The Link Between Syria and Ukraine

March 24, 2016 The fact that the two conflicts have become intertwined is not a coincidence.

|March 24, 2016

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By George Friedman

Summary John Kerry is in Moscow for talks on Syria and Ukraine, as leaders explore a settlement in both countries. The Syrian and Ukrainian crises are more closely linked than they appear, it would seem.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow on Wednesday to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meeting was arranged after a phone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This followed the Russian decision to withdraw most of its force in Syria. At the time, it was reported that the Obama-Putin conversation concerned Syria and Ukraine.

In my mind, Syria and Ukraine have been linked from the beginning. The actions of nations can never be reduced to a single thread, but there are facts and logic pointing in this direction. The Russians embarrassed the United States in Syria. The United States had spoken of a red line in Syria that involved the use of chemical weapons. The Bashar al-Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons. Subsequently, the French and the British urged the United States to conduct airstrikes against chemical stockpiles. The United States was considering a joint attack, which the Russians vigorously opposed. When the British Parliament surprisingly voted against authorizing air action, the United States reconsidered an attack, and there was none.

Moscow used this to make it appear that the United States had been blocked from attacking Syria by the Russians. Putin wrote an editorial to that effect in the New York Times. Part of this was a matter of ego, but there were more serious considerations as well. The United States was appropriately concerned that a perception of U.S. weakness and Russian strength could affect dynamics from Central Europe to Iran. Putin was taking victory laps, even though there was no Russian victory, trying to generate this perception. The U.S. had to block him.

In my view, this affected U.S. behavior in Ukraine. There had been a long-standing commitment by the U.S. to support and even fund dissidents in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union so the U.S.’s support of Ukrainian rebels was not a new policy. But the United States also understood the importance of Ukraine to Russia. It understood that Putin was attempting to reposition Russia as a great power and was using the Middle East as a very public pressure point against the U.S. Pursuing an existing policy vigorously could hand the Russians a very public defeat, negating Syria’s effect.

The U.S. chose to pursue its policy more vigorously than before. The Russians bungled their strategy in Crimea, which ranged from not understanding the forces arrayed against the pro-Russian regime to an inability to create a strategy for protecting the regime. Their attempt at triggering an uprising in the east failed, and their “seizure” of Crimea was a formality, given their overwhelming strength there. While the Russians were reeling, the United States mounted a campaign sketching the Russians as aggressors and brushing aside the notion that Russia had fundamental interests in Ukraine. All this would likely have happened anyway, but it did not happen without an awareness of Russian behavior in Syria. The awareness contributed to decisions made by the U.S. in Ukraine.

Developments in Ukraine – plus the collapse of oil prices – reversed positions. Russia appeared weaker and had to establish its credibility. It deployed about 70 aircraft and support personnel to Syria. The decision was made in the context of a genuine Russian interest in Syria – protecting the Assad regime – but it was bound up with broader considerations. What made it a bold move was the complexity of the power projection and the fact the United States, which had overwhelming air superiority in the region, would be forced to resist. Yet, as the Russians knew, they couldn’t resist.

U.S. opposition to Assad was long-standing, but it predated the rise of the Islamic State. The coalition it tried to create to resist Assad after the civil war broke out had failed to take hold. The fall of Assad would have potentially opened the door for IS, and having IS take over Damascus was not something the United States wanted. The United States could not reverse its position on Assad for political reasons. But the Russian intervention solved the U.S.’s problem. The United States had to condemn the Russians, building up Russian credibility for challenging the United States. But the United States didn’t have to change its position on Assad because Assad’s collapse could be postponed. The U.S. solved its strategic crisis in Syria by allowing Russia to appear to defy American wishes. The Russians could reclaim the standing they lost in Ukraine. Whether this was choreographed is unclear. But I find it hard to imagine Russia inserting aircraft in Syria without consultation with the United States concerning intent and outcome.

What is certainly true was that Putin wanted to get the Ukrainian question back on the table. He could afford frozen conflicts in South Ossetia or between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but Ukraine was too vital to Russia’s interests as a buffer with the West. The Russian withdrawal was not about Syria alone, but also about Ukraine. Putin needed to unfreeze the conflict without appearing too weak.

Syria is a marginal interest to the United States, as the Middle East has become of secondary importance. During the Cold War, its interests were manifest both in terms of the Soviet Union and maintaining the flow of oil. The Russian threat is far from the Soviet threat and Persian Gulf oil is now far less important to the United States. It wants to contain IS, but this is not an existential question to the United States. To the Russians, now as during the Cold War, the Middle East is a means for creating pain for the United States that it can use in negotiating more important matters.

Ukraine is the most significant national security issue for Russia, whereas the survival of Assad is clearly secondary. For the United States, the issue in Ukraine, once the new regime was in place, was simply to make certain that Russian forces didn’t deploy to the Carpathian Mountains and thus didn’t appear to pose a threat to the West. For Russia, the heart of the Ukrainian issue is that the Western alliance structure cannot spread into Ukraine, posing a threat to Russia. For Germany, whose foreign minister just concluded a meeting with the Russians, the interest is not creating a cold war to its east.

This creates what would appear to be a solvable problem. The solution would require multiple steps. First, an agreement would have to be reached on military neutralization of Ukraine, similar to the way Austria was treated in the Cold War. Ukraine can be part of the West economically – assuming it can manage that – but not militarily. The Russians would disarm the rebels, and Ukraine would agree to allow eastern Ukraine limited autonomy. Some contrivance could be allowed in Crimea. The Ukrainians would not be happy, but Crimea would regain formal sovereignty while Russia would retain effective control, which was much the case before the crisis. This would end a conflict neither side could win. In Syria, the Alawites would lose Assad as the leader of the country but the rest of the leadership would remain in place, blocking IS.

In imaging a settlement, I am imagining the conversations now being held in Moscow, as the Syrian and Ukrainian crises, connected to each other in complex and unclear ways, are both being addressed at the same time. Russia cannot afford the military buildup it needs in order to deal with Ukraine militarily. Rising defense budgets and collapsing oil prices destroyed the Soviet Union. Russia can’t afford both. The United States cannot dismantle the Alawite faction while IS is still present in Syria. The Russians can dispense with Assad so long as they get what the United States wants to have anyway – the Alawites intact. And the Germans have enough problems in Europe not to want disruption to the east – or more Syrian refugees if possible.

Perhaps simply because they coincided, the Syrian and Ukrainian crises have been woven together. I think it was more than coincidence. The dance that began with the fall of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government – but actually began in Georgia in 2008 – spread to involve the Middle East, as did the Cold War. But in the end, this isn’t the Cold War and the Russians in particular could not sustain the confrontation. So two conflicts, Syria and Ukraine, found themselves woven together. And with the Russian exit we will now find out if it culminates in at least a truce.