraine would do well to see past the folly of these states. When Russia does invade, the Ukrainian people will be left to fend for themselves.

The playbook that Putin has taken in Ukraine in styling himself as a defender for Russian speakers and followers of the Russian Orthodox Church in eastern Ukraine is not dissimilar to that in which he has pushed Assad to play in Syria with Alawites and other minorities.  Divide and conquer is a long established authoritarian tactic and, unfortunately, tends to be successful.

It is ironic that Putin is seeking reassurances that NATO does not expand into Ukraine and set up a military base whilst, at the same time, he has a military base in Tartus, Syria, a few hundred kilometres from the NATO Incirlik airbase in Turkey. The Cold War idea of spheres of influence still seems to impact Putin’s thinking and, through his aggressive posturing, he seems determined to go one better and actually start a war.

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It is unfortunate that Putin’s actions are not just dismissed, but even defended by some. The horrors of the Russian intervention in Syria and the war crimes committed – with hospitals repeatedly and intentionally attacked – should be enough to prove that it is not a benevolent global actor, and it is no way better than the US. But Putin’s lies are easy to swallow, and his famous open letter in the New York Times in September 2013 was a propaganda coup. Millions fell for his rhetoric and believed his statements on defending the importance of international law.  Putin would do well to follow his own advice here; any incursion into Ukraine would be a blatant breach of international law. Action against Ukraine has not been endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Furthermore, there is considerable evidence of Russia encouraging separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine of conducting false flag operations as a pretext to taking action, claiming “self-defence”.  Putin is supporting and recognising a couple of newly formed states that have separated from Ukraine and is justifying his invasion after the newly-formed puppet separatist regime “invites” him to invade the rest of the mainland. Whilst they are self-declared “independent” republics, in reality, they are nothing more than Russian client territories, wholly reliant on the Kremlin for support. The internationally binding Minsk agreements have been ignored, and Russian recognition of these states is akin to annexation. Putin is trying to be seen to be following international law and keeping up this veneer. He still defends his invasion of Syria as answering a formal request of help by the war criminal, Assad. Putin’s ploys should not fool the international community.

Sanctions are often mentioned, but it is a stretch to think that their threat will completely paralyse Putin. A whole host of sanctions have been implemented against a number of groups and entities in Russia since 2014, but they have clearly not had the intended impact. What would sanctions do when an invasion is launched?  Russia responds to the threat of increased sanctions by increasing its gas prices, and EU member states panic and send their foreign ministers to lobby Putin to back down. It is a shame that, as Syrian hospitals were being targeted, the reaction was not the same. Does this prove that what the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defence told Congress was correct? He stated the US administration was in military and security negotiations with the Russians before they invaded Syria in September 2015 and this proves that the US and Western powers were never fully committed to opposing Assad.

Putin’s end game is not clear, but it is speculated that he is planning to use the Syrian and Ukrainian situations as part of a great settlement between Russia and the US and revert to the old Cold War modus operandi of sphere of influence, as mentioned above. Syria and Ukraine being geographically much closer to Russia than Western Europe fit Putin’s mould well.  But, as history tells us, in situations like these, it is always the people on the ground who are the last to know. Leaders are forced upon them. They never have a say, and they are left to live in fear of their oppressors. As the Syrian uprising is soon to enter its 12th year, the world still helplessly looks on, and the lessons that should have been learned in appeasing authoritarian regimes have clearly been ignored.

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