The ongoing civil war in Syria is bound in tragedy to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. It may appear on the surface that there are no similarities between the two situations, there are some important factors to consider. The first and most important is that the primary benefactor of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is Putin that is supplying Assad with the majority of the weapons and material for the Syrian military, and it is Putin that brokered the deal that prevented the United States from intervening in Syria over the suspected use of chemical weapons in the country. Because of this connection, anything that affects Putin will affect Assad.
It has been noted by observers of international relations that Putin is in the midst of a long-term program to rebuild Russian power in the world. He, and indeed many Russian citizens, would like to see the country returned to the prominence it enjoyed when it was called the Soviet Union. This can be seen in the recent Sochi Olympic Games as well as the aforementioned diplomatic intervention in Syria. The current crisis in Ukraine is the latest manifestation of this. In each situation, Putin is making a calculation that the outcome will benefit Russia’s power and influence.
International relations is not a popularity contest, so while it can be argued that while protecting Assad in Syria and occupying the Crimea in Ukraine will draw the ire of the world community, this is not Putin’s primary concern. If Putin backs down in Ukraine in the face of world opinion, Russia will lose power. It will look weak that it could not control a situation so close to its borders, and it could also lose a very important strategic base at Sevastopol. If Putin abandons his ally Assad in Syria, Russia will lose power. It will appear to have failed to protect a key ally and economic partner. For reasons such as these, the civil war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine are bound in tragedy.
Another unfortunate impact of the Ukraine situation on Syria is that much of the world’s attention has shifted away from the Syrian Civil War. A recent report issued by United Nations affiliate UNICEF declared Syria to be among the “most dangerous places on Earth” for children. Accusations continue to be made that Assad is deliberately blocking and otherwise interfering with aid shipments so that he can use starvation and disease as “weapons” against rebel forces and civilian sympathizers. The number of casualties, refugees, and political prisoners in Syria continues to increase every day. Stories of the atrocities in Syria occupied much of the world’s attention over the past few years, but with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, Syria has been largely forgotten by the world and major media in recent months.
This is particularly unfortunate because of the nature of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Ukraine may have broader implications for world politics because of the direct involvement of major powers like Russia and the European Union, but it is unlikely that the situation there will create the same level of human suffering as is seen in Syria. The two situations remain connected however. The Syrian Civil War will remain difficult to resolve so long as Vladimir Putin is supporting Assad, and if Putin is successful in resolving the crisis in Ukraine in his favor, it will only increase Russian power further, making his support of Assad even more valuable. The civil war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine are intimately bound in tragedy.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer