Russia's invasion of UkraineWhat impact on the Arab world?
When Russian warships entered the Syrian port of Tartus at the beginning of the month, it was described in Moscow as part of a manoeuvre. Shortly afterwards, the flotilla, which is capable of landing operations, continued its journey into the Black Sea and joined the Russian deployment around Ukraine. It was one of many incidents to highlight the links between these two Russian theatres of massive power projection. For the longest time, the "Syria Express" mostly travelled in the other direction.
Assad is said to have once told his Russian patrons that he would not run away like Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was toppled in the 2014 revolution. Thanks to Russian military assistance, fleeing is no longer necessary. And the Syrian ruler does not have to fear being left without Russian protection should Vladimir Putin start a war in Ukraine.
For the Russian president, his military presence in Syria, which is after all a neighbouring country of NATO member Turkey, and the war in Ukraine are both part of Putin's larger struggle against the West.
In addition to the naval base at Tartus, Russia also maintains an airbase in Syria. The number of troops there, however, has always been limited, so that there should be no threat of forces being overstretched should the Russian ruler actually risk a new military adventure. Putin, who himself has praised the "invaluable experience" gained by the Russian military in Syria, has benefitted primarily from the dithering of his opponents over Syria. James F. Jeffrey, former American special envoy for Syria, warned in an opinion piece that Washington should be careful that Russia does not at some point follow its cynical and brutal, but demonstrably successful, "Syria rules" in other countries when it sees its interests threatened.
Russia has nothing to fear from the U.S. in Syria
Recently, it did not look as if the price for Putin in Syria would increase as a result of the Ukraine crisis. While the UN envoys from Washington and Moscow were engaged in a bitter exchange of blows on Ukraine in the UN Security Council at the end of January, according to a report by Internet portal Foreign Policy, a joint proposal was made by both to reduce the number of meetings on Syrian chemical weapons, i.e. to reduce the pressure on Assad.
Washington is actually keen to invest less diplomatic energy than before in Middle Eastern trouble spots. But it needs the oil and natural gas of the Arab Gulf states in the Ukraine crisis. They should help avert an energy crisis now that war has broken out. When the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was hosted by the White House at the end of January, President Joe Biden announced in his presence that he would designate Qatar as an important non-NATO ally. What Biden did not mention in his tribute was the American desire for the emirate to step into the breach should natural gas supplies from Russia to Europe fail following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But in Doha – as in other Gulf capitals – the prospect of strengthening its own position is also accompanied by unease. This upgrade in diplomatic status may be a welcome change to the leadership in Doha, which sees itself surrounded by powerful rivals in the Gulf and therefore tries to make itself indispensable to powerful partners. Nevertheless, it has made clear that it will not be able to avert possible supply bottlenecks altogether. Foreign Minister Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani has also said that Qatar will not be party to "any conflict or political polarisation".
Saudi Arabia faces similar trade-offs. With the onset of hostilities, Saudi oil has assumed major importance, thus strengthening the kingdom's market power (also with regard to Russian competition). It has also given Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is still struggling with the consequences of the brutal murder of his critic Jammal Khashoggi and would like to be rid of his persona non grata status, an effective lever. But Riyadh has long put out feelers to Moscow to pursue its security interests more independently of Washington. In August last year, Saudi Arabia and Russia signed an agreement to develop military co-operation. The greater U.S.-Russian tensions, however, the more difficult such a tightrope walk between Moscow and Washington will become.
The conflict in Ukraine will be felt at dinner tables throughout the region and could well threaten social stability. Egypt, Lebanon or Yemen will not only have to cope with rising energy prices, but also with rising bread prices, because they import large quantities of Ukrainian wheat. In Lebanon, this covered about 40 percent of domestic consumption in 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Since then, the economic crisis has worsened drastically; more and more Lebanese are having difficulty finding enough food. Bread is the most affordable staple; flour is subsidised from the central bank's threateningly dwindling reserves. And the population is already at its wits' end.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Qantara.de 2022