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Will the Ukraine Conflict Destabilize the Middle East?

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 14, 2014.
Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 14, 2014.
As the conflict in Ukraine deepens, and the rift between Russia and the West widens, there's concern that the United States and other nations may become increasingly distracted from other global hot spots, notably those in the Middle East.

VOA spoke with Middle East diplomat and analyst Aaron David Miller to hear his thoughts on how Ukraine may affect the region; specifically Syria and Iran.

Miller has been a policy advisor to six Secretaries of State; currently he's resident scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington DC

VOA: How is the Ukrainian conflict affecting the ongoing Syrian civil war and efforts to rid the government of chemical weapons?

Aaron David Miller: At the moment, it probably has no appreciable effect. The reality is that Russian and American cooperation on Syria, and on Iran, was always a tactical cooperation.

The Russians interceded primarily because they wanted to stop an American unilateral military strike.

They cared much less about Assad's chemical weapons, and certainly even less about pressuring him into a position where he would essentially be eliminated from power as a consequence of some political arrangment on which the opposition would take over.

So it was always at best a tactical cooperation.

I suspect on the chemicals, the Russians will do enough - push the Syrians just far enough - to pre-empt any possibilty of another American military strike.

But, in view of Ukraine, they're not going to be terribly cooperative in expeditiously forcing the Syrians to abide by the strict letter of the Russian-US framework agreement.

VOA: And at this point do you think the government of President Bashar al-Assad will start dragging its feet even more, either with regard to chemical weapons or with regard to other ongoing humanitarian or peace negotiations?

Miller: They don't need an incentive or inducement to do that. But yes, I think the Syrians will make that calculation.

That calculation will be based on how much pressure they're under, and how much they have to calibrate their response in order to avoid what they really do want to prevent, which is a unilateral American military action, or certainly cooperative action by the West.

To the degree that we're not cooperating with the Russians because of a deep freeze in response to their reassertion of control or perhaps sovereignty over Crimea - and other parts of Ukraine - I think that any hope that we should expect help from the Russians on this isn't going to be forthcoming.

VOA: To Iran and the nuclear negotiations, Russia was also a player there. How do you see, at all, the Iranians possibly trying to take advantage of the dischord between the US and Russia?

Miller: I think the Iranians will make a calculation based on the internal logic of their negotiations with the P5+1, particularly with the United States. If the comprehensive agreement serves their interest, they'll go ahead and conclude it, regardless of what the Russians want or don't want.

I think the Russian angle becomes important if negotiations break down. Because I think if, in fact, we're still in this deep freeze and we have sustained sanctions against Putin and Russia,

I think the Russians [will have] capacity to undermine P5+ unity with the Chinese.

Remember, the Russians have never been as allergic to the idea of Iran putatitve nuclear weapons capacity, or even the weapon itself, as we are. So they don't have the kind of urgency; they don't see the imperative pressing really hard on this one, and nor do the Chinese.

So I suspect that Russian cooperation with sanctions will weaken; I think the Russians will do everything they can - and they can do a lot to block any [U.N.] authorization for the use of force - so they'll become an even more uncooperative partner.

But remember also, these were long shots - Iran and Syria - anyway. Finally, I think small powers read great ones closely particularly during crises. And you'll see how any number of smaller powers - Syria, North Korea, Egypt, Israel - will watch how we respond to Ukraine and Putin, and take our measure accordingly.

VOA: So there's a lot of concern the Ukrainian conflict may destabilize Europe. What I hear you saying is that there's the potential for destabilization in the Middle East as well.

Miller: Well it's already destabilized. You have a full-blown civil war in Syria. You have Iran in nuclear negotiations and clearly with the capacity, should they choose to, to become a nuclear weapons [power]. You have an Arab-Israeli conflict that shows slim prospects of being comprehensively resolved.

So the Middle East is a mess.

The Ukrainian piece of this, and the Russian angle, will make an already complicated issue that much worse. I don't think you can talk about fundamental additional destabilization. It's already an unhappy situation and it's not going to get any better.
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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.