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Watch Trendlines “Blowback?: Ukraine and the Middle East"

The next PBS NewsHour-Al-Monitor web special will focus on the implications of the crisis in Ukraine for US policy in the Middle East.
A damaged armoured carrier that belonged to forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad are seen along a deserted street in Homs March 8, 2014  REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR3G99W

The consequences of the crisis in the Ukraine for US-Russia relations and the Middle East will be the subject of the next PBS NewsHour/Al-Monitor “Trendlines” web special, which can be viewed on, Wednesday, March 12, at 10 a.m. EDT. It will feature Dennis Ross, William Davidson Distinguished Fellow and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Nasser Hadian, professor at Tehran University and a contributor to Al-Monitor; Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution; and Ben Caspit, columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. The program will be moderated by Margaret Warner, chief foreign correspondent for PBS NewsHour.

Fyodor Lukyanov writes for Al-Monitor this week that one consequence of the breakdown in US-Russia ties over Ukraine is that Moscow could reduce or end its diplomatic pressure on Damascus to engage in internationally brokered talks on Syria.

“The military-political situation in Syria allows Bashar al-Assad to have hope for victory, or at least for a long-term preservation of the current balance,” writes Lukyanov. “Moscow will simply stop applying pressure on him, urging the need for diplomacy, but will continue to add to his arsenal when necessary to maintain the balance of power. The removal of chemical weapons will most likely not be slowed in any way, since this represents the implementation of Putin's idea, and moreover, stalling the plan would dramatically exacerbate the whole situation.”

Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest adds that, with regard to Syria, “If Moscow thinks it has already reached the point of no return with Western capitals, then there may be limited costs in doubling down on Assad — moving from a policy of limited arms supplies to extensive arms sales and possibly even the provision of Russian advisers or specialists. From a Russian perspective, this approach would simultaneously apply greater pressure on the West and help to consolidate a government that could become a genuine ally in a strategic region. This would complicate Moscow’s uneasy relations with Saudi Arabia, but Russia could create trouble for Riyadh as well if needed.”

The Obama administration seems to be adjusting its Syria policy to the possible collapse of the Geneva diplomatic process as it refocuses its priority in Syria to the threat from the rise of terrorist groups there. 

The Geneva II talks are in “recess,” according to the State Department, as Laura Rozen reported, with little prospect for their resuming soon, and amid speculation that Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi is considering resigning.

There are rumors that the highly respected former Kuwaiti deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Mohammad Al Sabah, may be a possible replacement if Brahimi indeed resigns.

On March 6, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that among the risks facing the United States and its allies as a result of the rise of extremism and the influx of foreign fighters in Syria are “the risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups who seek to gain long-term safe havens.”

Burns advocated increased support for moderate Syrian opposition forces and greater counterterrorism and security coordination among the states most affected by the Syria war, while giving only perfunctory mention of the Geneva II process, as Laura Rozen reported here.

The emphasis by Burns and other administration officials Thursday on the growing global jihadist threat to the United States because of the war in Syria follows similar testimony last month by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, as reported in this column.

The Saudi Interior Ministry this week labeling Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, as terrorists could be considered as Riyadh resetting its Syria policies in a post-Geneva context, with the US more focused on the threat from terrorism, and as a means for the kingdom to further isolate Qatar within the GCC. This is analyzed here by Sami Nader, by Madawi Al- Rasheed and by Abdulmajeed Al Buluwi.

The recess in international diplomacy on Syria might also provide a possible new opening for regional diplomatic efforts for a political solution.

In an exclusive article for Al-Monitor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein-Amir Abdollahian outlines a four-part plan for a political solution in Syria, including priority on fighting “takfiri” terrorism; facilitation of humanitarian aid; comprehensive political talks among Syrian parties; and complementary regional and international diplomacy, with a key role for the United Nations.

The spillover from Ukraine could have implications for Russia-Iran relations. Lukyanov writes that while Russia will probably not obstruct the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, as Russia shares the international interest in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, adding that Moscow “will try to win over Iran with offers of much greater strategic cooperation. The promotion of military-technical cooperation is proceeding at a natural pace, which was overshadowed by the refusal to supply S-300 systems under President Dmitry Medvedev. Russian-Iranian cooperation greatly strengthened due to Syria, but the conflict between Moscow and Washington can advance an institutional development of this cooperation.”

Saunders agrees that “Rouhani has appeared more willing than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to consider accepting a less troubling 'substitute' for Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that Iran paid for — and former President Dmitry Medvedev elected not to deliver, as an accommodation to the United States — which would allow Rouhani to drop an Iranian lawsuit over the issue and take the S-300s out of the equation with the United States.”

Turkey is also “boxed in” by the crisis, according to Semih Idiz, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan deals with local elections on March 30, a deepening corruption scandal, and blowback from Turkey’s failed Syria policies. Crimea has a sensitive domestic link to Turkey. Tatars, who are Muslims and have historic ethnic links to Turks, make up 12% of Crimea’s population and are generally allied with pro-Europe Ukrainians. 

And Olgu Okumus points out that Turkey’s energy dependence on Russia is unchanged, writing that “Turkey’s gas supply security is still as vulnerable as it was during the first Russia-Ukraine gas crisis. In the last eight years, Ankara’s energy-security vulnerability has helped enhance the country’s ties with Russia, while some European countries have become less entwined with Russia in the course of effective measures taken after the last two gas crises. Therefore, in the case of an energy crisis, Turkey will be unable to disassociate itself from Russia due to its continued reliance on Ukraine-transiting gas.”

Updated with new air date for PBS NewsHour/Al-Monitor “Trendlines” web special.

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