The Crimean Crisis and the Middle East: Will Syria & Iran be the Winners?

(By Juan Cole)

The Russian intervention in the Crimea is more direct and dramatic than the one in Syria, with actual troops deployed. But there are similarities. One of the little-noted rationales for Russian support for the Baath government in Damascus is that it is seen as more favorable, being secular and minority-dominated, toward Syria’s roughly 2-3 million Christians, the bulk of them Eastern Orthodox (i.e. the same branch of Christianity that predominates in Russia and among ethnic Russians in the Ukraine). Indeed, there are more Eastern Orthodox Christians in Syria than in Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving as a rationale for troop deployments in Crimea that the ethnic Russian population there is in danger from Ukrainian nationalists.

In both cases, Russia is exaggerating. The vast majority of Syrians who rose up against the Baath were moderates. Only when the regime of Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with massive military force did the opposition militarize, at which point Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates came to the fore as seasoned fighters with substantial Gulf money. Most oppositionists are still moderates and most Syrians want more freedoms, not a Taliban state on the Euphrates. The Russian official press often slams those who oppose its provision of huge amounts of money and arms to al-Assad as backing “al-Qaeda,” but that is propaganda.

Likewise the popular movement in Ukraine against President Viktor Yanukovych was not primarily led or fueled by nationalist extremists. Most who went to the streets in Kyiv were disturbed at Yanukovych’s neo-authoritarian tendencies, his acquiescence in Moscow’s demand that he move away from the European Union, and his jailing of his opponent in the 2010 elections (Yulia Tymoshenko) on what seem likely to have been trumped up charges. There is zero evidence of ethnic Russians in Crimea being menaced by Ukrainian nationalists, but plenty of evidence of foreign Russian forces intervening there. Of course, now that Putin has violated Ukrainian sovereignty so blatantly, there could be a backlash against Ukrainian Russians; Putin might even secretly hope for such polarization as a pretext for further intervention.

Those in the Middle East opposed to Russian backing for the Baath regime in Syria are also unhappy about the Russian intervention in Crimea.

Turkey is the country with most at stake. In essence, it is surrounded by countries it which Russia has intervened, with Syria to its south and Crimea just across the Black Sea to its north. Turkey has a special interest in Crimea. Today, on the order of 12% of the 2 million residents of the peninsular are Tatars, i.e. Turkic-speaking Muslims, though before Russia’s annexation of the territory from the Ottoman Empire in 1784, it was all Tatar. Russians immigrated in (they are now almost 60% of the population, with a quarter being ethnically Ukrainian). Stalin ethnically cleansed the Crimean Tatars during WW II, but after the fall of the Soviet Union some 300,000 have gradually returned. Turkey is as interested in the fate of the Crimean Tatars as Russia is in that of the Crimean Russians.


Moreover, Turkey is opposed to Russian policy in Syria. So it is no surprise that Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Kyiv this weekend consulting with the new Ukrainian interim government. Turkey is the world’s 17th largest economy (by nominal GDP), but cannot really offer Ukraine much beyond moral support itself. Still, it is part of NATO and the Crimea crisis will increase its worth in the eyes of that organization. Because the Turkish navy is on the Black Sea, NATO is on the Black Sea.

Iran is likely to side strongly with Moscow in this crisis, and may benefit from it substantially. Of course, Iran is also concerned about the welfare of the Crimean Muslim community. But it should be remembered that Tehran has backed Christian Armenia against Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, so you can’t read off its foreign policy from its supposed Islamic commitments.

The conservative Iranian daily Hemayat editorialized on Sunday:

“Hemayat [conservative]: “Many consider Ukraine as the new battleground between the West and Russia. Now that Russia is mulling military action against Ukraine, there are a few points that Russia is taking into consideration with regards to Ukraine. First, Ukraine’s economy, especially its energy sector, is dependent on Russia. Half of Europe’s gas supplies are imported from Russia via Ukraine’s soil. Therefore, Ukraine cannot ignore Moscow and the West cannot exclude Moscow from Ukraine’s equations either. The West will try to use the new Ukrainian government to enhance its bargaining leverage against Moscow. Being aware of this, Moscow will try to maintain its interests in Ukraine, especially since the economic crisis in the West has made it unable to provide considerable assistance to Ukraine. [Western officials’] current remarks are just aimed at helping the self-declared rulers of Ukraine establish their power.” (Editorial by Ali Tatmaj headlined: “Moscow’s strategies”)”

(h/t BBC Monitoring)

President Obama is threatening Russia with the same kinds of international sanctions Washington has applied to Iran over the latter’s pro-Palestinian stance and its civilian nuclear enrichment program.

China more or less defies the US on those Treasury Department sanctions, but Russia had in the past been willing to allow UN Security Council votes against Iran, which involved sanctions. If Putin now faces the same techniques from Treasury as Tehran has suffered from, he may well start protecting Iran at the UNSC and allowing Russian banks to do more open business there. (Before, they had to worry about being sanctioned by the US, but if they are already sanctioned, they may as well make some money in Iran). Russian firms like Gazprom may also decide to go in to develop Iranian natural gas, if they are under sanctions anyway.

Moreover, an attempt by President Obama to sanction the world’s 9th largest economy could well permanently blunt US financial power. Who would want the dollar as a reserve currency and who would want a US-dominated international currency exchange regime if you knew at any moment it could be weaponized against you? Russia and possibly China together could begin working on an alternative to US stranglehold over global finance.

Russia, China and Central Asia have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Council as an implicit challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions. Iran applied for membership but was only given observer status. If Putin feels that SCO has to up its game in response to US sanctions on the Russian Federation, perhaps he’d push to admit Iran.

With rumors flying that Iraq may break US sanctions by purchasing Iranian weaponry, the current crisis could be another impetus toward Iranian reassertion, with Russian backing.

Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council are already at odds with Russia over its Syria policy. They are also upset about the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran. They are complaining about US disengagement from the region and ‘weakness,’ although the US has never intervened directly in eastern Europe and cannot be expected to. The GCC’s quiet support for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq demonstrates where they want to take US policy, and they seem unrepentant about that disaster, desiring a repeat in Syria.

Egypt’s interim government is miffed at US criticisms of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi last July 3. It has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has mobilized against Sunni extremists in the Sinai. Cairo has swung its support to Bashar al-Assad, who is struggling in Syria against the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni extremists. (This is an awkward situation, since Egypt’s major financial patron is Saudi Arabia, which wants the Baath government in Syria gone, but also does not want to see the Brotherhood come to power in Damascus, since Saudi conservative monarchism is challenged by the Brotherhood’s republican populism.)

Egypt has sent delegations to Moscow in search of Russian weapons and support, and as a way of diversifying from its mainly American and Gulf patrons. To my knowledge the foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy (kept over in the new Ibrahim Mehleb cabinet just formed) has not said anything about Crimea. Likely Cairo will try to avoid annoying Putin, whose capitalist, nationalist neo-authoritarianism may be seen as a model for Egypt by its current elites. Still, if the US does sanction Russia, Egypt may be forced to reconsider buying arms from the latter.

If Russia is pushed further into Tehran’s arms by US sanctions then ironically Bashar al-Assad and Sayyid Ali Khamenei may be the biggest winners of the Crimean crisis. At the same time, Turkey could also be a winner in the sense that its value to NATO, the US and the European Union will be much enhanced because of its Black Sea presence and its own historical interests in Crimea.

Related video

Euronews: “Russia tightens its grip on Crimea, Ukrainian base surrounded ”

37 Responses

  1. On the other hand, if Ukraine turns into Afghanistan II, and Putin becomes mired there, the way will be cleared to deal harshly with Assad or Iran.

    • First of all that won’ happen as Crimea at least is pre-dominantly Russian, and secondly, Ukraine has been colonized again and again, but Afghanistan is the graveyard of emperors. This nation does not take colonial rule lightly. Lastly, even if Ukraine did become Afghanistan 11, it would talk 20 – 30 years. By then, the world would likely not be US dominated.

    • Seems more than possible that schism and secession, fueled by entrepreneurial opportunism, might be a big piece of our collective future. See, e.g., Texas, and Six Californias….link to

    • Turkey, transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, Republika Srpska, Kosovo, the Kurdish regions of Turkey …. In other words, it’s not an isolated effect. The Serbs would love that logic.
      Beyond that, a lot of warm water parts and a developed area.
      Also, while Juan offered the 100-year view over the weekend, a shorter Ukrainian view of the population make-up focuses on the mass-starvation of Ukrainians in the 30s and the subsequent repopulation by a couple million Russians. Then, as Juan notes today, Crimea only became Russian after the removal of the Tartars.

  2. Thanks to Bush/Cheney and their warmongering neocon advisers we have lost our moral authority to criticize Russia. How can this country, who has invaded two sovereign countries on dubious grounds which has resulted in the deaths of over 1.5 million Iraqi citizens and an undetermined amount of Afghans criticize Russia.

    I don’t see a military solution in America’s list of options, although I’m sure Lindsey Graham, would disagree.. If recent history is any indicator, we only go to war against third world military forces who have no nuclear weapons or powerful standing army, air force and navy.

    Call me an isolationist, but I say let Europe deal with Putin.

    • That’s fine, but you must convince your fellow voters to not freak out at America’s helplessness and vote in some maniac who promises to get the empire back by all means necessary.

  3. You seem to skip over the part about the “West” instigating this by trying to attract the Ukraine away from the Russia. Are Europe and the U.S. ready to provide billions in aid to Ukraine, or provide them energy at discounted prices. I hardly think so! So you have baited the bear, and now what? The Ukraine owes 145 Billion mostly to Russia, and is dependent on Russia for on going loans and discounted energy. Maybe the “West” miscalculated on the violence of the revolution, but there it is. And now our Sec. of State visits representatives of an unelected government that has used violence to overthrow the elected government. Russia’s move into the Crimea may be the only thing that forestalls civil war. The Ukrainian Army will not move against ethnic Russians as long as the Russian Army is in place. And most certainly, if they did, the ethnic Russians would resist and there you have civil war.

  4. As Juan notes, Turkey has a lot of concern in the region, both for “historic langs” and current friends (Bosnia, Kosovo), but it has been notably silent about Russia’s plays in the Middle East, even spending the summer talking up the SCO as an alternative to an EU that keeps talking about democratic measures. I’ll be curious to see if Erdogan moves beyond admiration for “Putin the Model” to public critique of “Putin the Policies.”

  5. This commentary is all well-founded, but is indicative of the thought process that leads to allowing the continued obliteration of red lines by aggressive powers. Anything you do has risks, and a list of “on the other hand” objections, but what is the risk of doing nothing? Becoming an absolute paper tiger!

  6. Putin puts the neck of Russian economy out on the block. There are multiplicity of ways that it can be cut. There is only one way to save it if it pleases the oil industry as a whole. The odds are totally stacked against Russia, Iran and Syria.

    • How so? Russia’s economy is pretty disengaged from US’s while EU would never dare to impose sanctions on Russia. It is almost like imposing sanctions against China which is the same thing as imposing sanctions on US economy.

      • There is no need for sanctions. Federal reserve can stop its QE, the purchasing of 65bn bonds and assets per month. the money, dollar for dollar and more, will be drained from emerging markets, e.g. Russia. Price of oil will fall and Russia will have to spend $500bn reserve to support its banks and it will not be enough. And yet the interest rates in the US and EU will be lower. But do not worry yet. There are forces against the idea of letting oil prices fall.

  7. La mayoría de los ucranianos que viven en Crimea (donde son minoría) son favorables a los rusos. De hecho el ejército ucraniano está entregando las armas a los rusos. Esto es así, porque la mayoría de las personas en Sebastopol (tanto rusos como ucranianos) trabajan gracias a la flota rusa. Son ucranianos favorables a Yanukovich, no a los “golpistas”. Creo que no habrá ninguna guerra; tan solo elecciones para decidir si quieren independizarse. Por otro lado, Rusia no pierde nada con las sanciones de U.S.A. , pues su economía no depende de los americanos. Y la Unión Europea no va a sancionar a Rusia, porque necesita el gas ruso. No habrá ninguna guerra. Disculpen que no hable en inglés.

  8. The two narratives currently in play in crimea are “gross violation of Ukranian sovereignty” and “supporting the russo-leaning people of crimea”. Frankly, the latter interpretatiion seems just as reasonable.

    What happened in the Ukraine was a revolutionary overthrow of a governing system with a democratically elected leadership. And though there is a good case that this overthrow was needed, it seems odd to say “that’s the only change!”. That is, re drawing rather arbitrary 20 year old borders seems to be on par with the not-exactly-non-violent overthrow of the Yanukovich regime.

    It seems the sensible approach is to recognize Russia’s right to realign with Crimea, should the Crimean population choose to do so (and one could argue for similar areas of East Ukraine). The bargaining chip is for the Russians to get out of their “facts on the ground” intimidationist style. They risk “losing” elections, but back down from Cold War II

    That seems to be a mostly ethical deal that can be made

    OTOH: how about a far fetched idea: this is all a drama engineered by the Russians and Ukranians. Something to scare the west into giving Ukraine a better deal than the Greeks got?

  9. Sober analysis Juan, few moral judgements and sources outside the western world makes this piece so very interesting! Please keep it up!

    Måns JR

  10. It’s a classical geo-political chess game, and you are dealing with a chess master. Putting Barry and his bumbling side kick Kerry in the same ring, is like watching one side play chess and the other checkers.

    • Putin is not remotely a “chess master”. He reminds me of Kaiser Wilhelm…. which should be a warning to us all.

      What we’re missing is a Woodrow Wilson figure (There was a real chessmaster).

  11. Iran isn’t likely to go out of its way to help Russia when in the past Russia has been very fair-weather and unreliable as a partner. While it won’t ditch the Russia connections, Iran has too much to gain by improving relations with the West and China to hurt that by supporting Russia’s intervention into Ukraine. Iran has been cultivating relations with states like Georgia and did not really support the Russian conflict with Georgia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    If Russia ends up being sanctioned, Iran might try to increase its leverage rather than tilt more toward a weakened and controversial Putin. This is contingent on the nuclear and other negotiations being likely to lead to a breakthrough.

    Prior to the 1950s, Iranian relations with the U.S. were great while its relations with Russia were not. While the past may not repeat itself, the present state of geopolitical affairs cannot permanently endure.

    As for Egypt, the idea of buying Russian weapons makes little strategic or monetary sense. Given that the Egyptian deep state is loyal to Riyahd and Abu Dhabi, the supposed Russia tilt is most likely more political theater to help solidify the emerging dictatorship.

    I expect that the military elite in Egypt is going to be shaken to its core by the rising labor unrest. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the strike wave and energy crisis in Egypt could in the near future galvanize an Egyptian Thaksin-like anti-elite political movement. The economic crisis in Egypt is extremely severe and is steadily getting worse.

    It is basically impossible for any Egyptian government, no matter its composition, to be pro-Assad.

  12. I keep wondering when Russia, Iran, Iraq and Venezuela will join together to limit their oil production and drive crude to a more likeable, for them, amount of around $125 per barrel.

    • My guess is when Saudi Arabia no longer has the reserve capacity to offset their limits.

      • Bingo. Saudi reserves are the big mystery in the world economy, and Saudi oil price manipulation is actually the linchpin of world geopolitics. This is probably going to all come falling apart quite suddently due to the incredible secrecy which surrounds Saudi oil reserves.

  13. The American Right, in all its falsely-independent factional movements, has labored ceaselessly for 40 years to bring back the 19th century in every way, shape and form possible; from striking blacks off voting rolls in the South, to the comeback of prison slave labor, to the dogma that nothing the rich do can be judged by the citizens. But in foreign policy, what does going back to 1899 mean?

    It means a world of brutal monarchs and sold-out politicians, divided into drearily-similar capitalist Great Power camps fighting over resources and cash flow as their global free market keeps crashing from its own inequities.

    And you know what happened next.

  14. Do you agree with Timothy Snyder (please see comments below)?

    “This revolution was started by a Muslim civil society activist. It has ended with a Jew as prime minister of the country. Along the way, Ukrainians, but also Russians, Belarussians, Armenians, Poles, others, have taken risks and died. This was a popular revolution, which included all kinds of people from all over the country, most of them ordinary people. And it’s resulted in the possibility of pushing Ukraine forward towards what Ukrainians themselves actually want, which is a rule-of-law society. It seems that rather than being distracted by our slightly self-obsessed notions of how we control or don’t control everything, we should pay more attention to the actual political progress that has been made and then defend the very standard and normal standards of international law. That part isn’t very complicated.” TIMOTHY SNYDER link to

    • I agree with Timothy Snyder. I was in Maidan. One of my employees got shot. My Russian Ukrainian friend who was earlier a Communist candidate for political office is on the side of revolution and freedom for people.

  15. Iran can only be a winner with Russia on its side if the relationship they form follows the Israeli-American model. This will never happen.

  16. Oh those wacky Russians, seeing Fascists everywhere.

    Some folks just can’t seem to get beyond the bad old days. Am I right?

    OK, I admit, the new government has the co-founder of Svoboda, Andriy Parubiy, as the new Secretary of the Security and National Defense Committee, now supervising the armed forces.

    That could be a little dicey.

    And, well it’s true that Svoboda MP, Oleh Makhnitsky, was named Prosecutor-General of the Ukraine

    So… the Fatherland Party has 10 cabinet posts.

    Clearly the is nothing important that Svuboda, Fatherland Party, Right Sector and UNA-UNSO are now major players in the Ukraine government.

    What countries ever had trouble when they brought the ultra right into a government?

    Italy, Germany and Japan aside.

    Really, that is such a 20th century way to look at it.

  17. We know who the losers are; the Ukrainian people.

    They are best off with good relations with both east and west. Certain factions in the west just couldn’t help meddling; and the rest of us in the west haven’t set our minds to stopping them.

    Ultimately, the Russian speaking areas will plea to get out of the economic basket case of the Ukraine, leaving the rump of the Ukraine a debt client governed in the style of Greece.

    Thanks Victoria Nuland! You are emblematic of just how desperately America needs a new elite!

  18. It is completely false to claim that prior to 1784 Crimea was “all Tatar.” There were few, if any, Russians or Ukrainians, but Crimea was long a multi-ethnic place, with many of the groups there from long before the Tatars ever showed up. Among those expelled by Stalin along with the Tatars were Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians, and there had long been a substantial Jewish population, which was exterminated by Hitler, those that did not get out in time.

    The Greeks in particular long predated the Tatars, initially arriving in the 6th century BCE and a constant presence thereafter until 1944, with many towns founded by them, such as Feodosia. They were in two groups by then, one group that spoke Tatar, and the other an ancient dialect of Greek, Rumeila Greek. The Greeks called the place “Tauris,” later changed to “Taurica,” with the name “Crimea” being given by the Tatars, who only showed up about 1,000 years ago. BTW, that older name in turn reflected an even earlier group the Greeks found there, the Tauris, who spoke an Indo-European language and may have been descended from the Cimmerians (not Scythians).

    • you have a simplistic view of ethnicity. Most Tatars had been Greeks who converted. However, almost everyone was Tatar in 1770s apart from urban merchant community minorities.

      • Greeks were not born Christians?

        They were also converted to different sects of Christianity. (They were not Christians before Christ)

  19. If there’s one benefit to this latest geopolitical crisis, it’s that we’ve seen just how much of a propaganda tool RT really is for Putin’s regime. They’ve surrendered any pretense of being a reputable news-gathering organization. link to

  20. How can we get the Russians to pull back from the Crimea. Will sanctions work if employed by the EU and the U.S. And what might those sanctions be that would do the trick? It appears they have to start a false trumped up crisis in the East of Ukraine to justify staying in the Crimea over the long term as a so-called protective force. Are the U.S. and EU’s hands tied.

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