WASHINGTON — Middle East analysts say the erosion of relations between the U.S. and Russia over the Ukraine crisis is likely to have an impact on the Middle East, especially the conflict in Syria, which is now entering its fourth year.
It had all the trappings of a campaign rally. Hundreds of Syrians demonstrating in a Damascus suburb, all in support of President Bashar al-Assad. They cheered for the army and called for unity.
Assad supporter Mohamad al-Ghazali said,“We came to ensure that we back the leader Doctor Bashar al-Assad. We came to say 'no' for disturbance. Syrian people are unified people.”
Then in a rare public appearance, the president himself is cheered, on a recent visit to a shelter for people displaced by the civil war.
Syrian officials say a presidential election will be held in the coming months and Assad expects to win.
This is a prospect that international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi warns will jeopardize peace talks. “If there is an election, my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government,” he said.
The U.S. and Russia have cooperated on removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, even though they support opposite sides in the fighting.
But now there is concern the rift caused by the Crimea crisis could divert attention from Syria and allow Assad to try to crush the opposition while securing his reelection.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said, “We need to look at Syria, which is difficult in and of itself, not from the context of larger Russian relations, but of the context of our Middle Eastern situation. Looked at from that standpoint, we need to be much more active, much more quickly.”
Syrian government troops have recently made gains on the battlefield. Moscow supplies arms to Damascus and strongly supports its fight against the armed rebellion.
With the world’s attention on Ukraine, however, some analysts suggest Syria no longer may be as high a priority for Russia.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli said, "With their problems at home, i.e., on their border, I think they are going to have less attention, less bandwidth, less desire to spend time and political capital sticking up for Assad.”
As the civil war grinds on, a revival of Cold War-era tensions between the U.S. and Russia could affect other difficult issues in the Middle East, including negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Both are higher than Syria on the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda.
Professor Keith Darden of American University said, “I think the diplomatic rift that we are seeing now, if it persists, is going to have consequences in almost every sphere of international politics.”
The last time Assad ran for reelection was in 2007. Official returns said he won more than 97 percent of the vote. Analysts say a similar outcome can be expected this time.