I haven’t been blogging much recently, in large part due to other duties (including securing employment), but also due to not feeling I needed to contribute much to the discussion of the unsurprisingly fruitless “Geneva 2” dialogues, convened with the nearly impossible goal of halting the Syrian Civil War, or the ongoing Turkish political contest between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s government and his opponents, allegedly spearheaded by Fethullah Gülen‘s movement.
Now, of course, all eyes are looking to the Crimea to see whether it will play the role that Serbia played in the outbreak of World War I, exactly a century ago this summer. (Those who scoff at the thought that a large war might break out should know that similar disbelief also preceded the first two world wars.) But while the world looks away, actors in the Syrian Civil War may try to take advantage of their freedom from scrutiny. The regime army is forcefully pressing the offensive to capture Yabrud and the Qalamun ridge, both to cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon and to link the two loyalist strongholds of Damascus and the coast. Meanwhile, the extreme end of the rebellion, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has issued a proclamation from its headquarters in al-Raqqa on the Euphrates that Christians under their rule must choose between conversion to Islam, paying jizya (a special humiliating tax on non-Muslims), or death. And the jizya tax is no merely nominal fee; it’s a substantial toll.
But the world’s distraction with the Crimea may prove an opportunity not only for those within Syria, but for outside actors as well, since not all countries are equally distracted. Syria’s most important international ally, Russia, now has its military committed to a cause much closer to home than the Syrian Civil War, while the Western allies of the non-jihadi opposition (especially the USA and the UK) are also thinking more about the Ukraine than small Mediterranean countries these days, even if they have not (yet) committed to a military response. On the other hand, both regime and rebel allies within the Middle East (Hezbollah and Iran on the regime side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the rebel side) are perhaps less concerned with the developments far to their north than they are with the progress of the conflict close to hand. So right now the Crimean crisis may be reducing the scale of international involvement in the Syrian Civil War, limiting it to a regional level (although still with plenty of regional money flowing around and far too many casualties). On the other hand, it would be easier for the USA than for Russia to split its attention between the Crimea and Syria, due to its greater distance from Ukraine and its lesser military commitment, so the Americans may decide to try to make this an opportunity to force through their own desired outcome to the Syrian Civil War while the Russians are in less of a position to object.
(Indeed, some voices in the USA are actively urging increased and swift American action to take advantage of Russia’s diversion. This piece reminds readers that, as awful as the Crimean crisis is, more people continue to be killed in Syria than the Ukraine. But the most interesting portion of the analysis for me was the suggestion that the Russian invasion of the Crimea might make China more interested in compromise on Syria. On the other hand, this piece seeks Russian consistency regarding the Ukraine and Syria and finds it in “putting [Russia’s] own interest ahead of peaceful solutions regardless of what the US and international community wish to see as an outcome.” It is hardly a surprise, and hardly unique to Russia, to put one’s national interests ahead of the welfare of outsiders; indeed, President Obama has appealed to US national interests to justify military intervention in Syria.)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be aware of his vulnerability to increased American attention while Russia is distracted with the Ukraine, which may be why he recently commended the Russian invasion of the Crimea (perhaps as much to remind the Kremlin that he exists; his statement of support will certainly not change any other country’s mind in favor of Russian intervention) and why the government has started drumming up displays of “popular” support for the president. (This interpretation would suggest that the Syrian regime is not as self-confident as suggested by this article, although I found the piece very helpfully thought-provoking.) But Vladimir Putin certain cares far more about the Ukraine than about Syria. Since I’m a historian and not a prophet, I don’t predict the future, but the international crisis north of the Black Sea may rapidly change the landscape of possibilities east of the Mediterranean, depending on which countries prove most adept at dividing their attentions.