Robert Fisk: Ukraine’s future is tied up with Syria’s – and Vladimir Putin is crucial to both

 

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.

Latest:
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych denies resignation claims as security chiefs withdraw from conflict with people  

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future