Why Crimea won’t soften Moscow’s stance on Syria

The recent focus on Ukraine’s meltdown brought out a lot of analysis on how events in the broken country may affect the Kremlin’s foreign policy on Syria. Many pundits argued that there would not be much of a change. That assertion may be a bit premature: the temperature throughout the region appears to be reaching the boiling point.

The events in Ukraine, especially the escalating situation in Crimea, are challenging the Kremlin at a critical juncture between Moscow and Damascus. As we know, Moscow argues that Syria is an integral part of the Kremlin's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Commentators are maintaining that events in Ukraine are likely to force changes in Russia's strategic outlook thus making the Kremlin either more assertive on the Syrian question or perhaps dropping Damascus in terms of importance because of the strategic distraction of Ukraine.

Some would argue that Crimea is a strategic distraction for Russia from the Kremlin’s Middle East policy; it’s not. Those thinking that Russia is diverted will likely find the Kremlin acting out, challenging conventional wisdom and policy-planning that we all thought were fairly solid up until a week ago.

One who believes that Russian cannot handle multiple regional crises at once is going to be sadly mistaken

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a man of his word when it comes to Syria. If pundits think Moscow will toss Syria aside that would be a mistake. In fact, Russian foreign policy is likely to go into overdrive. One who believes that Russia cannot handle multiple regional crises at once is going to be sadly mistaken.

For Russian security policy, make no mistake that the Kremlin has for decades had a “what if” plan for Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. And Moscow is moving quickly, inserting troops into Crimea, drawing the ire of the West. There is talk already of U.S. President Obama not attending the G8 in June 2014 in Moscow. But the Kremlin is not stupid; the Kremlin is prepared for multiple contingencies of various degrees. So make no mistake that Putin is ready to strike out in all directions, especially in the core of the Middle East through diplomatic jolts.

Some would argue that the events in Crimea and the rest of Ukraine must be making Syria a bit nervous about receiving the necessary attention from Moscow. With certainty, Assad’s patron to the North will continue to arm the regime, keep the Russian advisors on the ground, perhaps delay implementation of the chemical weapons extraction, and sustain its support of Assad in order to delay and degrade the Geneva process.

As the world watches events in Ukraine, extremists know to take advantage of the situation by launching more attacks against governments, infrastructure, and individuals.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

When discussing strategic distraction, one should also keep in mind that while the Ukraine issue unfolds, Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt and Iraq will continue to fight extremists. And as the world watches events in Ukraine, extremists know to take advantage of the situation by launching more attacks against governments, infrastructure, and individuals. A key question is whether these extremists will see any opportunity to support their “Muslim brothers” on the Crimean peninsula, the Tatars. The Tatars faced the same type of history as other Muslim minorities in the Northern Caucasus including deportation. In the past decade, Russia, and various Ukrainian politicians have used the excuse that al-Qaeda was trying to break into the Tatar community to infiltrate the peninsula and bring jihad. These false rumors of the past may become true in the near future. Syrian extremists, who are against Assad, may see a new opportunity to spread their chaos. These jihadis are looking for a new fight anywhere and Crimea and Russia may be their next targets. We need to be watching their discourse carefully for “support for the Crimean Tatar brothers.”

The next few weeks are likely to be filled with tension and diplomatic confrontations. We will all be watching for signals from Putin, from the Russian Foreign Ministry, and from the Russian Defense Ministry, on both the Ukrainian front and the Syrian problem. The most important point is to look at the trans-regional linkages between Russia’s intervention in Crimea, and the impact on Syria’s immediate future because these two foreign policy crises are now intertwined. Suddenly, the spring of 2014 is turning out to be very nasty.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
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